By Sara Kuehn
(Islamic history and civilization, Volume 86)
Introduction: The aim of this research is to contextualise and chart, as far as possible, the complex iconography of the dragon in the medieval Islamic world, by interrogating the many factors, contexts and contingencies that helped to shape and transform it. The study focuses on the identification of the dragon imagery in a medieval Central Asian cultural context, in what may be described as Irano-Turkish territories, from where it was disseminated by people of predominantly Turkic and Iranian stock. It necessarily draws on a vast corpus of imagery of long artistic and iconographic tradition which originates from an equally vast geographic area of enormous cultural and ethnic complexity, with a primary emphasis on the transmission of the dragon iconography from Central Asia to Anatolia. Importantly, the latter comprises to a large extent parts of the region that formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great at his death in 323 BC, constituting ancient Sogdia, Bactria, the Indus Valley, Parthia, Media, the Transcaucasus and Anatolia A common feature of these regions is therefore to have been subject for three to four centuries to intermittent waves of Hellenistic influence.
Arab conquests of Central Asia began to gain momentum from 86/705 when Qutayba ibn Muslim was appointed governor of Khurasan, from where he led incursions into neighbouring regions. This led to a process of Islamicisation in the city states of sedentary Central Asia and the subsequent transformation of the entire region into a centre of Islamic civilisation. It also resulted in the assimilation and subsequent Islamicisation of the steppe peoples of Turko-Mongol heritage.
Islamic-period Central Asia naturally inherited artistic traditions from preceding dynasties such as the Sasanians (c 224–651) and the Sogdians (fifth–eighth centuries). A true melting pot of peoples and cultures, the region had from earliest times served as a mediator and transmitter of artistic trends as they passed from east to west Asia and vice versa. This phenomenon was taken even further in the vast spatial entity of Islam, where economic links facilitated the transmission of knowledge as well as cultural and artistic exchange among peoples of different backgrounds and thus, in spite of the multicultural setting, conveyed a feeling of unity and a sense of belonging to a common civilisation. Medieval Islamic society was a mixture of several regional cultures which included Muslims and non-Muslims speaking many languages, including Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Hebrew, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish and various local dialects. The approach in the following essays is thus necessarily broadly comparative since evidently, as Julie Scott Meisami has aptly put it, “the medieval world does not stop at, say, the border between Christian Byzantium and Islamic territories, it is also clear that valuable insights may be gained from comparing the various manifestations of what is, to a great extent, a unified tradition, which shares certain basic attitudes and assumptions despite the particular local colouring of the individual cultures that make up the whole.” Therefore, since it pertains to more than one culture and geographical region, the study necessarily addresses the multicultural and hybrid facets of the dragon motif as it evolved in these regions and examines how the motif was accepted and incorporated into the artistic repertory.