Polychrome marble mosaic decorated interior walls of both religious institutions and palaces in Egypt and Syria during the Mamluk period. This example, from an unknown building, probably once adorned the lower register of a wall, but similar mosaic also appears on mihrabs, spandrels, and even cenotaphs of the period. The interlocking slabs in contrasting colors bordering the mosaic, and the rectangular base‑board panels below it, are also characteristic of Mamluk architectural decoration.
Panels of inlaid polychrome marble often decorated interior walls of both religious institutions and palaces in Egypt and Syria during the Mamluk period. This example comes from an unknown building. With its rectangular format and vertical orientation, it probably once adorned the lower register of a wall, but similar marble inlay also appears on contemporary mihrabs, spandrels, and even cenotaphs. Flanking the inlaid panel, the interlocking marble revetment in contrasting colors, a device known in medieval times as ablaq (literally, striped), is a hallmark of Mamluk architectural decoration. The framed, rectangular baseboard slabs at the bottom of the panel are also typical of wall treatments of the time.
The design of the tessellated central panel—an interlacing repeat pattern based on a central ten-pointed star, surrounded by a variety of polygonal shapes—compares closely with designs from many media in Mamluk art. Such patterns were frequently used in carved and inlaid woodwork, especially door panels, including the minbar doors previously discussed (no. 91.1.2064, cat. 113). Another vehicle for this pattern, on a much smaller scale, is bookbinding: a fourteenth-century example in the Metropolitan Museum attributed to Egypt or Syria provides an especially close parallel. The correspondence between such distinct media can be attributed to the role of the rassamun, designers whose workshops, situated in the market streets of Cairo, generated patterns for a wide range of purposes that could easily have been scaled as needed.
Marble was not widely quarried by the Mamluks. It was a prized material, removed from ancient Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, and crusader sites within the Mamluk territories and collected as war booty from other regions. Whole columns in pairs or sets were especially valued, but those unsuitable for structural reuse were sliced thin and applied as polychrome sheathing or carved into ornamental revetment, while the small remnants were combined to create inlays such as those found here.
Ellen Kenney (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
The Hagop Kevorkian Fund, New York (until 1970; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks," November 21, 1981–January 10, 1982, suppl. #58.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 114, p. 165, ill. p. 165 (color).