Against Gravity

Bernard O’Kane

From Workshop to Architecture: How Were Tiles Placed Correctly?
Medieval and later Islamic Architecture, especially that of Iran, is characterized by the variety of its tilework. Many examples of this, such as tile mosaic, were made on site, but others were manufactured in a workshop that may have been a considerable distance offsite. The most obvious example of this is Kashan tiles, which were (with one exception), made only in the city of that name, but which were found in monuments many hundreds of miles away. Those were relatively easy to assemble, since they tended to be either inscriptions on friezes or mihrabs, or star tiles whose placement was arbitrary.

There is only one part of the Islamic world that seems to have used placement marks to guide the tileworkers, and this only with underglaze- painted tiles. This is Khwarizm and the adjacent area under the control of the Golden Horde. Isolated tiles from the area of the Golden Horde and one complicated panel of hexagonal tiles at the Shrine of Najm al-Din Kubra in Kuhna Urgench had placing marks from the medieval period, and they are ubiquitous on the nineteenth century buildings of Khiva. This paper will both demonstrate these findings and explore the reasons for their exceptionality.