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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
Brilliance and Magnificence: the Islamic World

The history of Islam began in Arabia in AD 622, the time when the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina and established a community of believers there. Following the death of the Prophet in 632, the leadership of the Islamic community passed to a series of Caliphs and by the eighth century the Islamic world stretched from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq in the east via Syria, Egypt and the North African coast as far as Spain in the west. Great cities arose, and mosques and universities were built as centers for Islamic learning. In a world that was bound together by the written word, calligraphy assumed the highest importance and the non-representational nature of Islamic art led to an emphasis on the decorative arts – architectural decoration, ceramics, glass, and metalwork. From the ninth century, trade with the East introduced Chinese porcelains and silks, which had a profound effect on ceramic and textile design.

The second half of the millennium saw the establishment of larger empires and enduring dynasties in the Islamic world. Among them were the Ottomans, who produced beautiful blue-and-white pottery at Iznik in Asia Minor; the Safavids, who ruled Iran from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century; their successors, the Qajars, who lasted into the twentieth century; and the Mughals, who controlled much of India between the sixteenth and nineteenth century.

Pair of Mosque lamps

Egypt, Mamuk dynasty, about 1350-5
Glass, enamelled and gilded
H35 cm
Slade Bequest; Godman Bequest
S.333(OA+521); 1983.497
Pair of Mosque lamps

Enamelled and gilded glass lamps, hung from chains were commissioned in large numbers for the many mosques built in Cairo by the Mamluk Sultans and their Amirs. They provided light by means of a wick placed in a container of oil within the lamp. Many, including these examples, are inscribed with verses from the Qur'an (24:35) highlighting the symbolic nature of the lamp.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it

The lamps are also decorated with a bold inscription frieze containing the name and titles of Sayf al-Din Shaykhu al-Nasiri, an important patron of art and architecture in Cairo. His heraldic device incorporating a red cup appears in the centre of the roundels on the neck and the underside of the lamp.

A J Arberry, The Koran interpreted, (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1955), pp. 50-51

H Tait, (ed.), Five thousand years of glass, (London, The British Museum Press, 1991), p.135