incense burners – A SENSE … OF WHO AND WHERE WE ARE

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The Dar al Athar al Islamiyyah (DAI) Cultural Season 23 opened on Monday evening with a lecture presentation on the “Incense Burners in the Tareq Rajab Museum” by Dr Ziad Rajab, the director of the New English School and Tareq Rajab Museum board member.

On behalf of DAI Director General and Co-Founder Sheikha Hessa Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, Chairman of the Steering Committee at DAI Bader Al-Baijan welcomed all the guests to the DAI Yarmouk Cultural Centre as he introduced Dr Ziad Rajab to the audience.

Dr  Rajab, in addition to being a human resource specialist, is involved in the arts, and has non-professional certifications in book binding, illumination, portraiture, oil painting and pottery and also an accomplished flautist.

He thanked DAI for inviting him to open the DAI Cultural Season 23 as he commenced with his presentation with the inextricable link of incense to  the history of civilisations in the Middle East and in particular, the Arabian Peninsula.

Incense is used for aesthetic reasons, and in therapy, meditation and ceremony. It may also be used as a simple deodorant or insectifuge. A variety of materials have been used in making incense. Historically there has been a preference for using locally available ingredients. For example, sage and cedar were used by the indigenous people of North America while in the Middle East particularly the Arabian Peninsula,  Frankincense and Myrrh were extremely popular and widely used. Trading in incense materials comprised a major part of commerce along the Silk Road and other trade routes, one notably called the Incense Route.

The Incense trade route or the Incense Road of Antiquity comprised a network of major ancient land and sea trading routes linking the Mediterranean world with Eastern and Southern sources of incense, spices and other luxury goods, stretching from Mediterranean ports across the Levant and Egypt through Northeastern Africa and Arabia to India and beyond. The Incense Route served as a channel for the trading of goods such as Arabian frankincense and myrrh; Indian spices, precious stones, pearls, ebony, silk and fine textiles and the Horn of African rare woods, feathers, animal skins, Somali frankincense, and gold.

Dr Rajab cited that from pre-Islamic times, the region grew rich and fabled cities were established based on the production and trade of incense including frankincense and myrrh. “As long as incense has been used there have been incense burners. They were used in the dwellings of the simplest of people as well as the palaces of rulers,” he pointed out,” he narrated.

Dr Rajab showed some photos of the ancient incense burners such as the Qaryat Al Faw 4th/5th Century BC, Yemen incense burner in the 3rd Century BC, Large Domed Incense Burner 12th Century in Egypt and a whole lot more.

He then spoke at length of the several incense burners on display in the Tareq Rajab Museum, from the earliest dynasties such as Ummayad and Abbasid, and across the ages and regions to the Fatimid, Mamluk and Ghazni empires.

The Tareq Rajab Museum’s metalwork collection includes over two and a half thousand objects. Among them there are several incense burners, presenting different types from different periods and regions of the Islamic world.

Dr Rajab outlined that thurification and perfuming of the body played an important role in the history of the human race from very early. For these functions several types of sprinklers and incense burners were invented, developed and introduced. It was and is still customary to use these at special occasions in order to sprinkle the guests with rose water upon arriving and to waive some incense at them when they depart.

From the surviving examples of Islamic incense burners that have survived and which are preserved in various museums and private collections, they can be divided them into two major types. The western types, which owe their origin to Coptic and Byzantine examples and, the oriental type which were made under strong Indian, but particularly of Buddhist influence.

Dr Rajab presented one of the western and three of the oriental types.  The western example which originates probably from Egypt or Syria, dates from the Umayyad period, i.e. from the late 7th or from the first half of the 8th century. It reveals the most important characteristics of these western types. The cylindrical body, the domical lid and the long handle have extensive openwork decoration which appear to be one of their dominant features. Furthermore this openwork most frequently presents animals, or animal heads as is the case with the exhibited example.

Of the Oriental types, Dr Rajab introduced three examples, two of which were made in Central Asia, one of them displaying strong Indian, but in particular, Buddhist influence. The earliest examples is in the shape of a large lion or lynx with extensive openwork decoration on its body. The openwork design presents series of five-lobed lotus petals, arranged in several rows on the animals body, thighs and neck. There are also extensive pseudo-epigraphic bands running around on the lower and upper parts of the body and on the lower park of the opening neck. On the front there is the signature of an artist: ‘amala ‘Ali, “made by ‘Ali”. Whether this ‘Ali is identical to the master who signed a similarly large lion incense burner which is in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, is difficult to say. Nevertheless there are lot of similarities between these two objects. What is particularly remarkable that the lion in St. Petersburg has a fish on either side of the mouth which is also clearly visible on the Museum’s lion.  The object was tested in the Archaeological Research Laboratory in Oxford and its suggested date of the 11th century has been confirmed. It was most likely made at Ghazni in Afghanistan.

Dr Rajab outlined that the shape of the Museum’s second Central Asian incense burner imitates Buddhist stupas. Stupas were large solid memorial structures, without any internal space. They could be square or circular. Whichever was the case, they were made of four parts: the square or circular base which normally was several meters high, the circular drum, which served as a base for the third part, the solid dome. On top of the dome was a kind of umbrella, known as chatri, above which in a square or rectangular shaped small element were placed the bones of  a Buddhist holy man, called Boddhisattva. The second incense burner in the exhibition was made in the shape of such a stupa, the stupa of Guldara, which was situated some 30km south of Kabul.  The decoration of this vessel, which is remarkable for its shape and finely executed decoration, depict running animals, benedictory inscriptions and vegetal motives which clearly reveal its origin from Ghazni and dates from the first half of the 12th century. Ghazni was a major metalworking center until the middle of the 12th century when it was destroyed by Ghurids.

The third incense burner is entirely different in its body material, shape as well as in its decoration. It was made of cast brass and it displays extensive silver and copper inlaid, openwork and engraved decoration. The cylindrical body rests of three animal-shaped paws and is provided with a domical, openwork lid. The surface of the body is divided into three horizontal registers, the central one being wider. This latter one displays scenes with human and animal figures, which are interrupted by the so-called “Solomon’s seals”, also known as the “eternal Buddhist knot”, one of the hall-marks of Khorasan. The figures represent warriors, dancers and musicians. The top register carries an epigraphic band, which is partially corrupt, but appears to be a benedictory inscription whishing prosperity, happiness and peace to the owner. In the lower band there are running animals, dogs, rabbits and sphinxes. The lid carries series of silver inlaid trefoils, arranged in four rows, while below there is once more a band of running animals, while on top, around the crowning knob a second silver inlaid inscription wishes again glory, prosperity, wealth, happiness and perpetuity to the owner. The different registers are separated by a narrow bands of pearls two silver ones alternate with a copper one. Such pearl registers can be traced back to Sasanian art and were also much favoured by early Islamic metalworkers of Khorasan.

Dr Rajab pointed out that the human and animals figures which decorate this incense burner were frequently shown on late 12th and early 13th century Khorasan inlaid metalwork, the earliest known appearance is on the famous Bobrinsky bucket which was made at Herat in 559AH/AD1163. Yet, this incense burner does not originate in Khorasan or in Central Asia. This type of incense burners were made either in Mosul or in Syria.   Furthermore, its body material, namely the brass, was introduced into Islamic metalwork during the second quarter of the 13th century, most likely at Mosul in northern Mesopotamia. Several of such brass objects, almost all of them decorated with extensive and beautifully executed silver and copper inlaid designs are known from Mosul, which became a major metalworking centre after the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and Iran in 1221. The artist or artists of the Museum’s incense burner was most likely a refugee from Khorasan, his style clearly reveals his origin. Although we do not know who the artist or artists of this object was or were, nevertheless his work can be recognized on a second similar incense burner which is in the Keir collection in Richmond, Surrey and which  published by this writer over forty years ago.  While the Keir collection object was definitely made in Syria for the Ayyubid Sultan al-Malik al-‘Adil II in 635AH/AD1238, the Rajab Museum’s incense burner is definitely a Mosul work and therefore somewhat earlier. Most likely these Iranian refugee or artists had moved from Mosul to Syria, most likely to Damascus where they found new patronage for their work.

The lecture was capped by an open forum where guests were given a chance to give their feedback and ask Dr Rajab a few questions on the fascinating incense burners.

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