This elaborately decorated marble object, called a kilga, originally supported a water jar made of unglazed earthenware. Together, the kilga and water jar served an invaluable function: not only storing clean water, but also ensuring none was wasted. The porous walls of the water jar would drip and seep as some of its contents evaporated. In turn, the seeped water would collect in the projecting trough at the front of the kilga, where it could be scooped out and drunk. This water had the benefit of being filtered by its passage through the unglazed walls of the jar. Kilgas were apparently unique to medieval Cairo, a city perilously dependent for its water upon the annual flooding of the river Nile.
The decoration found on kilgas is often playful and complex, filled with allusions to the architecture of medieval Cairo. In this example, elaborate arch-forms, of a type particular to Cairo from the Fatimid period (969–1171) onwards, have been incised into the chamfered back corners of the trunk, and further ornate arches are carved between the legs of the kilga and over the connection between trunk and trough. The sides of the trunk, meanwhile, are decorated with a design of muqarnas — a form of honeycomb tiered vaulting used on Cairene buildings from the 11th century which came to be one of the most characteristic and recognizable elements of Islamic architecture.
From the 12th century onwards, the muqarnas design also frequently appears on complex architectural water features known as salsabils. This kilga shares with salsabils other decorative elements. Salsabils often feature feline-shaped waterspouts, and in this kilga, faces of lions can be discerned on the two projections at the front of the trunk. Furthermore, the trough of this kilga has been carved to resemble an architectural pool like those found in the elite houses of medieval Cairo. It is almost as if the decorative scheme of this kilga recreates a salsabil in miniature.
Like many kilgas, this example bears an inscription. It is hard to read, being worn away in places and written in a rather crudely hatched, rectilinear form of Arabic script. The words that can be tentatively made out include common benedictory terms, like naʾīm (“comfort”), as well as less common ones like masrūr (“joyful,” also a male personal name). Such terms do not appear to give documentary information that would help date the piece. Unlike some other examples, this kilga does not bear the human and animal forms particularly associated with the art of the Fatimid period, and it might hail from a slightly later date.
The large eight-pointed interlace star carved on the back surface of this kilga is unusual. Repeating patterns featuring eight-pointed stars are widespread in Cairo’s medieval architecture, although they not often seen on kilgas. A similar star has also been found in a mihrab (prayer niche) in the 9th-century mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo.
Made from spolia (re-used architectural components), the kilgas of Cairo must have been produced in large numbers: more than 75 survive in collections and museums. Many of them are in Cairo collections, in the Museum of Islamic Art, the Coptic Museum, and the Gayer-Anderson Museum. Some of those kilgas were in use in Cairene mosques immediately prior to their accession into museum collections, although we do not know if they were originally created for use in public settings, or for domestic use in private houses.
— Margaret Susanna Graves