The act of coming together to partake of a meal is a practice shared by all cultures. Food defines us – we are what we eat. Dining with the Sultan is the first exhibition to present Islamic art in the context of its associated culinary traditions. This novel exhibition includes over 250 works of art related to the sourcing, preparation, serving, and consumption of food, from 30 public and private collections in the US, Europe, and the Middle East.
The Dining with the Sultan’s catalogue has been arranged like a menu for an elaborate feast, divided into multiple courses or sections with long and short essays accompanied by regional or period-appropriate historical recipes. Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic Art and head of the Art of the Middle East department, writes in the catalogue, ‘The allure of food is hardly unique to historical Islamic lands, but rather the act of coming together to partake of a meal is a practice prized by all cultures, past and present.
While in the West, our fascination with gourmet culture can be traced to the gastronomic revolution that began in France in the mid-17th century, the culinary arts were transformed in Islamic lands earlier, in 9th-century Baghdad; by the 10th century, there was already a vast body of literature on food and its preparation, enjoyment , and medicinal uses, of which only a fraction remains. What does survive, however, are the objects associated with dining and the sourcing, preparation, serving and consumption of food. Even a cursory glance around any museum installation of Islamic art, or a look inside a related storeroom, would reveal a preponderance of plates, bowls, cups, bottles and trays of all shapes and sizes, representing a variety of materials and all manner of decoration’.
That culinary culture thrived from the early Islamic period onward can be attributed in part to the Muslim faith itself and its proliferation beyond Arabia. Technical innovations also helped, such as the development of glazed pottery – imported Chinese wares and local interpretations in which the white glazed nonporous vessels suggest cleanliness. This appreciation and demand for ceramics, both underglaze and the costlier overglaze painted wares for serving and storing good spread throughout the Islamic land and eventually to the West from the 19th century onwards. Charles Perry notes in the chapter of the accompanying catalogue for Dining with the Sultan, ‘A Canvas of Cuisines’ the first cookbook in Arabic, Kitab al-tabikh (The Books of Dishes) was compiled in the 10th century from private recipe collections of the Baghdad court dating back as far as two centuries earlier. Then a flurry of cookbooks appeared between the 13th and 15th centuries in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and North Africa.
In Iraq, Baghdad, founded in 762, was strategically located at the crossroads of land, river, and sea routes and swiftly emerged as a great economic capital at the heart of the vast Abbasid empire, extending from the Indus west to the Atlantic. Jessica Hallett, who wrote the chapter on ‘Abbasid Tableware and Changing Food Culture’ explains that the capital had become successful through trade, taking advantage of its location. Market exchange, associated with growing monetisation, spurred on an economic dynamism that further the grow of elites, who among other activities, enjoyed fine cuisine. Internationalisation of the capital also influenced choices and methods of preparation, giving rise to new tastes and the need for new tableware. Hallett writes, ‘On 11 June, 758, the first Abbasid envoy paid tribute to the Tang emperor, leading the caliph al-Mansur (r 754-75) to declare a few years later that “everything on the sea can come to us”.
Tangible evidence for a vast Abbasid transoceanic foodway exists in the form of turquoise-glazed storage jars, made in lower Iraq and found on coastal sites from Mozambique to Yangzhou in China, and even in the archipelago of Japan’. Chinese ceramics, in symmetry with the turquoise jars, are a recurrent feature of sites in Iraq and the gulf, including whiteware, stoneware, low-fired sancai earthenware, as well as large number of storage vessels used for importing perishable goods. Linda Komaroff notes in her chapter on ‘Chinese Porcelain and the Fine Art of Feasting in 15th and 16th Century Iran’ that Chinese ceramics played a key role in Islamic lands not only as tableware, but as a source of inspiration and emulation that led to important developments in indigenous pottery traditions, indication a long-lived and widespread taste for such imported wares.
During the late Tang dynasty, in the 8th to 9th century, white-bodied stoneware and its direct descendant, porcelain, made in northern China, were widely exported westward to Abbasid lands. From the 14th century, most Chinese porcelains were made in Jingdezhen. Such wares travelled to Iran as part of the overland and especially maritime trade with China. She writes, ‘This taste for imported porcelain is demonstrated not only by textual accounts and in Persian manuscript illustrations, but by the objects themselves that bear inscriptions indicating that they once belonged to members of the Iranian elite, some of whom amassed significant collections. These assemblages of Chinese porcelain, like the famed collection donated by Shah ‘Abbas to the Ardibil Shrine (in 1605-06), must have been multigenerational, probably incorporating dynastic or familial collections’.
Feasting at the Mughal courts is also a topic for exploration in the exhibition. This chapter of the catalogue is written by Neha Varmani, who tells us ‘The magnificence of these convivial gathering can be gleaned from the tuy-i-tilism (magical feast) of 1531, hosted by Humayun, the second emperor of the South Asian Timurid dynasty – or the Mughal empire as its commonly known. Held of the banks of the river Yamuna in Agra, the tuy-I tilism marked the one-year anniversary of Humayun’s reign as the ruler of Hindustan (present-day northern Indian and Pakistan).
The feast was organised in an octagonal pavilion with water pool in the middle, decorated with Persian carpets, gold-embroidered cushions, pearl-strings, jewel-studded vessels, utensils made of silver and sandalwood, and fruits and jars of sherbets laid out on gold-spun sufras (cloths for serving food). Feasting was an especially significant political, social, and cultural institution for the Timurids. In organising and attending gathering during time of political victory as well as turmoil, Humayun was following in Babur’s footsteps. The Akbarnama, the illustrated account of Akbar’s reign, reiterates Babur’s perspective by placing bazm (banqueting) on par with razm (fighting). The Mughals conceptualised feasts as a tool for strengthening bonds with those already in their service and as techniques for inducting new political elect’.
Dining with the Sultan specifically looks at Ottoman and Safavid coffee cultures. Farshid Emami, in his essay on the topic explains that the material culture and social rituals of drinking coffee first emerged among the Yemeni Sufis in the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The habit reached Mecca and Cairo in the early 1500s and by the mid-16th century coffee had become a lucrative commodity disseminated by merchants. The beverage soon gained popularity across the Ottoman empire, particularly in the capital, Istanbul.
In the early 1600s, Istanbul reportedly was home to 600 coffeehouses. By the turn of the 17th century, coffee had also spread eastward to Safavid Iran, where a vibrant coffee culture flourished in the capital of Isfahan. From the court to the city, coffee exerted a tremendous impact on ceremonial rituals and daily rhythms of urban life in early modern and Ottoman and Safavid lands, as it later did across the globe. Material objects such as cups and pots were more than mere vessels of consumption they made the experience of taking a stimulant tangible and were central to the new modes of social interaction that the rise of coffee had formed and propelled.
Dining with the Sultan will not stimulate only the eyes, but also the appetite, reminding visitors of the communal pleasure of food – both its taste and its presentation. It also provides much-needed information on the enormous class of luxury objects that may be broadly defined as tableware and demonstrate how gustatory discernment was a fundamental activity at the great Islamic courts.
From 17 December until 4 August 2024, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, lacma.org