Tareq Rajab Museum


Islamic Metalwork in the Museum

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    The 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 Ghurids.  

                The third 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.            

                For perfumation 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 astrological symbolism.     

                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. 

                Numerous cauldrons, 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).

    Inlaying with 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 century.   

                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 gold inlay 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 blossoming flowers.


     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 century.

    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 – 13th century.

    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 century.

    MET-353-TSR         Large hemispherical bowl, high tine bronze with incised decoration, 12th or 13th century.

    MET-52-TSR           Cauldron, cast bronze with engraved decoration, Iran, Khorasan, 12th – 13th century

    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 century.

    MET-1138-TSR       Torch-stand, cast brass with engraved decoration, Iran, Safavid period, 16th century.

    MET-125-TSR         Jewel box, cast steel with gold inlaid decoration, Mughal India, 19th century.

    MET-119-TSR         Huqqa base, cast steel with bidri decoration, India, Bidar, 18th century.


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