Tareq Rajab Museum’s
metalwork collection includes over two and a half thousand objects. Among them
there are several incense burners, presenting different types from different
periods and regions of the Islamic world. Thurification and perfuming of the
body played an important role in the history of the human race from very early.
For these functions several types of sprinklers and incense burners were
invented, developed and introduced. It was and is still customary to use these
at special occasions in order to sprinkle the guests with rose water upon
arriving and to waive some incense at them when they depart.
From the surviving
examples of Islamic incense burners that have survived and which are preserved
in various museums and private collections, we can divide them into two major
types. The western types, which owe their origin to Coptic and Byzantine
examples and, the oriental type which were made under strong Indian, but
particularly of Buddhist influence. Here we present one of the western
(MET-2-TSR) and three of the oriental types (MET-682-TSR, MET-2375-TSR
and MET-2756-TSR). The western example
(MET-2-TSR) which originates probably from Egypt or Syria, dates from the
Umayyad period, i.e. from the late 7th or from the first half of the
8th century. It reveals the most important characteristics of these
western types. The cylindrical body, the domical lid and the long handle have
extensive openwork decoration which appear to be one of their dominant features.
Furthermore this openwork most frequently presents animals, or animal heads as
is the case with the exhibited example.
Of the Oriental
types, three examples are introduced here, two of which were made in Central
Asia, one of them displaying strong Indian, but in particular, Buddhist
influence. The earliest examples is in the shape of a large lion or lynx with
extensive openwork decoration on its body (MET-682-TSR). The openwork
design presents series of five-lobed lotus petals, arranged in several rows on
the animals body, thighs and neck. There are also extensive pseudo-epigraphic
bands running around on the lower and upper parts of the body and on the lower
park of the opening neck. On the front there is the signature of an artist:
‘amala ‘Alī, “made by ‘Alī”. Whether this ‘Alī is identical to the master
who signed a similarly large lion incense burner which is in the Hermitage
Museum in St. Petersburg, is difficult to say. Nevertheless there are lot of
similarities between these two objects. What is particularly remarkable that the
lion in St. Petersburg has a fish on either side of the mouth which is also
clearly visible on the Museum’s lion. The object was tested in the
Archaeological Research Laboratory in Oxford and its suggested date of the 11th
century has been confirmed. It was most likely made at Ghazni in Afghanistan.
The shape of
the Museum’s second Central Asian incense burner imitates Buddhist stupas.
Stupas were large solid memorial structures, without any internal space. They
could be square or circular. Whichever was the case, they were made of four
parts: the square or circular base which normally was several meters high, the
circular drum, which
served as a base for the third part, the solid dome. On top
of the dome was a kind of umbrella, known as chatri, above which in a
square or rectangular shaped small element were placed the bones of a
Buddhist holy man, called Boddhisattva. The second incense burner in the
exhibition (MET-2375-TSR) was made in the shape of such a stupa, the
stupa of Guldara, which was situated some 30km south of Kabul.
The decoration of this vessel, which is remarkable for its shape and finely
executed decoration, depict running animals, benedictory inscriptions and
vegetal motives which clearly reveal its origin from Ghazni and dates from the
first half of the 12th century. Ghazni was a major metalworking
center until the middle of the 12th century when it was destroyed by
incense burner is entirely different in its body material, shape as well as in
its decoration. It was made of cast brass and it displays extensive silver and
copper inlaid, openwork and engraved decoration (MET-2756-TSR). The
cylindrical body rests of three animal-shaped paws and is provided with a
domical, openwork lid. The surface of the body is divided into three horizontal
registers, the central one being wider. This latter one displays scenes with
human and animal figures, which are interrupted by the so-called “Solomon’s
seals”, also known as the “eternal Buddhist knot”, one of the hall-marks of
Khorasan. The figures represent warriors, dancers and musicians. The top
register carries an epigraphic band, which is partially corrupt, but appears to
be a benedictory inscription whishing prosperity, happiness and peace to the
owner. In the lower band there are running animals, dogs, rabbits and sphinxes.
The lid carries series of silver inlaid trefoils, arranged in four rows, while
below there is once more a band of running animals, while on top, around the
crowning knob a second silver inlaid inscription wishes again glory, prosperity,
wealth, happiness and perpetuity to the owner. The different registers are
separated by a narrow bands of pearls two silver ones alternate with a copper
one. Such pearl registers can be traced back to Sasanian art and were also much
favoured by early Islamic metalworkers of Khorasan.
The human and
animals figures which decorate this incense burner were frequently shown on late
12th and early 13th century Khorasan inlaid metalwork, the
ealiest known appearance is on the famous Bobrinsky bucket which was made at
Herat in 559AH/AD1163. Yet, this incense burner does not originate in Khorasan
or in Central Asia. This type of incense burners were made either in Mosul or in
Syria. Furthermore, its body material, namely the brass, was introduced
into Islamic metalwork during the second quarter of the 13th century,
most likely at Mosul in northern Mesopotamia. Several of such brass objects,
almost all of them decorated with extensive and beautifully executed silver and
copper inlaid designs are known from Mosul, which became a major metalworking
centre after the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and Iran in 1221. The artist or
artists of the Museum’s incense burner was most likely a refugee from Khorasan,
his style clearly reveals his origin. Although we do not know who the artist or
artists of this object was or were, nevertheless his work can be recognized on a
second similar incense burner which is in the Keir collection in Richmond,
Surrey and which published by this writer over forty years ago.
While the Keir collection object was definitely made in Syria for the Ayyūbid
Sultan al-Malik al-‘Ādil II in 635AH/AD1238, the Rajab Museum’s incense burner
is definitely a Mosul work and therefore somewhat earlier. Most likely these
Iranian refugee or artists had moved from Mosul to Syria, most likely to
Damascus where they found new patronage for their work.
different type of rosewater sprinklers were developed over several millenia.
Several examples are presented in the Museum’s exhibition, originating from Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey or from China. One of them is a delicately made
sprinkle from Mughal India, dating from the late 17th or early 18th
century (MET-2659-TSR). The body is formed by two opposed lions, which
rests on a blossoming lotus palmette, while the neck is made-up of twisted
elephant trunks. Two other sprinklers illustrated here were made in Ottoman
Turkey. One is made of hammered and repoussé decorated gilt copper, known as
tombak, a favoured material during the 16th to 18th
centuries (MET-2699-TSR). The second example is a somewhat rare object as
its base and part of the neck and the rose-bud on top were made of silver, while
the body itself is of artificial amber (MET-2670-TSR).
Four different types
of ewers are introduced and illustrated ere (MET-1393-TSR, MET-150-TSR,
MET-2482-TSR and MET-2557-TSR), representing not only four types, but also
four different periods. The earliest among them is a post-Sasanian example,
which can be attributed to Iraq or Iran and dated to the late 7th or
early 8th century, i.e. to the Umayyad period. The shape of these
early Islamic ewers can be traced back to Sasanian examples. The first of these,
a bronze ewer in particular, recalls a Sasanian gold ewer which is in the
Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg and is dated to the 6th or 7th
century. (MET-1393-TSR). The body of the Tareq Rajab
Museum’s ewer is plain, but it has a rolled S-shaped handle on top of which the
head of a goat serves as a thumb-piece. The second ewer with a zoomorphic head
originates from Khurasan and can be dated to the late 12th or early
13th century in which period
this type was very popular
(MET-150-TSR). The third example is somewhat later one, but presents the
perfect, well developed type of much earlier vessels, namely those with a high
spout which, in their much stylized form reminds us of a bird’s head
(MET-2482-TSR). This vessel was delicately inlaid with silver, in the
roundels presenting the simplified version of “Solomon’s seal”, while those of
the sloping shoulder depict a later version of the so-called “animated script”.
The fourth and extremely fine example is a later Indian version of the famous Timurid dragon-handled vessels (MET-2557-TSR). The intricate and finely
executed gold inlay, which covers the entire surface of the vessel, makes it one
of the most outstanding examples of Mughal metalwork.
Two vessels on the
exhibition, namely a small handled cup (MET-1396-TSR) and a large
hemispherical bowl (MET-353-TSR), were made of a special alloy, which is
known as “high tin bronze”. In arabic it was called nuhās al-abyad, while
in Persian as sefidrūy, which both means “white bronze”. These “white
bronze” vessels contain copper, large percentage of tin and some impurities like
nickel, arsenic and sulphur. They were made mainly in Khurasan, possibly at
Nishapur and Herat between the 8th and 13th centuries.
The decoration of the handled cup is based mainly on the so-called
“punched-dotted circle” motive, which was one of the major characteristics of Nishapur metalwork. It can be dated to the 9th or early 10th
century. The large hemispherical bowl presents the combination of decorative
patterns, including two registers of the so-called foliated Kufic inscription,
between them a band of walking birds, while on the base there is an unusual
astrological design. In the center at the base there is a star, representing the
sun, surrounded by seven circles, followed by seven crowned figures. Both
circles and figures symbolize planets. It is a rather simple and primitive
representation of the planets, but this bowl was made at a slightly later date,
probably between the 12th and 13th centuries, when the
artists did not strictly follow, or more likely, did not fully understand the
The bronze oil lamp
with two wick holes and with its openwork decoration on its flat top, showing
series of three-lobe palmettes within heart-shaped motives, reminds us of
Fatimid woodcarvings. A very similar bronze lamp is in
the Bumiller collection, which was attributed to Iran, although both its shape
and decoration rather points to Fatimid Egypt.
or buckets are known from the Saljūq and post Saljūq periods. The most famous
among them is the already mentioned Hermitage Museum’s “Bobrinsky bucket”
The Tareq Rajab Museum’s bucket or cauldron is not signed, nor is it dated
(MET-52-TSR), but because of its decoration it can be assigned to the late
12th or early 13th century and to Khorasan and was
probably made at Herat. Another interesting vessel which is also most likely the
product of the same Khorasan school, is the incense burner, which in its shape
is entirely different from those mentioned above (MET-175-TSR). These
type of incense burners are in the shape of a vase. They are delicately
decorated in openwork and engraved patterns. Several of these type were
discovered in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan and they may be dated to the period
between the 11th and 13th century.
An interesting, but
favourite object of the Fatimid and Saljuq periods were the lamp-stands. They
were first used and introduced by the Romans from whom the Byzantines and then
the Muslims inherited it. The Museum’s lamp-stand, which is exhibited here is a
unique example as it is decorated with engraved and silver and copper inlay
(MET-101-TSR). It is of Iranian origin and can be dated to the late 12th
or early 13th century. The silver inlaid, elegantly shaped lidded jug
is also of the same period and provenance, with a silver inlaid benedictory
inscription running around below its rim (MET-1403-TSR).
Metalwork of the
Mamluk period may be divided into two major parts. During the first period
silver and copper inlay continued and for a while the same type of decoration
was used as earlier, i.e. preference for figural designs. From the second
quarter of the 14th century these were replaced by blazons and by the
extensive use of epigraphic bands. The second period began towards the end of
the 14th century, when a silver famine set in and due to this,
metalworkers were not allowed to use silver anymore. Hence the decorations
relied mainly on the engraved technique and by coating the vessels and objects
with a layer of tin. The same type of vessels were continued to be made as
earlier on, but alongside some new type of objects were also introduced. One of
the most interesting and, we may add, unusual but very practical type of vessels
were the lunch boxes. A richly decorated specimen of
these lunch-boxes is shown here which can be dated to the late 15th
or early 16th century (MET-26-TSR).
silver and copper was also disappearing from Iranian metalwork as well. Similar
to late Mamluk period objects, Iranian metalworkers applied the engraved
technique on their copper and brass vessels. Some of the copper vessels, just
like the Mamluk ones, were covered with tin, specially when they were used for
food. Towards the end of the 16th century a new type of vessel,
namely bowls, which are also known as “wine bowls” were introduced. They have
rounded bodies, with tall waisted necks and rolled rims. They were all made of
copper, frequently tinned. The decoration on the neck in almost every instance
included epigraphic panels, while on their rounded body a decorative undulating
chain run around with cartouches in between (MET-139-TSR).
Another popular object of the Safavid period were the torch-stands or
mash’al, of which numerous examples have survived and are preserved in
public and private collections. They were made of cast brass, decorated with
engraved designs. The Tareq Rajab Museum’s torch-stand, which is
illustrated here (MET-1138-TSR), can be dated to the end of the 16th
Indian metalwork of
the Mughal period has already been mentioned, albeit very briefly above, in
connection with the gold inlaid ewer (MET-2557-TSR). Gold inlaid bronze
objects and vessels were extremely popular during that period. The
usually was applied on a brownish steel body. A second such example illustrated
here is a lavishly decorated jewel box (MET-125-TSR) which was made
towards the very end of the Mughal period in the 19th century.
The last metal vessel that is presented here is a hukka base, or the body
of a waterpipe (MET-119-TSR). It was decorated with a
technique that was invented and introduced in the Indian city of Bidar, sometime
during the 15th century. The technique is known as bidri and
it involves the covering of the objects with a silver layer over a blackened
bronze or steel ground. The decoration then is cut out
of the silver coating, presenting the objects with finely and densely filled
MET-2-TSR Incense burner,
bronze with openwork decoration. Egypt or Syria, Umayyad period, 7th
– 8th century.
MET-682-TSR Incense burner in
the shape of a lion or lynx, bronze with openwork decoration, probably
Ghazni, Afghanistan, 11th century.
MET-2375-TSR Incense burner in the
shape of a Buddhist stupa, with openwork and engraved decoration, Ghazni,
Afghanistan, first half of the 12th century.
MET-2756-TSR Incense burner, cast
brass with openwork, engraved and silver and copper inlaid decoration,
Mosul, Iraq, second quarter of the 13th century.
MET-2659-TSR Rosewater sprinkler,
hammered silver, Mughal India, 17th or 18th
MET-2699-TSR Rosewater sprinkler,
hammered and repoussé decorated gilt copper, so-called tombak,
Ottoman Turkey, 18th century.
MET-2670-TSR Rosewater sprinkler,
hammered silver and amber, Turkey, 18th century.
MET-1393-TSR Ewer, cast bronze,
post-Sasanian, Iran or Iraq, 7th or 8th century.
MET-150-TSR Ewer with a
zoomorphic head, cast bronze, Iran, probably Khorasan, 12th –
MET-2482-TSR High-spouted ewer
with a bird’s head, bronze with engraved and silver inlaid decoration,
Iran, probably Khorasan, late 13th century.
MET-2557-TSR Ewer with a dragon
handle, cast steel richly inlaid with gold, Mughal India, late 17th
or early 18th century.
MET-1396-TSR Cup with a small
handle, high tin bronze, Iran, Khorasan, 8th – 9th
MET-353-TSR Large hemispherical
bowl, high tine bronze with incised decoration, 12th or 13th
MET-52-TSR Cauldron, cast
bronze with engraved decoration, Iran, Khorasan, 12th – 13th
MET-175-TSR Vase-shaped incense
burner, bronze with openwork and engraved decoration, Central Asia, 11th
– early 13th century.
MET-101-TSR Lamp-stand, cast
bronze with engraved, silver and copper inlaid decoration, Iran, 12th
– 13th century.
MET-1403-TSR Jug with lid,
hammered bronze with engraved and silver inlaid decoration, Iran, 12th
– 13th century.
MET-26-TSR Lunch-box, tinned
copper with engraved decoration, Egypt, Mamluk period, 15th
or early 16th century.
MET-139-TSR “Wine-bowl”, tinned
copper with engraved decoration, Iran, Safavid period, late 16th
MET-1138-TSR Torch-stand, cast
brass with engraved decoration, Iran, Safavid period, 16th
MET-125-TSR Jewel box, cast
steel with gold inlaid decoration, Mughal India, 19th
MET-119-TSR Huqqa base, cast
steel with bidri decoration, India, Bidar, 18th