Tile, Iran, 17th century © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The colour blue in Persian cultures is the wide-ranging, and important, topic for an exhibition recently held in Hong Kong. ‘One Wednesday when the blooming sun, Suffused with blue the sphere’s black dome, The King, victorious as the sun, Bright sky-like robes of turquoise donned, Went to the turquoise dome for sport; The tale was long, the day was short’ – From the Khamsa of Nizami. The King was the Persian Bahram Gur (r 420-38); the ‘sport’ was visiting one of his seven wives, this one from the Maghreb, who lived in a turquoise pavilion. And an illustration from a 1537 copy of the Khamsa shows the couple in her pavilion, richly embellished with tiles and murals of different shades of blue, as well as its dome ‘suffused with blue’. Decorative details of gold and yellow enrich the sumptuous scene.

The Significance of Blue in Illustrations of Persian Literature

The significance of the colour blue in Persian culture can be seen in their literature, as well as its craft traditions cannot be over-emphasised. Neither can the impact of Persian blue on other cultures, particularly to the east. The Blue Road: Mastercrafts from Persia celebrates the many permutations of the use of the colour blue, from palest turquoise to darkest indigo, as well as its life-giving symbolism – think water and sky and then add its celestial quality. The show covers a range of materials and categories, particularly focusing on ceramics; but also celebrating blue in architectural decoration, glass, cloisonné, textiles and carpets, photographic prints, as well as painting in particular for manuscripts.

This is a unique exhibition, the first in Hong Kong surveying the colour blue in Persian culture. Ninety-four artefacts glow brilliantly or subtly, selected in collaboration with eleven major international institutions, such as the V&A in London and the Freer & Sackler Gallery Archives in Washington DC. So why does a private museum in Hong Kong, the Liang Yi Museum, focus on the colour blue, which at first was so alien to the Han Chinese, that it was denigrated as ‘Mohammedan Blue’ (hui hui qing)? Why The Blue Road?

The Colour Blue and the Silk Road

The Director of the museum, Lynn Fung, unfolds the story: ‘Why did we choose both the topic and the name The Blue Road? And want to explore the colour blue in Persian culture? Yuka (Kadoi, curator of the exhibition) was the one who suggested focussing on one colour; and blue was the natural choice, having been such an instrumental colour for the ancient Persians and the many Iranian shahs and empires that followed’. She continued, ‘The “road” part of the title plays on the idea of the ancient Silk Road. While I wanted to focus on Persian decorative objects at this exhibition, we also had to think about why it should be mounted in Hong Kong, and how to make it particularly relevant to the audience here.

‘A lot of people think of blue and white ceramics as being inherently Chinese, however, blue glazing actually first became popular in Middle Eastern ceramics in the 9th and 10th centuries, and only spread eastwards to China along the Silk Road and became refined as Chinese porcelain in the Yan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. This is the sort of centuries-old relationship and exchange of cultural ideas and aesthetics that we hope this exhibition will highlight, as China embarks along its One Belt One Road mega-project, itself built upon the historical Silk Road’.

Blue Glass in Persia

The Silk Road, both overland and maritime, not only connected continents as a commercial network from as far west as Italy and as far east as Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) in northern China but also enabled cultural, intellectual, and spiritual exchange. Quite early in the Islamic era, a 9th-century blue glass plate was excavated at Nishapur in northeast Persia. Its intense colour was achieved by adding cobalt to the glass mix. However, six similar glass dishes were found in the Famen temple in China. At this time Chinese glass was inferior in quality to Islamic, to the extent that apparently China depended on imports from the West, contrasting with the hunger for Chinese ceramics in particular in Western Asia.

The Colour Blue in Persian Culture: Chinese Ceramics

A small, late 19th-century, Chinese porcelain figure is fascinating in its illustration of hybrid stylistic fertilisation and a good example of the colour blue in Persian culture mixing with other cultures. With a blue turban over his red hair, the man wears a silk robe of these same colours, which was made in Canton during that era, but actually he represents a Middle Eastern trader. The development of the maritime Silk Road reached its peak during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, with Muslim traders accorded relatively high social status in China, though initially restricted to areas for foreigners.

But later on, during the Ming (1368-1694) and Qing (1644-1911) periods, some of these ‘foreigners’ formed Muslim communities there, adopting aspects of Chinese culture, though not abandoning their monotheistic faith. The earliest examples of Chinese Islamic artefacts from this time (particularly Ming) are mainly ceramic, though they differ from classic Chinese prototypes in shape and decoration, especially noticeable in the use of Arabic inscriptions.

An early 16th-century traditional Chinese brush rest, modelled in the shape of a five-peaked mountain of blue-and-white porcelain, could as well have functioned as a pen rest for Muslim customers, who used pens for transcribing texts in Arabic script. So it was intended for the domestic market of both the Chinese and Muslims. And a Chinese ceramic inkstone of the same era (the Zhengda reign of 1505-21) was probably produced for Muslim officials including powerful Muslim court eunuchs. It is inscribed with qasida poetry by the 12th-century Persian poet Khadani Shirvani.

Cultural Exchange on the ‘Blue Road’

There is another aspect of the lively international cultural interchange and the importance of the colour blue in Persian culture, as can be seen along the maritime routes of the Blue Road. Vast quantities of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain products sailed across the China Sea, the Indian Ocean and to the Red Sea, impacting on local ceramic industries in both South Asia and the Middle East. But also Persian imagery seeped eastwards into East Asia. In the centre of a large blue-and-white Chinese porcelain dish of the early 17th-century kneel two figures, identified as Persian by their Safavid feathered headdresses.

The Colour Blue in Persian Culture: A Traditional Vessel – Kendi

Cross Cultures South Asian objects also influenced Persian and helped promoted the colour blue in Persian culture. For instance, a blue-and-white Persian 17th-century fritware jar in the exhibition is actually a Safavid (1501-1736) copy of the traditional South Asian water-pouring or drinking vessel called kendi. This is a Malaysian term derived from the Sanskrit word kundika, a ritual pouring vessel. The tradition of using kendi in Hindu and Buddhist rituals for over a thousand years infers that these jars originated in India. An exquisite deepest blue example of a Safavid-style pouring vessel in the show, fitted with a silver alloy stopper and chain, was made in China during the Kangxi reign (1662-1722).

And kendi were also created in Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, often used at weddings and other ceremonies in South East Asia, emphasising the lively functional and stylistic exchange not only between Persia and China, but further afield.

As Leslee Katrina Michelsen writes in her excellent essay in the catalogue for The Blue Road, ‘Objects and tiles alike glowed with the richly pigmented glazes ranging from pale aqua to deepest midnight. The tile-clad domes were fêted for their iconic blue splendour in the dun-coloured landscapes which often surrounded them, while comfortable homes housed dishes and figurines glazed with a myriad of cool, watery tones’.

Talismanic and Shamanistic Associations

More than any other colour, blue inspired Persian makers down the centuries. It has talismanic and shamanistic associations, believed to be capable of repelling the ‘evil eye’, connecting with other people of the Middle East, such as Turks and Egyptians. These ideas were emphasised during the Mongol invasion of Persia and Central Asia in the early 13th century. ‘Ancient talismanic roots prompted Mongol shamans to wear blue ritual costumes in order to perform as or communicate with the blue wolf, their legendary ancestor’ writes the curator Yuka Kadoi. What is also clearly evident is that the calm, steadfast, spiritual implications of the colour blue shaped a distinctive Persian creative identity down the millennia. Blue was significant, desired and appreciated.

The Colour Blue in Persian Culture: Lapis Lazuli and Indigo

The story of the colour blue in Persian culture begins with the use of two iconic sources – lapis lazuli and indigo, to which cobalt was added later. These were the major sources for blue pigments and textile dyes. The best lapis lazuli (lajavard) came from the Badakhsan region, now in Afghanistan, and had a lengthy history of trade with Mesopotamia and further west.

This treasured semi-precious stone was used for jewellery and amulets as well as mosaic tiles and pigment, its mineral content the source for natural ultramarine, one of the most commonly used pigments in Persian manuscript painting. The indigo plant (indigofera tinctoria) was imported into Persia from India via The Blue Road, both overland and maritime. India was the major centre for indigo dye production, though it was also cultivated in southeast Persia, in the Kirman area, becoming known as rang-i-Kirmani (‘colour of Kirman’).

Cobalt Blue

Persia was also a major source of cobalt ores (sang-i-lajavard), literally ‘blue stone’, and was often used to cover portable objects, as an imitation of the more precious and expensive lapis lazuli. Cobalt oxide, obtained by roasting cobalt ore, was used as a ceramic glaze colourant and also to tint glass, mined in the northwest of Persia, and near Kashan in the centre of the country.

So potters, glassmakers and merchants were all eager customers for cobalt, which was also exported to Persian Gulf city ports, such as Basra, from which it could be shipped long-distance, for instance to China for use in the production of porcelain. As Leslee Katrina Michelsen writes: ‘Cobalt was still being extracted from Iranian mines well into the 20th century, and some of it was used to repair the cracked or fallen glazes from the tiles located in historic mosques and structures’.

Colbalt and Copper Ores in Asian Ceramics

Cobalt and copper ores could mimic the roles of not only lapis lazuli but also another semi-precious and much loved stone – turquoise, available from local Persian mines at Nishapur in the north-west. When copper was added to firuzeh (turquoise), it produced a delicate, subtle ceramic glaze. From the earliest Islamic period of Persian history, the Umayyad (7th/8th centuries), turquoise-glazed earthenware storage vessels were ubiquitous.

In a reversal of the customary flow of cultural interaction along The Blue Road, from the west of Persia eastwards, the arrival of Prussian blue from Germany in the 19th century devastated Persia’s domestic textile industry. Prussian Blue, the first modern synthetic pigment, was invented in the 18th century. It replaced natural indigo as a far more stable dye, and was way more economical than ultramarine made from precious lapis lazuli. In addition, Persian hand-woven products, which once dominated international trade, could not compete with cheap European and South Asian imports.

The Combination of Blue and Gold

Historically the combination of blue and gold in Persian artefacts was a glorious one. Remember Bahram Gur and his Wednesday wife in her blue pavilion with its decorative details picked out in gold and yellow? This felicitous pairing was particularly prevalent in textiles and carpets (the fourth section of the exhibition). Two centuries earlier than the 16th-century manuscript page from Nizami’s Khamsa, a splendid deep blue coat has survived from the Mongol empire of 1219-1370. Down its length and across its sleeves and hem, it is enriched with metallic golden tapestry bands. Gold was the imperial Mongol colour for clothing.

The vivid effect of deep blue and metallic gold resonates in Ilkhanid (Mongol) ceramic tiles and pottery, characterised by a deep-blue overglaze known as lajvardina. A 14th-century fritware tile in the shape of an eight-pointed star, whose background is a deep cobalt blue, is decorated with this overglaze lajvardina technique. Its surface decoration of a flying bird and floral sprays in gold leaf contrasts luxuriantly with the almost black cobalt blue. The tile was originally part of an architectural frieze, probably for a palace.

Blue for Textiles: Indigo

Later, during the Safavid period, a magnificent very long sleeved coat reached Russia as a diplomatic gift during the 16th century. Made of a delicate pale shade of blue silk, it is entirely highlighted by metallic thread, creating a lustrous, cloth-of-gold texture. Echoing the East-West style interchange, its design features a man hurling a rock at dragons and phoenixes, both Chinese icons.

Many centuries earlier, during the 2nd/1st centuries BC, the most superb pair of Central Asian earrings was created of gold, encasing deep blue bands of lapis lazuli, and still very pale ivory, almost white, highlighted with quartz pendants, a particularly splendid colour blend. Blue and white, of course is the most famous colour combination and contrast for ceramics and other artefacts in all art history. Curiously, an early Ming ‘connoisseur’ named Cao Zhao denounced blue and white porcelain as ‘vulgar’ in his 1388 Manual of Connoisseurship. How off-trend was he!

Blue and White Fritware

Lacking kaolin, a soft white clay, which was the primary Chinese raw material for white porcelain, Persian ceramicists made a significant technical advance by adding tin to the glaze, opacifying it, which created a white surface. Another technical breakthrough was made in the 12th century which revolutionised the production of blue-and-white ceramics – fritware (stonepaste), in which clay and finely ground glass frit (glaze) were added to ground quartz. This process ensured that the body of the vessel was shining white, and eliminated the need for concealing glazes.

Egyptian Potters

It was actually Egyptian potters who had developed this technique in the 11th century (the Fatimid period), from which it spread to Persian and Syrian makers. They were able to create finer-walled, more delicate products, as well as more ambitious ornamentation. This finally enabled Persian potters to imitate Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. One of the resulting advances was the production of mina’i, or multi-coloured, enamel painted decoration on a white ground, which, much later, the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) developed to a fine art.

The stonepaste or fritware advance to create white ceramics that began in the 11th century exponentially expanded in the 12th and 13th centuries persisting into later eras, such as the Safavid and Qajar, culminating in the cherished Persian ‘ink on snow’ effect of blue-and-white. Persian blue-and-white wares had finally become serious competition to their Chinese equivalent.

But the Empire struck back – China was still actively exporting blue-and-white wares westwards targeting the Persian and Middle Eastern markets with items such as fashionable hammam, or bathhouse, slippers. Such fine porcelain slippers were clearly luxury decorative objets d’art, which could be displayed as well as worn. A pair in the exhibition is decorated with blue-centred white rosettes on a blue ground, underscored by rows of cobalt blue teardrops. But they also had a practical function in that their soles were unglazed, providing enough friction not only to avoid slipping on damp surfaces, but also for gentle skin exfoliation.

Blue in Tiles for Architectural Decoration

The third section of the exhibition is devoted to blue in architectural decoration. Blue was such an obvious and appropriate choice for blue-tiled domes with their divine symbolism. Not only domes but also wall surfaces were covered in glazed blue tiles, on which gilded qur’anic inscriptions frequently featured. Maintenance of this tradition of blue ceramic tilework, often with literary and courtly themes, continued well into the 19th-century Qajar period, covering bathhouses and private homes, palaces, bazaars and city gates, and can still be seen in parts of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz.

A superb tile in the show depicts a hunting scene with a rider on a prancing white horse. He is dressed in an elegant pale greyish-blue robe, accessorised by a flowing yellow scarf, and all against a bright cobalt blue background. He holds a falcon, but curiously, he is accompanied by a dragon-like creature with golden wings.

Mosques, Madrasas, and Mausoleums

Mosques, madrasas and mausoleums were covered inside and out with non-figurative tile decoration. Another much earlier tile of the 13th century would have been placed in the mihrab of a mosque. This particular tile, covered in a thick turquoise overglaze, features a pendant lamp, typically hung in mosques. This lamp motif symbolises nur (light), interpreted as divine light, indicating the presence of God. A long Turkish panel of tiles, circa 1650-55,  features a hanging lamp at the top. Its palette of blues, greens and white is cool and restrained, characteristic of Iznik ware. The metaphor of divine light is exemplified in the Qur’an: ‘The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp’.

Glass Manufacture

Glass manufacture evolved in the region covering Syria and Palestine around the mid-first century BC, and spread across Persia under Parthian rule (247 BC-AD224). By the era of Sasanian rule, it had developed in quantity and quality. Though ancient glass beads have been discovered in China, it was not until the Qing dynasty that glass blowing was developed. In his essay in the catalogue evocatively titled Between Earth, Water & Sky: Blue Glass from the Persian World, Iván Szántó writes: ‘the Persian word for blue is abi, which literally means aquatic. Thus, the classical Persian word for glass – abgina – not only carries an intrinsic reference to water, but also to blue colour’.

Since the earliest glass production in Western Asia, the translucence of blue glass has been a source of awe, evoking both water and the sky. Zoroastrians believe glass to be a ritually pure material. Initially blue glass was used for jewellery and talismans, and since it was never made for mass production, it acquired prestigious status. Later it was formed into flasks, ampullae, and sprinklers containing precious liquids such as perfume, and Shiraz wine that was traded in long-necked bottles during the Safavid period.

As Szánto comments, the highlight of many collections of Persian Islamic art are the slender, spiral-necked flasks, whose predominant colour is cobalt blue, and which were called ‘swan-necked bottles’. Their Persian name is ashkdan, which elegaically translates as ‘tear containers’. Legend has it that they held the teardrops of grieving women, whose husbands were away at war.


Until 24 June, The Blue Road: Mastercrafts from Persia, at Liang Yi Museum, Hong Kong, A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, ISBN 9789881494436.