Outside Washington's National Museum of Natural History last May, a dozen limousines inched to the curb one by one, disgorging a stream of guests - diplomats, curators, art historians, legislators, columnists - beneath a black flag fluttering between the pillars of the building and announcing, in gold letters, why the crowd was there: "The Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks."
Inside, the crowds dispersed quickly. Some headed straight for the fresh crab and oysters spread out lavishly beneath the curved tusks of a stuffed elephant. Others moved from one cluster of gowned women and black-tied men to another, or stood quietly listening to a musician playing Renaissance music on a lute. A few though - the serious ones - lingered by the soft-lit cases that cluttered the route to the elephant and the fresh crab. Singly, or in couples, they peered at the intricate geometries of the pottery, the symmetry of the metalwork and textiles, the calligraphy of the woodwork - an Arab woman in an embroidered abaya, an English diplomat in formal attire, an editor in a sports coat and a blonde in jeans-all, together, adding an international touch to the quiet elegance that prevailed.
Opening night for the Art of the Mamluks exhibition, however, was more than another posh Washington gathering. It was also the culmination of many years of work by Dr. Esin Atil, curator of Near Eastern Art at the Freer Gallery of Art, and her co-workers: the assembling of outstanding Mamluk objects from national museums in Egypt, Syria, Europe, Canada and America for exhibit throughout the United States, from May 1981 to May 1983, and a symposium designed to examine the art and history of the Mamluks—and an extensive history it was.
The Mamluks ruled Egypt, Syria and Palestine from 1250 to 1517, their frontiers extending from southeastern Anatolia to the Hijaz and including parts of The Sudan and Libya. They controlled trade routes between Europe and the East, accumulated enormous wealth and improved methods of agriculture. Sultan after sultan commissioned ever larger and more magnificent buildings, and more luxurious and impressive objets d'art. As in the European Renaissance, this growth stimulated the arts, and although their art does not mark a definite break with the past, manuscripts, metalwork, textiles, glass, pottery and architectural decoration are technically superb. Today, as one consequence, the Mamluks are considered among the greatest patrons of art and architecture in the history of Islam.
If much is known about the Mamluks, however, much remains to be discovered, and for four days, during the opening of the Art of the Mamluks exhibition, scholars of Islamic art and history gathered in the carpeted silence of an auditorium in the National Gallery of Art to hear 20 distinguished speakers from North America, Europe and the Middle East present papers on new developments in the field. They scrutinized old and new material, dissected each speech - during breaks, in small, informal groups -and disputed or defended every theory put forward.
Like the pieces of art brought together for the exhibit, these scholars had come together to share their various specialties and thus piece together the history of the Mamluks. And so they did. From such clues as textiles sewn with gold thread on silk, and the inventories of thousands of gold candlesticks and perfume holders, they reconstructed the social and the economic aspects of Mamluk society, and by the week's end, had shaped a comprehensive picture of Mamluk times.
One of the delights of the exhibition is that much of the evidence for the scholarly conclusions could be seen together for the first time. And in the exhibition room visitors, studying display cabinets rich in oversized copies of the Koran, made it clear that the intricate geometries and precise calligraphy were appreciated. "It is a delight to see them again," said a man who catalogs manuscripts in London. "We never get our fill of them."
The Koran, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, is divine revelation, and making copies of it came to be a meritorious and pious exercise. By the Mamluk period, calligraphers and artists had achieved a high level of artistic technique. The artist, or illuminator, decorated the chapter headings, margins and verse-stops with an infinite variety of geometric and floral motifs, while the calligrapher copied the text and chapter headings.
Most of the copies open with a double frontispiece, followed by an illuminated double folio containing the first verses. The concluding double folios are also illuminated, followed by a double fmispiece. Koranic passages, spread across two facing pages of the frontispiece, often quote well-known verses from the Surat al-Waqi'a:
This is indeed an honored Koran, In a book that is protected; None shall touch it save the purified; It is a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds.
At the exhibition, framed illustrations from secular manuscripts - colorful paintings of people and animals - also won smiles from the visitors. The Mamluks portrayed the human figure in a two-dimensional and decorative manner, with no scuptural form or shading, decorated their books with muted colors and textures and excelled in painting animals; they were particularly interested, for example, in horsemanship, furussiyya, and originated new themes in manuals on horsemanship.
One treatise on horsemanship, dated 1366, the Nihayat al-Su'l wa al-Umniyya fi 'ilm al-furussiyya—"An End to Questioning and Desiring Concerning the Science of Horsemanship" - includes 12 lessons on horsemanship in warfare. It contains exercises in the use of the bow and arrow, lance, sword, mace and other weapons; military tactics; the formation of armies; ruses employing fire and smoke screens; advice on the division of booty; the practice of augury and the treatment of wounds. Lesson two, for instance, is devoted to the use of the lance–with illustrations showing how to use it in the chase - and how to use a flaming sword and shield to strike terror into the enemy.
Among the more entertaining books at the exhibit is the Kitab fi Ma'rifat al-Hiyal al-Handasiyya—"The Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" - by al-Jazari, copied in 1315, but composed more than 100 years earlier. Commonly known as the Automata, this book illustrates the construction of 50 mechanical devices, grouped in six categories, and contains some of the most exquisite examples of Mamluk book illustration.
One category describes 10 drinking vessels, another shows 10 automated ewers and basins for bloodletting or handwashing, and another shows ten clocks. The section on clocks is especially entertaining. "The Clock of the Drummers" shows a timepiece in which, every hour, the discs above the parapet of a castle change color, while a figure on the parapet moves over one notch, an eagle drops a ball into a vase - ringing a chime - and a cluster of musicians plays trumpets, drums and cymbals.
Although the devices illustrated in the Automata are princely toys meant to amuse the court, they all embody sound mechanical and hydraulic principles, and working models of them have been made.
In addition to manuscripts, the exhibition also features marvelous examples of Mamluk metal work, one of the most acclaimed branches of Mamluk art. "The time-consuming detail and extreme intricacy and just the beauty of it are astounding. What concentration they must have had." says one woman. "Gutsy, but elegant," says someone else. "Very elegant, yet quite strong, exotic," agrees his companion.
Mamluk objects made of metal seem innumerable: candlesticks, lamps, chests to store copies of the Koran, pen boxes, ewers and basins - each alive with decoration: musicians and dancers, drinkers and revelers, warriors and hunters - plus inscriptions and floral motifs and real and imaginary animals, pairing up or hunting prey amid intertwined arabesques.
In the center of the exhibit, a large brass basin made about the year 1300 seemed to sum up the magnificence of early Mamluk metalwork. Inlaid with silver and gold, the design is carefully composed, representing both the general and specific. Scenes in the medallion depict riders or enthroned figures, while those on the panels show figures, perhaps actual individuals, dressed according to their rank: swordsmen, bowmen, polo masters and servants - all bearing gifts for the ruler. Decorations also include unicorns, leopards, foxes, wild boar, griffins, lions, elephants, gazelles, deer, hares, sphinxes and camels.
Mamluk metalwork, geometry provides the basis of the design, but occasionally the dominant themes are inscriptions in which sultans and other leaders are praised with phrases such as "... defender of the faith... warrior of the frontiers... champion of Islam... victorious... triumphant... wise... learned... just."
A society frequently at war, the Mamluks also kept their metalworkers busy making and decorating military gear: helmets, mail shirts, leggings, stockings, boots and spurs as well as swords, daggers, knives, bows and arrows, spears, maces, axes and shields. All of these items were provided with arabesque decoration or inscriptions such as: "Father of the poor and miserable, killer of the unbelievers and the polytheists, reviver of justice among all." Even the military bands needed the metalworkers: to decorate the drums and trumpets and thus add another measure of beauty to ceremonies.
To a large extent, weapons in Mamluk society indicated the rank of the bearer. Swordsmen, for example, were important, followed by bowmen, axemen and mace-bearers. Indeed, metalwork gives scholars a clear picture of social divisions. Objects made for rulers bear honorary and benedictory phrases - "may his glory be victorious" - and so do implements made for anonymous patrons. But the latter are often poorly written, and scholars believe they were mass produced for the middle classes.
Like weapons, textiles reflected rank, the style and color indicating social status, military class and religious affiliation. The sultan wore luxurious silks - with benedictions sewn on with silver and gold thread, along with inscriptions, animals, floral motifs, stars, rosettes and crescents filling vertical and horizontal stripes. But he wore other fabrics too, depending on the season and the occasion. At the beginning of the hunting season, for example, he changed from his summer clothes and distributed wool garments to his court. Different attire, of course, was worn for royal receptions, parades, hunts, polo games and tournaments.
Textiles were also used to decorate mosques, provide tents and saddlecloths - embellished with applique - curtains, cushions and banners. They were so popular that Italian and Spanish weavers often copied patterns; indeed, Mamluk textiles - such as striped silks with woven Arabic inscriptions - were frequently copied in the Latin West.
Other categories of Mamluk art - glass, pottery and architecture - are also represented in the exhibition, as well as - surprisingly - carpets. Though very old in Turkey and Iran, the oriental rug was not produced in Egypt until the 15th century, but won instant approval as a form of interior decoration, and eventually became an export. Scholars think this occurred because craftsmen driven out of Iran and Anatolia by Tamerlane took refuge in Egypt.
Mamluk glass is beautiful: brilliant whites, reds, blues, greens, yellows and blacks cast against enameled and gilded glass; medallions bearing lotus blossoms, arabesques, symbols and birds; inscriptions, floral scrolls, flying birds and running animals. As one woman, peering over half glasses, put it: "The iridescence of it and its shape are beautiful. I'm intrigued with the designs on the vases. Every small area is painted."
Mamluk glassware was made for a variety of purposes: ornate serving dishes, enameled and gilded, for sultans and their courts; beakers, elaborately painted; delicately blown glass sprinkles from which cooling rose water or perfume was sprayed on regal brows; transparent or opaque beakers, cups, goblets, flasks, bottles, bowls, basins, vases and lamps - decorated with tooling, thread and colored inlay - for the populace.
All were lovely; artists employed the same creative imagination in decorating glass as they did in metalwork. They made, for example, lamps with high flaring necks and loop handles for use in mosques, with the Verse of Light from the Koran often inscribed on the neck:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth;
A likeness of His light is like a niche
In which there is a lamp;
The lamp is in a glass;
The glass is as if it were a shining star.
Next there is pottery - sturdy, utilitarian, but impressive nevertheless. "I'm impressed with the variety and richness of the art," said one visitor. "There's a vitality in it, something that communicates with immediacy."
Most Mamluk pottery was for everyday use. Everyone used bowls, vessels, jars and goblets - jars to store oils and spices, pots to store water. But, as with glassware, the artisans of the Mamluk era added more than was necessary, escutcheons, for example, on jars for warriors. Since lustre-painting, under-glazing and slip-painting were common techniques, the decoration is colorful: radiating panels or concentric rings of blues and black against white floral and geometric motifs, and, frequently, animals and figures. At the beginning of the 15th century, imported Chinese porcelain provided exotic floral models for potters: willows, water weeds, fruit-bearing branches, lotus and peony scrolls.
No exhibit, of course, can do justice to architecture - and certainly not to the mosques, hospitals and mausoleums of medieval Cairo with their massive stone facades, minarets and domed tomb chambers that produced a skyline still characteristic of Cairo today. But the Mamluk exhibition does capture architectural decoration: scrupulously beautiful wood panels with inlaid ivory, wood grills, stone plaques with epigraphic blazons, marble panels, ivory jars, and the handsome wooden screens called mashrabiyas (see Aramco World July-August, 1974).
In decorating these architectural accessories, Mamluk craftsmen made use of ivory inlays with arabesques, wishes of good fortune, poetic sentiments and names of patrons inscribed in marble or wood. They also lined pavements and panels with mosaics, and with colored and gilt-glass panels, inlaid with stones and mother-of-pearl.
The Mamluk exhibit, as one scholar put it, "is the cream of what survives." It is, moreover, a tribute not only to the Mamluks, but to Dr. Esin Aril, the woman who painstakingly assembled and brought to the United States the widely dispersed examples of Mamluk art exhibited in Washington.
Dr. Aril, a native of Turkey who earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan, had a particular goal in mind when she began to search public and private collections for examples of Mamluk art. She wanted art that had historical importance, technical and esthetic value - and which represented the entire society. "I didn't want just a feeling of the upper crust, but of the entire society. Art is illustrative of society. It reflects political and economic aspects as well as ambitions and achievements."
Dr. Aril has succeeded. The art exhibition - and its companion show at the Freer Gallery - introduce Americans not only to the beauty of Mamluk art, but to the society as a whole, a society whose craftsmen could infuse basins and banners, lamps and jugs and, perhaps more important, books and bindings, with an artistry and beauty rare in the history of art.
Elizabeth G. Simpson, who now writes for a Texas newspaper, received a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri at Columbia last may.