The Influence of Art from West & Central Asia

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

Travel on the ancient Silk Road. In this lesson, explore the historical cultures of West and Central Asia and their art. Also, learn about the cultural and artistic exchanges and influences between these two regions, Europe, and other parts of Asia.

Historical Cultures of West and Central Asia

If you were a European living 600 years ago and had the opportunity to join a caravan through the Silk Road, you'd be amazed by the mystery of exotic Persia, China, and other Asian nations. You would also be likely to take some art back home.

This was the case for many merchants between the 2nd century BCE and the 15th century CE. Through commercial activities, they helped in the diffusion of West and Central Asian arts and cultural exchanges.

The Silk Road was a series of major trade routes used to transport silk from China to Europe. Many other goods were also negotiated all along the way and, furthermore, this route served as a cultural bridge between Europe and distant China and India.

Land routes (red) and sea routes (blue) of the Silk Road
Silk road

The historical cultures of West and Central Asia occupied several different areas. West Asia refers to the Middle East. Anatolia, in today's Turkey, and the Levant, in modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel were coastal regions that ultimately connected Asia with Europe through the Mediterranean. These regions were once part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and from the 15th century CE, the Ottoman Empire. The Arabian Peninsula is located to the south, and to the east, the Persian Empire covered most of what is now modern Iran.

Modern-day Central Asia consists of five former Soviet nations, and Afghanistan. The Tibetan plateau and the westernmost part of China are considered historically close to this region.

Islamic Art

Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th century CE, and quickly expanded over West Asia. Between the 10th and 11th century, most parts of Central Asia converted to this faith.

Islamic art is still a debated concept and can be applied to religious and secular art, and to art created by Muslims or non-Muslims. However, Islamic art is usually accepted as that created within Islamic artistic traditions, often including geometric and floral motifs, and stylized calligraphic texts. The art developed in these areas often shared common themes and visual characteristics.

Floral motifs are common in Islamic art
Iznic ware

The Patrons

The arts from these regions were mostly created for religious use, and as utilitarian objects for wealthy patrons.

Locally, rulers, nobles, and wealthy families were the main buyers. These handmade crafts were expensive, so the common people could not afford to have them.

Many pieces were also created for religious use, for Muslim and Buddhist clergies, as well as, lay practitioners. In Muslim lands, it was common for religious art to be sponsored by monarchs who were Muslims themselves, and promoted this faith.

European courts and wealthy families were the main foreign patrons, who acquired art objects mostly through trade. Sometimes, merchants or diplomats would offer goods as gifts to the nobility.

International Impact of West and Central Asian Art

In antiquity, the Hellenistic culture was probably the first major foreign influence on West Asia. After the fall of Alexander the Great's Empire, several Greek-influenced kingdoms developed in the region, combining elements of local cultures. One wonderful example is the cave architecture in Petra (modern-day Jordan). These edifices were delicately carved into the rock with Hellenistic columns, pediments, and Greek proportions.

Cave architecture with Hellenistic elements, in Petra (1st century BCE)

Cultural Exchange with other Asian Regions

West and Central Asia had great international reach through trade on the Silk Road. The cultural exchange was significant and helped to the diffusion of religions, artistic techniques, and styles.

Buddhism, itself, is an example of this cultural exchange. It started in India around the 6th century BCE and arrived in Tibet through the Silk Road, gradually spreading over China and Southeast Asia. Buddhist sculpture is believed to have developed some centuries later, after a period without figurative representations, and followed the same route of Buddhist expansion into China. Wood, stone, and metal were used. Metalwork included figurative sculptures and ritual objects like bells.

Chinese Buddhist sculpture (c. 680 CE)
Chinese Buddhist sculpture

Chinese objects influenced Persia, which was annexed by the Mongol Empire (a vast realm established by Genghis Khan) in the 13th century. Many Chinese influences were adopted, like techniques for making porcelain, figurative paintings on textiles and manuscripts, and the use of motifs of dragons and lotus flowers. The style that developed is known as Persian chinoiserie.

Persian illustration of a warrior fighting a dragon-like lion (c. 1336)
Persian chinoiserie

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