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The Treasures of Ala-a-Din

by Norman A. Rubin

“Each of the forty women carried on her head a vast basin of solid gold, filled to the brim with pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, turquoise and a thousand other kinds of gems, all like the fruit of trees in shape, colour and size.” — “The Tale of Ala-A-Din and The Wonderful Lamp,” The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night

The Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night is familiar to most of us through the tales of the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, Sindbad the Sailor, Ala-A-Din, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves etc. The pages of the book are filled with lore, enchantment and fabulous treasures wrought by the goldsmith and the handiwork of the jeweller, enriched with magical powers and with beauty beyond the description of words.

As in The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Muslim dynasties, according to historical sources, amassed great treasuries filled with jewellery and artifacts of gold and silver. Jewellery was exchanged among rulers: caliphs awarded consorts and favourite concubines with costly pieces of jewellery and articles of gold and silver. In Ottoman Turkey, weapons and luxury items were splendidly decorated: Swords, helmets, pen cases, mirror backs, combs, belts, buckles were elaborately embellished.

Islamic inlaid metalwork, known as Damascus Ware (Syria and Egypt, 13th-15th century) is best known for its intricately designed bronze vessels inlaid with precious metals, mainly silver. At times inlaid with gold and studded with glittery jewelled decorative designs, medallions, scrolls and arabesques.

In the chronicle of Aq-Koyunlu Sultan Khalil (c. 1476) we read that the prince sat on “a golden throne studded with shining jewels, and that he was presented by his father with a gem-studded saddle.”

Sometimes even in the anticipation of victory, gifts were given such as the case when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV (1648-87) sent to Kara Mustafa Pasha a golden sword and a diamond studded dagger during the seige of Vienna. Kara Mustafa Pasha failed to take the city and upon the orders of the sultan was strangled with a silken cord.

Ornamentation of jewellery and gold and silver artifacts from the Islamic period is renowned for its splendour. The material used for the body of the jewellery is generally sheet gold or silver. The decoration was engraved on a flush surface: The most common motifs are lotus palmettes, triboled leaves and petalled rosettes on scrolling stems. The precious stones used were principally emeralds, rubies, turquoises, corals and pearls. Enamel, mainly yellow and light blue (yellow for the colour of gold; blue, the colour to ward off the evil eye), embellished many ornaments: its use became predominant in the mid-17th century.

The early goldsmiths drew on the techniques of earlier cultures, notably the Greco-Roman-Byzantine and the Persian-Sassanian. Even Coptic and Oriental sources are present. The transition from the craft of the early goldsmiths to classical Islamic goldsmith art was a gradual, lengthy process, spread over several hundred years. In fact, a distinct Islamic style began to appear only in the ninth century with the founding of the city of Samarra in Iraq. This was the turning point in the development of Islamic art, including the art of the goldsmith. The artistic style which evolved there spread throughout the Muslim world, both to Iran and to Egypt. Finally, a style was developed which tended towards the abstraction of natural forms, turning into linear ornament. This style, which determined the future development of Islamic art, also found full expression in the art of the goldsmith.

In the history of Islamic jewellery, the Fatimid period (979-1171 AD) was the richest, most homogenous, and most splendid. During this epoch Islamic jewellery making reached its zenith, both technically and aesthetically, achieving a magnificence and delicacy, which were unique in the art of the Islamic goldsmith. During this period there were two main centres of goldsmith craft in the Islamic world: Iran and Egypt, including Syria.

The decorative motifs of the Fatamid jewellery include scrolls, palmettes and half-palmettes’ and softer curving linear themes, sometimes executed in the “bevelled” style. From the mid-eleventh century and throughout the twelfth, figurative elements such as that of birds and deer appeared on objets d’art and jewellery. The human figure, however, is seldom represented.

Contrary to the immense and fabulous hoardings of gold and silver ornaments and jewellery by the Islamic dynasties, the Koran regards these richly objects with indifference: Its use is not encouraged nor is it prohibited. “And let them not stamp their feet when walking so as to reveal their hidden trinkets” (Sura 24:30).

However, neither its value nor its functions as ornaments entirely ignored. The Koran refers to it as the rewards of the True Believer in paradise. In Sura 18, verse 30, we find the mention of “bracelets of gold”: “And those who believe... for them are prepared gardens of eternal abode, which shall be watered by rivers. They shall be adorned therein with bracelets of gold...” Sura 35, verse 30, repeats this promise: “our servants shall be adorned with bracelets of gold and pearls.”

(Pearls and precious stones constitute a special category in the Koran and are mentioned among the wonders of creation. “Yet between them stands a barrier which they cannot overrun. Which of your Lord’s blessings would you deny? Pearls and corals come from both...” Sura 51:20).

In contrast to the Koran, the Hadjth (Prophetic Tradition) seems to attribute considerable importance to jewellery. For example, a number of passages ordain that silver was preferable to gold. Men were forbidden to wear gold rings but silver was permitted. (Based on the fact that Muhammad’s ring was silver. The Prophet had a silver signet ring inscribed “Muhammad, Messenger of God,” which the He pressed into sealing wax as His seal to caliphs and sultans.) “The Prophet said: ‘Gold and silk are permitted to women of my congregation and forbidden to men.’”

The Hadjth had a rather negative attitude towards goldsmiths, apparently because of the harmful moral effects that could result from this craft. Yet such condemnation of the goldsmith’s trade did not take on the form of absolute prohibition, as no basis for its decree of prohibition was proscribed in the Koran. This hostility inhibited the Muslims from practicing this craft, and as a result Jews and Christians practiced the profession. In some countries, like Yemen, the craft was almost entirely in the hand of the Jewish villagers.

Jewellery and many ornaments, in many cases, were thought to be imbued with magical powers and contained protection from the evil eye, particularly in rings and amulets: “As soon as Ala-A-Din had unwittingly rubbed the ring upon his finger, he saw a great black Ifrit rise before him..” (“Ala-A-Din and the Wonderful Lamp”).

In many countries under Muslim domination, jewellery was a controlled commodity, supervised by as special office called Dar al-Iyar, also responsible for inspecting the work of the goldsmith and jewellery. Some jewellery was subject to taxation (zakat). Though not all jewellery was taxable, expensive pieces were taxed. However, instead of the zakat, a donation for orphans could be made. Not surprisingly, jewellery also became a symbol of rank and social status.

In modern times we have witnessed the weighing of the Aga Khan, of the Ismaili Moslems, with counterweights of diamonds. The magical era of the Muslim dynasties is in the past as the traditional way of life it belonged to have vanished with the advent of colonial domination... and afterwards!

“May the legends of the men of old be lessons to the people of our time, so that a man may see those things which man created in its beauty and magic; also glory to him who preserves these richly ornamented artifacts worked by the hands of man...”


Copyright © 2004 by Norman A. Rubin

Mr. Rubin’s article “The Secret of the Golden Tiara,” which also has to do with goldsmithing, appeared in issue 55.

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