The earliest dated piece of Islamic metalwork is a water pourer in the form of a bird, of copper alloy, inlaid with silver, discovered in the north Caucasus. The decoration on early Islamic metalwork is characterised by geometric and arabesque ornament, together with Kufic inscriptions.
Early examples of silverware have survived, including dishes, ewers and other vessels, which have been made with the design beaten out from the inside or by partial gilding. Flourishing trade routes, both within the Islamic lands and across Central Asia, resulted in examples being carried as far away as Sweden.
Khorasan emerged as the most important metalworking region in the Islamic world in the 10th century. Bukhara and Samarkand were major artistic and cultural centres during this period, with access to the vast metal resources of the region. The cities of Balkh and Ghazna in modern day Afghanistan were important silverworking centres, with the silversmiths of Balkh inhabiting a separate quarter of the city with their own mosque. Ghazna supplied silver furnishings for the Kabbah in Mecca.
Luxurious metalwork was recorded from Fatimid Egypt, when the 11th century traveller Nasir-I Khusraw visited the Fatimid court and described the caliph’s huge gold throne, which was decorated with hunting scenes and inscriptions. The richness of the Abbasid period is still represented today by a gold and silver tree with mechanical birds, produced in the reign of the caliph, al-Muqtadir. Simpler objects were made from brass and copper alloy in the form of lions, birds and griffins.
Other objects that include openwork incense burners and pomanders in the shape of felines, particularly lynxes, and also birds. High tin bronze vessels were used to contain food, as they were resistant to verdigis, a poisonous green patina. Cast brass was used to produce such objects as ornate door handles. Some spectacular bowls of brass with inlaid silver were produced during the Mamluk period, featuring bands of running animals, groups of people and calligraphy.
Among the most remarkable surviving pieces of Timurid metalwork is the huge cast bronze cauldron commissioned by Timur in 1399, for the shrine of the Sufi Shaykh Ahmed Yasavi in Turkistan. Shaykh Ahmed Yasavi was a pupil of Khwaja Yusef al-Hamadani, the ninth Shaykh in the Naqshbandi Golden Chain. It has a diameter of almost 2.5 metres and weighs 2 tons, with decoration of arabesque scrolls and bands of inscriptions. A number of large brass oil lamps associated with the shrine, bearing the name of Timur have survived, three of which remain in the shrine.
The prestige attached to fine metalwork during the Ottoman period is illustrated by the fact that Sultans Selim I and Suleyman the Magnificent were both trained in the art of goldsmithing. Ottoman metalwork is characterised by highly patterned surfaces, encrusted with jewels and precious stones. Elaborate filigree work with silver wire was also produced. Pairs of monumental candlesticks with bell-shaped bases often flank the ‘mihrab’ in Ottoman mosques, which are typically made of cast brass or bronze or beaten copper, which was sometimes gilded.
In Mughal India, gold objects decorated with bright enamels and precious stones were produced from the 17th century onwards. ‘Bidri’ ware, peculiar to Mughal India, are vessels made from a zinc alloy, inlaid with silver, brass and occasionally gold, which were then coated with salts mixed with mud. This blackened the vessel but not the inlay, throwing flowers, leaves and cartouches of the inlay into greater contrast.
Source:- “The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture” by Nasser D. Khalili.
Photo above:- Saddle decoration. Damascened gold and silver on iron base. Timurid Central Asia, c.1400 CE. Source:- Khalili Collection.