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The Medieval Art of Central Asia

The arts that developed across Central Asia often fed or were fed by those of adjoining cultural regions or by such supra regional influences as Islam. Although reference will be made to such cross-cultural interactions wherever appropriate, more detailed information on these other areas may be found in the articles East Asian arts; Islamic arts; and South Asian arts. (The peoples and cultures of the region are treated in the articles Asia and Central Asia, and in articles on specific Asian peoples, such as Pashtun.)

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.

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.
he 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.

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