Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Blown Glass from Islamic Lands

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The invention of glassblowing in the first century B.C. in the Syro-Palestinian region created a remarkable change in the use and availability of glass objects. Previously, from the third millennium B.C., glass objects had been made using other techniques, such as casting in a mold or forming glass around a removable core. These methods were slow and labor-intensive; consequently, glass was made in relatively small quantities and was not widely available. Glassblowing—in which molten glass is gathered on the end of a blowpipe and a vessel is formed by inflation and manipulation with tools—enabled craftsmen to create vessels quickly and in a wide range of shapes, making glassware affordable and available.


Glassblowing enabled craftsmen to create vessels quickly and in a wide range of shapes, making glassware affordable and available.

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Cited Works of Art or Images (3)

  • Sprinkler
  • Bottle
  • Inkwell

Index Terms (3)

Geography/Place

Material and Technique

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The surface of most utilitarian objects was not decorated; as glass objects were principally designed for everyday use, the majority of ancient glass preserved today, in complete or fragmentary form, is plain. This type of glass is often regarded as "study" material by collectors, who favor more artistically accomplished objects. Undecorated objects, however, represent a continuity of traditions through their shapes and forms or because their practical functions deserve closer examination. When a plain glass vessel is placed in the proper context and systematically analyzed, its shape, color, and technical details can be as revealing as those of any elaborately decorated object and may provide links otherwise difficult to understand.

Stefano Carboni
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Qamar Adamjee
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sprinkler (Qumqum), 12th–13th century

Egypt or western Asia
Glass, blown; H. 8 3/8 in. (21.3 cm), Max. W. 4 3/8 in. (11 cm)
The Corning Museum of Glass, Gift of I. C. Elston Jr. (54.1.73)

Undecorated qumqums were first made in twelfth-century Syria for utilitarian purposes. The qumqum (or omom) became a popular and distinctive type of bottle produced in Egypt and Syria and was most likely used as a sprinkler for perfumed water, such as rosewater.

Bottle, probably 8th–10th century
Egypt or western Asia
Glass, blown; H. 11 5/8 in. (29.5 cm), Max. W. 8 3/8 in. (21.4 cm)
The Corning Museum of Glass, Gift of I. C. Elston Jr. (54.1.129)

Large sturdy bottles with a flattened shape like this one may have been used for shipping liquids and were probably made throughout the Near East. Excavated material shows that similar cylindrical-necked vessels were closed with a cotton stopper; the neck was then wrapped in papyrus and fastened with a cotton string.

Inkwell, 9th–11th century
Possibly Egypt
Glass, blown; H., total, 2 5/8 in. (6.6 cm), H. at rim 2 1/2–2 1/4 in. (5.5–5.8 cm), W. 1 5/8 in. (4 cm)
The Corning Museum of Glass (50.1.38)

Inkwells in glass demonstrate the widespread use of this common material for activities associated with high social status such as calligraphy, the most exalted art in the Islamic world. The cylindrical tube in the inkwell prevented the ink from splashing, while the loops at the four corners may have been used to suspend it from the belt or the scribe's left wrist.