Metal Working in Early Afghanistan


Abdul Hai Habibi


Craftsmen skilled in working with bronze, silver and copper during the time of the Khorasani Saljuki kings came to be considered artisans and their work was highly valued. The artistic style of Herat, Seistan and Merv, the centers of metal working, spread to several others countries.

Before the Saljuki period metal working was done either in bronze, silver or copper cast into molds. Final touches of inlaid design were then given to the finished objects. The Hermitage Museum in Russia has a pen holder made of silver and copper adorned with pieces of silver with leaves and branches. The pen holder dates back to 1148 A.D. and comes from Khorasan.

One of the most important relics of Herat, is undoubtedly, a bucket with a handle also in the Hermitage Museum. Its inscription reveals it was made in 1163 A.D. by Mohammad bin Abu Haider, the caster and Ahmad, the engraver, both of whom came from Herat. It was made for a merchant from the city of Zenjan in Iran. The bucket was made of copper and silver with five rows of ornate designs. One depicts a wedding scene in the court of a king and another, a hunting trip. There are also Kufic and Naskh inscriptions. The top part of the Naskh lines resemble a man’s head. Battles, dancing and performing musicians are other designs which indicate that Herat had a distinctive school of bronze and silver work.

Another example is a jug from Herat. Its design is divided into 12 parts representing the Zodiac. The neck of this jug also contains Kufic and Naskh inscriptions which resemble a human head and like other Herati works can be attributed to the Khorasan period. Another silver and copper jug, preserved in the Tiflis Museum, made by Mahmud bin Mohammad Herati, has a typical Khorasani motif of 12 towers.

An additional example of Herati art is an ink pot now in the Freer Gallery of Washington D.C. The ink pot was made by Shani in 1210 A.D. for Majdul Muzafar, the prime minister of Khorasan and Merv. This ink pot is in the form of a human head so typical of Khorasani art. In the same pattern a goblet was also been made now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

During the Saljuki era, the craft of weaving reached its peak with the introduction of Chinese designs into local arts and the adoption of Islamic motifs instead of Sassanid ones. Herat was among the places most famous for the art of weaving prior to the Mongol invasion. Herat and Nishapur, the capital of Khorasan, were relatively undamaged by the Mongol raids. In one of the museums of Vienna a number of silk clothes from the Mongol period are extant with designs of birds on satin. One is inscribed with Naskh letters spell out the name of Sultan Abu Sa’ed and the date 1316-1335 A.D.

Cities of Khorasan, like Herat and Samarkand, during the Temurid period were famous centers of weaving whose products were worn by kings and the upper classes. The woven cloth was also used for curtains and bedsheets. Temurid designs mainly depict birds and flowers in gold and silver thread resembling closely Chinese motifs which had been seen and described by many travelers.

The Temurid and Chinese political and economic ties resulted in a strong influence of Chinese fine art on Khorasan. When a Herati delegation visited China in 1322 A.D. Ghiasuddin, a Herati artist, studied Chinese designs and used them in his own work upon his return. After this the formerly adopted Sassanid and Islamic styles were no longer used.

Just as in the Temurid period Herat was famous for its fine arts so was it well-known in the Safavid period for woven materials, and patterns of the Behzad school were used both in Khorasan and Persia. Many works of Mohammad, Mohammadi and Reza Abasi, students of the Behzad school are still extant.