Fri, Mar 16th 2012, 5:53PM

Click the image to enlargeThe Middle East Institute’s logo is adapted from the design on a 10th-century platter unearthed near Nishapur in present day Iran and now in the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is unclear when this design was adapted for the logo, but it appears in a more complex form on the cover of every annual report beginning in 1971.

In 2002, a graphic designer recast the Middle East Institute’s visual identity for the 21st century and simplified the logo to fit with a new, stream-lined aesthetic. The designer was probably unfamiliar with Islamic art, because most Islamic designs exhibit not only geometric symmetry but also a unity corresponding to the unity of God. The 2002 design, by contrast, features four interlocking, yet discrete pieces – something most Islamic artists would have avoided.

Nishapur began to assume importance in the mid-9th century, and in the 10th, 11th and early 12th centuries it was one of the great cities of the Islamic world. The principal city of the eastern Iranian province of Khorasan, it was a major center of art and learning, both religious and secular. The Metropolitan carried out excavations here between 1935 and 1939 and again in 1947, under the direction of Walter Hauser, J. M. Upton, and Charles Wilkinson. The finds were divided between the Teheran Museum and the Metropolitan. They included objects in many of the materials used in early Islamic art: ceramic, glass, metal, stone, and stucco, as well as wall paintings.

The objects unearthed range in date from the 8th through the 12th centuries, but it is the art of the 10th century, corresponding approximately to the period of the rule of the Samanids, which is usually associated with the site. Central to the artistic fame of 10th-century Nishapur is a series of pottery types found there in large quantities. Some of the finest among these are slip-painted wares with elegantly painted Arabic inscriptions comprising the main - and often the only - decoration.

The platter was found in 1939 in a section of the site called Tepe Madraseh. The inscription, البرکة و الغبطة و النعمة و السلامة و السعادة الـ translates to “blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.” There is an extra ال (Arabic “the”), which seems to have been added merely for decorative purposes. Between the words are alternating tomato red and brownish black strokes, and at the base of the bowl is a large central motif of interlaced straps on a stippled ground. These two features would indicate that the platter originated in Samarqand, where objects in metal were similarly decorated. The interlaced straps are not believed to have had any particular meaning.

The platter was most likely used to serve food, so that the decoration would have been revealed little by little as the meal progressed. It is just one of many examples of ceramics with calligraphic decoration from Iran in this period. Sometimes the writing on these objects relates to their use in serving food; they say “Eat heartily” or “The thankful eater is comparable to the one who fasts patiently.” Another type has proverbs, some of them witty and others offering advice. This particular bowl falls into a third category that simply expresses its owner good wishes.