The workshop producing Timurid tiles in Herat

Herat is renowned for its mosaic tiles    (Independent Persian)
Herat is renowned for its mosaic tiles (Independent Persian)

This article first appeared in our partner site, Independent Persian

The sound of chisels hitting against clay can be heard from several metres away at a tile workshop just east of Herat’s Grand Mosque, one of Afghanistan’s largest historical landmarks. This small workshop, which specialises in producing tiles in the style of the Timurid period [14th and 15th centuries], relies on a few dedicated tile artists who sustain this ancient craft at great personal expense.

Tile making has flourished in Herat for over eight centuries, reaching its peak during the Timurid period. Herat was the former capital of the Timurid Empire, which at its height spanned from Baghdad in the west to Delhi in the east. Today, only a handful of artisans are skilled in crafting these tiles, and there are concerns that this art may vanish if they cease their work.

What makes the workshop stand out is that each stage of the tile production progress is completed without the use of machinery, unlike similar workshops in other countries.

In one section of the workshop, clay is poured into moulds, dried, coloured, and then transferred to the kiln. Omid Niknam, who oversees the clay kiln, expressed his strong commitment to continuing his work at the tile workshop to Independent Persian, despite the low wages.

He added, "All the tile makers face economic challenges, and we hope for an increase in our salary so we can continue our work. If we leave, there will be no one else in Herat to carry on this craft."

An experienced tile maker, who wished to remain anonymous, told Independent Persian that he discouraged his children from entering the tile-making profession because it doesn’t provide enough income to support a family. He said, "I have been working in mosaic tiles for over 20 years, and my financial situation has always been terrible. No one pays us any heed. I wouldn’t recommend entering the tile-making business to anyone."

Despite having decades of experience, the workers at Herat’s traditional tile workshop earn less than 100 dollars (£78) a month. Sediq Mir, a cultural official in the Herat province, told Independent Persian that 24 people are currently employed by the historical monuments department, including in the traditional tile workshop. . He added: "Reconstructing Herat’s historical buildings will take years because no additional manpower has been added to Herat’s tile workshops. Very few people know how to make traditional tiles, and others don’t want to work in this workshop due to the low pay." The workers have tried to increase their hours to boost their salaries.

The deadly earthquakes of October, which claimed over a thousand lives in Herat, also damaged the city’s historical buildings, including the Grand Mosque of Herat, which is adorned with tiles. Official statistics indicate that over 700 historical buildings and monuments in Herat require traditional tiles for restoration and reconstruction, but Herat’s traditional tile workshop cannot meet this demand.

Learning the traditional tile-making craft is both difficult and time-consuming, and there is no clear outlook for the industry in Herat, leading to a lack of interest in pursuing this craft.

A traditional craft

Traditional tiles are made from clay and collared with yellow, white, turquoise, and azure hues, using materials like lead, tin, copper, stone, iron, and glass. The Herat workshop produces seven-colour, single-colour, and mosaic tiles.

Herat is renowned for its mosaic tiles, which are used in historical buildings. To make these tiles, small fragments of colourful tiles are assembled to create a tile with a unique appearance. The process begins by sketching the desired pattern on paper. This pattern is then cut and pasted onto tiles according to the chosen colour scheme. Special tools are used to cut the tiles, and everything is smoothed with a file. The pieces are then joined using plaster or cement. Mosaic tiles are notable for their pliability in covering curved surfaces compared to seven-colour tiles.

Curved, geometric, polygonal patterns and Quranic verses are commonly used in the mosaic tiles produced at Herat’s traditional tile workshop. During the Timurid period, mosaic tiles were highly regarded, with small pieces forming large, intricate patterns. The Grand Mosque of Herat is an excellent example of this style of Islamic tiling.

Translated by Tooba Ali