Qantara Qantara

Rock Crystal

In Mediterranean

Rock crystal is pure quartz and the Greeks perceived the mineral as ‘ice’ (krustallos) created by the gods. It is a gemstone with marvellous properties, which, once cut, hollowed out, and polished, can be turned into remarkable and luxurious objects.  In Late Antiquity, the courts prized these pieces as objects of finery and as talismans. Just before the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, Sassanid Persia was known for its quartz creations: dishes, goblets, pearls, seals, intaglio figurative medallions, and bottles with honeycomb engravings. These finely crafted objects appear to have been made in the kingdom’s Iraqi region, because great quantities of Sassanid crystals have been discovered in Mesopotamia. During the High Middle Ages, some pre-Islamic Iranian examples were brought to the West, like the ‘Cup of Solomon’ and the ‘Vase of Alienor’, which were deposited in the Treasury of St Denis[1].

With the advent of Islam, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs perpetuated the Iranian traditions. Arab writers described a Bedouin standing admiringly before a crystal lamp (billawr), which the Umayyad caliph, al-Walīd, had placed in the Great Mosque of Damascus, above the Mihrab of Companions of the Prophet. So impressive was the lamp that the Abbasid caliph, al-Amīn, who was a collector of crystalware, had it secretly transported to Baghdad. The tenth-century encyclopaedist, al-Birūnī, cited Basra as being a major lapidary centre in his book on precious stones. In the Hermitage Museum, there is a lamp in the form of a barque, adorned with an acanthus, which attests to links with Samarran decorative arts and may have originated in an Iraqi workshop. But it was in Egypt, during the reign of the Fatimids (969–1171)—no doubt for esoteric reasons—that the shaping of rock crystal attained absolute perfection and became a veritable industry, which was stimulated by the extravagant customs of the caliphs. With consummate skill, the Egyptian lapidaries created a range of different—and often large-scale—objects. Three pieces directly refer to prominent Fatimid figures: a ewer[2] inscribed with the name of Caliph al-Aziz Billah (reigned 975–996), another ewer which bears the title of Hussein ibn Jawhar, Caliph al-Hakim’s general[3] (1000–1008 and 1010–1011), and a crescent of the moon bearing the name of the Caliph al-Zāhir (reigned 1021–1036)[4]. Around two hundred works have survived out of the thousands of objects mentioned by the chroniclers. Between the tenth and eleventh centuries, Egypt produced most of the rock crystal works that were deposited in the medieval treasuries of the West, like several small pieces discovered in Spain that reached the peninsula during the Caliphate of Córdoba


Egypt imported the mineral from many regions: from Kashmir, the foothills of Pamir, Badakhshān (Afghanistan), which was already famous for its lapis lazuli, and the mountainous regions of Armenia and West Persia. Al-Birūnī mentioned imports (called Dibajat) from the Maldives islands, and the Zanj islands, near the East African coasts. Other authors mentioned Ceylon, the Red Sea, and the Maghreb. The Red Sea seems to have been preferred by the Egyptian lapidaries. The Ismailian traveller and philosopher, Nasir-i-Khusraw, who went to Egypt in 1047 and 1052, wrote about the souk for lamps located near the Amr Mosque in Cairo: ‘I have also seen very beautiful rock crystal shaped with great artistry by craftsmen with excellent taste. It originated in the Maghreb, but I recently heard that some of the crystals had come from the sea of Qulzum (the Red Sea), and these are even finer and more transparent than those from the Maghreb.’

Techniques and decorations

The technique of shaping rock crystal in Egypt wasn’t Fatimid in origin. It was probably practised during the Tūlinid period (868–905), and under the Ikshīdid dynasty (935–969. There is therefore a tendency to classify as pre-Fatimid those pieces whose foliage ornamentation (which is almost abstract) was carved with chamfers, in the style of Samarran decorations on wood and stucco[5]. Ahmad ibn Tūlūn, the Abbasid governor of Egypt, who had many connections with Mesopotamia, is believed to have introduced this technique—which was used in the Iraqi capital—to Fustāt and al-Qatā’ī. Although, at the beginning of the tenth century, the Fatimid lapidaries attempted to give their works a more pronounced relief—with some awkwardness in the rendering of the forms—, the technique attained its apogee at the end of the tenth century. On some of the recipients, the material is only 2mm thick under the sculpted decorations. The pieces, which were never higher than ten centimetres, became larger, as attested by a famous series of six ewers that have survived: the two ewers of the Treasury of San Marco in Venice (including the one inscribed with al-Aziz’s name), the ewer in the Pitti Palace in Florence, the example in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the ewer in the Cathedral of Fermo, and that of the Musée du Louvre, which was once in the Treasury of Saint-Denis. More flexible and symmetric compositions represented felines, birds of prey, and gazelles, either side of stylized vegetal motifs, whose stems are intertwined and extended with demi-palmettes or lanceolate leaves. There are a variety of forms: ewers (ibree’ck), pear-shaped carafes (khurdādi), jars (qātarmiz), plates, coffers, bottles, hollow dishes (bātiya), basins (tisht), flacons, small figurines of animals for mascara or perfumed oils, and chess pieces, like those found in Spain, in the Catalan church of Ajer. When these pieces were undecorated, they were called majrūd (‘smooth’), and those that were engraved: manqūsh. In the treasure of the caliphs, bamboo boxes held crystals that had already been wrapped in several layers of silk.

There must have been two types of productions, as suggested by Nasir-i-Khusraw’s text quoted above: one was reserved for the caliph, and the other was intended for the markets. There is no information about the manufacturing process. But it must be noted that the lapidaries of the valley of the Indus and Afghanistan had already developed—since the Neolithic period—highly effective perforation and polishing techniques for gemstones, as attested by the long pearls made from chalcedony, lapis, agate, and quartz, which were miraculously pierced and arrived in those early times on the Near-Eastern markets. In addition to these Asian traditions, Egypt developed its own unique traditions that were possibly inherited from its glorious pharaonic past. After roughly shaping the recipient with a saw and a small hammer, the craftsman probably used a hollow tool to create a deep cylindrical incision. Once the tool had been driven into the crystal, a sharp blow was all that was required to detach the centre. The cavity was then enlarged by a broach or a drill fixed in a lathe and rotated with a bow. This was then followed by the polishing phase, using ever-finer grades of abrasive material: small stones, sand, and diamond powder. This was the methodology of the crystal craftsmen as described in the seventeenth century by Tavernier and Chardin when they visited Ispahan. Despite the brilliance of its crystal craftsmanship the Fatimid industry was short lived. The crescent inscribed with the name of Caliph al Zāhir (reigned 1021–1036) betrays a slightly lesser level of craftsmanship. Nevertheless, the technique of shaping, hollowing, and polishing continued to be an oriental specialization for many years. The rock crystal industry didn’t begin in the Christian West until the end of the twelfth century.

Christianization and diffusion in Europe.

The majority of the conserved works that arrived in Europe during the Middle Ages were ‘Christianized’. They were deposited in church or civil treasuries, like that of the Medicis of Florence or of the Duc Jean de Berry, and they were often embellished with lavish goldsmithed mountings—this provides historians with precious information about the dating of the objects—, which attest to the extent to which they were valued. In churches they were transformed into chalices, cruets, reliquaries, or incorporated into holy objects (crosses and baptismal fonts), thereby losing their original function.

The juxtaposition of the parts, provenances, and epochs yields surprising results: this is well illustrated by the nine Fatimid crystals in the Treasury of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. There are two pre-Fatimid bottles, which were mounted on candelabras in the sixteenth century, a large plate, a chalice with possibly a Byzantine receptacle and Fatimid base; a tall Fatimid vase with an epigraphic edge set in a filigree gold Italian mounting from the eleventh or twelfth century; a cylindrical flacon known as the ‘Reliquary of Miraculous Blood’, set in a light mounting at the beginning of the thirteenth century; and a very curious ‘Virgin’s Grotto’ in the form of a niche. Carved in a block of quartz and animated with a statuette of Mary, it sits on a Byzantine crown that belonged to Leo VI (reigned 886–912). The last two crystal pieces were believed to have been brought to Venice during the Fourth Crusade. Lastly, there are two exceptional ewers: one decorated with rams, to which the European goldsmiths added a high neck, a spout, and a base in gilt metal; and another, inscribed with al-Aziz-Billah’s name, adorned with two engraved lions, standing on a circular socle with griffin feet. 

In Gothic Germany and France, there were many reliquaries in the shape of turrets mounted on high bases, which contained a rock-crystal cylindrical recipient in their structure. In France, noteworthy examples were the ewer in the Church of Milhaguet (near Limoges), which was used as a cruet; the curious horizontal cylinder of Saint-Riquier, used as a reliquary; the coffer in the Musée de Cluny, decorated with a thirteenth-century Germanic mounting, which was once held in the Church of Moûtiers-en-Tarentaise; and the ‘The Holy Thorn Reliquary’ in the Cathedral of Reims. This is a Fatimid goblet on whose lid a fifteenth-century Parisian goldsmith placed a gold angel with white enamel bearing Christ’s crown. The ewer, which was probably offered by Abbot Suger to the Treasury of Saint-Denis, is particularly eloquent. Its carved decorations are composed of two facing birds of prey on either side of a Tree of Life. Its gold filigree cover—of the a vermicelli type, which may be attributed to the goldsmiths of Southern Italy at the end of the sixteenth century—confirms the hypothesis that it once belonged to Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily[6].

The crystal objects came to Europe through many avenues. Written sources indicate that certain pre-Fatimid Egyptian and Iraqi crystals entered Europe during the last quarter of the tenth century. Later, the diplomatic exchanges between the Fatimids and Ottonians probably encouraged their early arrival in the lands belonging to the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, including Southern Italy. Several pieces are therefore associated with the reign of Otto III (died in 1002), followed by Henry II, who was proclaimed emperor in 1014. However, this didn’t apply to France, which entered a period of decadence at the end of the Carolingian era. Famous episodes of pillaging then spread the objects further afield. From 1061 to 1069, the treasure of the caliph al-Mustansir was dispersed and sold to pay his soldiers; the treasure contained—according to a passage in Maqrizi’s Khitat, as many as 18,000 rock crystal pieces! In 1204, the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders also encouraged the displacement of precious objects and reliquaries to Venice and Western Europe. Several objects were probably brought through Sicily. At the end of the twelfth century, the Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr mentioned the 40 crystal lamps in the mosque of Qasr Sa’d in Solanto.

The crystal’s light was a wonder shared by all.

The term lagena praeclara, or ‘precious vase’, was used by Abbot Suger to describe an object that was probably the Saint-Denis ewer; this attests to the Christian world’s admiration for translucent and radiant objects as true wonders of Nature, which alluded to Paradise and God. This approach was also largely adopted by the Fatimids, who were Shia Ismailian followers and gave their mosques names of Light, like ‘Al-Nūr’, ‘al-Aqmar’, ‘al-Azhar’, and associated rock crystal with life in Paradise. ‘Will be passed to them a Cup from a clear-flowing fountain (…) Crystal-white, of a taste delicious to those who drink (thereof)’, says the Sura XXXVII in the Qur’an, referring to the rewards in Paradise. The Shia exegesis stated that the cup from which the chosen drank was a crystal filled with the fresh water of the Kawthar, one of the four rivers of Paradise. When Al-Qazvinī (1203–1283) related the curious legend according to which the Muslim sovereigns liked to drink from rock crystal recipients in the belief that they would never suffer from thirst, he was reflecting this firm belief[7]. Whatever the reason, the predilection of the Fatimids for this gemstone probably had a religious basis. It reflects the ‘philosophy of Nature’ that was taken from Aristotle and given a Neoplatonic reinterpretation by the Ismailians, who believed the mineral was the progressive crystallization of the world’s soul—itself emanating from universal intellect—through various gradations and different states. Therefore, in the material world there were substances like crystal, which were close to the invisible substance that governed the formation of bodies and elements. They are a reminder or symbol of this. In tenth-century Egypt, the physician Ibn al-Haytham, in his Book of Optics, classed rock crystals amongst transparent bodies that are able to contain light before its passage through the material. And, the encyclopaedist al-Birūnī considered that crystal combines two of the four elements: air and water, and he defined it as ‘frozen water’. An identical approach was adopted in the twelfth century—during the period of Abbot Suger (1080–1151)—by Scotus Erigena, John of Salisbury, and Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), for whom crystal was ‘aqueous air’. This latent Neoplatonism was the focus of scientific preoccupations during the Middle Ages and was rectified in the Latin West by the Reflections of Avicenna, whose work began to be disseminated through the partial translation of the Kitāb al-Shifā.

Quite aside from any speculations, this brilliant and pure mineral was intrinsically part of the definition of ‘Treasury’ during the Middle Ages. It had magical properties: it protected and it illuminated. With regard to this, Suger made a famous statement:The loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial’. And another statement—a form of injunction— bestows the work of art with an innovative quality that would have been embraced by the Fatimids: ‘Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights!’

R. G.


Lamm, C.J. Mittelalterliche Gläser und Steinschnittarbeitein aus dem Nahen Osten, Berlin, 1929–1930, I, pp. 193–194, pl. 67-3
Erdmann K., ‘Fatimid Rock Crystals’ in Oriental Art, 1950–51, vol. III
Rice D.S., ‘A datable Islamic Rock Crystal’ in Oriental Art, 1956, vol. II, no. 3
Davy M. -M., Initiation à la symbolique romane, XIIe siècle, Paris, 1964
Suger, ed. Panofsky, Abbot Suger. On the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, ed., trans., and notes by E. Panofsky, Princeton, 1979
Montesquiou-Fezensac, B., Le Trésor de Saint-Denis, Paris 1973-1977, 3 vols. I and II, no. 33, III, p. 44, plates. 26–27
Makariou S., ‘Le crystal de roche dans l'Islam’, La documentation Française du musée du Louvre, Paris 1999. Actes du colloque, musée du Louvre, 1995, Cornaline et pierres précieuses
Avinoam Sh., ‘Islam Christianized’, in Ars Faciendi, Band 7, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, New York, Paris, Vienna, 1998


Les Trésors des Eglises de France, Paris 1965, cf. Introduction by Jean Taralon, p. XVI
The Arts of Islam, the Art Council of Great Britain, 1976, cf. article by Ralph Pinder-Wilson, “Rock-crystal and Jade”, pp. 119–122
Le trésor de Saint-Marc de Venise, Paris, 1984, p. 220, fig. 30 b
Le trésor de Saint-Denis, exhibition in the Musée du Louvre, June 1991, Paris
La France Romane, Paris, 2005, no. 114, p. 167


[1] This famous sixth–seventh century cup, known as the ‘Cup of Solomon’ is made of coloured glass discs, with a central engraved crystal representing Kawadh I in majesty. The Carolingian, Charles the Bald, probably offered it to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.  The ‘Vase of Alienor’ dates from the same epoch and was carved from a single block of crystal. Guillaume d’Aquitaine, Alienor’s father, probably received it from a Muslim king of Saragossa.

[2] Treasury of San Marco, Venice, inv. 80. The inscription is engraved in Kufic: barakat min Allāh lil imam al azīz billāh: ‘Allah’s blessing on Imam al ‘Aziz-billah’.

[3] Pitti Palace, Florence, Museo degli Argenti, inv. no. 1917. The Kufic inscription is slightly erroneous: li qā īd al-kuwād (for al quwād): ‘The Commander of Commanders’.

[4] Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (KG 685). Once held in the Burgkapelle in Vienna. It comprises two connected curved pieces and bears the following Kufic inscription: ‘Li-llāh al-Dīn ‘Ali al-Zāhir li-‘izāz dīn Allah atāla Allāh baqā’ihi: ‘Religion (belongs) to Allah, Alī al-Zāhir li-izaz dīn Allah, may God give him long life’.

[5] The two bottles mounted on candelabras in the Treasury of San Marco are in the same category, inv. 24. Cf. Eredità dell’Islam, 1993, p. 142, nos. 51–52.

[6] The Département des objets d’art, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. no. MR 333. Was once held in the Treasury of the Abbey of Saint-Denis where it was documented in 1505. Given to the Museum, the future Musée du Louvre, in 1793. The ewer of Saint-Denis might be the lagena praeclara (‘precious vase’, in Latin), mentioned by Abbot Suger in his ‘De administratione’. If it is indeed the Fatimid ewer mentioned by Suger in this passage, he probably received it from Thibault, the comte de Blois-Champagne who himself had received it from Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily (reigned 1095–1154), whose passion for the East was well known.

[7] Cf. Avinoam Shalem: ‘Islam Christianized’ in Ars Faciendi, Frankfurt am Main, 1998, p. 57.