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Islamic Architecture
Metalwork in Islamic architecture

With the Ottoman Empire positioned as heir to the Byzantine Empire and as a major world power, Muslim artists found inspiration in an array of artistic traditions from Islamic and Mediterranean lands. By the mid-16th century, during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), a classical Ottoman style had emerged. The style struck an extraordinary balance between the geometric order underlying much of Islamic art and a lyric naturalism visible in the common representation of plants and flowers. This distinctive visual vocabulary was applied to textiles, ceramics, and other media. By the end of the 17th century, the style had become increasingly codified and repetitious. When 18th-century Ottoman society was beset by increasing economic, military, and political problems, the people looked back to the reign of Sulaiman -- including its arts and architecture -- as a Golden Age.

Bloom and Blair (1994) write, "some of Sulaiman's more traditional Islamic regalia were preserved in the palace treasury, including this extraordinary sword inlaid with gold by Ahmed Tekelu in 1526-1527. The hilt is made of ivory, engraved with a blossom scroll inlaid with black mastic and overlaid with a golden network of floral scrolls and chinoiserie cloud-bands. The golden network on the panel is set with rubies and once had a large central gem, possibly a turquoise. Apart from the cutting edge itself, the damascened steel blade is lavishly decorated on both sides. The upper third was chased with scrolls and overlaid with representations of a dragon confronting either a simurgh or a phoenix. The creatures were cast separately and affixed to the surface which was parcel gilt and inlaid with rubies for the animals' eyes. The middle third of the sword displays a scroll supporting composite flowers or animal heads. The lower third displays beautiful Thuluth inscription with Sulyeman's name and titles. The spine of the blade is inscribed in Nasta'liq script with Persian verses and the signature of the craftsman, probably a Turkoman brought from Tabriz by Selim. This sword is one of the finest artistic pieces from the Ottoman court in the early part of Sulyeman's reign." (p. 238)

Second Inlaid with silver, this brass inkwell features musicians within arabesques. Done in the late Seljuq style, the inkwell probably was made by a Persian artist working in Syria or Iraq during the early 13th century.
Third Most early Arabic astronomers accepted the Ptolemaic system of geographical determination and worked to make this system more accurate, more efficient, and more elegant. The planispheric astrolabe was one of the most important instruments used by early astronomers. This brass instrument, a Planispheric Astrolabe, is signed by Badr, an assistant to Ibn al-Husain bin Ahmad, an astrolabist from Baghdad. Planispheric astrolabes were used for maritime navigation as well, and as such, were the prototypes for later Quadrants.

This rather squat, multifaceted brass ewer is covered by silver inlay. In The Genius of Arab Civilization, Oleg Grabar writes that the decoration is artfully ordered in alternate rows of bands and medallions -- composed in such a way that neither system overwhelms the other and each is in perfect balance with the other.

The ewer is a product of a school of metalworkers that flourished in northern Iraq during the 13th century. An inscription on the ewer's neck states:

"Engraved by Shuja' bin Man'ah al-Mawsili, in the blessed month of Rajab of the year 629 [May 1232] in Mosul."

Although its quality may be superior to many bronzes of the time, notes Grabar, the ewer is not unique in technique, subject of decoration or style. The technique of inlaying brass or bronze with silver did not originate in the Arab empire, Grabar notes. Earlier examples are found in China and the Near East. But in the mid-12th century, this technique became the most popular means of decorating metal objects. The revival is believed to have begun in northeastern Iran, then spreading throughout the Arab world.

The "Blacas" ewer (named so because it was part of the collection of the Duke of Blacas) is rich in decoration. The main medallions contain typical scenes of   'the princely cycle' -- courtly audiences, hunting, feasting, dancing and music. These scenes are repeated on the smaller medallions. The neck includes depiction of the planets and signs of the zodiac. Two of the bands have inscriptions, "figural Kufi", expressing good wishes and blessings. On one band, the letters are almost transfigured by representations of animals and humans engaged in a wild array of activities.

Grabar writes that inlaid metalwork was on objects employed for daily use -- for writing, washing, drinking, providing light. Many of the objects were commissioned by the Muslim urban bourgeoisie. The scenes and symbols on the objects, writes Grabar, were used as metaphors of good wishes for the users of the objects.

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