Noha Sadek



Colors of Power and Piety in Rasulid Yemen

Surviving Rasulid religious architecture in Yemen (1229–1454) attests to the extensive use of painted decorations to cover large parts of its interiors: domes, vaults and walls. These decorations, consisting of inscriptions, geometric and floral designs executed in tempera over a plaster base, largely exhibit close connections to illuminated manuscript pages. Through the analysis of both the architecture and historical sources, it is possible to confirm that only the sultans and their female family members had the privilege of constructing lavishly painted monuments. This paper examines the reasons why the Rasulids patrons opted for painted decorations over other techniques. It discusses the possible existence of a color hierarchy, the selection of specific colors for particular motifs, such as the red five-petalled rosette, and the use of color symmetry. The paper also argues that the political and religious climate (namely the strong rivalry with the Mamluks in Egypt, on the one hand, and the Zaydis who ruled over the northern regions of Yemen, on the other, in addition to significant Sufi activities) may have contributed to the elaboration of a Rasulid system of visually perceptible symbols and signs. Finally, it details how painted decorations successfully reflected the Rasulids’ wealth and cosmopolitan connections, as well as their symbols of sovereignty and religious affiliation.

A specialist in Yemeni art and architecture, NOHA SADEK received her Ph.D. in Middle East and Islamic Studies from the University of Toronto in 1990. She has taught courses on Islamic art at the University of Saint-Joseph and the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, and has participated in exhibition projects at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and the National Museum of Lebanon in Beirut. She was director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in Sanaa, Yemen from 1995–1997. Sadek has published articles on the medieval architecture of Yemen, and served as editor of Studies on Medieval Yemen (2003) and Studies in the Archaeology of Yemen (2002), both in Arabic. She has two works in progress: Rasulid Art and Architecture in Yemen (626–858 AH/1229–1454 AD): Power and Legitimacy and Women Patrons in Medieval South Arabia.

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