Fifteenth century blue and white hexagonal tiles are a subject which draw scholars back every now and then to try and tease out the answers. Where were they made? Was the more than one centre or were they all made in the same place? Or could potters from one centre have set up others in the same way that Iznik potters did in Damascus?
A number of buildings are known which contain blue and white hexagonal tiles, and these have been surveyed on a number of occasions, notably by Riefstahl ("Early Turkish Tile revetments in Edirne", Ars Islamica, IV, 1937, pp.249-281). The subject was revisited by Prof. Carswell on two occasions, in the course of which he examines most of the known blue and white hexagonal tiles, both in situ and in collections, especially the large groups in the Cairo Museum and in the Victoria and Albert Museum. He uses the analysis to define three main groups and acribes them to Turkey, Syria and Egypt ("Six Tiles", Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. Richard Ettinghausen, New York, 1972, pp.99-123; "Some Fifteenth Century Hexagonal Tiles from the Near East", Victoria and Albert Museum Yearbook 3, London, 1972, pp.59-75). Carswell's conclusions are followed by Grube in his catalogue of the Keir Collection (Islamic Pottery of the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century in the Keir Collection, London, 1976, pp.294-6). By the 1980s however the pendulum was beginning to swing back towards Syria for the majority of the group, when a number were exhibited in America (Atil, Esin: Renaissance of Islam, Art of the Mamluks, Washington D.C., 1981, pp.176-182).
Prof. Carswell's separation of the Turkish group from the other two is clear. There are however a number of overlaps between the other two groups; a clear distinction of which should be in which group, ignoring for the moment the question of origin, is in some cases unclear. The present group of tiles do not help the Egyptian case. Following his arguments they have more affinity with the "Egyptian" than with the "Syrian" group. They are better drawn than the latter, do not have turquoise border stripes, and are aligned on their points. However their framing is a very strong indication that they were in Syria by the eighteenth century. This is a more convincing provenance than the pieces which are in the Cairo Museum, which is one of Carswell's amin arguments for an Egyptian origin for this group, since, by his own acknowledgement, Cairo was for the century between 1850 and 1950 the main marketplace for Islamic Art from the Near East.
The Washington exhibition also included a number of other tiles which are in th "Egyptian" group, but which have clear Syrian provenances (nos. 86, 90-91, pp.177, 180-182). One tile in particular in that exhibition however seems to link to our group, no.86, p.177, which was discovered in Damascus in 1960. Frustratingly the Damascus museum records do not record where precisely it was found, so we cannot tie the origin down any further. All ours and no.77, with very few exceptions, have only one shade of blue used anywhere in the design. Even the border is only a simple blue line. The blue has a slight tendency to run within the glaze, and the design is worked with the tile set on its point. There is therefore strong reasons to suggest that our tiles, and probably many more of those attributed to Egypt, are in reality from Syria, and therfore probably Damascus.
The complete lack of changes in blue tone in our tiles is remarkable,. At present it is masked by the application of gold outlines to all the motifs which give each much greater clarity. This is so effective that one wonders whether a similar effect with overglaze decoration was considered from the outset.