Exhibits at the British Museum Islamic Galleries

British Museum Facade, Image: Wikimedia Commons

British Museum front staircase

In October 2018 The British Museum opened a new suite of galleries for the display of the museum’s collection of Islamic Artefacts. Many of us had become familiar over the years with the old John Addis gallery of Islamic Art, a smallish room leading off the foyer at the back entrance to the museum. It is remembered with affection – I got to know many of the artefacts during odd hours of blissful solitude. Sometimes I have worked here, doing demonstrations for various events organized by the curators, and at other times I have brought groups of my students to study the collections. Being so tucked away, it felt like a sanctuary, away from the milling crowds of tourists that fill the museum every day.

Now, thanks to the generous patronage of the Malaysian Albukhary Foundation, and four years of dedicated work by a team of conservators and curators of the Department of the Middle East, the collection has a new home: a magnificently proportioned suite of rooms, 42 and 43, situated at the front of the museum. It is accessed by the grand front staircase (or the lift if you prefer). The galleries have been designed by Stanton Williams, with generous proportion and a dignified monochrome theme which, I think, does justice to the treasure-house of material therein displayed.  Some people find it a little sombre, compounded by fairly low light levels. The latter is very necessary for the protection of the objects, but the effect is offset by the high illuminated ceilings  and natural light filtering in through special window-screens. The vast glass cases are almost invisible, and there is plenty of space for the curators to tell their story. In this post I shall share some of my favourite exhibits from the first room, which focusses on the early period of Islamic art (7th – 14th centuries).

British Museum Islamic Galleries

6th – 7th century Sassanian wheel cut glass cup, Museum no. 134373

Formative Influences

The story begins at the beginning, bringing in the formative influences of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. What the British museum has in abundance is the context of late antiquity. I love the fact that you walk through the Medieval and Anglo-Saxon galleries in order to get to the Islamic Galleries. If you wander off to the left just before the entrance to the Islamic Galleries, you find yourself in the Roman world, and eventually in the galleries of Ancient Persia, where you can see Sassanian artefacts that had such a profound influence on the formation of Islamic Art.

This robust late Sassanian drinking cup (above) was probably made in Syria or Iraq during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Syria had an ancient glass industry that supplied the Roman and Byzantine world as well as the Persian Sassanians. Several cups of this style have survived. This one is actually a clear greenish glass which has become heavily patinated with age. The shape is thought to have been blown into a mould, and then the honeycomb design cut into it with a mechanized wheel. Glass and ceramics technology thrived and developed under Islamic patronage, so we see a great deal of it in the early period.

Stucco carving with Sassanian Senmurv, Iran, 8th century, Chai Tarkhan, Museum number 135913

The curators have traced the development of design and technology in the Islamic world through a series of themed displays which are more or less chronological as you progress through the galleries. There are introductory themes on the legacies that fed into Islamic design.  The image on the left is an 8th century fragment of carved stucco plaster which would have once adorned the inside of a house or palace.  The mythical beast is a Zoroastrian Senmurv – a great bird with a canine head and forepaws, framed by a roundel of ‘pearls’. The pearl roundel is a Sassanian decorative device that was adopted in many media, including metalwork and textiles.

There is ample scope to meander too, and pick up on themes like trade, astronomy, ceramics, glass, metalwork, calligraphy, and interactions between artists of the Western world and the Islamic world.

What we don’t see is architecture, but there is a lot of material on how architectural interiors might have looked under the ‘Abbassid Caliphs of Iraq who founded the new cities Baghdad and Samarra.

Fragment of painted stucco from Samarra, Iraq

Lost Cities

The building of the original round city of Baghdad, “The City of Peace” was begun in 762 C.E. We have no trace of the original structures, because poor Baghdad has been repeatedly destroyed throughout history, and all we have are some historical descriptions. However, the ‘Abbassid Caliphs temporarily moved their capital further up the river Tigris, where a new city called Samarra was founded. It was occupied between about 836 C.E. and 892 C.E. until a military revolution caused it to be abandoned.  Archaeological excavations of the site were begun in 1911 by a German historian, Ernst Emil Herzfeld. The material from the excavations was divided between several museums, including the British Museum. The fragmented painted face on the left is like our witness to the original glory of the city.

Display of archaeological finds from Samarra

A section of mother-of-pearl and glass wall mosaic from Samarra

The greater space of the new galleries has allowed the curators to display much more of this material than previously, and we now get a real sense of how the interiors of the early ‘Abbassid world might have looked. There are things here that I have never seen before, evoking a lost world: interior walls painted with elegant polychrome frescos, deeply carved panels of painted stucco, glittering insets of mother-of-pearl, glass and gold mosaic, brightly glazed pottery and tiles, and carved wooden doors and panels. Besides the obvious use of figurative images based on earlier murals still extant in Central Asia, we see in the carved designs of stucco and wood a ‘missing link’ in the development of what we now think of as Islamic design.

We see early iterations of the classic ‘Arabesque’ and Split Palmette motifs, repeating geometric patterns, and something distictive to the period – the ‘Beveled’ style. You can see it clearly in the carved teak door in the case above, with its simplified Hellenic scrolls and palmettes. To the left of the case you can see a silent video about Hertzfeld’s excavations, which is also available online: The Story of Samarra.

Water Filtration from Egypt

Marble ‘Kilga’ or Jar-Stand, Museum no. 1988,1107.1

Pierced filters from the necks of earthenware water vessels

One of the installations surrounds an old favourite of the collection, a massive Egyptian jar-stand or Kilga carved out of a single block of marble. It dates from the period when the Fatimid Dynasty ruled in Egypt between the 10th and 11th centuries (they founded and built the city of Cairo). The kilga would have been set up with a large jar of marble, usually in a public place like a mosque. Water from the Nile filtered through the porous walls of the jar into the Kilga reservoir – this was considered safe to drink. I particularly enjoy the installation on the wall behind the jar-stand of the museum’s collection of pierced filters from the necks of earthenware water-jars.   

Lustre Pottery and Glass

Lustre glazed Cat, Seljuk Dynasty,  made in Kashan, Iran between 1175-1225. Museum no. 1924,0423.1

Pottery and glass were important aspects of the material culture of the Islamic world, and many new techniques of production were introduced during the medieval period. This enchanting Lustre-Glazed Cat (above) was made in Kashan, Iran, which had by the 12th century become a major centre of ceramics production. In a talk at Sothebys, curator Ladan Akbarnian explained that she had selected key objects like this that might appeal to younger children. She has installed them in odd places at a lower level to the regular displays. Look out for more delights like this one!

Back: 10th – 11th century bowl made in Fatimid Egypt, Museum no. 1938,0411.1, Front: Mid 12th century bowl made in Syria, Museum no. 1992,0806.1

Lustre Glaze was one of the earliest technological discoveries in  ceramics of the Islamic world, developed in Iraq in the 8th century. From there production spread to Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Spain and Iran.

Fatimid glass bowl with lustre glaze, Egypt, 10th – 11th century. Museum no.1902,0517.2

Lustre glazes were achieved by the use of suspended metallic oxides heated to a specific temperature, which deposits a micro-layer of gold, copper or silver compounds on the surface. The bowls to the right have different shades of lustre achieved by different combinations of the metals. There is a  silent video commissioned by the curators showing potter Andrew Hazledon re-creating Islamic Lustre Production.

It is thought that lustre glaze on glass may have preceded its use on pottery, and there are a few early examples. Today it tends to look rather dull by comparison with the ceramics. However, pure gold was also used in a variety of decorative techniques, producing the most delicate effects.

By the 13th century glass production in Syria and Egypt had reached the height of sophistication and delicacy. Syrian craftsmen made this Pilgrim Flask below between 1250 and 1260 for a patron of the Ayyubid dynasty, which replaced the Fatimids of Egypt. The clear glass is dusted with a fine spray of gold, and decorated with coloured enamels and gilding.

Ayyubid pilgrim flask, 1250 – 1260, Syria, Museum no. 1869,0120.3

These are just a tiny fraction of the hundreds of fascinating objects and stories in the Islamic Galleries. It actually takes several visits  to begin to absorb the wealth of material, which spans nearly two millenia and a geographical area covering Asia, Africa and Europe. I look forward to covering more artefacts in future posts. I finish with some pictures I took of two more beauties: an early purple glass perfume bottle found in Egypt, and a 14th century Celestial Globe of brass inlaid with silver.

A purple glass bottle, Museum no. 1902,0529.2-19, and a 14th century Celestial Globe, Museum no. 1896,0323.1

Image credits: The opening picture of the British Museum is a creative commons image from Wikimedia Commons, taken and uploaded by Ham.

All the interior gallery shots are by me (Anita Chowdry)

The object images are used under a creative commons licence courtesy of The British Museum, accessed via the British Museum Online Database.