Fragments of pottery reveal artistic skills of the Nizaris of Alamut

Fragment of glazed pottery with underglaze painting of one dark blue stripe, from Peter Willey Collection, British Museum.
Fragment of glazed pottery with underglaze painting of one dark blue stripe, from Peter Willey Collection, British Museum.

In 1090, Hasan Sabbah acquired the fortress of Alamut in northern Iran, marking the founding of what was to become the seat of the Nizari Ismaili state.

Over the course of the next 150 years, the Ismailis acquired more than 200 fortresses in Iran and Syria, located in the inaccessible mountainous regions for refuge of the Nizari Ismailis who were fleeing persecution by the Saljuqs and others during the early Middle Ages. These settlements were also a sanctuary for other refugees, irrespective of their creed, fleeing persecution.

The Nizari Ismailis of the Alamut period placed a high value on intellectual activities despite having to defend against military attacks. Alamut and several of the Nizari strongholds became flourishing centres of intellectual activities with major libraries containing not only a significant collection of books and documents but also scientific tracts and equipment. The Ismailis extended their patronage of learning to everyone.

The ruins of the fortresses, especially their water supply systems, are evidence of the ingenious methods adopted by the Persian Nizaris for coping with highly difficult living conditions. Although much of the literature produced by the Nizaris during this time was destroyed by the Mongols, the accounts of some later Persian historians provide information about the community during this period; only a few non-literary items such as coins minted at Alamut have survived.

Archaeological excavations at some of the sites of the castles of Alamut discovered a variety of kilns, some of which contained fragments of decorated dishes, water-pots, and oil lamps, among other items. Much of the evidence has been removed as a result of land cultivation for agriculture.

“In 1972 Peter Willey’s team archaeologist, Tony Garnett, reported that their most important discovery was at Andej, a small attractive village near Alamut, the site of Hasan Sabbah’s headquarters before his occupation of the citadel at Alamut.”1

“Garnett continues to describe a structure that was excavated on the eastern slope, which he interpreted as a kiln…

Inside the kiln was a variety of pottery, including the large fragment of a complex of a decorated dish, several tripod stilts, pieces of glazed dishes and unglazed cook-pot ware, heavily textured with inclusions. On other parts of the kiln site were found two glazed oil lamps, part of a basalt quern-stone, several small bowls, and many pieces of sintered kiln fabric and over-fired kiln wasters, together with large quantities of decorated fragments.”1

1“Ismaili Pottery from the Alamut Period,” by Rosalind A. Wade Haddon, published in Eagles’s Nest, Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, by Peter Willey, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London, 2005
Farhad Daftary, A Short History of Ismailis, Edinburgh University Press

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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