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Searching for the Original Use of a Mysterious Glass Vessel

Two glass vessels from 9th- to 11th-century Iran

Top: Fig. 1. Alembic, 9th–11th century. Iran, Nishapur. Islamic. Glass, green; blown, applied spout; H. 2 3/16 in. (5.6 cm), Diam. (cup) 1 1/2 in. (3.8 cm), L. (overall) 3 15/16 in. (10.0 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1938 (38.40.195). Bottom: Fig. 2. Physician's cupping glass, or alembic, 9th–11th century. Iran, Nishapur. Islamic. Glass, greenish; blown, applied spout; H. 1 15/16 in. (5 cm), L. 3 7/8 in. (9.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1940 (40.170.132)

Islamic cultures are among the most complex and cosmopolitan in our world, with archaeological missions, art history, and scientific analysis all continuing to give us new information. During my studies in Islamic archaeology, I have had the opportunity to focus on one of the most interesting aspects of manufacturing in Islamic art: glassmaking.

As an intern at The Met this summer, I had the chance to examine a very mysterious group of glass vessels that are still not fully understood, primarily known as alembics, funneled cups, or cupping glasses. While several museums own examples of these, few come from archaeological sites; instead, most were purchased from the art market, which further obscures their provenance. The Met boasts two alembics that were found during the archaeological seasons carried out by the Museum at the Iranian site of Nishapur between 1939 and 1947 (figs. 1 and 2).

The root of the name may be related to the Arabic word al-anbiq (to still) and the Greek word ambix (cup). Although various theories exist about how these objects were employed, their name and shapes suggest that they were used to contain liquid. Furthermore, they all date to a very narrow period of time—from the 6th to the 12th century—and even then there is still much debate as to why the production of these objects disappeared after this time.

Fig. 3. Alembic, 700–999. Transparent light grayish green, with brown streamers, small stones, and many bubbles; blown (two gathers); Overall H: 11.7 cm; Far side of condenser to tip of spout W: 12.4 cm; Condenser Diam: 6.9 cm. Corning Museum of Glass (63.1.6)

During my internship in the Department of Islamic Art, I have had the chance to look closely at The Met's Nishapur alembics. These objects have a hemispherical body and a narrow stem that varies in length. After comparing these alembics to those in other institutions, I noticed that an alembic's place of origin presents some differences in the upper part of the body. Alembics from Nishapur and other parts of the eastern Islamic lands have no neck or shoulder, while alembics from the western Islamic lands are characterized by a depressed shoulder and a short cylindrical neck (fig. 3).

Scholars speculate at least three different uses for alembics: for feeding, medical, and chemical purposes. Alembics may have been used to feed babies or patients small doses of liquid, as their small size and shape would have been ideal for distributing medicine or food. In addition, these objects may have had other medical uses. In Arabic medical literature, such as the al-Taṣrīf by Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (936–1030), there is information about a group of objects known as cupping vessels, which were used to suction air from the body of the patient.

In chemistry, alembics may have been used during the distillation process needed to create perfume or for alchemy. Distillation was used for concentrating alcohol from a mixture of different materials, and even today, this process is used for producing medicine, acids, and perfumes. The distillation procedure (fig. 4) requires a boiler (the cucurbit) and a vessel on top of it (the alembic), where all the liquid's vapor rises before it trickles down through a conduit (the stem of the alembic, or delivery tube).

Fig. 4. Diagram showing the arrangement of the alembic (1), cucurbit (2), sand (3), brick furnace (4), delivery tube (5), and receiving flask (6). Francis Maddison and Emilie Savage-Smith, Science, Tools and Magic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 48.

Perfume in the Islamic world, especially Persian rose water, was used in both secular and religious occasions. Some information about perfume manufacturing can be find in al-Taṣrīf, where the author describes two distillation techniques used to create perfume. Alembics were probably also used in alchemy, as several historical scholars including Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (866–925) wrote about alchemy and related instruments. In his work, al-Razi mentions tools very similar to alembics.

While there is a great evidence of alembics in scientific fields, many aspects of these instruments are still mysterious. Perhaps an in-depth study of the shape of alembics can relate these objects with different functions. For instance, I wonder if the shape of western alembics can be related more with the distillation process (as the reconstruction shows in fig. 4), while the upper body of Nishapur alembics suggest a different use. More detailed research will definitely help to correlate alembics with other materials from their archaeological context and explain why these objects were used for such a short period of time.

Further Reading
Carboni, Stefano, and David Whitehouse. Glass of the Sultans. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Kröger, Jens. Nishapur: Glass of the Early Islamic Period. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.

Departments: Islamic Art, Education
Tags: alembic, glass, Iran

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