Literary Reading: Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewers, Most Valuable Objects in Islamic Art

Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building in Canada’s Capital City, Ottawa,  
“Centred around the mysteries of  rock crystal.”

When I invited Professor Maki, a master of form and light, to design this building, I made a suggestion to him – one that I hoped would help connect this place symbolically to the Faith of Islam. The suggestion I made focused on creating a certain mystique, centred around the beautiful mysteries of rock crystal.

Why rock crystal? Because of its translucency, its multiple planes, and the fascination of its colours – all of which present themselves differently as light moves around them. The hues of rock crystal are subtle, striking and widely varied – for they can be clear or milky, white, or rose coloured, or smoky, or golden, or black.

It is because of these qualities that rock crystal seems to be such an appropriate symbol of the profound beauty and the ever-unfolding mystery of Creation itself – and the Creator. As the Holy Quran so powerfully affirms, Allah is the Creator and the Master of the heavens and the earth.” And then it continues: “Everything in the heavens and on earth, and everything between them, and everything beneath the soil, belongs to Him.”

(The above is an excerpt from a speech made by His Highness the Aga Khan at the opening of the building on Saturday, December, 6, 2008. The opening was performed by Canada’s Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper. The Aga Khan’s ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt who founded the city of Cairo in 969 and also the Al Azhar University, prized the qualities of  the rock crystal and carved them into vessels of different forms. “Rock crystal translucency seemed so remarkable a property that the stone was sometimes known as Busaq al-qamar, or ‘Spirit of the Moon’,” said  Alnoor Merchant, of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, England, in a brief statement to Maria Cook of the Ottawa Citizen.

 

 

This rock crystal ewer exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK,  is one of a series that survives in collections across Europe. Such high-quality rock crystal vessels were made for the rulers of Cairo during the Fatimid period (969-1171). This is confirmed by inscriptions on several of them which name specific rulers. Great skill was required to hollow out the raw rock crystal without breaking it and to carve the delicate, often very shallow, decoration.

This rock crystal ewer is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. It is one of a series that survives in collections across Europe. Such high-quality rock crystal vessels were made for the rulers of Cairo during the Fatimid period (969-1171) as confirmed by inscriptions on several crystal ewers naming specific rulers. Great skill was required to hollow out the raw rock crystal without breaking it and to carve the delicate, and often very shallow decoration.

Introduction:

The Fatimid Period in Islamic History (909 – 1171 CE) is characterized by the Imam-Caliphs’ emphasis on the search for knowledge and religious tolerance. Artwork thus gained importance and flourished. The Fatimids were able to draw upon diverse skills and knowledge from many sources to develop new techniques and styles for their artwork.

The Fatimids produced a wide variety of very beautiful and skilfully crafted works of art in textiles, ceramics, woodwork, metalwork, jewellery and rock-crystal. However, only a limited number of examples are available today, and it is by sheer chance that some happen to have a name or signature which links them to the Fatimids. The main reason why our knowledge of Fatimid objets d’art is so limited is that the great Treasury in which the Fatimids stored all their riches was looted between the years 1067 and 1072. They were then sold, melted down and minted into coins to be dispersed amongst the population of Fustat, or carried by merchants to other countries.

Rock Crystal:

As a  rare medium of art, rock crystal is made of pure quartz crystal and was only shaped by masterful craftsmen which made it highly valued by the Fatimids. The purest crystals were imported from Basra, Yemen and the islands around the East African Coast.

This piece was made between 1000 and 1050. This fine rock crystal piece appears to have been a container. Its complex shape can be seen as the body of a fish. Two convex faces are joined at an angle along the sides, which taper gently towards the base, or tail. However, the fish shape does not continue at the top, where the angled sides broaden out into shoulders. At the centre, these form a collar around the mouth of the hollowed out interior. Another hole was later drilled into the bottom to allow for a mount.

This piece was made between 1000 and 1050. This fine rock crystal piece appears to have been a container. Its complex shape can be seen as the body of a fish. Two convex faces are joined at an angle along the sides, which taper gently towards the base, or tail. However, the fish shape does not continue at the top, where the angled sides broaden out into shoulders. At the centre, these form a collar around the mouth of the hollowed out interior. Another hole was later drilled into the bottom to allow for a mount.

 

Of all the rock crystal objects manufactured by Fatimid artisans, the Fatimid rock crystal ewers are considered among the rarest and most valuable objects in the entire sphere of Islamic art. Only five were known to exist before the extraordinary appearance of an ewer in a provincial British auction in 2008 which was later sold at Christie’s last October. It was the first time one has  ever known to have appeared at auction. The last one to surface on the market was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1862.

Of the very few rock crystal objects extant today (180 in total), only a few can be securely dated back to the Fatimid period. The treasury of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice has two ewers, one of which bears an inscription to the Fatimid Imam al-Aziz (975-996). Another rock crystal ewer holding an inscription to his son, Imam al-Hakim, is in the Cathedral of Fermo in Italy. An additonal rock crystal ewer was in the treasury of the Abbey of Saint Denis in Paris and is now in the Louvre. The one in the Museum of Limoges in France was stolen in 1980. Disaster also befell the final known ewer which was from the Pitti Palace collection in Florence and had an inscription to Husain ibn Jawhar. It had been on display in the Museo degli Argenti, and it was accidentally dropped by a museum employee in 1998, shattering it irreparably. Finally, a rock crystal crescent in the Museum in Nuremberg, which may have been mounted on a horse’s bridle as a royal emblem, bears the name of the Imam al-Zahir (1021-36).

In addition to the five (and now six) ewers, three or four smaller oval flasks are known to exist  including one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (located just across from the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre), one in the Freer Gallery in Washington DC, and one in the Keir Collection, London. The oval flask in the Freer Gallery has a 17th century gold and enamel setting and is described by the museum as dating from the reign of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II.

The opulence of the Fatimid court fueled a renaissance in the decorative arts, which made Cairo the most important cultural center in the Islamic world. Nearby, Old Cairo, known as al-Fustat, became a major center for the production of pottery, glass, and metalwork, and rock-crystal, ivory, and wood carving; textile factories run by government officials created tiraz fabrics in the name of the caliph elsewhere in the Egyptian region, especially the Nile Delta. A novel, more refined style developed in pottery; bands with small animals and inscriptions now formed the major decoration in textiles; and rock-crystal carvers demonstrated great skill in works created for and treasured by the caliphs themselves.*

The Kitab al-Hadaya wa’l-Tuhaf (The Book of Gifts and Rarities, selections published by Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Mass., 1996) says that when Imam al-Mustansir was forced to open his treasury in 1068, the looters of the Palace “brought out of the Treasury of Precious Objects 36,000 pieces of rock crystal”. 

Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewer, shown above and here as seen from the front, is regarded as the most valuable object in Islamic Art

A front view of a Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewer, as shown above , is regarded as the most valuable object in Islamic Art. The ewer was carved from a single piece of very pure, very thin crystal.

The extant rock crystal objects with no identifying inscription on them appear to be types of containers, either goblets for drinking or ewers and basins for holding liquids, perhaps for washing the hands of the guests after a meal. Over the centuries, many magical properties or benefits were deemed to be associated with objects made using rock crystal.

For example, by simply procuring a vessel made of rock crystal, an individual’s craving for water was considerably reduced. It was said that rock crystal glasses were supposed to shatter on contact with poisoned liquids, or the liquid changed colour, which is perhaps why they were so popular with rulers.

Cups of crystal are also mentioned repeatedly in the Qur’an as one of the many items the Believer has to look forward to in Paradise; for example in Sura 37 (Al-Saffat, The Arrangers, Verses 45-47, tr. Abdullah Yusuf Ali):

“Round will be passed to them a cup from a clear-flowing fountain,
crystal-white, of a taste delicious to those who drink (thereof),
free from headiness; nor will they suffer intoxication therefrom.”

This Quranic reference may suggest another reason why rock crystal drinking vessels were so popular in the Muslim world.

Small rock crystals like this bottle could not have held much, but their contents must have been very precious indeed to deserve such containers. They were most probably used for storing perfumes, which were among the most luxurious items of any Islamic court. They often survive in cathedral treasuries, where they were rededicated after being captured from their original Islamic settings. This bottle was purchased with the assistance of Messrs Henry Oppenheimer, Oscar Raphael and John Hugh Smith

Small rock crystals like this bottle could not have held much, but their contents must have been very precious indeed to deserve such containers. They were most probably used for storing perfumes, which were among the most luxurious items of any Islamic court. They often survive in cathedral treasuries, where they were rededicated after being captured from their original Islamic settings. This bottle was purchased with the assistance of Messrs Henry Oppenheimer, Oscar Raphael and John Hugh Smith

The skill required to hollow out a piece of crystal without blemishing it meant that relief decoration was often kept to a minimum, unlike other media in Islamic art where the surfaces were covered with decoration, to ensure that the viewer could appreciate the craftsmanship of the object. When adorned with relief carving, this usually depicted floral or animal themes, especially lions and birds amongst palmettes. Occasionally gold or precious stones were added on the handle, or to hide a cloud or knot in the crystal; however generally the purity of the crystal was judged sufficient in itself.

Article Compiled by: Aliza Moledina, Grade 12, Colonel By Secondary School, Ottawa, Canada.

* Quote from “The Art of the Fatimid Period”  (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

____________________

References: 
1. www.akdn.org (Website of the Aga Khan Development Network)
2. The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo by Bernard O’Kane (Hardcover – June 30, 2006)
3. Victoria and Albert Museum (Website of the museum)
4. An essay in glass, by Maria Cook (published in on-line and print editions of  the Ottawa Citizen)
5. http://islamicceramics.ashmolean.org/Fatimids/history.htm (Website about Islamic Ceramics)
6. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fati/hd_fati.htm (Website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Note: All images shown here are taken from the V & A Museum website.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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