The art of the Middle East carries with it thousands of years of human history and is as varied as the many artists who create it. Many Middle Eastern artists are from small villages or nomadic groups who have passed skills down through generations. Practicing these arts is a form of preserving those skills and their heritage. From contemporary works that reflect a turbulent and changing time to the classical architecture and Byzantine paintings, let’s take a look at some of the Middle East’s artistic contributions.
The region that makes up the modern Middle East includes two of the “cradles” of human civilization: Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is also the homeland of three major world religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. This incredible cultural significance has played a role in much of the art that comes from the Middle East.
Middle Eastern Art in Architecture
The architecture of the Middle East has a unique and distinctive appearance. Its elegant details are not limited to palaces and great tombs; no building is too insignificant to be aesthetically pleasing. It is also practical, designed with open spaces to allow for airflow in the hot climate.
Middle Eastern architecture draws influence from the ancient cultures that founded and formed the region, including the Sumerians, Byzantines, and Persians (also known as the Achaemenid Empire). There is also influence from Roman architecture, and some features, such as the minaret, are a direct development of Islamic traditions.
One of the most iconic architectural features in Middle Eastern architecture is the dome. The dome as a structure is an architectural feat requiring precision to hold its shape so that the weight of the structure is directed down the sides of the dome rather than straight down from the middle.
Another common architectural feature in Middle Eastern buildings is arches. These can be rounded on top or come to a point, but like domes they must direct the weight of the building they support down the sides of the arches in order to avoid collapse. Domes can be seen in old Persian architecture, while arches have been used in the region for longer still, appearing in the ancient city-states of the Sumerians.
Another traditional—and practical—feature found in Middle Eastern architecture is gardens and courtyards. These relaxing places offer a reprieve from the desert and have been part of Middle Eastern culture and buildings since the time of the Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians.
In addition to building elegant structures, the decorations on buildings in the Middle East are also very beautiful. Mosaics are not unique to the area, but the extensive tilework found on many Middle Eastern buildings is an important feature of the region’s architecture. Mosaics are made by placing different colors of small objects, often tiles, into a plaster to create a pattern or image. The oldest mosaic dates from around 3000 BC and was found in a Sumerian building. The practice continued through the Persian and Byzantine Empires and into the modern-day buildings of the Middle East.
Mosaics can be created using a variety of materials, not just tiles. Early mosaics used colored stones; objects such as glass, beads, and even shells can also be used to create a mosaic, depending on what is available. If you want to try your hand at mosaic making, you can even use modern objects such as bottle caps to create a colorful and interesting pattern.
Handmade Rugs: A Textile Art
Carpet weaving is a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Records from the time of the Persian Empire speak of the beautiful rugs that were crafted in the region that is modern-day Iran. These ornate carpets traveled the Silk Road and adorned the homes of nobles across Eurasia. The oldest existing carpet was found in a tomb in Siberia and has been named the Pazyryk Carpet. It was created around 500 BC and makes use of techniques that have led historians to suspect it is of Persian origin.
Modern artists in the Middle East continue to produce beautiful handmade carpets. They use historic techniques and natural, traditional dyes to create their works. Rasam Arabzadeh is a contemporary carpet artist. He uses traditional carpet techniques to make rugs with modern themes, tying the historic cultural tradition to the new and ever-changing world of today.
Music of the Middle East
Middle Eastern music encompasses many styles of music from multiple countries and cultures. Modern musical artists in the Middle East are as varied as modern musicians across the world, often drawing inspiration from other musical styles and blending them with local traditions.
The first rock star of the Middle East was Lydia Canaan, who defied gender expectations and became an international celebrity. Courageous and dedicated to her music and her people, she performed concerts despite the war in her home country of Lebanon. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 and continues to help her country through humanitarian work.
Traditional music of the Middle East includes a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments. String instruments commonly heard in Middle Eastern music are the common harp and the violin, as well as the oud and the saz (both types of lutes) and the stringed qanun. Common percussion instruments include the riq tambourine and the darbuka drum. Middle Eastern wind instruments include the oboe along with a variety of other reed instruments, such as the duduk and the zurna.
Some unique features of traditional Middle Eastern music are the use of quarter tones and the lack of chords, giving the music a very distinctive feel. In addition to unique sounds, some traditional Middle Eastern songs can be up to three hours long.
In the 1950s, a collection of music inscribed on cuneiform tablets was discovered in a tomb in Syria. Modern archaeologists were able to translate one of the songs, now known as “Hurrian Hymn no. 6.” It was written around 1400 BC, making it the oldest known piece of music, and is an example of ancient Middle Eastern music. Follow this link to listen to “Hurrian Hymn no. 6.”
Share Your Family’s Middle Eastern Art on FamilySearch
Do you have examples of Middle Eastern art in your daily life? Perhaps your family owns a handmade rug or you know how to play a traditional instrument—or maybe you have your ancestor’s calligraphic writing. However art has touched your life, share it on FamilySearch Memories to save your and your ancestors’ talents!
Source: Family Search