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Islamic Metalwork

by Norman A. Rubin

A related article by Mr. Rubin,
“The Treasures of Ala-a-Din,” appeared in issue 79.

Islamic metal vessels — east to west — are characterized by a profusion of Arabic inscriptions in Kufic and other script styles as decorative motifs; with religious verses and formulas; and sometimes inscribed with the name of the owner and his title.

Baraka kamila wani’ma wasalama lisahibihi.
“Complete blessing and much health for the owner (of the vessel).”

The use of metal objects in Islamic society had important and widespread use: cooking was carried out in metal basins and pans; the houses would have metal fittings on doors and windows; the hands of guests were washed in metal ewers; the literate would have metal pen cases and inkwells; female toiletries included metal-backed mirrors, kohl sticks, cosmetic containers, etc.; horses would be decorated with brass; and in battle it would be a melee of metal on metal.

The impressions gained from collections of Islamic metalwork are that most items are made of brass or bronze decorated with copper, silver, and gold, and that gold and silver vessels as such are very few. This impression is mistaken, for Islamic literature and miniature paintings are replete with descriptions of ornamental luxury silver and gold vessels.

There are two reasons for the paucity of vessels crafted of precious metals. One being is the Islamic edict that forbids the burying of the deceased with his possessions, as practiced by other cultures. Two, the silversmiths were wont to melt down such objects for profit or to reuse the materials for new objects. Thus, most of the extant Islamic gold and silver objects are derived from buried hoards, which were uncovered by the spade of the treasure hunter or archaeologist.

The manufacture of metal vessels in the Muslim world was usually a family tradition. Among the metalsmiths were some who served in the function of varied Islamic governmental administrations, or were merchants or officials. Their titles attest to their being educated men. Sometimes, apprentices were initiated into the secrets of the profession to help the master metalsmiths. Some of the craftsmen worked under patrons of art; others were itinerant artisans.

For practical reasons, casting was done in workshops equipped with furnaces, bellows, molds, and lathes for finishing the work. The inlay craftsmen, who needed few portable tools, moved among the patrons who provided them with the precious metals, which contributed to the spread of patterns, motifs and varied techniques in the crafting of inlaid metalwork.

The lavishly decorated wares that were ordered glorify the patron’s names with dedicatory inscriptions and heraldic blazons. Many hundreds of inlaid metalwork objects that have survived are inscribed with the names of the patrons, their titles and often their blazons. Occasionally artifacts even bear the name of the ruling sultan of an Islamic country, showing that the items have been crafted for use in the court. Many of the artifacts were embossed with a Kufic (early style of Arabic script) blessing to the patron, “Fortune, joy, happiness, peace, and long life to its owner.”

The trade in metalware among the lands of the Faithful makes it sometimes difficult to trace the origin of a given object. The unifying factor in all Islamic centres of artistic manufacture was the Muslim religion and culture. It combined form motifs, and iconographic details with a clearly recognizable Islamic style characteristic of all the Muslim countries from east to west.

Islamic Art

The term “Islamic Art” is a general description of all artistic works of the Muslim world: ornate calligraphy, decorated metalwork, colourful ceramics, delicate glass vessels, miniature paintings, resplendent carpets, sophisticated textiles, etc. Islamic art characterized the work of artists and artisans in all of the lands conquered by Muslim armies from A.D. 622 to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920’s. During these 1300-odd years, although Muslim empires rose and fell, there prevailed a continuum of Islamic cultural unity with a variety of rich local traditions; it was a clearly recognizable Islamic style.

At first, Islam borrowed extensively from the artistic traditions of the conquered lands: Judean, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Cretan, Byzantine, and Sassanian. With the spread of the Word of the Prophet to central Asia and north Africa, the native artists and artisans now working under the new masters developed characteristic traditions, styles, modes of expression, iconographies, and symbols of their own.

The craftsmen of the Islamic period founded an artistic language that became a recognizable characteristic of Islamic metalwork and which has continued with only minor changes to this day. Most of the Islamic metal objects are functional but artistic in their style.

The metals used were beaten copper, sheet or cast brass, cast bronze, cast high tin bronze. (Weapons were of Damascus steel.) The minorities of the metal artifacts that are made of precious metals (gold and silver) were crafted for ornamental purposes: The luxury items are richly decorated to the delight the beholder.

Stages of Islamic Metalwork

Under the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century, Baghdad became the focus of the Muslim world, and the city attracted artists, poets, and musicians from all over the Arab world. During that period, brass — which was cheap and durable and easily worked and mass-produced — was used extensively, both for everyday utensils and luxury ware. The best brassware was made in Khurasan in eastern Iraq, where there was an abundant supply of copper and tin and a long tradition of metalworking.

Yet historians tell of the jewel-encrusted gold and silver vessels from which the Abbasid caliphs ate and drank.

When Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his Mongol army invaded northeastern Iraq, they laid waste to the renowned metal workshops of Khurasan. A few of the craftsmen, however, fled westwards and set up new centres for the production of fine metalwork in Mosul, set on the banks of the Tigris River. Later, important centres were also established in Damascus and Cairo.

Most of the metal artifacts of this period were luxury items made of bronze and inlaid with silver. The glittery decorative motifs include bands, medallions, figurative designs, scrolls, inscriptions, and arabesques, which entirely cover the vessel.

From the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries in Egypt and Syria and in the modern era, Islamic metalwork is best known for its intricately designed bronze vessels inlaid with precious metals, mainly silver. The craftsmen refined the inlay techniques that had been in use since the Roman and Sassanian times.

This art form, originating in eastern Iran, spread to Syria and Egypt, especially Damascus and Cairo. In Damascus it became particularly popular; hence it became renowned as “Damascus Ware.” This technique reached a peak in the thirteenth and fourteen centuries, when the most elaborate Islamic metalwork was produced.

When the Mamluks ruled Damascus and Cairo in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they amassed great wealth from conquest and subjugation. They became very important patrons of inlaid metalwork and they lavishly ordered artifacts with dedicatory inscriptions and blazons that glorified their name. In order to highlight the ornamentation, the craftsmen increased the proportion of zinc in the copper alloy, lending the brass a golden hue.

The Inlay Technique

Mastering of artistic techniques (tawdshiya; tat’im) represents a high point in Islamic metalwork of the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries. In early Islamic periods large numbers of bronze vessels were cast, along with valuable vessels raised in gold and silver, for the princely courts and the homes of the wealthy.

The inlay technique is based upon the application of relatively soft metals — copper, gold, and especially silver — to objects made of harder metals, such as bronze and brass. Initially, in the twelfth century, hammering wire into tiny grooves that had been previously cut into the object created all designs. This was a laborious process; artifacts to be inlaid were chiselled to about 1-mm deep recesses along the pattern lines, the chisel marks were left rough, the sides undercut, and then silver wire was hammered in the cuts. Encrustation with small pieces of gold foil was done in a similar manner. When cheap metal objects inlaid with silver were burnished, they looked like costly silver-inlaid gold vessels.

In a later period, the fourteenth century, when there existed a shortage of silver, the metalsmiths economized on the expensive metal by hammering the inlaid designs onto the roughened surface of the vessel. Though this process was more economical, the inlays had a tendency to peel off rather easily.

Motifs and Symbols

A major theme underlying the symbolism attached to Islamic artistic artifacts, was that of the universe and its corollary and world kingship. “God being the King of the world and ‘the king’ — whichever ruler it might be intended — ‘the shadow of God on earth’.” The world is symbolized in Islamic literature, both secular and theological, as the celestial sphere or rather the hemispheric dome in the sky, as seen by the human eye — the upturned bowl (tas-i nigun) and a rotating dome ( gunbad-i gardan). These two sets of images are the key to the motifs on Islamic art. This theme was set in the patterns of the metalwork by the shape, through calligraphy or in the use of symbols.

During the Fatimid era (909-1071), brass vessels are simple and functional. Sometimes Kufic inscriptions and decorative motifs showing birds, animals, geometric patterns and vine tendrils are engraved on them. The representation of the human figure was forbidden according to a Koranic edict, which regards the human form in art as rivalling God’s creations.

During the two-hundred year Seljuq reign in the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, which is known as the classic period or the golden age of Islamic art, new decorative and innovative motifs made their appearance. The formalized, stylized motifs were replaced with forms that reflected the artist’s urge for realism. The same was true in the crafting of metalwork.

At times, during this era, metalsmiths departed from the basic, functional forms and gave their vessels animal shapes. The inscriptions on the vessels are humanized. In this period, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements (hastae) were added to the Arabic script on the vessels. These patterns departed from the aniconic approach of Islam in the free use of figures and symbols. One explanation is that artistic conceptions were Persian, for Persian literature and art is replete with metamorphic allusions.

In the fourteenth century, under Mamluk rule, elegant metal objects were made for personal use, and ceremonial objects were inlaid with silver and gold. To this were added Eastern motifs such as composite imaginary figures and a repertoire of vegetable and animal forms. The inscriptions were etched in the ornate thuluth script (one of the many forms of Arabic writing) which became the hallmark of Mamluk metalwork. The thuluth inscriptions are framed in bands separated by medallions; the inscriptions are within roundels that radiate from the center.


Under the Burji Mamluks — from the late fourteenth to the early fifteenth centuries on — the economic power of the Mamluk sultanate declined in the wake of plague and epidemics, famine, renewed Mongol conquest under Timur the Great, and internal dissention.

The metalworking crafts dwindled and use of precious metals for inlay ceased to be replaced by brass vessels decorated by engraving and with the addition of bitumen as background, and by engraved tinned copper utensils.

Only in the sixteenth century, under the Qa-ithbay regime, did a revival occur in Islamic metalwork, continuing through the Ottoman era. The metal vessels of this period preserve the traditional forms, but their decorative motifs changed which depicted the lifestyle of rulers of the Muslim empires. Also, greater use was made of steel.

Western colonialism in the nineteenth century brought about a standstill and degeneration in Islamic art and culture. With the fall of the great dynasties, the artists and craftsmen lost their devoted patrons, and turned to marketing their products en masse to the growing tourist trade. The studios that trained craftsmen closed, and western aesthetic concepts superseded ancient local traditions.


  • James W. Allan, Treasures of Islam: Metalwork, Toby Falk, ed.; Avon, England: Artlines (U.K.) Books.
  • Archives, Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
  • Irit Ziffer, Islamic Metalwork, Tel Aviv: Eretz Israel Museum.
  • Irit Ziffer, Islamic Metalwork: Catalogue and exhibition, Tel Aviv: Eretz Israel Museum.

Copyright © 2004 by Norman A. Rubin

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