It is the hardest of all organic materials, and yet, with relative ease, ivory can be sawn, drilled, filed, scraped, buffed to a high polish and even inlaid with glass, stone or gems. Its great density invites carving and engraving of the most meticulous order, and the results are luminous, even at times translucent. Adding to its allure, ivory can feel warm to the touch.
For these reasons, ivory has been prized since the earliest times and in many lands. Objects of ivory filled the ancient treasuries of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Assyrian annals list ivory beds, couches, chairs and tables among the booty brought back from Nimrud. Egyptians worked ivory into jewelry and game pieces, and the treasure found in Tutankhamun's tomb included a carved ivory headrest unique in Egyptian art—as well as a wooden chest whose ivory panels display almost every carving technique known today. And adding to its value, there was always only one source for the precious material: elephants, whose homes in Africa and India lay weeks' or months' difficult distance from royal workshops.
The Arab conquest of North Africa in the late seventh century apparently disrupted an otherwise fairly steady ivory trade in that region, but in the ninth century the Aghlabid rulers of Tunisia reopened the trans-Saharan trade routes. Rulers of Byzantium and southern Europe began to commission splendid ivory book covers, portable ivory altars and icons. Their Muslim contemporaries in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) produced work of no less splendor: From them have come to us a group of some 30 boxes, all made within the 100 years between 950 and 1050; they are some of the finest of all the ivories of the Middle Ages.
Like their better-known European counterparts, these boxes are prized for their decoration. Most of the surfaces are covered by a dense vegetal pattern carved in relief on a smooth background. Small holes indicate they were once set with jewels or gold studs, and nearly all sport twisting bands that frame scenes of court ritual, combat or the hunt.
What makes the ivories carved in al-Andalus so significant as historical objects is their Arabic inscriptions. Complete pieces usually have (or had) an inscription carved around the lower edge of the lid in angular Kufic script; it often tells us the name of the artist and the place, the year and for whom the box was made. The inscriptions, and thus the boxes, form part of the historical chronicle of Islamic Spain.
They were constructed in two ways. One type is carved in the round, from a single cylinder cut from the tusk. The size and shape of the tusk restricts the size of the piece, and hence most are small, typically measuring 18 cm (7 1/2") high by 10 cm (4") in diameter. Many have domed lids. Scholars often refer to such a box as a pyxis (plural: pyxides), from the Greek word for a covered container used to store salves and toiletries.
Pyxides, however, were an expensive way to use a tusk, for all the ivory from the inside was carved out and wasted, and the size of the tusk limited the size of the container. To avoid this restriction, carvers preferred to saw the tusk into rectangular plaques, which were then fitted together on a wooden frame to form a box. These boxes are usually rectangular, and they have either flat or pitched lids. Some are small, like the pyxides, measuring 10 to 12 cm (4-5") across the front, but artisans also used this technique to construct much larger boxes. A splendid one now in Pamplona, for example, is composed of 19 panels and is the size of a large shoe box: 24 x 38 x 24 centimeters (9 1/2 x 15 x 9 1/2"). These rectangular boxes are often called caskets, because they resemble the containers used to store jewelry, unguents, spices, and other valuable substances—and, indeed, an inscription on a pyxis in the collection of the Hispanic Society of America mentions musk, camphor, and ambergris, presumably in reference to the potential contents of the box.
As far as we know, the boxes were first made in al-Andalus in the mid-10th century, at the height of the Umayyad dynasty. The earliest examples date to the last years of the reign of 'Abd al-Rahman ill, generally regarded as the greatest Umayyad ruler. He was the first to claim the titles of caliph and "commander of the faithful," and he was known by the epithet al-Nasir, "the victorious." During his remarkably long and prosperous reign, from 912 to 961, Córdoba became the largest city in Europe. To accommodate its burgeoning Muslim population, he expanded the courtyard of the Great Mosque and built the immense minaret that still stands today, encased in the masonry that transformed it into a bell tower. The power and prestige of his court is epitomized by Madinat al-Zahra, the enormous palace-city he founded in 936 on a mountainside five kilometers (3 mi) west of Córdoba. Though most of the complex is in ruins today, it once housed, among much else, a royal workshop for ivory.
Fine ivory caskets continued to be made under 'Abd al-Rahman's son and successor, al-Hakam II (961-976), and it was in al-Hakam's first years as caliph that the Great Mosque of Córdoba received its most spectacular addition. The covered area was extended to the south, almost to the banks of the Guadalquivir River. The entrance to the addition and the bays in front of and beside the new mihrab, or prayer niche, were set off with elaborate screens that supported domes. Revetted in gold mosaics, these bays housed an elaborate and costly minbar, or pulpit, inlaid with ivory, red and yellow sandalwood, ebony, and Indian wood. Unfortunately, we know it today only from written descriptions.
Although a few ivories, inscribed with generic good wishes and decorated in a routine fashion with geometric or floral motifs, seem to have been made for sale on the open market, the main recipients of these carved ivories were court officials and members of the caliphal household. A damaged but still beautiful pyxis in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, was made in 970 for the prefect of police. The finest piece to survive is the pyxis made in 968 for al-Mughira, son of 'Abd al-Rahman III and younger brother of al-Hakam II. Although couched in standard royal terms, the inscription around the lid does not mention al-Hakam or the office of caliph, and this unusual omission may signal al-Mughira's hopes of succeeding to the throne should his elderly brother die before producing a male heir.
Ladies of the court were similarly honored: 'Abd al-Rahman's daughter received a small pyxis and an enigmatic cylindrical case thought to have been either a game box—a game like mankala or warri comes to mind—or a cosmetic case. Four other boxes are inscribed with the name of al-Hakam's consort Subh. A Basque from Gascony, she was the mother of his two sons, one of whom died in infancy; the other became his successor. These boxes corroborate extant textual descriptions of the roles women played in Islamic Spain as Qur'an copyists, secretaries, teachers and librarians.
Following al-Hakam's death in 976, the succession devolved on persons of lesser rank. By the end of the 10th century, caliphal authority had been supplanted by that of the chief minister and chamberlain, then Ibn Abi 'Amir, called al-Mansur ("to whom victory has been granted"). With the dissolution of caliphal authority, the office of chamberlain became hereditary, and al-Mansur was succeeded by his son 'Abd al-Malik, who around 1005 commissioned two superb ivories. One is a pyxis now in the treasury of Braga Cathedral in Portugal; the other is the magnificent casket now in Pamplona. The inscription around the lid of the latter imitates the wording reserved for the caliph on earlier pieces, but names the chamberlain instead, and lauds him as "sword of the state," the title he received for stopping the Christian advance at Leon that summer. The medallion on the front right of the casket shows a figure seated on a lion throne and flanked by two attendants, one of whom holds a perfume sprinkler and a woven fan, the other a fly-wisk. Some scholars have interpreted the figure as the nominally reigning Hisham II, but several features suggest that it actually represents 'Abd al-Malik, who had usurped caliphal prerogative in commissioning carved ivories.
'Abd al-Malik's power is clear from his control of the caliphal workshops. According to the inscription around its lid, the Pamplona casket was made under the supervision of al-Zuhayr, the chief page—and he is identified not as the servant of the caliph, but as the servant of the chamberlain.
Generally, few artisans in medieval times signed their work. Nonetheless, many of the ivories are inconspicuously signed, demonstrating both the high status of ivory carvers and their wish to show the proper humility before their patrons. Khalaf, the only carver to sign any of the ivories made in the early period, tucked his signature away on the back of his work, between the knuckles of the hinge. Misbah, carver of the Pamplona casket, incised his name in tiny Arabic letters on the platform of the throne, beneath the chamberlain's feet. He was part of a team of craftsmen; the team leader, Faraj, signed his name on the calf of the right-hand lion-slayer on the right side of the lid, and at least three other carvers incised their names elsewhere on the casket. To judge from the names, all of which are auspicious attributes such as "light," "joy" and "divine guidance," these carvers were likely 'Abd al-Malik's slaves, for free-born Muslims would have had names that referred to their family lineages.
The size of the casket further confirms the chamberlain 'Abd al-Malik's claim to caliphal authority. Although it is the first such large casket to survive, the Pamplona casket was not the first to have been built on such a scale. A generation before, a silver casket had been made for the 10-year-old prince Hisham to mark his designation as heir-apparent. Decorated with gilt and a black organic material, Hisham's casket is clearly modeled on an ivory prototype, for it has a strap over the lid hammered from the same sheet of metal as the rest of the lid. This strap is useless on a silver box, but it copies the metal straps that held together wooden and ivory boxes like the one later made for 'Abd al-Malik. Too large for cosmetics and toiletries, caskets like these may have been used to hold regalia and other accouterments of power.
Such a hypothesis is reinforced by ivories made in the second quarter of the 11th century. By this time, the Umayyad chamberlains too had lost control, and when the dynasty itself collapsed in 1031, Muslim Spain fell into a period of political fragmentation, with at least 39 local chiefs and ethnic groups holding control in different regions. One of these lines of so-called Party Kings (known in Arabic as muluk al-tawa'if and in Spanish as reyes de taifas) was the Dhu 'l-Nunids, a Berber family based in Toledo. They assumed the dignities of the Umayyad court, and to bolster their claim to be the successors to the caliphate, they too ordered ivory boxes. Ismail al-Zafir, the founder of the Dhu 'l-Nunid line, is named on a box now in Burgos. His grandson, Yahya al-Ma'mun, governor of Cuenca and heir-apparent to the throne of Toledo, is named on three other pieces, including a large box made in 1049 or 1050.
Their inscriptions tell us that these ivories were not made in or even near Córdoba, but rather at Cuenca, which lies 300 kilometers (185 mi) to the northeast. Though large, these Dhu 'l-Nunid ivories are not nearly as fine as those made for the Umayyads: The carving is stiff and flat, and the imagery is limited. Two large caskets are signed by two members of the Zayyan family; we know nothing about them, but, judging from the workmanship, they were second-rate craftsmen who had emigrated to the provinces. The more talented artisans continued to work in Córdoba at least until the 12th century, for we know that magnificent works continued to be produced in that city in a variety of media, such as the inlaid minbar installed in the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh.
No ivory objects from later than 1050 have survived to our time, and even the survival of the 30 extant ivories from the previous century may be the result of sheer historical luck. The Christians who reconquered the Iberian Peninsula, it turned out, prized the ivories as much as their Muslim patrons had, and, when taken as booty, the ivories were often donated to churches and monasteries, where they were used as reliquaries. Catalan mercenaries, for example, probably looted the large casket made for 'Abd al-Malik during the sack of Córdoba in 1010. They took it to the Benedictine monastery of San Salvador de Leyre in the Pyrenees, where it was used to store relics. Later it was transferred to the church of Santa María de Sangüesa, and still later it was moved to the treasury of the cathedral in Pamplona, where it is preserved today.
Similarly, Fernán González, count of Castile, is said to have presented the pyxis now in Burgos to the monastery of Santo Domingo at Silos, where it too became a reliquary. Thus, ironically, this high art of the Muslim court was preserved because of its appropriation by Christians. In fact, the process was not limited to small ivory caskets, but also saved some great Islamic masterpieces: The mosque of Córdoba itself was converted to a cathedral; minarets like the Giralda at Seville were turned into bell towers, and entire complexes, such as the Alahambra in Granada, served as palaces for the Christian rulers.
Sometimes the Christians "converted" the iconography of the art works as well as their function. For example, around 1150, when the casket made for the Dhu 'l-Nunid Ismail al-Zafir was converted into a reliquary, a craftsman at the abbey at Burgos added copper plaques decorated with enamel. The plaque along one of the short sides of the casket shows Santo Domingo in a Benedictine mantle flanked by two angels. Similarly, the casket made for Yahya al-Ma'mun was retrofitted with gilded copper strips decorated with enamels while it was in the treasury of the cathedral at Palencia, in northern Spain.
Today, a millennium after they were made, these ivories are no less treasured. At the turn of the 20th century, a Valencian craftsman named Don Francisco Pallás y Puig made fine copies of some of the boxes and sold them at ordinary commercial prices as imitations; after passing through several hands, however, some began to be taken as originals, and several are now in museums.
Most recently, a rectangular ivory casket was found in a country house in Yorkshire, England. Decorated with a frieze of hunters and animals, it is inscribed around the lid with blessings to an anonymous owner and a hijri date that corresponds to December 1003 or January 1004. Not as finely carved as contemporary objects such as the Pamplona casket made for 'Abd al-Malik, it is stained black and partially defaced with brass mounts. Its rectangular shape, which resembles contemporary metal pen boxes, and its odd inscription, with unusual spellings, are anomalous among all the extant ivories from al-Andalus. Nonetheless, it fetched more than £606,000 ($1,035,000) at auction in 1998. If the piece is authentic, art historians hope to be able to work out how it fits into this extraordinary group of treasures.
From these few, precious masterpieces, there is much history yet to be learned.
Shelia S. Blair, Norma Jean Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College, writes on all aspects of Islamic art. Her most recent book, co-authored with Jonathan Bloom, is Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power (2000, TV Books). She is working on a survey of Islamic calligraphy.
Kyle Pakka carried out photo research for this article.