How to create, and destroy, mosaic tiling

The madrese (religious school) at Khargird, in Khorasan (built 1438-45), is a showpiece of Timurid decorative art. Click here to see a short walk-through film I made (just learning!) about the six different sorts of tiles, some elegantly geometrical wallpaintings and some amazing plaster effects in the muqarnas (stalactite vaultings).

Fragments cut out and pieced together to make mosaic tiling. Taybad.

Professor Grube and I discussed the most famous tiles, the unique twelve and ten pointed cuerda seca stars – specimens of which are on show in both the V&A and the British Museum. Click here for another short film about the tiles at Khargird: many of the stars are now in various international collections, or pass through the showrooms.

Detail of making mosaic tiling. Taybad

This posting, however, concentrates on the mosaic tiling. This is much more difficult to remove (or maybe I should say, steal) than the star tiles. Henri Rene d’Allemagne, travelling in Iran before 1912 wrote of how: “this manner of work [mosaic] has an immense advantage: that is, it prevents the greedy Armenian merchants from stripping their robe of azure and lapis from the monuments”. Please don’t think M d’Allemagne is a strict conservationist – in the same paragraph in his book, he writes of “taking a pretty little inscription” to Paris from the mosque at Khaf, just down the road from Khargird.

Mosaic tiling in Khargird, after it was used for target practice by Russian soldiers

Mosaic tiling is constructed by cutting out tiny pieces from plain-glazed tiles, as you can see workmen at Taybad doing in the photos above. After the pieces are cut out (click here to see the laborious hand-shaping that is necessary), they are pieced together, before being plastered onto the walls of the building.

Colonel Yate visited Khargird in 1893. He had seen the 1885 destruction of the Musalla at Herat, with all its gorgeous mosaic tiling (under the supervision of the British army); and lamented that Khargird was one of the “few remaining examples of this beautiful work left in these parts”. He reported that “much of [the mosaic work] was still perfect; and as [it] cannot be taken out and carried away like tiles, it ought to remain as long as wind and weather permit”.

Sadly, this wasn’t quite what happened. Russian soldiers billeted in the madrasa shortly afterwards used the designs on the mosaic tiling for target practice – and you can see the sad effects in the photo here.

1 thought on “How to create, and destroy, mosaic tiling

  1. A tribute to Professor Ernst Grube

    Very sadly, last week, Professor Ernst Grube died. His loss is indeed a big one for the field of Islamic Art.

    I therefore wanted to write this week about the first time I met Ernst – after I asked Eleanor Sims, his lovely and clever wife, what she thought about some work I was starting on the Khargird Madrasa. She said that, since I was focusing ceramic tiles, I should instead ask her husband.

    And he was so charming, and knew so much, and was the perfect person to ask!
    Then he told me to send him copies of some images I was talking about, so he could comment more. And I had to admit that I only knew him as “Eleanor’s husband”, and hesitantly ask who he was.

    You can imagine my surprise and excitement and embarrassment when I realised I had been talking to Professor Grube!

    So the blog this week is based on some of the tiles from Khargird, in fond memory of Ernst.

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