Dragon Theory

Symmetry, Sympathy, and Sensation: Talismanic Efficacy and Slippery Iconographies in Early Thirteenth-Century Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia

By Persis Berlekamp

The essay begins:

In the early thirteenth century, the Islamic lands were theoretically united under the authority of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, but in practice the caliphate was weak, and princes in various regions, including several as close to Baghdad as northern Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia, operated with de facto autonomy. While the caliph paid special attention to the protection of Baghdad, other princes assumed responsibility for protecting the civic and commercial institutions under their control. Among these rulers were the Ayyubids in Syria, the Seljuks in much of Anatolia, the Zangids and their Atabegs in Mosul, and the Arturqids in the region at the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known in the medieval period as the “Jazira.” Campaigns to build or fortify citadels, city walls, and secure stopping places for traveling merchants, or to protect the congregational mosques that were the central institutions of civic life, were part of this endeavor. From Iraq to Anatolia, walls and doors provided protection not only through their physical effectiveness as barriers but also through their talismanic qualities, which derived from the various and combined powers vested in inscriptions, antiquities, materials such as stone and bronze, and the iconographies of specific forms. Multiple theories that circulated at the time, and that I will refer to as theories of symmetry, sympathy, and sensation, suggested different explanations or models of why these qualities, separately or in combination, might have effective protective power. In other words, they offered multiple models of talismanic efficacy.

This article considers the slippery relevance of iconography to some of these models. Among the various iconographic forms that seem to have had talismanic significance, those with dragons and lions positioned near each other provide a starting point. As several of the structures these apotropaia enhanced are no longer extant, the degree to which they can be considered in their initial architectural context varies, but it does seem clear that lions and dragons were often positioned near each other like guards on the walls and gates of cities and citadels, and at the entrances of mosques and caravansarays. It is widely accepted that medieval Islamic dragons, particularly those with knotted bodies, played an apotropaic role. Likewise, the use of lion guardians in the pre-Islamic cultural heritage of the region is well known, and the resonance of that tradition in medieval Islamic memory is recognized. It has been noted that dragons and felines often appear together in this period, and that they have heraldic or royal significance. However, the early thirteenth-century cultural habit of combining the talismanic powers of the two beasts to protect cities and civic institutions has not been examined as such. Neither has there been very much consideration of why and how various viewers might have expected them to effectively serve a protective function. Continue reading

Talismans drawing on the combined iconographies of lions and dragons proliferated on the walls and doors of cities and civic institutions in early thirteenth-century Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia. This article examines them in light of three different medieval theoretical models, seeking to shed light on why intelligent people in their original milieus might have expected such talismans to have protective power.

PERSIS BERLEKAMP is Associate Professor of Art History and the College at the University of Chicago, where she teaches a range of topics in the history of Islamic art and architecture She is the author of Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam and is currently writing a book on Islamic talismans.