The Visual Language of Imperial Desire Projections of Symbolic Dominion in Umayyad Artistic Appropriations
By Benjamin D. Cox
Published Online (2005)
Introduction: Within a few generations of the Prophet’s death, the triumphant armies of Islam found themselves vaulted suddenly into a position of mastery over large tracts of territory from every major cultural centre from Persia to the Maghrib. But despite this phenomenal success at arms, the Arabs and the Caliphs who led them remained embarrassingly deficient in the cultural staples of late antique statecraft, compounding their already unfavourable image and making them the laughing stock of the global imperial elite. Thus it is no wonder that when pressures from within and without finally permitted the Caliphate to engage in artistic experimentation, it launched itself at the task with the full force and vigour of a nation and a dynasty with something to prove.
However, this was no easy task. Having precious few native artistic and architectural forms or even an established aesthetic sense to draw upon, the creative visionaries of the Umayyad dynasty were faced with the unprecedented and formidable task of initiating a language of artistic expression which would be sufficiently distinct from the traditions which surrounded it and at the same time would exhibit enough similarity as to be intelligible to all the peoples of the empire and to the powers with which it interacted. To this end, the Umayyad artists and architects cobbled together an artistic programme built from structures, materiel, and iconography appropriated from the cultural centres they had conquered.
Although the final products often betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the aesthetic behind the works and styles they chose to imitate, the appropriations were not made haphazardly, reflecting instead a conscientious programme of selective usurpation that served the political aspirations of the dynasty. It is the purpose of this discussion to demonstrate that the appropriative artistic campaign waged by the Umayyad Caliphate had as its primary motivation the projection of Islamic domination over a variety of different media and monuments, which it accomplished by commandeering select artistic forms and subverting them to Muslim use.
Although the Umayyads were prodigious patrons of the arts, the current argument will restrict itself to the two most pregnant examples of this attitude: the Qubbat al-Sakhra and the Great Mosque of Damascus. Before proceeding to a discussion of these particular appropriative agendas, we will preface the argument with a discussion of the peculiar timetable of Islamic art, which will provide the necessary historical background upon which to frame the ensuing discussion. In these will be discussed the use of site, structure, materiel, and iconography in projecting a specific appropriative desire to a given audience. We will conclude by proposing an overarching theme informing Umayyad Caliphal visual thought.