Pottery has been a part of human civilisation for millennia, constantly evolving alongside us, but it was that advent of glazes in the late 8th century that made Uzbek ceramics what it is today.
The earliest pottery centre sprang up not far from Samarkand in the ancient settlement of Afrasiab. Many of the features that make Uzbek ceramics so dynamic developed here, such as the intricate designs combining nature motifs with triangles or complex strapwork patterns. Stylised birds and animals were popular motifs, often inspired by local legends, and because the lead glazes did not interfere with the colour scheme, local artisans could create fantastic designs.
The Middle Ages saw the dawn of a cultural Golden Age. The bustling Silk Road attracted artisans from far and wide. New colours and designs appeared: peonies, phoenixes, deer, storks, and dragons from China and lavish arabesques and plant patterns from the Far East, finished with dazzling blue and turquoise paints.
Pottery was in great demand, for everything from everyday household items through wedding gifts to the glazed tiles decorating the many splendid mosques and madrasahs that sprang up at this time.
As the craftsmen honed their skills and knowledge passed from father to son, regional styles reflecting Uzbekistan’s rich natural and cultural diversity emerged.
Nestled in Uzbekistan’s lush Ferghana Valley, Rishtan is one of Central Asia’s oldest centres for ceramic art. Prized for its fabulous patterns and stunning motifs, classic Rishtan pottery has a white or turquoise background with a bold central motif, usually inspired by flowers, pomegranates, almonds or any form of ‘islimi’ floral pattern. Household items such as knives, jugs etc. are also common features here. According to local belief, like the cloudless sky or pure water, blue is the colour of happiness, so here, ornaments combine with the famous handmade ishkor glaze to produce a stunning profusion of blues: cobalt, turquoise, indigo and many more.
Thanks to the high quality and purity of local clay, Rishtan ceramics are extremely fine, lending even everyday wares like lagyan platters, cups and plates an air of refined beauty.
Although the work of masters from other areas of the Ferghana Valley was perhaps coarser in terms of form, the incredible detail of decoration, fantastic composition and border patterns make it quite remarkable. Artisans from Gurumsar were masters of the ‘mirror image technique’ – if you gaze at the blue patterns, the white becomes the background, but as you focus on that ‘background,’ an intricate design appears, and it is the blue which melts away. To keep the colours pure and avoid unwanted colour shading, willow was used in the kilns here since it burns with a white smoke that is not absorbed by the glaze.
A thousand years ago, this area was already known for its characteristic black, red, and creamy white backgrounds with decorations in green, yellow, pink, and brown. The most famous, and perhaps oldest, examples have Kufic lettering inscribed in black on a white background. Other ornamentation includes rosettes, palmettes, flowers, peacock feathers and geometric patterns.
Another distinctive feature here is traditional clay paints (or engobes) used by Gizhduvan craftsmen to create the natural colour schemes for their beautiful pieces.
Each paint is handmade using specially selected materials: red pigments from Mount Karnab in the Nurata Range, yellow from the Kyzylkum Desert near Gazli, and white from a deposit near Tashkent. Once decorated, the pieces are then covered with a transparent lead glaze and fired, resulting in hardy, attractive natural colours with an emphasis on yellows, greens and browns,
Another impressive feature of the central school is the rare technique of chisma or sgraffito perfected by masters from Urgut and Denau.
Potters in Khorezm are famous for their flat blue badiya platters decorated with a maze of interlacing quatrefoil designs. In nearby Madyr and Khiva, master potters developed a distinctive style of edging an innovation that was both practical as well as beautiful. By the end of the 14th century, Russian influence can be seen in the motifs here – fragments of a samovar, for instance, or an umbrella – and by the middle of the 20th century, rosettes, palmettes and tendrils had given way to a more geometric design, the famous girikh, which is still the hallmark of Khorezm ceramics today.
The ancient art of pottery-making is truly a labour of love, especially for artisans producing fine pieces with their distinctive colouring and exquisite patterns here in Uzbekistan. First they must find suitable clay, clean out any impurities, knead it and prepare it for the potter’s wheel. Then skilled masters specialised in particular types of earthenware set to work. Once a piece is ready, it is handed over to a chizmakash, an artist who decorates it. A pattern is traced onto the smooth surface of the piece, which is then dried, glazed and fired in a specially-constructed kiln. Techniques, patterns and recipes were handed down through family lineages, but the twentieth century brought major changes to all aspects of life in Uzbekistan, and by the 1950’s handcrafted ceramics were in decline as factory-made goods flooded the market. The traditional techniques were gradually forgotten, traditional patterns dropped out of use, and the recipe for ishkor glazes was in danger of being lost. Many acclaimed workshops and centres closed their doors and the artisans’ children looked to other professions.
But some guilds and families managed to keep the old ways alive, and today Uzbek ceramics are enjoying a renaissance. Artisans in Rishtan, Gizhduvan, Shahrisabz, Urgut, Khiva and elsewhere are reviving time-honoured techniques. Traditional patterns are popular once again, and vibrant, intricate ornamentations once more adorn the bowls and plates that grace tables both at home and abroad.