These jars would have been used to store dried herbs, roots, bark, seeds, and fruit; balms and bee products; salts, minerals, and metals; and other solid or viscous substances employed in the preparation of drugs or home remedies. Islamic pharmacology introduced new applications of known remedies, such as using wormwood (a species of Artemisia) to treat opium poisoning, and new ingredients, such as camphor, musk, senna, myrobalan (fruit of Terminalia trees), and sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride).
This jar may have been used by physicians to store dried herbs, roots, bark, seeds, and fruit; balms, honey, and other bee products; salts, minerals, and metals; and various other solid or viscous substances, all of which might be employed in the preparation of drugs or home remedies. Similar stonepaste jars with simple cylindrical shapes, or albarelli (see below for the emergence of the term), were introduced in the eleventh century and became common by the second half of the twelfth, when variations in shape also began to appear. The shape finds antecedents in earlier earthenware productions, for example, in Iranian monochrome green and brown wares of the tenth and eleventh centuries (alongside more common variations with a rounded shoulder). The slimmer neck would have allowed for a flap of leather or other material to be fastened around it with a string, thereby securing the contents of the jar (although a lid might have been employed for the same purpose) and allowing for easier handling.
While Islamic pharmacology was based largely on Greek traditions transmitted by Dioscorides and Galen, innovations included new applications of known remedies—for example, using wormwood, a species of Artemisia, to treat opium poisoning—and the introduction of new ingredients including camphor, musk, senna, myrobalan (the fruit of Terminalia trees), and sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride). Trained physicians were not the only ones to prescribe and prepare potions, balms, and other drugs. Popular medical knowledge, oftentimes transmitted by women, promulgated at-home medicine—as did untrained doctors and, to more nefarious ends, charlatans, about whom flourished a popular literature stemming from their real and fictional exploits. Beginning in the tenth century, moreover, some religious scholars advocated for prophetic medicine (al-tibb al-nabawi) as an alternative to Greek methodologies and prescribed simple remedies based on the Qur’an and the Sunna.
The extensive Islamic medical literature gives very detailed recipes for pharmaceuticals but significantly less information on the tools needed to make them. There are, however, many vivid illustrations of apothecaries at work, most often preparing potions in deep cooking pots or vessels, in late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century medical treatises, among them the Kitab al-diryaq (Book of antidotes) of 1198 (cat. 106) and the 1224 copy of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica (cats. 107a, b).
Save for one exception, no albarello was found with its original contents, but the cylindrical body of the earliest ones connects them to later examples from Ayyubid and Mamluk Syria and Egypt, for whom there is evidence of their apothecary use. These were extensively traded well beyond the Mediterranean basin, presumably for their contents, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they began to be replicated in Italian maiolica. (Indeed, albarello is an Italian term, broadly applied to denote a cylindrical apothecary jar with a narrow neck.) Known Mamluk and Italian examples bear inscriptions stating their intended contents, and sometimes the name of the facility or hospital for which they were made, as well. A Syrian example containing a white residue was excavated together with other vessels and grave goods at the Chungul Kurgan, an early thirteenth-century princely burial in the Black Sea Steppe. It may have contained a healing substance for the tomb’s royal Turkish (Qıpčaq/Cuman/Polovtsian) occupant. Finally, similar jars appear among other vessels in a scene set beside a pharmacy in a thirteenth-century manuscript of Ibn Butlan’s (d. 1066) Da‘wat al-atibba’ (The physicians’ banquet), written in 1054.
Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that albarelli were used to store nonmedicinal ingredients. In this respect it is interesting to note that the jar is glazed only inside its neck, rendering it inapproproiate for substances that might need preservation from air exposure. The jar’s iconography is not directly connected to anything it may have contained, although the overall auspicious symbolism would certainly have been suitable for the promotion of good health. Such an interpretation finds further credence in the inscribed benedictions, as well as in chasing animals, which are motifs related to the courtly cycle. For their cleverness and speed, as implied by the dog giving chase, the hare seems to have been regarded as especially auspicious.
Martina Rugiadi (author) in [Canby et al. 2016]
Inscription: On the rim in Arabic in cursive:
العز؟ الدائم و الاقبال الزائد و النصر الغالب و الدائم والسعادة و الکرامة و الدولة و النعمة و البرکة و الر[أ]فة و ... و البقاء لصاحبه Perpetual glory(?) and increasing prosperity, conquering and lasting victory, happiness, generosity, dominion, prosperity, blessing, and Mercy [...] long life to its owner.
Richard H. Zinser, Forest Hills, NY (until d. 1983; his estate, from 1983); [ Paul Anavian, New York, 2012–13; sold to MMA]
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016.
Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, Martina Rugiadi, and A. C. S. Peacock. "The Great Age of the Seljuqs." In Court and Cosmos. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 95, pp. 168-169, ill. p. 168 (color).