Qantara Qantara


In Islam

The Mediterranean has always facilitated exchanges between neighbouring countries. For example, in Greek and Roman times it helped spread classical art. Centuries later, Islamic art also benefitted in its development from the advantages of that great sea. During the first five centuries, through the development of a new aesthetic, the production of metal objects in these regions possessed shared features and similar characteristics derived in part from a common heritage, but also due to the movement of these pieces to and from various places in the Mediterranean. This also makes them difficult to identify, especially as precise clues for dating are few and far between.

Oil lamps derived from classical models – slightly flattened spherical shell, one or more spouts, large reflector – are an example of this: the twin-spout Algerian lamp, the Algeciras lamp (Spain) and the triple-spout Kairouan lamp (Tunisia). The same goes for incense burners inspired by thuribles and often made to resemble buildings, with cylindrical or square bases, feet in the shape of animal paws, and high openwork conical or round lids. Some, like the Umayyad incense burner found in Amman, have a long handle. This type of incense burners continued to be used in Egypt and Syria under the Mamluks. There are also round or pear-shaped ewers with intricate handles, for instance the Marwan II ewer (Egypt), Jordanian mortars, tripod lamp stands and Byzantine polycandela.

Polycandela are made of an openwork circle like the “crown of light” of Kairouan (Tunisia), or a cylindrical crown, always supported by three chains; with small glass cups inserted into circular hollows. They have been found in Spain, North Africa, Egypt and Syria. Polycandela evolved to incorporate several levels and discs. They were the preferred type of lighting in the Islamic West. In Anatolia, examples from the Seljuk era are different; they are openwork lantern-shaped lights (Konya Lamp, Mevlana Museum).

These objects were made of copper alloy, usually bronze, cast in moulds or – in rare instances – cast using the lost-wax technique, then reworked on the outside by turning, engraving, reboring, stamping or punching. Besides the decorative plant and geometric designs a new theme emerged: epigraphic decoration, which became recurrent in Islamic decoration, initially in a very understated form. Elegant Kufic graphics are present on Fatimid objects. Animal designs were never life-like, but always stylised, whether small objects adorning ewer handles, topping incense burners, applied to mortars or door knockers – like the Turkish dragon knockers – or even much larger pieces like the Spanish peacock aquamaniles (Cagliari Peacock), the deer-shaped Madinat al-Zahra fountain spouts in Cordoba, lions in Setif, Algeria, or the famous griffin kept in Pisa whose origin is variously attributed to Egypt, Spain or Sicily.

James Allan stressed the important role of Fatimid coppersmiths in developing the art of metalwork and its dissemination in the countries bordering the Mediterranean[1]. Under the Ayyubids (1169–1250) and the Mamluks (1250–1517) – the high point for Syrian and Egyptian workshops – their influence was even more marked, especially since during the eleventh and twelfth centuries the process of manufacturing metal objects in the Islamic world underwent major changes. The use of various alloys of copper and zinc – brass, ternary or quaternary alloy – allowed hammered and swaged objects to be made from sheets of cast metal. Meanwhile, gold, silver and red copper inlays were increasingly used for decoration.

Objects’ shapes became more diverse. Ewers (ewer with the name of Sultan Salah al-Din Yusuf), large basins with almost vertical sides, trays and candlesticks with tapered bases were produced on a much larger scale. Decorative themes became more varied: references to court life and its pleasures, symbolic representations of sovereigns surrounded by dignitaries, musicians, dancers, hunting scenes – such as the basin with the name of al-ʻAdil II Abu Bakr in Egypt – while others illustrated the new interest in astrology by depicting planets and star signs (mirror with planets, Turkey). Some even used Christian iconography with, for instance, scenes decorating an Egyptian chandelier in the Louvre and a Syrian gourd at the Freer Gallery in Washington. Inscriptions – wishes, laudatory or historical texts or craftsmen’s signatures – increasingly became important decorative elements.

The renown of the Egyptian and Syrian workshops was such that some pieces – such as the fourteenth-century great basin, decorated with inscriptions in the name of Hugues de Lusignan – were executed for foreign clients. Experts think that the masterpiece of this period, the basin known as the “baptismal bowl of Saint Louis” in the Louvre, was made especially for export[2]. Other facts show contacts took place during these periods between the different countries of the Mediterranean basin. The study of a bronze plate adorned with cloisonné, executed on behalf of the Artuqid sovereign of Diyarbakir in Anatolia, Da’ud ibn Suqman, who died in 1144 (enamelled bronze basin, Turkey), showed that the craftsmen of Limoges were inspired by Islamic pieces for the decorations of their gemellions (two basins of the same size used for ablutions). James Allan has also expressed the opinion that the Limoges enamelled tripod candlesticks were also influenced by Islamic candlesticks[3].

Another fact concerns use of inscriptions. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, writing of a particular type, known as “animated”, appeared in the decoration of metal objects in the Islamic East and Middle East. The ends of letters were sometimes surmounted by human heads and at times the letters themselves were in the shapes of humans or animals (Fano Cup, Syria). From the seventh century, illuminated Western manuscripts included “historiated letters” that were only isolated letters or initials, while on metal and only on metal, this type of writing was used for inscriptions. This historiated writing disappeared during the fourteenth century and was not adopted in western Islamic regions but it probably influenced the illustration of Armenian manuscripts. In several of these books, the first words of text, the incipit, are composed of zoomorphic or anthropomorphic letters. The homily-martyrology book of 1307 – and the Tetra-Gospels of 1653 in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (ms. orientaux, arménien 116, arménien 347) are beautiful examples of this. It is also interesting to note the similarities between the decorations on a gourd in the Freer Gallery – the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem – and the same scene on a thirteenth-century painting kept in Siena. The two trees that frame the two compositions are depicted in the same way: airy branches rise from bare trunks, their elongated leaves arranged symmetrically on both sides of branches with slightly curved ends. This is a clear reference to the type of vegetation which once adorned the stylised Arabic manuscripts of the thirteenth century.

From the fourteenth century with the Mamluks, epigraphic decoration became central, bringing to prominence a majestic cursive script, thuluth (Kursi, Egypt). Inscriptions ran along the walls of basins, the bodies of pitchers and the bottom of trays, not only in Egypt and SyriaYemen. The inlays of silver and gold became rarer and from the fifteenth century, the production of metal pieces declined and they were replaced by copper or tinned copper pieces whose decor was simply engraved, matted or guilloched. A group of objects stood out because of its intricate decoration of arabesques finely inlaid with silver (BolognaItaly). The idea spread that it was the work of Islamic artisans living in a Venice neighbourhood in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and producing for the Italian market. This long-accepted view has been questioned by James Allan, who believes these objects were produced in Cairo in the second half of the fifteenth century[4]. but in other countries bordering the Mediterranean and up to candlestick,

The conquests of the Ottoman sultans Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century meant that the shores of the Mediterranean up to Morocco became Ottoman territory. The principle of centralisation, which governed the empire also applied to art. In the occupied territories, traditional craftsmanship developed in the Mamluk period was maintained, but generally inlaid decoration disappeared (coffee box, Algeria). In Anatolia, the Ottoman bronzesmiths revisited the tombac technique whose origin dates back to antiquity and which was also used by the Byzantines. It is a copper alloy, which when “gilt” with mercury looks like gold. It was a very long and difficult process, and these pieces were not produced in other regions.

An area where Islamic scholars shone but which has not yet been mentioned is that of astronomy and astrology. Scientific specimens are relatively rare compared to other objects, but for instance the eleventh-century Spanish astrolabe by al-Sahli, the Damascus astrolabe from1202–03 and the Fez astrolabe of 1217–18 are also the result of invaluable exchanges and of the transmission of knowledge from one region of the Mediterranean to another.

T. B.


[1] James Allan, Metalwork of the Islamic World: The Aron Collection ( Sotheby’s, 1986), 16–24.

[2] Rachel Ward, “The Baptistère de Saint Louis: A Mamluk Basin made for Export to Europe”, Islam and the Italian Renaissance, Warburg Institute Colloquia 5 (1999).

[3] James Allan, Metalwork of the Islamic World: The Aron Collection.

[4] James Allan, “Venetian-Saracenic Metalwork: the Problems of Provenance”, in Arte Venetiano and Arte Islamica (Venice, 1986).