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Creativity Tour

Discover how artists from the diverse world of Islamic art pioneered new ideas and techniques — and adapted existing ones — to impressive effect. Their influence shines through in architecture, manuscripts, and a range of portable objects. This audio tour is designed to highlight the impact of some of these creative contributions on the Islamic world and beyond.

Bowl With a Bird Holding a Leaf in its Beak

Iraq, Basra, 10th century
Earthenware, with lustre-painting on an opaque white glaze (lustre ware)

More About Bowl with a Bird Holding a Leaf in its Beak

This bowl was likely produced between about 925 and 975, when the Iraqi production of lustre-glazed ceramics was nearing its end. Clues to this date are the use of earthenware clay, the particular colour of the metallic glaze, and the decoration of a centralized, large-scale motif—in this case, a bird with a leaf in its beak. Many bowls with similar decoration are attributed to Basra, once a major port city in southern Iraq, and their origin there has been confirmed by petrographic analysis. On the base of the bowl is the Arabic word barakah, meaning “blessing,” bestowing good fortune upon its owner. On the sides are four roundels, filled with v-shaped marks, set against a ground of irregular dots.

— Marika Sardar


Egypt or Syria, first half of 14th Century/ownership inscription 1554
Brass, formerly silver and gold-inlaid, with remains of black paste inlay

More About Candlestick

Produced by Mamluk artisans in the mid-14th century, this candlestick with a conical base was hammered from brass sheet in two parts and soldered together. Originally, the candlestick’s surface would have sparkled with gold and silver inlays. These are now missing, though areas with recessed ground and undercut rims indicate their original locations. A black organic material applied to the background would have provided a strong contrast to the precious metal inlays.


Further Reading

A tall Arabic inscription in bold letters adorns the candlestick body. It reads:

Al-maqarr al-karim al-‘ali al-mawlawi al-maliki al-‘alimi al-‘amili al-‘adili al-maliki al-nasiri
The honourable high excellency the lordly, the royal, the wise, the diligent, the just, the    officer of al-Malik al-Nasir

Candlesticks of this type and style of decoration were produced between about 1320 and 1360, which spans the reigns of two sultans with the title al-Malik al-Nasir: Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad (1293–94, 1299–1309, 1310–41) and his son Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir Hasan (1347–51, 1354–61). The owner of the candlestick was in the service of one of these two sultans. The introductory titles “the honourable high excellency” indicate that the owner was of the highest rank.

In addition to its large inscription, the candlestick is heavily decorated with vegetal and other patterns. A feather design runs along each of the candlestick’s ribs and upper rim. A narrow frieze of scrolling leaves lies beyond the ribs; around the lower rim is a pearl and diamond repeat design. The shoulder has an Arabic inscription in its concave drip tray. A leafy design runs around the top of the outer rim and a pearl and diamond design around the base of the neck. The wide band on the neck has a series of large and small roundels with a wide fringe above and below. The small roundels all contain a six-petalled whirling rosette surrounded by leafy scrolls. Such rosettes are also found in roundels that punctuate a narrow Arabic inscription in the candlestick socket. The ribs are plain or with engraved lines, an abbreviation of the feather design on the larger ribs on the body of the candlestick.

The candle for this candlestick might have been as richly decorated as its holder. Wax candles were often heavily scented with ambergris, aloes wood and other incense and decorated with colourful paper designs and, for the most extravagant ones, silver and gold leaf. They would be used to light the grandest buildings, both palaces and mosques. Endowments to religious buildings often stipulate the number of candles to be provided and when they should be lit. Candles and candlesticks also played an important part in Mamluk ceremonial. Contemporary historians describe how amirs competed to have the finest candle and candlestick for court processions at night. [1]

— Rachel Ward


[1] For the use of perfumed and decorated candles see Rachel Ward, ‘Incense and incense burners in Mamluk Egypt and Syria’ in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 1990-1991, vol. 55, 1992, pp. 67-82 ISBN: 9780856674228
James W. Allan, Islamic Metalwork, the Nuhad Es-Said Collection, pp. 82-83 quotes a description of a candlelit procession in 1333 which emphasises the quality of the candles carried by the amirs and their households. ISBN: 9780856675003

Double Door

Iran, North Mazanderan, 1487-1488/AH 892
Wood, carved

One of the finest examples of its kind, this object bears the characteristic features of Timurid carved wooden doors: deep, intricately carved floral designs inherited from the preceding Il-Khanid period and reminiscent of Chinese lacquer wares; geometric patterns formed by the tongue-and-groove technique; plaited borders; and panels inscribed with prayers and information about patrons, craftsmen, and dates of production. Mazandaran in northern Iran is known for its dense forests and sweetly scented khalanj wood and several examples of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century woodcarvings have been found in that region (Bronstein 1938, p. 2622). The doors share design elements with other doors from this period surviving in public and private collections: a cenotaph in the Khalili Collection, signed by Shams al-Din Sari and dated 902 H/1496 CE (London 2001, pp. 218-19); and pairs of doors in the Art and History Trust Collection, Houston, (Soudavar 1992, p. 94, no. 34) and in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran, signed and dated 846 H/1442 CE (London 1976, p. 292, no. 458).

Leo Bronstein, ‘Decorative Woodwork of the Islamic Period’, A.U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art. Oxford, 1938.
N. Pourjavady, ed., The Splendour of Iran 3. London, 2001. ISBN: 9781861540119
London, The Arts of Islam. London, 1976, no. 458, 292.
Abolala Soudavar, Art of the Persian Courts: Selections from the Art and History Trust Collection. New York, 1992. ISBN: 9780847816606