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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture


    Luxury objects made of or decorated with ivory, the dentine composing the teeth of elephants and other mammals, were produced in those parts of the Islamic world where the material was available. As India could satisfy only her own needs, the ivory used came mostly from eastern and central Africa, and consequently the Mediterranean Islamic lands—particularly Syria, Egypt, Spain and Sicily—were the primary centers of ivory working. Bone was occasionally used as a substitute, particularly in Egypt. The range of ivory objects was limited by the shape and size of the elephant’s tusk: small objects such as combs, boxes and chessmen were carved whole from the block, while larger boxes were made of separate pieces that were usually assembled using ivory pegs. Ivory was carved in relief, incised, painted and gilded. Wooden surfaces were also decorated with ivory in intarsia, in which ivory shapes were countersunk, and incrustation, in which the shapes were fixed to the surface (see also Woodwork).

    I. Egypt, Syria and Yemen, before c.1500. II. Spain. III. Tunisia, Sicily and South Italy. IV. Iran and Central Asia. V. Ottoman Empire, after c.1500.

    I. Egypt, Syria and Yemen, before c. 1500

    Late Antique traditions of ivory working continued in Syria and Egypt after the Islamic conquest in the 7th century. Two small ivory pyxides (cylindrical boxes; diam. 75 and 85 mm; London, V&A, and Kuwait City, Mus. Islam. A.) and one of bone (Berlin, Mus. Islam. Kst) and two small plaques (150×70 mm and 115×77 mm; Athens, Benaki Mus. And Copenhagen, David Saml.) are carved in relief with vine scrolls issuing from a vase, one of the many Greco-Roman motifs that survived into the early Islamic period. Similarly carved ivory and bone plaques were excavated at Fustat (Old Cairo) and have been dated to the 7th and 8th centuries. A group of “abstract” chessmen incised with dots and circles filled with brown pigment (New York, Met.; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.; Paris, Louvre; Berlin, Mus. Islam. Kst) is usually attributed to Syria or Egypt. A pyxis with a conical lid is similarly decorated with incised dots and circles filled with black and red pigments (h. 175 mm; Cologne, St. Gereon) but was made in Aden for ῾Abdallah ibn al-Rabi῾, governor of the Yemen from 778 to 784. There is no other evidence of ivory working in the Yemen at this time, and the Cologne pyxis may be the work of a Syrian or Egyptian craftsman. Among the exceedingly rare “naturalistic” chessmen attributed to this period are an elephant (Florence, Bargello), an elephant and rider (probably a king; Berlin, Mus. Islam. Kst) and a horseman (i.e. a knight; St. Petersburg, Hermitage). The most famous single chessman is a king mounted on an elephant accompanied by warriors and horsemen (h. 160 mm; Paris, Bib. N., Cab. Médailles). An inscription on the base states that it was the work of Yusuf al-Bahili. Al-Bahili is an Arab tribal name well attested in the early Islamic period, but the carving is in the sculptural style of 9th-century India.

    A group of inlaid rectangular wooden panels found in a cemetery near Fustat shows that craftsmen in Egypt continued Late Antique techniques of intarsia and incrustation. They have been dated on stylistic grounds to the 9th and 10th centuries. Some large panels are inlaid with representations of arcades or columns or intricate geometric compositions of squares and roundels (e.g. Paris, Louvre, A. O. AA20).

    Egyptian carved ivories of the 10th and 11th centuries were produced for Islamic and Christian clients. Many ivory or bone panels of varying shapes and sizes have been found in the ruins of Fustat. Most display a limited repertory of animals, birds and, more rarely, human figures against a scrolling ornament on a smooth ground. Generally of mediocre quality, they were intended for the decoration of boxes or furniture and are closely related to contemporary wood-carving (see Woodwork, §I, A, 2). A small group of rectangular panels ascribed to the 11th or 12th century are of outstanding workmanship, carved with consummate skill and assurance in two openwork planes. Four panels (see color pl. 2:XII, fig. 2) that are carved with scenes of courtly pursuits, the chase, feasting and music making form a rectangular frame that may once have adorned the back of a throne. The tiny figures, acutely observed with particular attention to clothing and textile patterns, frolic on a ground of regular vine scrolls which give added depth to the composition. Two other panels with similar subjects (Paris, Louvre) are closely related. One horizontal and five vertical panels (125–170×62–80 mm) depict scenes of the hunt and the grape harvest. Two of them are remarkably like sculptures of the Labors of the Month on the portal of S. Marco in Venice and may represent a rare instance of this iconography in Islamic art. Parallels in composition and posture can be found between the whole group and wooden panels from the Western Palace of the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo (Cairo, Mus. Islam. A.). A wooden casket with rounded ends and a domical lid in Palermo (Cappella Palatina) is encrusted with ivory and a black substance and decorated with birds, animals, sphinxes and other paired figures set in volute scrolls as well as Arabic verses extolling the casket. It can be dated to the late 12th century or the early 13th.


    2. Ivory panels, two of four that form a frame 419×365 mm, from Egypt, 11th–12th centuries (Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst); photo credit: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY; see Ivory, §I

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    Figural ornament, so popular in the early period, is virtually unknown after 1300. Intarsia replaced incrustation as the primary technique of decorating wooden objects with ivory, perhaps inspired by the magnificent inlaid wooden minbars that Mamluk patrons were ordering for their mosques. Typically, intersecting strapwork panels enclose ivory polygons carved in relief with arabesques and inscriptions, as on a high table made for Khwand Baraka, mother of Sultan Sha῾ban, in 1369 (Cairo, Mus. Islam. A.). Five pierced pyxides are among the rare ivory objects in the round produced in this period. One of them (ex-Rothschild priv. col.; see Migeon, pl. 8) is inscribed around the lid with the name and titles of Sultan Salih (r. 1351–4), and four others (London, BM, 74.3–2.5 and 91.6–23.8; V&A, 4139–1856 and A68–1923) share the same delicate pierced decoration and encircling inscription bands executed in low relief on a ground filled with a black substance.

    II. Spain

    There was no indigenous tradition of ivory working in the Iberian peninsula before the third quarter of the 10th century, when splendid ivories suddenly began to be produced in the court workshops of the Umayyad caliphs. Their technical mastery and assured style are difficult to explain unless the craftsmen came from Syria or Egypt or were trained by artisans sent from Byzantium, but neither hypothesis is wholly satisfactory. The 29 objects in this group are mostly rectangular caskets with lids that are either flat or in the form of a truncated pyramid and pyxides with domical lids; a folding spice box (Burgos, Mus. Arqueol. Prov.) is exceptional. Many are thought to have been jewelry boxes, but the verses inscribed on one pyxis (New York, Hisp. Soc. America) indicate that it was a container for perfumes. To this group should be added the arms of a processional cross (Paris, Louvre, and Madrid, Mus. Arqueol. N.) and a wooden portable altar inlaid with carved ivory strips (Madrid, Mus. Arqueol. N.). All are characterized by high relief carving in a single plane on a ground that has been left smooth. All but the smallest and largest caskets are made of ivory plaques joined by ivory pegs; the small casket with cover in Madrid (Inst. Valencia Don Juan) is carved from two solid blocks, while the large casket in the cathedral of Palencia has plaques attached to a wooden frame. Pairs of hinged braces fasten the lids of caskets; a single brace suffices for pyxides. Where original, they are made of nielloed silver with lanceolate terminals and are attached to the lower edge of the back and to the upper surface of the lid. A lock and hasp are attached to the front.

    Many pieces have Arabic inscriptions carved in relief in a plain or foliated kufic script on the lower edge of the lid. They may record names of the owner and the craftsman and the date and place of manufacture. Ivories were made for the caliph al-Hakam II (r. 961–76), members of the royal house and other dignitaries. Several objects are dedicated to female members of the court, including a daughter of ῾Abd al-Rahman III (London, V&A) and Subh, a concubine of al-Hakam II and mother of the caliph Hisham II (Madrid, Mus. Arqueol. N.). Inscriptions on caskets in the parish church at Fitero in Navarra and in Madrid (Inst. Valencia Don Juan) state that they were made in 966 at Madinat al-zahra, the palace–suburb of Córdoba (see Córdoba, I), and ten other ivories have been attributed there on stylistic grounds. All share a dense vegetal decoration, comprising full and half palmettes, quatrefoils and berries on a continuous stem disposed symmetrically about a vertical axis. A distinctive feature is the precise carving of the serrations and the veining of the leaves. Confronted or addorsed birds and animals appear on pyxides in Madrid (Mus. Arqueol. N.), Lucerne (E. Kofler-Truniger priv. col.; see Kühnel, 1971, no. 39) and New York (Met.). The pyxides at Fitero and the Hispanic Society of America in New York are signed by a craftsman named Khalaf. The spice box in Burgos must have been made before 962 as it bears a dedication to a daughter of ῾Abd al-Rahman III while he was still living and is therefore the earliest piece in the group.

    A distinct group of nine other ivories is attributed to Córdoba between 968 and 1005, although their inscriptions do not specify the place of production. Their decoration is organized in cartouches, usually with eight lobes, interlaced with each other and with the framing bands. The cartouches depict scenes of feasting, music making, hunting, jousting and animals or birds fighting, while the interspaces are filled with plant ornament. A pyxis in Paris (Louvre; see fig. 1) was made in 968 for al-Mughira, son of ῾Abd al-Rahman III. Four eight-lobed cartouches on the lid and walls depict different scenes in mirror symmetry: a standing musician flanked by two seated figures on a dais supported on the backs of paired lions, paired horsemen flanking a palm tree from which they gather dates, two men grasping a nest containing an eagle, and paired lions attacking a buffalo. The plant ornament of the interspaces contains paired falconers, wrestlers, griffins, peacocks, birds, butting goats and animals of the chase. A large rectangular casket in Pamplona, made in 1005 for the son of al-Mansur, chief minister to Hisham II (r. 976–1009), is equally fine. On the lid ten eight-lobed cartouches show paired animals, fabulous beasts and horsemen at the chase; ten similar cartouches on the sides show scenes of jousting, feasting or music making on a dais supported by paired lions, and a man defending himself with a sword and shield against attacking lions. The inside of the lid is inscribed “the work of Faraj and his pupils,” at least four of whom signed various parts of the decoration.

    As the Umayyad caliphate collapsed, the court ivory-carvers found a refuge at Cuenca in Castile, which was under the rule of the Dhu῾l-Nunids of Toledo from 1020 onwards. Inscriptions on three carvings state that the pieces were made in Cuenca, and five others are attributed to this center on stylistic grounds. Their ornament is organized in narrow horizontal or vertical registers and is composed of the plant ornament found on the objects produced at Madinat al-Zahra and the creatures and human figures of those from Córdoba, but the workmanship is inferior and the designs lack the inventiveness of earlier periods. The earliest is a casket in Burgos (Mus. Arqueol. Prov.) made in 1026 by Muhammad ibn Zayyan; an encrusted wooden casket in Madrid (Mus. Arqueol. N.) was made in 1050 for the ruler’s son Abu Muhammad Isma῾il by ῾Abd al-Rahman ibn Zayyan, Muhammad’s brother or son.


    1. Ivory pyxis of al-Mughira, showing cartouche with scene of date picking, from Córdoba, 968 (Paris, Musée du Louvre); photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

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    Ivory was also used for the incrustation of wooden objects. Texts describe an encrusted minbar made in Córdoba in 966, but the earliest minbar of Córdoban workmanship to survive was made for the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh between 1125 and 1130. Wood and ivory cubes, some stained, were encrusted in checkerboard patterns to form framing bands, and ivory panels were carved with cursive inscriptions and inlaid. A group of three encrusted rectangular caskets with truncated pyramidal lids has been attributed to the 13th century. Two of them are decorated with large roundels enclosing animals and human figures arranged in strict mirror symmetry, like the Córdoban carved ivories. A magnificent pair of encrusted cupboard doors from a private house in Granada (Granada, Mus. N. A. Hispmus.) and a large rectangular casket decorated with interlaced star patterns in stained ivory and various woods (Madrid, Mus. Arqueol. N.) show that the craft was still practiced in 14th-century Granada.

    III. Tunisia, Sicily and South Italy

    Painted caskets and carved oliphants (hunting horns), often known as “Siculo-Arabic” or “Saracenic” ivories, are ascribed to Tunisia, Sicily and South Italy between the 10th and the 13th centuries. They share techniques used elsewhere in the Islamic world, and elements from the Islamic decorative repertory and Arabic inscriptions appear on many of them, but only a few can be ascribed with certainty to Muslim patrons. An important, if anomalous, rectangular casket with bulbous legs and finials (420×240×200 mm; Madrid, Mus. Arqueol. N.) has scrollwork border panels painted in green and red. An Arabic inscription painted on the lid records that the casket was made for the Fatimid caliph al-Mu῾izz (r. 953–75) in al-Mansuriyya, the town founded by his father near Kairouan in Tunisia that was his capital until 972. This rare early Fatimid luxury object bears a signature that has been read as Ahmad al-Khurasani.

    Some 220 ivories, including caskets, pyxides, combs and crosiers ornamented with polychrome decoration and often gilded, comprise a more homogeneous group attributed to Sicily or southern Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries. In contrast to the Spanish ivories, which were made in limited quantities for aristocratic patrons, the large number of painted ivories that survive suggests that they were intended for a wider clientele. Rectangular caskets (l. 100–485 mm) have flat or truncated pyramidal lids, oval caskets have domical lids and pyxides have flat lids. The water-based pigments used were red, green and more rarely blue; outlines and inner details are in black. Very little of the original gold leaf they once bore has survived. Gilt metal braces with lanceolate terminals and locks join the lids to the main bodies. Roundels, presented singly, paired or in multiples, but never interwoven, are the predominant format for their decoration. Invariably inscribed with a compass, they are filled with elements from the Islamic repertory of the 12th and 13th centuries, such as geometric figures, arabesques, birds (often peacocks), animals and human figures, as well as depictions of Christ and of saints. These same elements may also appear without the enclosing roundel, and a few rare cases present miniature scenes (e.g. Palermo, Cappella Palatina). Many of the caskets and pyxides are embellished on the lower edge of the lid with benedictory verses or amatory phrases in angular or cursive Arabic script. The absence of historical dedications supports the suggestion that they were made for sale on the market rather than the result of individual commissions; most were probably intended as bridal caskets, although over 100 were preserved in Western church treasuries.

    The formal, technical and stylistic homogeneity of these ivories would be explained by a single regional provenance, but the variations in the handling of common motifs, inscriptional formulas and roundel ornament indicate that they were produced by several workshops at different stages of development. Some 20 caskets, pyxides and crosier heads have rather sparingly dispersed ornament of crosses, stars and birds formed of tiny circles incised in the ivory surface and filled with green or red pigment, a technique known already in the 8th century (see §I above). An oval casket in York Minster that cannot be later than 1148 suggests that the incised group be assigned to the first half of the 12th century. The only other oval casket (Trent, Mus. Dioc.) combines incised circles stained red or black with gilded decoration of Greek crosses, birds and arabesques and links the incised and the painted groups. The painted ivories are generally dated to the second half of the 12th century and the first half of the 13th. The earliest recorded example is the Reliquary of St. Petroc from Bodmin, Cornwall (London, BM), first mentioned in 1177, and others are recorded between 1215 and 1309.

    The painted ivories show similarities to contemporary Spanish and Egyptian work, but their decorative treatment and organization do not conform entirely to the canons of the main artistic centers of the Islamic world, and this suggests that they were produced outside the mainstream of Islamic art. Diez argued unconvincingly for Syria, and Monneret de Villard (1950) believed they were made in Mesopotamia. Citing resemblances to the paintings, mosaics, textiles, carved wood and painted pottery of Norman Sicily, Kühnel (1914) plausibly attributed them to Sicily under Norman and Hohenstaufen rule, although it is also possible that they were produced in South Italy, perhaps at Amalfi. Ivory workshops staffed by the isolated Muslims of Sicily would explain both the Christian elements and the divergences from mainstream Islamic art. After the rebellion of 1221 the Muslim population of Sicily was mostly dispersed to North Africa, and it is unlikely that the industry survived long into the 13th century.

    Thirty ivory oliphants and six caskets preserved in Western church treasuries are commonly called “Saracenic,” but were probably produced in South Italy, possibly Amalfi, in the 10th and 11th centuries. Although they owe much of their form, technique and decoration to the arts of Islam, none has been found in an Islamic context, and oliphants were neither used as hunting horns nor as drinking vessels in the Islamic world. The earliest of the three types is distinguished by its undecorated main field. The upper and lower ends are relief carved in a single plane on a smooth ground with borders containing acanthus scrolls and animals in the Islamic style. Of the seven examples known, only that in the treasury of Aachen Cathedral may be of Islamic workmanship. The second group is distinguished by a main field carved with interlaced roundels each enclosing a real or fabulous bird or animal (e.g. Berlin, Mus. Islam. Kst and London, V&A; see fig. 2), the third by a field divided into longitudinal bands (e.g. Florence, Bargello). Although some of the images belong to the Islamic repertory, others come from the Romanesque bestiary, so it is doubtful whether any is Islamic work. Of the six caskets decorated in a similar style and technique, two (Berlin, Mus. Islam. Kst, and St. Petersburg, Hermitage) may be of Islamic workmanship. The St. Petersburg casket has carved openwork decoration similar to contemporary Egyptian work, for example. An ivory pen-box (New York, Met.) is crudely inscribed taurofi[lius]manso (“Taurus son of Manso”), apparently by a craftsman unfamiliar with Latin. The Mansoni family played a prominent role in Amalfitan affairs in the 10th and 11th centuries, and Amalfi, which had important commercial relations with Egypt and the Levant, is known to have been a center of ivory working (e.g. the Paliotto in Salerno Cathedral). An act of the Angevin king in 1301 referred to the Muslim craftsmen (“Saracenos artistas”) of South Italy in such terms as to suggest that they were as numerous as their crafts were various.

    IV. Iran and Central Asia

    Only a handful of ivory carvings have been attributed to medieval Iran. A rectangular penbox (230×70 mm; Brussels, Stoclet priv. col.; see von Falke, pls. opposite pp. 280 and 282) is carved in relief with arcades on the sides and with three interlaced roundels on the lid. The central roundel depicts Bahram Gur mounted on a camel and hunting a hare, while those to either side of it depict simurghs. The iconography is clearly of Sasanian inspiration, but the style suggests an early Islamic date. A mirror-back carved in relief with addorsed birds with crossing tails (diam. 104 mm; Athens, Benaki Mus.) has been attributed on stylistic grounds to 11th-century Iran. There are references to the carving of ivory and ebony in the region of Isfahan in the 13th century, but the earliest physical evidence for the existence of this craft is a pair of early 15th-century inlaid wooden doors from the Gur-i Mir in Samarkand (St. Petersburg, Hermitage). Five ivory panels (c. 203×44 mm; Tehran, Archaeol. Mus.) frthe Safavid ruler Isma῾il I (r. 1501–24) at Ardabil are carved in openwork with Koranic inscriptions against a scrolling floral ground.

    see also Central asia, §VIII, D.

    V. Ottoman Empire, after c. 1500

    Ivory was used in the Ottoman court workshops to make small objects such as mirrors, belts, buckles, handles and hilts, or to decorate larger wooden objects in the techniques of incrustation and intarsia (see Woodwork, §II, D). A deeply carved oval mirror-back was made by Ghani in 1543–4 and dedicated to Süleyman. The central area of scrolling chinoiserie flowers has an inner border of scrolling flowers and cloud bands and an outer border of Turkish couplets in complex thuluth script wishing beauty and brightness to the user’s face. The pieces of the mirror were assembled using gold nails. A circular mirror (mid-16th century; Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Mus.) has lotus flowers and split palmettes radiating from a central turquoise rosette set in gold. The ivory hilt of a sword made for Süleyman (1526–7; Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Mus.) is lightly incised with delicate floral scrolls filled with a black substance and overlaid with a gold openwork net of lotus scrolls. Belt plaques decorated in the same technique of black inlay overlaid with gold scrollwork can also be dated to the first half of the 16th century. A belt plaque carved in openwork with radial scrollwork panels (diam. 83 mm; Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Mus., 538) has been attributed to both Turkey and India in the 17th or 18th century. Ivory was also used for pen-holders, the handles of knives used for trimming pens, pen rests, penboxes and spoon handles. Walrus ivory was preferred for the hilts of swords and daggers.


    2. Ivory oliphant with metal mounts, 640×135 mm, from south Italy, 11th–12th centuries (London, Victoria and Albert Museum); photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource, NY

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