Ivory Pyxis from Cordoba

Many works of Islamic art have come in the form of portable objects intended to be used in everyday life or objects used for special religious social occasions. A wide variety of objects made from glass, metal, stone, wood and clay fall into this category. The best pieces contain lovely designs and calligraphy.

Some of the best Islamic art is in the form of ceramics, tiles, metal work, textiles, glassware, musical instruments, lustre ware, carvings, jewelry and coins. Extraordinarily beautiful pieces include things like enameled glass mosque lamps decorated with calligraphy from the Qur’an, domed ivory inkwells with foliate ornamentation, white ceramic flasks with tiny spirals of blue flowers, and ceramic bowls made with a ground up quartz. Other crafts include glass bottles with cut decorations, painted earthenware, oil lamps, incense burners, dishes and cups with cut decorations, colored enamels, copperware, brass ware, painted jars and bowls, carved ivory.

You can also find a variety of household objects like combs, game pieces, weaving tools, water-jug filters, writing boxes, inkwells, measuring devises, stamps and sandals that have Arabic-style decorations and designs. Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: “The integration of arts and crafts into everyday life was very much the norm in the traditional Islamic world. The idea is that as Islam is integral to every part of a Muslim's life and makes it beautiful, so Islamic art should be used to make the things of everyday life beautiful. The emphasis in Islamic art is on ornamentation rather than on art for art's sake.” [Source: Zarah Hussain, BBC, June 30, 2009]

Among so the most beautiful pieces of Islamic art at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London are mosque lamps hung from the beams of a mosque: a rock crystal ewer from Egypt, carved from a single piece of crystal and featuring a bird f prey attacking an antelope; laquer pen boxes with court scenes from Sufi stories; a 15th century bow, depicting a Portuguese sailing ship, made in Spain using a technique invented in Iraq centuries before; and a 17th century vestment used by Armenian priests, made by Persian craftsmen in the Iranian city of Isfahan.

Styles found in Ottoman calligraphy and illustration also found their way onto objects like jewelry, ivory mirror cases, schools, canteens, swords, thrones, robes, carpets and other objects. Many of objects favored by the sultans were inlaid with old scrolls bearing blossoms with turquoise, ruby and emerald centers.

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art and Architecture: Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

Treasures at Topkapi Palace

Topkapi diamond

The Treasury of Topkapi—the palace of the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul—houses a stunning assemblage of gems equaled only by the Crown Jewels in Britain and the Shah's treasures in Iran. Some of the treasures, such as rotating music boxes and solid silver elephants from India, were gifts from foreign dignitaries to the sultans. Some, like the gem encrusted Qur’ans, were gifts from pashas under the sultan controls. And others were spoils of war. Yet others were crafted by palace craftsmen and artists. Among the 575 artisan who worked at the palace in 1575 were goldsmiths, engravers, furriers, potters, musical instrument makers, calligraphers, weavers, painters and bookbinders from Turkey, Herat, Tabriz, Cairo, Bosnia, Hungary and Austria. The sultans often oversaw the work by the craftsman The sultans were all trained in a particular trade and sometimes produced their own works of art.

Treasures in the Treasury include silver and gold belts lined with emeralds the size of quail eggs; shields rimmed with pearls and precious stones; exquisitely carved mirrors of ivory; and quivers made of silk and yet more gems. Even the water canteen the sultan took with him to battle is something to behold. It is made of 4.5 pounds of gold and imbedded with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Not all the red stones in the treasury are real rubies and not all the clear ones are diamonds.

Other goodies in the treasury include the diamond encrusted armor of Mustafa III, an 18th century gold hookah, and a jewel encrusted cradle where newborn princes were presented to the sultan. There is a jade mug encrusted with rubies and emeralds and a figure of a sultan carved from an enormous pearl. The 86-carat diamond inside a glass vault, the story goes, was found by a fisherman, who traded it for three spoons. The reliquary of St. John the Baptist's arm has a square opening so you can see the bone inside. The 16th century walnut, ivory and ebony throne was used by Sulyeman the Magnificent. Inlaid with gold, jewels, mother of pearl and tortoise shell, it is appreciated more for its detailed craftsmanship than European sumptuousness. It was made with special cushions so the sultan could sit cross legged on it.

Topkapi dagger

The emerald treasures in the Treasury are especially dazzling. These include an emerald-plated snuff box and a gold writing box with emeralds and rubies. The 18th century emerald-studded dagger featured in the Orson Wells film has three golf-ball size emeralds and rows of diamonds on the handle. A forth large emerald conceals a small clock. The dagger was originally meant to be a present for the Nadir Shah of Iran. He was assassinated before the gift could be presented to him so the sultan kept it.

The emerald pocket watch was also supposed to be a gift from the Turkish sultan to the ruler of Persia, but the messenger died before he got to Iran and somehow the watch made its way back to Istanbul. Most of the magnificent emeralds came from Columbian mines via Spain and India in the 17th and 18th century. "Diamond-loving Europeans were at first not very found of emeralds," says gemologist Fred Ward, " which is one reason why the Ottomans." ended up with so many monstrous stones."

Mughal Personal Art Objects

The Mughals—the Muslim rulers of India from the 15th to the 18th century—produced outstanding jeweled objects d' art. One of the most outstanding pieces, owned today by Sheik Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait, is a dagger with 1,685 rubies, 271 diamonds, 62 emeralds and many pieces of emerald green and deep blue glass. It features an Italian Renaissance grip, a blade inscribed with English words, Iran-style gold overlay and a scabbard with Central Asian silk designs.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “It was a tradition in the Mughal and Rajput courts to give elaborate gifts to impress and gain favor at court. Giving beautiful, skillfully made objects that could be held or worn advertised the refined taste of the donor, another way to advance one’s position at court. The most treasured possessions, and therefore the most prized gifts, were jewels, bejeweled daggers and turban ornaments, fancifully designed containers made of precious materials for food and drink, incense, jewelry, perfume and water for bathing, writing implements, and hunting equipment. At the biannual weighing ceremony of the Mughal emperor, his weight in gold and silver, made from gifts by his courtiers and subjects, would be distributed to holy men and the poor. The emperor, in exchange, bestowed costly personal objects on his favored princes, ambassadors, and officials.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Mughal backgamon set from the 1800s

Describing a 25.7-centimeters,17th–18th-century Mughal-period, ivory and bronze priming flask Kossak and Watts wrote: “Images of royal hunts not only symbolized the courage and skill of the king, they also affirmed the king’s control of his lands, since he alone granted to others the privilege to hunt. Elegantly designed hunting equip- ment was a sign of one’s status at court. Priming flasks like this one were worn suspended from a belt or from the neck so that when the court hunter needed to pour fine gunpowder into the firing pan of his gun, the flask would be close at hand. He would press down on the brass metal fitting to open the lid of the flask (the smaller end).

“At least ten carved animals are visible here. At the tip of the curving tusk on the right is a cheetah attacking an antelope. Indian rulers often hunted with tamed cheetahs that were trained to overtake and bring down swift animals. Other images of cheetahs crowd among other animals on the flask. Notice how the ivory carver adjusted the sizes of animals and over- lapped them so that he could include as many as possible on the given shape of the ivory. To combine so many of them so cleverly requires great skill and imagination.

“There was a Persian tradition of fitting together, like a puzzle, animal or human forms to create an image of a single creature. In India, such con- trivances were often seen in miniature paintings. On another level of meaning, the animal images on this flask may refer to ancient beliefs that making magic images of animals brings good luck to the hunter. Their presence on hunting equipment would lend supernatural abilities to the hunter; his bullet would be more likely to hit its target and the cheetah more likely to capture its prey.”

Crown Jewels of Iran

The collection of jewels associated with the Shah of Iran formerly contained more than half of the world’s largest cut diamonds. Some are as big walnuts. In terms of size and quantity, the emerald collection is regarded as the world’s largest. A 500-car red spinel (a ruby-like gem) is the world’s largest. The famous Koh-i-Noor Diamond was once part of the collection. It was taken in India by the British and is now part of the British crown jewels.

crown from the Iranian Crown Jewels

The prize of the collect is the matchbox-size Darya’e Noor (“Sea of Light”) Diamond, a flawless pink diamond with an estimated weight of 175 to 195 carats (its true weight is not known cause it has never been removed from its diamond-encrusted gold setting).” It has a 350 year history and is surpassed in size by only a half dozen or so diamonds in the world. What is even more remarkable is that it was cut from a much larger stone. A Frenchman reported that he saw the original 300-carat diamond for sale in India in 1642. He called it the “Great Table.”

Iran's Pahlavi Crown of State glistens with 3,380 diamonds, including a 60-carat pale yellow gem, 368 pearls, five emeralds and two sapphires. It was designed for the enthronement of Reza Khan in 1925. You can also see the pearl-embroidered silk cape, a gold belt with an egg-size 175-carat emerald buckle, and the “all conquering” sword—jeweled with emeralds, diamonds and rubies—that the Shah wore during is coronation. Also featured in coronation, and found here, are the diamond-studded gold scepter and the famous Peacock Throne, with 26,000 gems.

A stupefying 18-inch, 88-pound globe maps out the world with 51,000 gems. Rubies mark out the continents floating on a sea of emerald green. There are also dozens of display cases filled with crowns, tiaras, earrings, brooches, and jewel-encrusted objects. No one how much the collection is worth. A small snuff box inlaid with large square emeralds and framed by flawless diamonds alone is said to be worth $20 million.

Islamic Ceramics and Tiles

Mosques, madrasahs and other buildings in Central Asia are famous for their colorful tilework. The tiles not only make the building look beautiful they also make them appear lighter. The tiles are set up to reflect the desert sun. Tiles are a luxurious, hard-to-work medium but in the words of the 13th century Persian historian Abu’l Qasim they “reflect like red gold and shine like light of the sun.”

The tiles come in variety of styles: stamped, chromatic (one color painted on and then fired), polychromatic (several colors painted on and then fired), and faience (carved onto wet clay and then fired). Deep cobalt blue and turquoise (meaning "color of the Turks") were often featured on domes.

Islamic potters developed an opaque tin glaze that retained color and detail because of its low firing temperature. This glaze was used on the famous tiles in the Alhambra in Spain. When the Muslims were kicked out of Spain between the 13th and 16th centuries this style of glazing and tile making spread through the Muslim world.

The Middle East is famous for blue and white fritware pottery. It was developed by craftsmen trying to make Chinese-style porcelain with ground stone and sand instead of porcelain clay.

Iznik Tiles

Iznik tiles from Turkey, 1560

Ottoman imperial kilns were located in Iznik, a town about 100 kilometers from Istanbul, where ceramic vessels and tiles were manufactured for more than three centuries. Palace studios supplied designs to Iznik potters and tilemakers, who expertly transferred them onto plates, bowls, jugs ad tiles.”

Iznik tiles were painted with brilliant colors underneath a clear glaze. They feature many of the same brushwork used by the calligraphy masters and illustrators in the nakkashane studios of the sultans. The best tiles were made for the sultan’s palaces, and imperial mosques and mausoleums.

Originally an important Roman and Byzantine town known as Nicea Iznik hosted the famous Ecumenical Councils of A.D. 395 and 787 and fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1078. It was briefly held in the 11th and 12th century by the Crusaders after they won a battle that. In the 16th and 17th century Iznik was the center of production of exquisite ceramic tiles. The tile industry reached perfection in the 1570s with the production of a dazzling range of colors on unblemished white backgrounds. The reds in particular were particularly rich. The tiles were used to decorate many of the finest mosques in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey. The tile industry is still very much alive; shops sell a variety of ceramics and sometimes tours can be arranged of the tile making facilities. While you are in Iznik also make sure to visit the turquoise tiled Yeşil Mosque.


Inside a mosque, near the mihrab—a small alcove-like niche, which marks the direction of Mecca—is a stepped pulpit called the minbar (also minber). This is where the imam or khatib gives his Friday sermon. It is often ornately decorated and the only real structure in a mosque. The preacher usually speaks from a step below the min bar platform because the platform is reserved for the Prophet and Caliphs who occupy a higher position. Below the minibar steps is a small door concealed by a curtain. No one but the imam is supposed to enter this door.

Many minbars are portable pulpits that look like decorative wooden staircases on wheels. They are kept in closets most of the time and are wheeled out for Friday sermons. Some minbars are also exquisite examples of Islamic art, ornately decorated with carved geometric patterns and inlayed with ivory and precious woods.

minbar at Sultan Hassan Mosque

Describing a minbar in a great mosque in Cairo, Michael Glover wrote in the Times of London, “We approach the great minbar , the wooden pulpit with double doors and steep steps up which the imam ascends to lead Friday prayers. It is adorned with the most exquisite ivory panels: extraordinarily delicate wheels and trapezoidal shapes.".The extraordinary thing about a minbar such as this one is that it's a bit like a flatpack from Ikea in certain respects. It would have been constructed to be use in a mosque such as this one, but you could take it apart and erect it elsewhere."


Islamic art is also known for its elaborate and detailed metalwork made by craftsmen with extraordinary technical skill. Islamic copperware and brassware is well known. There are also lovely silver pieces.

Extraordinary pieces include 9th-century Egyptian copper incense burners cast in different sections; 12th-century Afghan brass candlesticks made with such precision from a single sheet of metal that it has no seams; hammered brass canteens from Syria, full of elaborate designs and figures made with inlaid ivory; and 16th-century silver bowls with engraved floral designs that are less than two centimeters high.

Some Muslim groups are known for their coppermaking skills. Reporting from Kashgar, western China, home of Muslim Uighur people, Takahiro Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “As I was walking along a road in a craftmaking area, I heard rhythmic sounds coming from a copperware store. I spotted a Uyghur craftsman with a serious look on his face hammering away as he formed a copper utensil.Copperware is a traditional Uyghur craftwork and its production center is Kashgar. The 40-year-old owner of the shop I entered said all of the products on display were made from scratch by hammering flat copper plates into shape. [Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 5, 2014 ==]

“Various daily necessities such as pitchers, pots, plates and spoons were available in the shop. These products are made of three kinds of metal—brass, copper and cupronickel. Floral and other designs were etched on some of the items. A copper teacup I liked had a double-layered structure. As it was hollow between the layers, the cup could be held comfortably even when it contained hot water. The cup cost 60 yuan (about $9). The craftsman said he could make only four cups a day.” ==

Uyghur Knives

Uyghur knives

Reporting from the southern Xinjiang town of Yengisar, the center of traditional Uyghur knife-making, Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Here on the fertile edge of the Taklimakan Desert, people have long believed that placing a knife on their bedside keeps away bad dreams. On a baby's seventh day of life, it's tradition for parents to briefly slip a blade under the sleeping infant's head to guarantee a long and healthy life. By dusty roadsides, farmers with long white beards unsheathe their blades to slice open juicy green melons, selling sweet wedges for 15 cents. In open-air markets, butchers slaughter sheep, cattle and even camels in accordance with Muslim practice, skinning the hides and then swinging cleavers to parcel the carcasses into cuts of meat. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2014 ^=^]

“Over the centuries, Uyghur craftsmen have elevated knife-making to a high art, fashioning small folding qelemturachs and larger pichaqs one by one in scores of small factories and workshops across Xinjiang province. The most expensive and ornate boast silver blades and handles crisscrossed with intricate inlays of iridescent shell, stone, bone and other materials, often in geometric patterns with diamond, circle or even heart motifs. The craftsman's name and hometown are typically inscribed on the blade, in flowing Uyghur script and sometimes Chinese characters as well. ^=^

“One proprietor got lucky when a group of Russian motorcyclists and a busload of tourists who had driven all the way from Shanghai on China's eastern coast rolled up. Transporting knives back home would be no problem for them. "I didn't know anything about these knives until our guide told us," said Gennady Kopylov, 37, of Moscow, who bought a large kitchen knife for about $50. "I guess some Chinese might be scared now, you know, the Muslim thing, but these knives are great. And it's no problem to take them back on the bike." ^=^

“The Uyghur craft of knife-making is often passed from father to son. Down the road from Yengisar, at a dusty rest stop baking in the sun, one small knife stand was open, and outside, the owner's wife watched their toddler run around, naked except for a T-shirt. A drill, grinding equipment and other tools sat in a heap at the front door of the shop. No customers were browsing the exquisite wares, everything from plain $10 cleavers to a $500 silver blade with a decorative inlaid handle that takes one craftsman 15 days to produce. Asked whether he planned to pass the trade on to his boy, the young owner just sighed and said, "I have no idea." ^=^

Islamic Arms and Armor

jewel-encrusted pot from Topkapi

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Since its emergence in seventh-century Arabia, the religion of Islam spread rapidly, by swift military conquest and by conversion, throughout the Middle East and North Africa. During the eighth century, large parts of India were Islamized, while Muslim armies also began the occupation of Spain, portions of which remained Islamic until the end of the fifteenth century. By the seventeenth century, areas under Islamic religious and political control stretched from the southern Philippines across southern Asia and the Middle East through Turkey and into central Europe. Inevitably, due to Islam's wide geographic dissemination and long history, Islamic arms and armor reflect a wide range of regional and national styles as well as technical, social, and artistic changes during the various phases of their history.[Source: Department of Arms and Armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The expression "Islamic arms and armor" is a term often somewhat restrictively applied to arms and armor of the Mamluk period (1250–1517) in Egypt and Syria, the Ottoman empire (ca. 1299–1922), the Near East, especially Persia, and those areas of India under Mughal rule (1526–1858). \^/

“Islamic arms and armor were decorated using a variety of techniques such as damascening, gilding, inlay, gold and silver encrusting, as well as setting with jewels and enameling. On some ceremonial items, the decoration could achieve such sumptuous and spectacular effects that the final appearance of the object has more in common with an item of jewelry than a weapon. Indeed, the splendor of the Mughal empire was such that even today the term "mogul" is synonymous with enormous wealth and power, a notion easily verified by Mughal arms and armor.\^/

“Apart from floral and animal motifs, a dominant part of Islamic iconography on arms and armor is confined to calligraphy. Although the representation of (sacred) figures is not strictly forbidden in the Qur'an, images as objects of devotion were avoided in Islamic art from its very beginning. Islamic artists relied instead on the words of the Prophet Muhammad to inspire and to give literal shape to their designs. As a result, calligraphy in Islamic lands developed into a fine art, becoming in the process the principal form of religious ornament. Thus, Islamic arms and armor were often decorated with a wide variety of Qur'anic passages and pious invocations, which functioned as expressions of piety, as powerful defenses in the form of talismans, or simply as visually pleasing ornament.”\^/

Islamic Armor

Mamluk armor

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “One of the main characteristics of Islamic armor is that, compared to its European counterparts, it is often relatively lighter and less extensive. This fact owes as much to a strategic and tactical preference of most Muslim armies for speed over heavy protection, as to the usually hot climate of regions under Islamic rule. An example is the extensive and continued use of mail armor until well into the nineteenth century, while in western Europe this type of defense had been largely relegated to a secondary position with the development of plate armor at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In Islamic armor, the use of plate was usually confined to helmet, short vambraces (arm defenses) and greaves (lower leg defenses), and, to some extent, reinforcement of the mail shirt. [Source: Department of Arms and Armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Apart from shirts made entirely of mail, one of the most typically "Islamic" forms of body defense is a shirt composed of steel plates joined by areas of mail, which appears to have been developed first in Iran or Anatolia during the early fifteenth century. Variations with plates of different sizes and configurations were being worn in many parts of the Ottoman empire by the sixteenth century, whence it was probably introduced into India early in the Mughal period due to the Ottoman influence on Mughal military practices.\^/

“The most familiar characteristic of Islamic armor is perhaps the distinctive conical-shape helmets, which, with some variation, are found in most European and Near Eastern areas under Islamic rule. One variation is known as a "turban helmet." Its prototype can be found in the pre-Islamic Sasanian tradition (224–336) of Persia, but its sweeping outline, reminiscent of the domes of mosques, has contributed to this type of helmet being recognized today as decidedly Islamic. Many of the early surviving examples date from the fifteenth century and seem to have been made in Iran and Turkey. Additional protection was afforded by shields, usually of round shape, and constructed—unlike the majority of their European counterparts—of metal.\^/

Islamic Arms

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The weapon most readily associated by today's audiences with Muslim warriors of bygone times is probably the scimitar or saber, having a long, slightly curved blade with a single cutting edge. Other arms included javelins (throwing spears), battle axes, maces, and recurve bows (so called because the ends of the arms/limbs in their relaxed state curve forward, adding additional momentum to the arrow when the bow is strung). Although the above weapons were certainly also used by foot soldiers, all were essentially suited for use by cavalry. [Source: Department of Arms and Armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Firearms had been introduced to the Islamic world by trade and armed conflict in both the East and West, and the manufacture of cannon and handheld firearms became a highly regarded craft in many regions under Islamic rule. What are today commonly referred to as "Islamic firearms" are weapons from various regions, which were derived from seventeenth-century European prototypes in the construction of their locks and in the shape of their butts. Many were fitted either with European locks, acquired by trade or as booty, or with locks that were manufactured in Islamic regions but were in fact copies of European types. Some types, such as the matchlock, remained popular in some areas under Islamic rule until long after they had become obsolete in western Europe.\^/

“Many examples of Islamic arms and armor are especially noteworthy for their opulent decoration, a fact for which they were already renowned in the Middle Ages. Sword blades of "Damascus steel" or "watered steel" refer to blades that had been given a wavy or "watered" pattern, produced in the steel prior to forging using specific smelting and crucible techniques. Although this technique was practiced in the Islamic Middle East at least since the Middle Ages, in western Europe such blades were believed to originate from Damascus (Syria), hence the name. Along similar lines, the inlay of metal surfaces such as those of a breastplate or a sword blade with gold or silver was known as "damascening," a term again alluding to the city of Damascus and the apparent Eastern origins of this technique.”\^/

Muhammad's sword at Topkapi

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Conversation, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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