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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Fatimid Jewelry

The rulers of the Fatimid dynasty (909–1171), who descended from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, governed their expansive territory from the seat of power in Cairo (or al-Qahira in Arabic, meaning “the triumphant”). This location on the southern basin of the Mediterranean Sea was an opportune entrepôt for trade with neighboring empires. Spices, silks, metals, ivory, furs, and slaves were traded in Cairo among merchants from Byzantium, rising Italian city-states, Africa, and India. The profits from these sales often remained in Egypt, amassing wealth for the ruling elite and local merchants. Territory ruled by the wealthy Fatimids included the expanse of North Africa, the Levant, and the Hijaz and stretched as far south as Nubia (present-day Sudan), where the dynasty maintained control over the important gold mines that provided the raw materials required to make sumptuous jewels. Such jewelry was a conspicuous display of wealth, worn by the upper echelons of Fatimid society as a representation of their prosperity.

Documents referred to as the Cairo Geniza are critical sources for understanding the production and circulation of jewelry during the Fatimid period. This cache of medieval manuscript fragments, rediscovered in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo in 1896, reveals important details regarding jewel object types, materials, and prices. The documents also illustrate how jewelry served as financial security; for example, as part of a woman’s dowry, jewels remained in her possession even in the case of divorce. The precious metals—gold and silver—used to create such jewelry were locally available around Cairo. Gold mines in Upper Egypt, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa, were well known historically and continued to produce gold through the Fatimid period. In addition, jewelry was frequently made from the melted-down metals of outmoded jewelry, coins, or the spoils of war. Considering the inherent value of the raw materials, it is remarkable that any jewelry survives from the medieval period.

Fatimid jewelry is characterized by very fine gold filigree work, often surmounted with granulation, and sometimes inlaid with cloisonné enamel. The minutia of ornament is strikingly detailed in twists of wire and applied gold ball granules, visible especially in smaller objects, such as in spherical and biconical gold beads (1980.456, .457). Pearls and gold are mentioned more often in the Cairo Geniza than any other materials, and many of the Fatimid jewels in the Met’s collection, such as a crescent-shaped (hilal) pendant and a pair of earrings, would originally have had pearls or other small gemstones suspended from the small loops along the perimeter of the jewels (30.95.37; 1979.278.2a, b). Colorful cloisonné enamel plaque inlays are common decorative components of these crescent-shaped ornaments. The cloisonné plaques, often depicting facing or addorsed bird motifs, are believed to have been produced in the Byzantine empire (ca. 330–1453) and exported to Fatimid jewelers, who set them into such jewels.

A Fatimid pendant in the Met’s collection that has lost its enamel inlay illustrates the so-called box-construction technique; this involves the separate construction of various sides of an object, which are then attached together, forming a hollow interior (1974.22). In these types of objects, gold strip tie-bars serve as supportive components, separating the filigree from the space for the enamel inlay.

Opulent jewels in the Fatimid period were worn by both men and women, and likely served more than just an ornamental purpose. One gold ring, for example, is embellished with an inscription or pseudo-inscription to provide talismanic protection to its wearer in a manner similar to the inscribed tiraz textiles of the same period (1971.165). Such inscriptions, often bearing the name of God, the Prophet Muhammad, or his companions, imbued the wearer with the essence of baraka (“blessing”). This would protect an individual from misfortune and suffering by mediating between these venerated figures and the person carrying the talismanic object.

Many of the distinct characteristics of Fatimid-period jewelry continue in later Islamic dynasties. Cloisonné enamel and gold work of this type is believed to have been traded from the Fatimids to Umayyad Spain (711–1031) in the tenth century, and such influences are clearly visible in later Nasrid-period jewelry (1232–1492). The Seljuqs in Iran (ca. 1040–1157) who were contemporaries of the Fatimids, also produced similar gold filigree and granulated jeweled objects with bird and arabesque motifs. Such opulent styles seem to have had an international appeal in the Middle Ages, and continue to shine to this day.