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Interconnectedness Tour

One way to look at Islamic art is as a layering of cultural bonds. Beyond sharing religious ties, the many geographic regions represented in the Museum were connected by a shared heritage of literature, art, the sciences, and music. On this audio tour, discover five objects representing moments of Interconnectedness between different parts of the Islamic world.


Iran, Nishapur, 10th century
earthenware, slip-painted and glazed

The graceful design on this dish displays two aspects of the arts of Iran and Central Asia in the historical context of the tenth century: the prominence of literature and artistic creativity. The survival of objects, such as this dish, that are decorated with poetic and literary inscriptions both in Persian and Arabic coincided with the blossoming of Persian literature in Iran and Central Asia, including the works of great poets such as Rudaki (died 940) and Ferdowsi (died 1020). The aphorism, inscribed here in Arabic, reminds the viewer that “Generosity is the disposition of the dwellers of Paradise.” This style of calligraphic pottery decorated with blessings, quotations from Hadith, and general aphorisms represents a most creative use of design and techniques. The placement of the inscription with its elongated letters on the sides or cavettos of the pottery and the striking contrast between the inscription and the background provide a pleasing rhythm and balance to the decorative composition. Both the white background and the black and red colours are layers of thin clay that were used to paint the composition under a layer of transparent glaze.

Pharmacy Jars (Albarelli)

Syria, 15th century
fritware, underglaze-painted
AKM567 and AKM568
Two blue patterned ceramic pharmacy jars with a large body and tapered opening. Patterns include flowers, vines, fruits and other cymbals.

Ceramic vessels were historically traded for their aesthetic value or as containers of valuable cargo. These two pharmaceutical jars, known as albarelli, are among a group of four magnificent examples from the Aga Khan Museum’s collection, ranging in date between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and used for trading valuable pharmaceutical substances. Collectively, they highlight the active trade between the Mamluks (1250–1517) and Italian city-states such as Venice and Florence. This unique pair of albarelli is typical of the form, style, and design of ceramics made in Syria and Egypt in the fifteenth century, with the decorative motifs organized in clearly defined registers of intricate foliage painted in cobalt-blue under a clear glaze. The fleur-de-lys heraldic shield in the central band of each of the albarelli is most probably the coat-of-arms of Florence associated with the merchants who commissioned the precious cargo held in them or the city in which the lucrative trade was based.

Manuscripts Of Mi’a Layla Wa Layla And Kitab Al-Jaghrafiya

Spain, 1235/AH 632Author (of original text): al-Zuhri
Copied by: `Abdullah ibn `Abd al-Mawla al-Nujum
opaque watercolour and ink on paper

This manuscript contains the earliest extant copy of al-Zuhri’s Book of Geography, followed by one of the earliest versions of the famous stories of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, A Thousand and One Nights, thought to have been adapted from a Persian source. The Book of Geography was written as a companion for a map of the world commissioned by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun. It provides a description of the world at the time, including important new information about trade routes and commodities traded in the western Islamic lands and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as about the expansion of Islam. The second oldest copy is housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and is dated 1410 CE. The version of the Thousand and One Nights in this text is written in maghribi script and entitled A Hundred and One Nights, establishing its antiquity within the larger “Nights” tradition.

Dagger And Sheath

Iran or Turkey, ca. 1700Faizallah Shushtari Isfahani
Gold, jade, and steel

More About Dagger and sheath

Inscription on blade:
On one side: Qur’an, chapter LXI (al-Saff), part of verse 13. “Help from God and victory near”
On the other side: “O the Opener” and the signature Faizallah Shushtari Isfahani.

This remarkable dagger marries a finely crafted blade from Safavid Iran (1501–1722) with a Turkish hilt from the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922). Both components—along with this scabbard—were likely produced in the 18th century, though how they arrived at such a union is unknown. The steel blade has been signed by Faizallah Shushtari Isfahani, the Persian metalsmith who forged this weapon. In addition to the metalsmith’s name, the inscription on the blade includes a Qur’anic verse (“Help from God and Victory Near,” from Sura 61 [1] and one of the 99 names of God (“Opener”), referring to the divine ability to remove obstacles. Such inscriptions would have underscored the owner’s piety as well as serving a talismanic function, protecting the owner from harm. Interestingly, Isfahani proudly gives the same prominence to his large-scale signature as he does the Qur’anic inscription; they are depicted in the same position on the blade, but on opposite sides.


Further Reading

Some information is known about Faizallah Shushtari Isfahani, who lived and worked in the late 17th to early 18th centuries in Iran, and whose nisba (place-name) associates him with the city of Isfahan. In 1707–8, he was commissioned by the Safavid Shah Sultan Husayn (r. 1694–1722) to make sets of steel door plaques for the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. His signature appears on a variety of other objects, including a small steel orange and a steel ewer which were donated by the Shah to the same shrine.[2] The blade of this dagger in the Aga Khan Museum Collection may also have been produced for the Shah. It is made of crucible steel, meaning that Isfahani used specific smelting and crucible techniques to create the wavy pattern on its surface.

How the blade made its way to the Ottoman Empire is unknown. It is possible that, after it was set into the opulent green nephrite hilt, it circulated as a royal gift. A similar combination of Persian blade with Ottoman hilt can be found in the Hermitage Museum, Russia.[3] Jade hilts inlaid with golden arabesques are very characteristic of Ottoman daggers, and the red gemstone on the end is also seen in Mughal Indian arms and armour.[4] A similar Ottoman dagger in the Furusiyya Collection, London has a jade hilt inlaid with gold and patterning of tulips and carnations on its steel scabbard.[5] Such floral patterning is uniquely Ottoman, and parallels other Ottoman arts from Iznik ceramics to textiles.

The Ottoman and Safavid dynasties have been termed “Gunpowder Empires” on account of their military successes based on the use of cannons and other firearms to greatly improve military tactics in the early modern period. Both dynasties produced opulent arts for the court, as can be seen in painting, architecture, textiles, ceramics, and metalwork as well as jewelled portable objects like the present dagger. The excellent condition of this object suggests it was most likely a ceremonial object never used in combat. Its sumptuous decoration, made from precious stones and gold, has more in common with a piece of jewellery than a functional weapon.

— Courtney Stewart

[1] This inscription is also found on a 17th-century Deccan dagger in the Furusiyya Collection. Published in Art of the Muslim Knight, (p. 228, no. 219.) This dagger also has a very similar quatrefoil motif.
[2] For a full list of the signed works by the artist, see Mayer, 32 and Persian Steel, The Tanavoli Collection, 524–5.
[3] Masterpieces of Islamic Art in the Hermitage Museum, Kuwait (no. 86; 30 and 117). This dagger is also a Persian Turkish combination, but it does not have a curved blade. Collection of the State Hermitage Museum, Russia (inv. no. OR-504).
[4] A similar hilt can be found in the Al-Sabah Collection (LNS 216 J ab) on a dagger attributed to Ottoman workshops, 16th century. This dagger also has a gold and jade matching scabbard.
[5] Published in Art of the Muslim Knight, 174, no. 162.

Al-Saleh, Yasmine. “Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (November 2010).
Allan, James & Brian Gilmour. Persian Steel, The Tanavoli Collection: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780197280256
Curatola, Giovanni, Manuel Keene, and Salam Kaoukji. Art from the Islamic Civilization: From the Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. Milano: Skira, 2012. ISBN: 9780500970348
Department of Arms and Armor. “Islamic Arms and Armor.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004).
Ėrmitazh, Gosudarstvennyĭ. Masterpieces of Islamic Art in the Hermitage Museum. Kuwait: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmiyyah, 1990.
Hales, Robert. Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime’s Passion. Guernsey, U.K.: Robert Hales C.I.  Ltd., 2013. ISBN: 9780992631505
Ivanov, A. “A group of Iranian daggers of the period from the fifteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth with Persian inscriptions.” In Robert. Elgood, Islamic Arms and Armour. London: Scholar Press, 1979 ISBN: 9780859674706
Kaoukji, Salam. Precious Indian Weapons: And Other Princely Accoutrements. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. ISBN: 9780500970805
L. A. Mayer. Islamic Armourers and their works. Geneva: Kundig. 1962.
Mohamed, Bashir. The Arts of the Muslim Knight: The Furusiyya Art Foundation Collection. Milano: Skira, 2008. ISBN: 9788876248771
Moshtagh, Khorasani M. Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period. Tübingen: Legat-Verl, 2006. ISBN: 9783932942228

‘Monk’s Cap’ (Sengmao Hu) Ewer

Jingdezhen, China, 1403-1424, with an inscription dated 1053 AH/1643-44 CE
Porcelain, with a transparent glaze

More About ‘Monk’s cap’ (Sengmao Hu) Ewer

This ewer was made at the imperial kiln in Jingdezhen, China for the Yongle Emperor, who ruled from 1402 until 1424. It was one of a large number of ewers of this form made by order of the emperor to send as gifts to the many parts of his kingdom, part of a concerted campaign to consolidate power. There was a great variety in the decoration of these ewers but the largest number were, like this example, ‘sweet white wares’ (tianbai) made of a special type of clay (with a high aluminum content) and glaze (with a low lime content) that were a specialty of the Jingdezhen kilns. Some of these are still preserved with the boxes in which they were dispatched from the court.[1]


Further Reading

This form of ewer has a long history in Tibet—it was the shape of the vessels, typically metal or wooden, that were used during feasts and that might be displayed in front of Buddhist altars along with textiles and other offerings. When the form traveled to China, it was given the name “monk’s cap ewer” (sengmaohu) because it was thought to resemble the distinctive kind of hat worn by Tibetan monks. Because of that name, there has been some confusion about whether it was used in religious rituals, but that was most likely not the case.[2]
The Yongle ewers were on the move from the time they were made, and so it is not altogether unexpected that this one ended up in India, where, by the seventeenth century, it was in the collection of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-56). Following centuries of trade between China and South Asia, and an increase in the trade of ceramics in the 9th century, we have evidence that rulers in the region were assembling rather large and impressive collections of Chinese wares from at least the 15th century. Therefore, by the time the Mughal emperors came to power in northern India in 1526, it was not only a custom to collect porcelain in the Persian cultural sphere from which they had emerged, but it was also the custom in India, where the Mughals came to rule. [3]
There must once have been dozens of Chinese porcelains in the Mughal collections, where they were very highly valued. The emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27), talks at one point in his memoirs about the rarity and quality of Chinese porcelains that he has been given presented as gifts, and says that he can distinguish porcelains from different parts of China. But out of this larger collection of Chinese objects in the Mughal treasury, only a select few were chosen to be engraved, including this ewer here. On the thumbrest is an inscription reading ‘shah jahan, son of jahangir, the emperor’, and a date, 1053 in the hijri calendar, that converts to 1643-44 CE. At least six other Chinese ceramics bear the name of Shah Jahan, giving some sense of the esteem in which he held these items, as well as his diverse tastes—these objects ranged from pictorial blue-and-whites to this rather subtle and refined form. (These objects are in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; Asia Society, New York; The Al Thani Collection, Doha; and Wallington House, Northumberland, England.) Furthermore, we note the Mughals were not simply acquiring newly made objects of high quality, but sought objects made centuries earlier and that must have been in prized collections from the time that they were made. This includes a platter once belonging to Mahin Banu, a princess of the Safavid dynasty who then donated it to a shrine in Mashhad, Iran, an illustrious history that would only have enhanced its value at the Mughal court.[4]

– Marika Sardar

[1] James C.Y. Watt and Denise Patry Leidy, Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth Century China (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005), pp. 32-36.
[2] My thanks to Katherine Anne Paul, The Virginia and William M. Spencer III Curator of Asian Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art (USA), for clarifying this point.
[3] John Guy, “China in India: Porcelain trade and attitudes to collecting in early Islamic India,” in Geoff Wade and James K. Chin, eds., China and Southeast Asia, Historical Interactions (London: Routledge, republished 2019), pp. 44-60.
[4] Now in the Al Thani Collection, see