One of the most fascinating and mysterious objects of early Islamic art in the Museum’s collection, this wood panel was acquired in 1937 from the dealer Paul Mallon in Paris. It is the largest and most complete of a small group of similar panels that can be found today in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo; the Museum of Archaeology of Cairo University; and the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Their hearsay provenance—unconfirmed—is that they were found in the cemetery of ‘Ain al-Sira near Fustat (Old Cairo). For this reason, the most common identification of their function has been that they are fragments from a cenotaph. This is a possible option considering the over-six-foot length (nearly two meters) of the complete panel in the Museum. Various other considerations, however, can be put forward that question such an interpretation. First, had it been a cenotaph (tabut, in Arabic), this decorated wooden box would have been placed at the center of a small room within a mausoleum dedicated to a high-ranking individual. While little is known of burial practices during the first two to three centuries of Islam when these panels were undoubtedly created, it is unlikely, given the lack of both archaeological and literary evidence, that the cemetery of ‘Ain al-Sira would have hosted a sophisticated architectural structure that included this cenotaph.
In addition, close inspection of the Museum’s panel in the Department of Objects Conservation indicates that the metal pins in the top edge may have originally been used to secure hinges; their location suggests that the panel functioned as the lid of a chest. If this was the case, the dimensions of the panel correspond to the width and length of the box (rather than the height and length of a side panel), making it a cenotaph of odd proportions if it was meant to suggest the perimeter of the body beneath.
An alternative possibility put forward in the past that has now gained support is that the chest might instead have been a container for an early copy of the Qur’an. Frequently written on thick parchment and produced in bound, multivolume sets, early Qur’ans were not only sacred but also precious and expensive manuscripts. The text of the Qur’an was divided into thirty established parts at an early stage, and it is likely that sets of even larger divisions were made. The dimensions of extant individual folios suggest that volumes of a height of about 16–18 inches (40–45 cm) would have been relatively common and would have fit nicely inside this chest arranged one next to another and stacked vertically in a few rows. As demonstrated by late seventh- to early eighth-century Qur’an folios found inside the ceiling of the Great Mosque of Sana‘a, Yemen, a few decades ago, early illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an included both architectural arcades and geometric patterns similar to the central design of this panel, providing a direct link between the illumination of Qur’an manuscripts and the exterior decoration of Qur’an chests.
From the technical as well as the art-historical point of view, this panel is a rare early example of wood-mosaic decoration, notable for the high quality of its execution. A single panel of fig wood (ficus sp.) served as the substrate. Ebony (Diospyros) or granadilla (Dalbergia melanoxylon), European yew (Taxus baccata), an unknown wood from the family Rutaceae, and bone (not ivory, as one might think) were applied to produce the complex geometric decoration. The diminutive triangular, square, rectangular, and diamond shapes were cut from wood rods in six different sizes and subsequently individually glued in place according to the desired patterns. Tool marks on the bone elements indicate the use of a saw, a knife, a rasp, and shaped carving tools with triangular-section blades. Holes were made using a bow drill. X-radiography reveals the metal pins in the top edge of the panel to be the only joining hardware; similar metal pins or corresponding holes in analogous locations have been observed in the closely related wooden panels in the other institutions in Berlin and Cairo mentioned above.
The composition is symmetrical with a central composite square that is strongly reminiscent of Roman stone-mosaic floors. Each of the two sides includes a series of five narrow arches separated by stylized columns (see detail, p. 43 ). There is no sense of architectural depth in the design as the interior of each arch is filled with a dense, sometimes complex and sophisticated mosaic pattern. The prominent columns emphasize the decorative aspect of the panel especially at their top ends, which recall the crowns of Sasanian rulers. This use of elements from the artistic languages of the two great traditions inherited by the early Islamic artists, Roman on the Mediterranean coasts and Sasanian in the Greater Iranian region, makes this panel an intriguing work to study. It also helps to date it in the first two—unlikely the third—centuries after the advent of Islam.
Stefano Carboni and Daniel Hausdorf (authors) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (no. I. 5684 a-b); Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (nos. 9518, 11636); Museum of Archaeology of Cairo University (no. 58); and Musée du Louvre, Paris (no. AA 201).
2. New Cairo, or al-Qahira, was founded by the Fatimids in 969, and nearby Fustat lost its political importance while maintaining a lively society and busy trading and commercial activities. Related panels in carved wood, now at the Louvre, have also been reported to come from ‘Ain al-Sira: see Anglade, Elise. Catalogue des boiseries de la section islamique, Musée du Louvre. Paris, 1988. , pp. 23–26, figs. 8–10a.
3. According to Muslim burial practice, the body of the deceased is wrapped in a simple cloth and placed in the ground. A cenotaph is therefore a sumptuous but empty grave marker placed on the ground directly above the burial place.
4. A cursory review of the recent George 2010, pp. 45 and 92 (fig. 61), for example, shows that a Qur’an in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris (no. Arabe 331), measures 16 1/4 by 13 3/4 inches ( 41.3 × 34.8 cm), and one in the Khalili Collection, London (no. KFQ 27), is 18 1/2 by 13 inches ( 47 × 33 cm). George also observes ( p. 44) that "the dimensions of preserved Hijazi fragments are consistently large (typically 33 × 24 cm and above . . .)" and shows the image ( p. 87, fig. 57) of a folio from a "Giant Qur’an" in style C.Ia (also in the Bibliotheque Nationale, no. Arabe 324c) that measures 21 1/8 by 24 3/8 inches ( 53.7 × 62 cm).
5. I bid., pp. 79 – 86, figs. 53 – 56.
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 125, ill. fig. 69 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Mohammadan Art. Iran Library. Tehran: Bongah Tarjomeh va Nashr Ketab, 1957. ill. fig. 69 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 3rd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1958. ill. fig. 69 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. Publications, 36.. Lahore: The Panjabi Adabi Academy, 1964. ill. fig. 69 (b/w).
George, Alain. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London, 2010.
Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn. "Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Arts & the Islamic World, Arts & The Islamic World, vol. 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1985). p. 51, ill. figs. 1, 2.
Ettinghausen, Richard, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Islamic Art and Architecture 650–1250. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. p. 65, ill. fig. 98 (color).
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. 21, pp. 43-44, ill. p. 43 (color).