An interview with authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs: A meticulous book about an extraordinary Fatimid manuscript illustrating the heavens and the earth as was known in 11th century Cairo

Book of Curiosities. Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Fatimid manuscript 11th century
There are 17 maps in the Fatimid manuscript Book of Curiosities, 14 of which are completely unique to this manuscript. Perhaps the most remarkable is this rectangular map of the world. This the only such map to be dated before the renaissance that we know to have survived.

“The Book of Curiosities is one of the greatest achievements of medieval map-making; it is also a remarkable part of the story of Islamic civilization….It is a profoundly Fatimid treatise. Like a tirāz armband, it wears its allegiance to the Fatimid caliphs on its sleeve. This is apparent from the opening dedication, from the blessings heaped on the Fatimid imams” — Emilie Savage-Smith and Yossef Rapoport, authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs.

About a millennium ago, in Fatimid Cairo, an unknown author completed a large and richly illustrated book. In the course of thirty-five chapters, this book guided the reader on a journey from the outermost cosmos and planets to Earth and its lands, islands, features, and inhabitants. This treatise, known as The Book of Curiosities, was unknown to modern scholars until a remarkable manuscript copy surfaced in 2000. Christie’s auction house in London, who had put up the manuscript for sale, wanted to know more about it and invited Professor Emilie Savage-Smith of Oxford University to examine the manuscript. As it turned out the manuscript was one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades, and was eventually acquired by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. With Yossef Rapoport, then a young research assistant, Professor Savage-Smith, set out to critically study the manuscript and together they co-authored “Lost Maps of the Caliphs,” with the aim of providing the first general overview of The Book of Curiosities and the unique insight it offers into medieval Islamic thought.

“As tales of scholarly finds go, this is up there with the best….Lost Maps of the Caliphs is a testament both to the scholarship of its authors and to the spirit of inquiry fostered by the Fatimids.” — The Daily Telegraph, London.

The article that follows below was originally published on Jadaliyya on April 8, 2019. We are deeply indebted to Bodleian Library Publishing, publishers of the UK edition of “Lost Maps of the Caliphs,” as well as The University of Chicago Press for facilitating the publication of the complete interview as well as an excerpt from the book on Simerg.

“Lost Maps of the Caliphs” has been acclaimed world wide in numerous reviews. In addition to the very brief excerpt that has been quoted here from London’s Daily Telegraph, the following quote from Imago Mundi goes on to validate the book’s outstanding content: “We are fortunate indeed that Rapoport and Savage-Smith have undertaken fifteen years of meticulous, collaborative research on the Book of Curiosities. The culmination, Lost Maps of the Caliphs, is an exceptional tribute to an exceptional object of study.”

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Interview with Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith (YR and ESS): This book started with a discovery. In September 2000, a specialist in Islamic manuscripts at Christie’s auction house in London called Emilie—who specializes in the history of Islamic science—and asked her if she could come into London from Oxford and look at a puzzling Arabic manuscript that was up for sale a couple of weeks later. It was entitled Kitāb Gharāʾib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn, which loosely translates as “The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eye.” Christie’s didn’t know what to make of it, and wanted to seek Emilie’s advice about its importance.

Emilie was shown a rather scruffy manuscript, bound in ill-fitting covers, with a bird-dropping visible on the cover. But inside the covers was a medieval Arabic treatise on the skies and the Earth, accompanied by a series of strange images and maps unparalleled in any other medieval work. Above all, it had a map of the world with a scale of degrees of longitude at the top, in what seemed to be the earliest surviving example of mathematical plotting on any world map known to us.

The manuscript turned out to be one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades. With the support of Oxford colleagues, Emilie began a campaign to ensure the work would be available to the public rather then be kept by private collector. In June of 2002, it was acquired by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, with the help of the National Lottery Fund. Yossi then joined as (then) a young research assistant. We first established that the treatise was written in the first half of the eleventh century, in Cairo, the newly-founded capital of the Fatimid Shi’a Empire. We then spent the following decade carefully preparing a critical edition and annotated translation of the maps and text, published by Brill in 2014.

Our critical edition made the treatise and its maps available for scholars, but it did not explain what they mean or why they are so important. We strongly felt that merely translating the text and presenting the images—beautiful and striking as they are—was not enough. The treatise had to be understood as a whole, because the maps of the sky and of the Earth, of the Indian Ocean and of the Nile, of Sicily, of Mahdia, and of southern Anatolia, all made sense only when read together in the context of the society and culture in which they were produced. Lost Maps of the Caliphs tells the story of this exceptional manuscript—how it was discovered and why it is so significant.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

YR and ESS: Because the treatise is so wide-ranging, we use it to reconsider the development of astronomy, astrology, geography, and cartography in the first four centuries of Islam. In the Lost Maps we outline the medieval Islamic understanding of the structure of the cosmos and celestial phenomena. The amalgamation of Hellenistic, Coptic, Hindu and other star lore was all channeled towards an astrological mind-set. The Earth together with the Heavens formed the universe of eleventh-century Cairo. To a medieval person, whose night skies were not blanked-out by city lights and pollution, the contents of the night sky—the ‘Raised-Up Roof’ as our author, following the Qur’an, called it—revealed the workings of the universe and, if properly understood, heralded events on Earth.

Our book is also a contribution to the history of global communication networks at the turn of the previous millennium. We use the geographical materials of the Book of Curiosities to depict the Fatimid Empire as a global maritime power, with tentacles of military and religious authority in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Indus Valley, and along the East African coast. The extent of Fatimid knowledge of Byzantine coasts demonstrates close ties between the Muslim and Christian empires. The material on East Asia sheds new light on Sino-Indian trade routes and is very surprising for a treatise written in Egypt. The treatise’s familiarity with the East African coasts contributes to recent debates on the Islamization of the Swahili coast.

Perhaps most importantly, we use the Book of Curiosities to re-consider the history of early Islamic map-making. The world map of the Book of Curiosities is a result of the dialogue of the Islamic world with Hellenistic, Late Antique geography. The extensive maritime material in the Book of Curiosities sheds new light on navigation in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean before the introduction of the compass in the thirteenth century, and presents an Islamic angle on debates concerning the origins of the European portolan chart.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

YR and ESS: Emilie has been working on Islamic scientific manuscripts for several decades, and published books on Islamic celestial globes, medieval Islamic magic and divination, and a catalogue of the medical manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. She also co-authored the volume on Medieval Islamic Medicine that won the 2008 Book Prize in Middle Eastern Studies of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society. It was Emilie’s vast experience with Islamic scientific manuscripts that enabled her to appreciate how special this treatise was. In Lost Maps of the Caliphs, Emilie also wrote the chapters that deal with astronomy and astrology, as well as providing a very personal chapter about her campaign to make this gem available for the public.

Yossi came to this project with training in the history of Arabic-speaking medieval Islamic societies, shortly after competing a PhD on the history of marriage and divorce in late medieval Egypt. But, like so many, he was always fascinated with maps, and the deciphering of the maps of the Book of Curiosities was as close as one gets to deciphering a fairy-tale treasure map. Through this project, he became an expert on Islamic maps, navigation, medieval trade routes between India and China, and Hellenistic collections of strange animals.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

YR and ESS: We hope that this book will be widely read as a window onto medieval Islamic views of the world, a perspective on Islamic science that is missing from current debates about the legacies of Islamic civilization. The Book of Curiosities is one of the greatest achievements of medieval map-making; it is also a remarkable part of the story of Islamic civilization. Too often, the achievements of Islamic science are divorced from the culture that produced them and are only brought to light as a trophy in a sterile competition with West. Islamic maps in particular get almost no attention in surveys of Islamic history, and even when they are shown they are rarely explained. Because we tend to view Islamic civilization through the prism of religion and faith, we find no use for these abstract diagrams that tell us nothing about God.

What could be more foundational to any culture than the manner in which it conceived of the sky and the Earth? We hope to show that the discovery of the Book of Curiosities is also a timely rediscovery of those aspects of Islamic history which are too often neglected in academic and non-academic visions of Islam. It is a rediscovery of the sea as an integral part of a civilization that supposedly originated in the desert, of an outward looking scientific enquiry that was built on the foundation of the classical Greek legacy, and of the power of the image in a culture that is too often reduced to texts.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

YR and ESS: It is about time to put the Book of Curiosities behind—it is nearly twenty years since we started working on it. Emilie came back to the history of Islamic medicine and is now completing a mutli-volume translation of a thirteenth-century Syrian biographical dictionary of doctors, to be published by Brill, with selections in the Oxford World Classics series published by Oxford University Press.

Yossi has been working over the past few years on the history of the medieval Islamic countryside. He recently published a monograph, Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt, whichis a detailed micro-study of the economy and society of the villages of the Egyptian province of the Fayyum as described in a unique thirteenth-century tax register. This book, too, has a lot of maps, mostly modern GIS ones but also a copy of one that was originally made in the tenth century.

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Excerpt from Lost Maps of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith

Who, then, was the author of the Book of Curiosities? His apparent access to naval military records suggests a direct connection to the Fatimid state. His personal acquaintance with an Ismaʿili missionary who had been to Nubia, and his unique information on itineraries in the world of the Indian Ocean, all suggest he was close to the Ismaʿili missionary network. The map of Palermo with its suburbs, the diagram of Tinnīs, and in particular the map of Mahdia, which is drawn from the perspective of someone looking at the city from a vantage point just outside of its walls, suggest that he had visited these port cities in person. In some ways, he is a successor to the geographer Ibn Ḥawqal and a predecessor of the poet Nāser-e Khosraw—both Ismaʿili missionaries, travelers and keen observers of human societies. Unlike them, however, his interest in trade is minimal, and he is more likely to have been a military man than a merchant. Nor was he a scholar of the caliber of his Egyptian contemporaries, the physician Ibn Riḍwān or Ibn Haytham, the founder of the science of optics. His grasp of mathematical concepts appears to have been quite poor, and he generally avoided technical discussions.

Rather than a scholar our author was, primarily, a mapmaker. It is the maps that make the Book of Curiosities such a distinct work of medieval scholarship and such an appealing manuscript for modern audiences. The author has unprecedented confidence in the ability of maps and diagrams to convey information. Unlike any other geographical treatise before this, the maps are stand-alone artifacts, unsupported by any accompanying text. This is true for some of the maps of the sky, but especially for the rectangular map of the world, the maps of the three great seas, and the maps of the rivers. Even when the maps are related to a text, such as those of the islands of Sicily and Cyprus, or the city of Mahdia, the information they contain goes well beyond that of the preceding prose sections. We do not have the original treatise, only a later copy, so we do not know how lavish it might have been when first penned. But the second part of the title literally translates as “that which is pleasant to the eyes” (mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn), indicating that this treatise was about the images as much as it was about the text.

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Lost Map of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith
A photo of the UK edition of Lost Maps of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, published by Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Please click on image to see book details.

Maps are at the center of this Book of Curiosities, and this anonymous mapmaker offers us his reflections on the craft of cartography. His chapter on mapmaking techniques introduces the maps of seas and islands, the most original maps in the treatise. He opens with a formulation of the purpose of his maps: “Although it is impossible for created beings to know the extent of God’s creation, the knowledgeable and qualified among them are entrusted with witnessing or imparting a small part of it.” The maps that will follow will convey knowledge, albeit imperfect, of God’s creation. He then continues to explain why his maps are intentionally “not accurate representations” of reality: the contours of coastlines change over time, the mapmaking instruments are not fine enough to reproduce reality on a small scale, and labels need to be legible. Here is a mapmaker explaining his choices and reflecting on the purposes and functionality of his maps. The results of his labor are unique medieval versions of “graphic representations that facilitate spatial understanding,” to use the definition of “map” by the leading modern historian of cartography. There is no parallel for this passage in any other medieval treatise known to us.

The Book of Curiosities is a profoundly Fatimid treatise. Like a tirāz armband, it wears its allegiance to the Fatimid caliphs on its sleeve. This is apparent from the opening dedication, from the blessings heaped on the Fatimid imams, and from the curses flung at the rebels who sought to overthrow them. The treatise also reflects some immediate political ambitions of the Fatimid state, especially in the Mediterranean. It depicts visually and in text the defenses of the strategic Fatimid holdings in Tinnīs, Mahdia, and Sicily. There are historical references to the early Islamic conquests of Cyprus, Crete, and Bari, with the inference that they may be ripe targets for Fatimid re-conquest. The mapping of anchorages, ports, and bays deep in Byzantine territory, some of them as far north as the Dardanelles, also reflect a military context. It is likely that much of the material here was actually drawn from the records of the Fatimid navy. And beyond the immediate political objectives, the maritime focus of the Book of Curiosities is also distinctly Fatimid. The unusual categories for organizing the geographical material, from seas to islands, and then to lakes and rivers, reflect the unique maritime orientation of the Fatimids, who, alone among the great medieval Muslim empires, preferred networks of ports, rivers, and islands over horses and land routes.

The treatise can be viewed as part of a westward shift in the geographical tradition and in the center of gravity in the Islamic world in general. Most ninth-century works, such as those by Ibn Khurradādhbih and the Relation of China and India, focused on Asia and the Indian Ocean. By the middle of tenth century, however, the gaze shifts to the Mediterranean, North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Al-Masʿūdī spent much of his later life in Egypt and Syria, and Ibn Ḥawqal provided an unprecedented account of the Maghreb. The eleventh-century Book of Curiosities focuses on the eastern Mediterranean. Later works of the Andalusian author Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī (d. 1094) and, of course, the Sicilian based al-Idrīsī (fl. 1154) have their focal point even farther to the west. The heavy reliance of the Book of Curiosities on the work of Ibn Ḥawqal is also suggestive, because the latter was, most likely, also a missionary. The focus on islands in the Book of Curiosities may have had special resonance against the backdrop of the Ismaʿili nomenclature of regional “islands.”

The Ismaʿili context of the Book of Curiosities invites comparisons with the influential Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, an encyclopedic corpus of science and Neoplatonic philosophy, composed in Iraq sometime before the middle of the tenth century. The Epistles are not cited in the Book of Curiosities, nor is there evidence for their circulation in Fatimid Egypt, despite their affinity with Ismaʿili teachings. Yet the Epistles seem to approach the subject matter of the sky and the Earth in a similar manner. Following the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, geography is seen in the Epistles as an appendix to the study of the stars. But the Epistles also have a higher purpose: the reader is invoked to contemplate the design of the creator, “to ponder wonders (ʿajāʾib) of his creation and reflect on the curiosities (gharāʾib) of what he fashioned.” This desire to observe God’s work explains some of the interest in marvels and wonders exhibited by the Book of Curiosities, as its title suggests.

Like the Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, the Book of Curiosities draws heavily and without compunction on the heritage of Greek science. Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen provide our author with much of the material on the general structure of the heavens and the Earth, and on the way the former influence the latter. Muslim scholars like al-Masʿūdī correct and add information, especially when one zooms in on the Earth’s size and layout, but the general framework inherited from the Greeks is not questioned. And while God is omnipresent, the Qur’an is cited sparingly, only to invite reflection on creation or to buttress moral points about God’s punishment meted out to the unbelievers. There is only one Tradition from the Prophet in the entire treatise, on the intrinsic purity of water. Such reliance on a Hellenistic heritage was not uncommon in eleventh-century Cairo. Mubashshir ibn Fātik, a wealthy and influential scholar, left us a remarkable collection of ethical sayings from the Greek sages, with special focus on the Late Antique and legendary Hermes.

The author of the Book of Curiosities does not limit himself to Greek authorities, but is also acquainted with Persian, Indian, and Coptic knowledge. He cites an account of the birth of astrology in India, and Persian authorities on the ominous bābānīyah stars. He is also keen to show command of multiple languages. For example, the names of each planet are given in Persian, Classical Greek, “Indian,” and Byzantine Greek; the names of each day of the week are given in Persian, Byzantine Greek, “Indian,” Hebrew, and Coptic. The use of Coptic is of special significance. There is here a deep influence of Egyptian Coptic traditions, an influence which has been overlooked in modern scholarship on Islamic science. Coptic lore was already reworked by al-Masʿūdī, and the Coptic calendar seems to have been used very early when predicting the risings of the lunar mansions. There is even more Coptic material in the Book of Curiosities, including accounts of the moray eel and the foundation of Tinnīs. Most importantly, the explanations related by Copts regarding the flooding of the Nile—that the Nile floods are a result of the summer melting of the snow on equatorial mountains—are as close to the present understanding of the Nile system as was ever achieved by medieval Islamic scholarship.

Date posted: January 26, 2020.
Last updated: February 3, 2020.

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Professor Jeremy Johns of Oxford on “The Magnificent Seven”: The Great Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewers Carved for the Fatimid Imams

Introduced by Abdulmalik J. Merchant
(Publisher/Editor Simerg)

'The Magnificent Seven'

‘The Magnificent Seven’

In 2008, the same year that the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building was opened by Canada’s Prime Minister Harper in the presence of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, a rediscovery of a spectacular medieval Islamic rock crystal ewer, forgotten since the mid-19th century, provided the catalyst for the re-examination of all of the surviving rock crystal ewers — the “Magnificent Seven”— carved for the Fatimid caliphs of Cairo in about the year 1000.

 Jeremy Johns, and his colleague Elise Morero, are on the verge of completing a new multidisciplinary study of the Magnificent Seven and related artefacts, which is intended to be the first phase of a much wider project to examine the medieval Islamic carved rock crystal “industry”.

Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is home to the majestic Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat which was opened on December 8, 2008, at the end of the Golden Jubilee of His Highness the Aga Khan. The building is inspired by the mysteries of  rock crystal. Photo: Maki and Associates/Moriyama and Teshima Architects.

Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is home to the majestic Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat which was opened on December 8, 2008, at the end of the Golden Jubilee of His Highness the Aga Khan. The building is inspired by the mysteries of rock crystal. Photo: Maki and Associates/Moriyama and Teshima Architects.

The Fatimid Imams-Caliphs of Egypt who founded the city of Cairo in 969 and also the Al-Azhar University, are ancestors of His Highness the Aga Khan. They prized the qualities of  the rock crystal and carved them into vessels of different forms. In seeking to conceive a design for the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building, His Highness wanted to connect the new building symbolically to the faith of Islam. The suggestion he made to the renowned Japanese architect, Professor Maki, focused on creating a certain mystique, centred around the beautiful mysteries of rock crystal.

In answering, “Why rock crystal?” the 49th Ismaili Imam explained:

“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 Qur’an 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’.”

We divide this post into two parts. We begin with an introductory piece on Fatimid ewers by Aliza Moledina, which is followed by a link to an extraordinary video presentation by Jeremy Johns, who with his colleague has used the traditional techniques of stylistic analysis and has returned to the written sources for the production and life histories of the ewers. Both the researchers have also subjected all seven ewers for the first time to detailed archaeometrical and tribological analyses, and have drawn upon ethnographical studies, archaeological excavation, and experimental archaeology to interpret their new findings.

The lecture gives a concise overview of their progress to date, and attempts to replace the ewers back into the socio-economic context from which they were produced. It is copiously illustrated with new images of these extraordinary artefacts, revealing hidden detail that puts us in touch with the hands of the craftsmen that made them.

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1. A BRIEF NOTE ON FATIMID ROCK CRYSTAL EWERS

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. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Copyright.

COMPILED BY ALIZA MOLEDINA

Introduction:

The Fatimid Period in Islamic History (909–1171 C.E.) 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. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Copyright,

Of all the rock crystal objects manufactured by Fatimid artisans, the Fatimid rock crystal ewers, such as the one shown at the top of this page, 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.” — Excerpt from “The Art of the Fatimid Period,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Copyright.

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 Qur’anic 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. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Copyright,

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.

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Aliza MoledinaAbout the author: This piece is an expansion of a special Powerpoint presentation made by Aliza Moledina for a special Literary Night event held in Ottawa, Canada, in 2008 to commemorate His Highness the Aga Khan’s Golden Jubilee Celebrations. Aliza was at that time completing her Grade 12 studies at the Colonel By Secondary School, in Ottawa, Canada, after which she proceeded to the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, Canada from where she recently graduated in medicine.

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2. ‘THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’ A VIDEO PRESENTATION BY JEREMY JOHNS

Date posted: July 30, 2015.

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Professor Jeremy Johns, Oxford University

Professor Jeremy Johns, Oxford University

About Jeremy Johns: Professor Johns is Professor of the Art and Archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean and Director of the Khalili Research Centre (KRC) for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East in the University of Oxford. He is principally interested in relations between Muslim and Christian societies in the medieval Mediterranean as manifested in material and visual culture. His research has focused upon the archaeology of the transition from late antiquity to early Islam in the Levant and, especially, upon the archaeology, history and art history of Sicily under Islamic and Norman rule, from the Muslims’ conquest of the island in the 9th century to the destruction of the Islamic community of Sicily by Frederick II. His recent and forthcoming publications include the first comprehensive study of the Islamic painted ceilings of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, and editions and studies of Arabic and bilingual documents from Norman Sicily. Amongst other projects, with Dr Elise Morero (KRC), he is currently engaged on a multidisciplinary study of the medieval Islamic carved rock crystal “industry”.