Qantara Qantara

Marquetry

In Islam

The marquetry technique consists of covering a core of wood with veneer or inlaying it with thin strips of wood, ivory or bone, mother of pearl or tortoiseshell. It appeared very early in Mesopotamia, around 2600 BC, as evidenced by several items found during the excavations of Ur (including a box inlaid with ivory and a harp kept in the National Museum in Baghdad). Objects made using this technique are mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and in the works of Pliny the Elder. It was also known in Pharaonic Egypt and continued to be used during Coptic and Islamic times. Egypt’s dry climate makes it a better place than many for the preservation of wood. A group of panels from the early Islamic period, very probably elements of cenotaphs found in the Ain al-Sira cemetery, south of Cairo, made of inlaid ivory and bone, ebony and other woods, dating from the ninth century are kept at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. They feature geometric decorations: chequered designs and lozenges, together with stylised arches and columns. The precious-looking decoration bears the hallmark of the Late Antiquity. In the Fatimid era (tenth–twelfth centuries), the designs and style evolved. An eleventh-century panel found in Edfu (Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo) reflects the Fatimid taste for figurative and animal designs. It is adorned with the usual designs of the era: an eagle attacking a hare and a character sitting with a cup, made out of large inlaid pieces of ivory.

It was in the twelfth century, under the Atabeg Seljuqs and the Ayyubids that the technique of inlaid wood spread, especially for the furnishings of religious buildings. The most famous – unfortunately now destroyed – was undoubtedly the minbar (preaching pulpit) of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, commissioned by Prince Nur al-Din in 1168–69, and completed under his son Isma’il in 1174–75. Made by Aleppo craftsmen, who signed their work, the marquetry makes use of ivory, pearl and finely carved wood to enhance the strictly geometric decor – given the religious context – of complex designs centred on eight- or ten-pointed stars.

This type of design featuring a combination of several complex geometric networks built around star polygons with ornate inlays reached its peak during the Mamluk period in the decorations of large religious buildings, such as the doors of the al-Maridani Mosque in Cairo (two of the doors are in the Louvre). In the fourteenth century, rather clumsy use was made of large pieces of inlaid ivory, typical of the often ostentatious Mamluk art.

Pieces of furniture such as the kursī and the wooden Qur’an box inlaid with ivory, bone and precious woods, from the Umm al-Sultan Sha’ban complex (c. 1369 ) in Cairo were produced using a more minimalist style.

During the same period, Egyptian Christians also used the technique to decorate their churches. Thus the Sitt Mariam Church in the Monastery of the Syrians in Wadi Natrum still features a wooden door inlaid with ivory dating from the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

It is likely that the Ottoman Turks learnt from the Mamluks the art of marquetry, which was once reserved for pieces of furniture. In the Louvre, for example, there is a small scribe table, covered with a veneer of mother of pearl, tortoiseshell on gilt paper, ivory, rosewood and ebony, separated by thin strips of pewter.

Marquetry technique travelled from the East to Italy, where it was called intarsia. The first references to it appear in the thirteenth century on documents in Siena. There the use of ivory was preferred, for a strong contrast in colour with dark wood. The stalls of the Duomo of Siena, dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, are some of the oldest surviving examples. From Italy, marquetry then spread through the rest of Europe.

C.J.