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Umayyad Illustrated Calendars and their Late Antique Sources: A Comparative Study

Nadia Ali, Université de Provence, Marseille, Summer Fellow 2011

How the art of the Umayyads (661–750) responded to the encounter with late antique art in the Bilâd ash-Shâm has been a major debate for more than a century. Many scholars insisted on a rupture, while others accepted the continuity explanation but saw in the transition from late antiquity to early Islam some degeneration. Further recent refinements have posited an active role of the Umayyads in the shaping of their art. My research revisits Umayyad palatial iconography and considers the previously underrated role of the craftsmen’s practice in the making of Umayyad iconography. How was a program produced in the eighth-century Bilâd ash-Shâm? What was transmitted from one generation of craftsmen to another? How was it transmitted?

To explore these problems, I decided to focus on three illustrated calendars that I began to identify in the frescoes of Qusayr ‘Amra’s central hall (Jordan, 715–730), the stuccos of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi’s court façade (Syria, 728), and Khirbat al-Mafjar’s bath porch (Palestine, 724–743). Data from numerous catalogues, surveys, and excavation reports allow me to make a comparative analysis between the Umayyad calendars and a wide array of visual sources including neglected material such as the early Christian and Jewish mosaics of the Levant (Beisan-Scythopolis, Awzaii, Qabr Hiram, Jerash, Madaba, Nitl). The comparison confirms my hypothesis about what has been held by Oleg Grabar as the depiction of “princely cycles” inspired by Sasanian iconography: they actually represent agricultural calendars. A careful examination of the organizational patterns, iconographic types, and colocations of themes employed in the Umayyad calendars suggests a “pragmatic continuity” with early Christian and Jewish art of the Levant. My research also reveals that in the transmission of iconographic traditions from Byzantine Syria to the Umayyads, the role played by the Ghassanids, the Christianized Arabs who ruled parts of Syria in the sixth century, may have been more critical than has heretofore been accepted.