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AKM599, Amulet Box

© The Aga Khan Museum

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AKM599, Amulet Box, Side

© The Aga Khan Museum

 photo.name
AKM599, Amulet Box, Side

© The Aga Khan Museum

 photo.name
AKM599, Amulet Box, Top

© The Aga Khan Museum

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Amulet Box
  • Accession Number:AKM599
  • Place:Egypt
  • Dimensions:4.2 x 3.7 cm
  • Date:11-12th century
  • Materials and Technique:gold with repoussé and chased decoration
  • Small amulet-shaped boxes such as this one executed masterfully in gold were personal items imbued with Baraka, or blessing. They served to shield the owner—in this case, likely a prince or other elite member of society—from misfortune. The square shape and hollow interior indicate that this box likely held paper with protective verses from the Qur’an, while the three small loops on its top reveal that it was originally strung as a pendant. Amulets of this type may have been donned to protect the wearer while on pilgrimage, in battle, or in daily life. On this box, the Kufic inscription reading al-mulk li-llah (“Sovereignty is for God”) also reminded the wearer that God alone is the most powerful ruler.

Further Reading

 

This object has been fabricated from gold sheet that has been ornamented with calligraphy and patterned by means of repoussé (hammering from reverse side) and chased (hammering work from the front side) decoration, creating palmette forms. This type of metalworking in gold is characteristic of jewellery produced by the Fatimids (909–1171).[1] The Kufic style script is typical of medieval north Africa and can be found on a variety of art forms, from small-scale portable objects like this box, to large-scale architectural inscriptions. The phrase al-mulk li-llah (“Sovereignty is for God”), which repeats on both sides of the box, is known from objects produced at other major sites of importance in medieval Islam, including ceramics produced in Nishapur [2] and Basra.[3]

 

The Fatimid dynasty was one of the most prosperous and triumphant dynasties of the medieval world. Deriving their name from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, the Fatimids ruled from the seat of their empire in Cairo (Al-Qahira, literally “The Triumphant”). At the height of their power, the Fatimids’ territory stretched west across North Africa reaching Morocco, and extended as far east as the Levant and Hijaz (modern-day Saudi Arabia).[4] This wide span of territory enabled the Fatimids to maintain important trade relations within Africa as well as with empires around the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. One of the most important natural resources that contributed to the Fatimids’ economic affluence was locally available gold, which had been mined in the region since antiquity. Specifically, gold was obtained from nearby mines in Nubia (modern-day Sudan) and the Kingdom of Ghana. In other cases, gold was obtained as war booty, or plundered from ancient Egyptian tombs and melted down to make new jewelled objects. Portable and valuable items made from precious metals and stones from the medieval and earlier periods are a rarity, as the raw materials were costly and often repurposed—a likely fate of many Fatimid pieces which no longer exist today. The infamous looting of the treasury of Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir (1036–94) around 1070 resulted in the loss of many riches from this period. 

 

A great deal of important information about goldsmithing and jewellery production during the Fatimid period can be found in the cache of medieval documents known as  the Cairo Geniza. These manuscript fragments, found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo, Egypt, indicate prices, terminology, and production details about these industries, much of which was staffed by Jewish craftsmen.

 

— Courtney Stewart


Notes
[1] A bracelet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.1) and the National Museum in Damascus (Inv.2799/4 and Inv.2842/4) serve as excellent examples of Fatimid jewellery. See Trésors Fatimides du Caire Exposition Présentée à l'Institut du Monde Arabe du 28 Avril au 30 Aout 1998. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, 1998, 130.
[2] Bowl; Excavated in Iran, Nishapur; late 9th-early 10th century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1938; MMA 38.40.118
[3] Plate; Attributed to Iraq, probably Basra; 9th century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletchers Fund, 1976; MMA 1976.309
[4]  See Jonathan M. Bloom, Arts of the City Victorious (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 2.


References
Bloom, Jonathan M. Arts of the City Victorious. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780300135428
Goitein, Shelomoh D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World As Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780520221642
Ḥason, Rachel. Early Islamic Jewellery: L. A. Memorial Mayer Institute for Islamic Art Jerusalem: L. A. Mayer Memorial Inst. for Islamic Art, 1987.
Müller, Hans and Thiem Eberhard. Gold of the Pharaohs. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780801437250
Nuʻmān, ibn M. A. H, and Hamid Haji. Founding the Fatimid State: The Rise of an Early Islamic Empire: an Annotated English Translation of Al-Qāḍī Al-Nuʻmān's Iftitāḥ Al-Daʻwa. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006. ISBN: 9781850438854
O'Kane, Bernard. The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo, 2006. ISBN: 9789774248603
Spink, Michael and Jack Ogden. The Art of Adornment; Jewellery of the Islamic Lands. Part I. London: Nour Foundation, 2000. ISBN: 9781874780861
Trésors Fatimides du Caire. Exposition Présentée à l'Institut du Monde Arabe du 28 Avril au 30 Aout 1998  Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, 1998. ISBN: 9782843060083

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