2 Lidded Box of Timekeeper at Umayyad Mosque

Lidded Box of Muhammad al-Hamawi, Timekeeper at the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
timekeeper box 1

timekeeper box 2

Date: 15th century
Geography: Syria / Culture: Islamic
Medium: Brass; engraved and inlaid with silver
Dimensions: H. 4 in., W. 6 11/16 in., D. 3 1/4 in.
Credit Line: Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891
Accession Number: 91.1.538
On view in Gallery 454

This lidded box crafted of brass and featuring intricate, arabesque decorations in inlaid silver was made in the 15th century during the Mamluk period in Syria. The Mamluk sultanate was divided into two dynastic reigns; it is most likely the metalwork techniques seen in this casket were developed during the Burji reign from 1250 to 1382 (Yalman, 2001).

Though Mamluk metalwork styles were prevalent in Egypt and sought after in Europe and other parts of the Mediterranean, the Mamluk influence in Syria was not quite as strong. According to Aanavi (1968), the Arabic lettering seen near the clasp of the lidded casket may be an instance of the abjad system, which was actually derived from Hebrew numerology of assigning numeric values to letters of the alphabet. Aanavi argues that the casket is an exemplary piece of Islamic artwork that displays Arabic lettering with seemingly little translation, but in fact “the characters on the clasp of a Syrian casket are not abbreviations: they are magic. The four letters spell buduh, meaningless as a word but by no means ‘pseudo-Arabic’” (1968: 356).

Though the style of the box and its decoration are relevant to its study, one of the most important details about this object is its intended use. This brass casket belonged to the timekeeper, or muezzin, who announced the call to prayer at the Umayyad Mosque, which was the earliest surviving stone mosque built in the early 700s in Damascus (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014). The position of timekeeper was incredibly important; the person who used this box would have been well known and revered in the community. It is not certain what would have been kept inside this box, but it most likely would have been used for small, important religious objects.

For devout Muslims, the call to prayer is a five-times-daily ritual. Before modern amplification systems, the call to prayer was made by a single person on whom the entire community relied to delineate their days and remind them of the time. For this reason, it seems logical that the timekeeper would be given such an ornate item.

A note about provenance
This lidded timekeeper’s box was one item of about 1700 items bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1891 by Edward C. Moore. Moore, who was himself a silversmith for Tiffany & Co., derived artistic inspiration from Islamic metalwork and other pieces of art and thus had an extensive collection of adorned items like this casket. In an article about Moore’s collection from an 1892 issue of The Collector, the unnamed author states “there is an Arab casket of the twelfth century, long and with rounded ends in brass, and with arabesque and silver and incised ornament” (1892: 200). In a description of the collection on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, it is said “Moore developed a particular interest in Islamic metalwork and collected many examples from medieval Egypt, Syria, and Iran. He was looking for new motifs, forms, and techniques he could apply to his own silver creations” (metmuseum.org). Moore’s collection became the foundation of the Islamic art collection held by the Met today.

(1892). “The Edward C. Moore Collection.” The Collector, 3(13), 199–201.
I found this reference to be quite intriguing because it detailed Edward C. Moore’s work as a silversmith for Tiffany & Co. This is an interesting tidbit considering the nature of this object: a box that held untold trinkets and belonged to an important member of society that features ornate silver detailing. It makes sense to imagine a person interested in jewelry and metalwork collecting this object, especially since it seems Moore drew inspiration from Islamic art quite often.

(2012). The making of a collection: Islamic art at the Metropolitan. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/islamic-art/edward-moore

(2014). “Great Mosque of Damascus.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/150445/Great-Mosque-of-Damascus

(2014). “Muezzin.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved fromhttp://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/396067/muezzin

Aanavi, D. (1968). Devotional writing: “Pseudoinscriptions” in Islamic art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, XXVI(9), Figure 8.
This Met Bulletin talks briefly about the Arabic writing featured on the lidded box. It is an interesting look at the design of the object, rather than just its function or symbolism. I also found the message of the whole article—that the use of lettering without an obvious, logical translation has made researchers assume that the creators of the object were illiterate—to be especially fascinating since I don’t speak Arabic and would not have known the letters were decorative instead of communicative.

Auld, S. (2004). Renaissance Venice, Islam and Mahmud the Kurd—a metalworking enigma. London: Altajir World of Islam Trust.

Gilbert, J. E. (1980). Institutionalization of Muslim scholarship and professionalization of the “Ulama” in Medieval Damascus. Studia Islamica, 52, 105–134.

Hitti, P. K. (1970). History of the Arabs from the earliest times to the present. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lapidus, I. M. (1970). Muslim urban society in Mamluk Syria. In A. H. Hourani & S. M. Stern (Eds.), The Islamic City (pp. 195–206). Oxford: Bruno Cassirer Publishers Ltd.

Robinson, F. (1996). The Cambridge illustrated history of the Islamic world. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G. E. (1953). Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ward, R. (2004). Brass, Gold and Silver from Mamluk Egypt: Metal Vessels Made for Sultan Al-Nāir Muammad. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 14(01), 59–73. doi:10.1017/S1356186304003554

Whelan, E. (1981). The Mamluk Revival: Metalwork for Religious and Domestic Use. New York: The Jewish Museum.
This catalogue was enlightening because it gave some context to the metalwork objects that were created during the Mamluk period in Islamic cultures across the Middle East. It speaks to the importance of this style of metalwork with brass inlaid with other metals, like silver, that it would have a revival in the late 1890s.

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