Brilliant, iridescent mother-of-pearl has been used as a decorative material since at least 2500 BC, when an unknown craftsman inlaid flat pieces of the gleaming mollusk shell, along with lapis lazuli and other colored stone, in a wooden panel to create the Standard of Ur. In more recent times, artisans in the Middle East have been creating the most opulent, shimmering effects by inlaying furniture surfaces with intricate mother-of-pearl designs, ranging from complex starbursts to delicate floral arabesques.
Mother-of-pearl inlaid furnishings – now expensive antiques, eagerly sought by connoisseurs and collectors – evolved from a long tradition in the Middle East to become an important decorative art under Ottoman imperial patronage in the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 19th century, when Damascus and Cairo emerged as important production centers alongside Istanbul, these dazzling and often elegant furnishings were widely produced and enormously popular throughout the region. And thanks to the mutual fascination that developed between the Middle East and Europe during this period, they also captivated Europe and America with their beauty.
Few early examples of mother-of-pearl inlaid furnishings survive, but Marco Polo and Byzantine envoys reported inlaid thrones and other furnishings in the courts of Central Asia in the 13th century. In Egypt, at the same time, mother-of-pearl was an important decorative element in Mamluk woodwork, embellishing important mosque furnishings.
During the brilliant flowering of Ottoman art in the 16th and 17th centuries (See Aramco World, July-August 1987), mother-of-pearl inlaid furnishings achieved their finest moment. Artisans in Istanbul’s imperial workshops produced works of astonishing splendor, contrasting the mother-of-pearl with tortoise shell, ivory, ebony and other luxurious materials. Since the Ottomans, like other Islamic societies of the Middle East, had no tradition of free-standing furniture before the 19th century, these pieces were intended primarily for ceremonial use or for royal mosque and mausoleum complexes.
The most spectacular early Ottoman inlaid work is a portable throne with a domed canopy supported by tour slender columns, entirely encrusted in mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell and precious gemstones. It was built in 1610 for Sultan Ahmet I. With great dramatic effect, boldly-scaled vase and floral motifs in mother-of-pearl, studded with rubies, emeralds and other gemstones, are silhouetted against a tortoise-shell background on the surfaces of the throne and its canopy. One can imagine the spectacle provided by an imperial audience with the sultan, magnificently robed, seated upon this glittering throne a moment only equaled, perhaps, by the thrill of seeing the splendid imperial caïque built for Sultan Mehmet III gliding along the Bosporus, its superbly inlaid canopy catching the water’s reflection.
Almost austere in comparison to the jeweled Ahmet throne is another portable throne attributed to the mid-16th reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, also in the Topkapı Palace Museum. It features a dramatic mother-of-pearl lobed medallion on the center of its high triangular back.
Now in the collection of Istanbul’s Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi, the decorative arts museum housed in the İbrahim Paşa palace, a remarkable Qur‘an box from the mausoleum of Sultan Selim II, Süleyman the Magnificent’s son and heir, stands out as a masterpiece of inlay craftsmanship. As complex in its design as a work of architecture, each level, from the legs supporting the base up to the domed lid, presents a dazzling orchestration of inlaid patterns with mother-of-pearl richly contrasted against ebony, walnut and ivory.
According to Dr. Nazan Ölçer, director of the Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi, there is evidence to support the theory that inlaid works of such complexity must indeed have been created by architects. Another imposing Qur’an box in the museum’s collection, from the mausoleum of Sultan Mehmet III, bears the signature of its artist, Dalgiç Ahmet Çavuş, who was the chief architect at the Ottoman court in the years 1598-1605. And Sedefkâr Mehmet Ağa, who created the dazzling jeweled throne for Ahmet I, was the best-known Ottoman architect after the great Sinan, his most distinguished achievement being Istanbul’s magnificent Sultanahmet, or Blue, Mosque.
Within the context of early-Ottoman decorative style, as revealed by the harem interiors and smaller pavilions of the Topkapı Palace, there was little in the way of free-standing furniture. Whether in the palace, where mother-of-pearl inlay was used extensively as a decorative element, or in the more modest home of an Ottoman merchant, low pillow-covered divans lined the walls, and open cabinets, carpets and a hooded chimney piece usually completed the furnishings. The only difference was in the sumptuousness of the materials. The free-standing pieces that could be found within a residential context included low polygonal tables, Qur’an stands of hinged wood panels, and scribe’s tables, often superbly inlaid.
Drawing from the sophisticated repertoire of decorative motifs developed in the Ottoman nakkaşhanes — court painting and design workshops inlay artisans were able to create the most intricate compositions, contrasting the mother-of-pearl against other materials, most frequently tortoise shell hacked with gold leaf, mahogany, ivory and ebony. In addition to using marquetry and the classic inlay technique of imbedding the material in a recessed surface, the Ottomans perfected a technique called kunderârı, primarily used for geometric designs, in which the individual plaques of mother-of- pearl and decorative woods were cut in two planes so as to interlock continuously, without the use of glue, like jigsaw-puzzle pieces with tongue-and-groove edges. A fascinating aspect of both the smaller inlaid furnishings and the impressive ceremonial pieces produced from the 16th to the 18th centuries is the large size of the mother-of-pearl plaques, larger than we find either in the later 19th-century Ottoman inlaid furniture, or in pieces produced elsewhere in the Middle East.
Inlaid works intended for imperial use were produced in a special department at Topkapı, the Mimarlar Ocağı, that dealt with architecture and construction. In addition to the palace workshops, orders were also given to artisans working in Istanbul. Societies of artisans who supplied the Ottoman imperial court made up the Ehl-i Hiref, the Community of the Talented.
In the late 18th century, Ottoman diplomatic ties with France strengthened (See Aramco World, November-December 1993). As princes and envoys traveling abroad brought hack news and examples of French decorative style, then paramount throughout Europe, the Ottoman court developed a taste for baroque and rococo designs, and wealthy Turks imported French furniture. Interest in mother-of-pearl inlaid furnishings and other traditional decorative arts faded.
But ironically, the increased European design influence over the next century would lead to a vibrant transformation of inlaid furnishings, not only in Istanbul but throughout the region. As grand European palaces were built and divan-lined rooms gave way to formal European seating arrangements, artisans began to apply traditional mother-of-pearl inlay patterns to adaptations of European furniture styles. Abdül Hamid II, the reclusive Ottoman sultan who rarely left the confines of Yıldız Palace during his 3-year reign, actively supported the revival of mother—of—pearl inlaid furnishings and other Ottoman arts, establishing a carpentry workshop within the palace grounds where inlaid furniture was produced. It is in fact widely claimed that Abdül Hamid himself highly skilled as a furniture maker, according to his daughter’s memoirs — crafted a number of inlaid tables now at Yıldız,
a well as a decorative screen now in the Baghdad Kiosk at Topkapı. No written sources exist, however, to authenticate specific pieces.
In the meantime, a vogue for Orientalism and exotic Middle Eastern furnishing styles, stimulated by travelers accounts and the captivating images created by artists and writers who had traveled to the region, swept across Europe. Luxuriant harem scenes and portraits of desert emirs painted by Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme and other Orientalists caught the public’s imagination (See Aramco World, November—December 1984). Offering a wealth of decorative detail, real or imagined, they helped to perpetuate a highly romantic image of Islamic cultures, as did the novels of French writer Pierre Loti. International expositions in London, Paris and other cities, where thousands viewed Middle Eastern and North African exhibits, also fueled Europe’s embrace of exotic decorative styles.
Both in England and France, a number of Islamic-inspired residences were erected, including Alexandre Dumas’s Château de Monte Cristo, built in the Moorish style. Beginning in the 1870’s, fashionable European interiors boasted Turkish, Moorish or Arab rooms; the most splendid of these was the Arab Hall created by Lord Leighton at Leighton House in London (See Aramco World, November-December 1978).
Romance and fantasy pervade another celebrated interior of the period: Seeking to recapture the atmosphere of Morocco and of his beloved Istanbul, Pierre Loti created a Turkish room and an Arab room in his Rochefort residence (See Aramco World, July-August 1992), an evocative backdrop for the soirées he gave for le tout Paris Capitalizing on the trend, Liberty of London established a Middle Eastern bazaar, with an adjoining tea room, and imported inlaid sideboards, Qur‘an stands, tables and other decorative items, largely from Egypt.
Benefitting enormously from the growing trade with Europe, both Damascus and Cairo emerged as major centers for inlaid furnishings.
Over the centuries, the Syrians had perfected an intricate inlay technique in which the underlying wood surface is almost entirely encrusted in mother-of-pearl ornamentation, creating an elegant shimmering effect. Worked into designs of delicate floral arabesques and intricate geometrics, each mother-of-pearl plaque was set in place, then surrounded and secured with a fine silver or pewter wire. Applying this technique, originally used on boxes, small chests and Qur’an stands, to adaptations and copies of French furniture as well as the traditional Islamic shapes, Damascene craftsmen met with enormous success both locally and abroad in the 19th century. A particularly beautiful application of the technique produced mirror frames with open foliate crowns, often accented with bone handing or small insets of mashrabiyyah, the turned latticework popular in the Middle East.
Displayed among the Ottoman exhibits of major international expositions, such furnishings attracted considerable attention with their elegant design and craftsmanship. In a lavishly illustrated review of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, writer Hubert Howe Bancroft comments, “Turkish rugs and pearl inlaid furniture from Damascus take the lead among the collective exhibits from all the countries over which the [Ottoman] star and crescent fly.”
The Syrians also applied complex geometric inlays, which contrast the mother-of-pearl with fruit-wood veneers, to both traditional Islamic and European furnishings. In contrast to the small elegant Islamic-style polygonal tables, the European-influenced furnishings in this style — elaborate sideboards, honeycombed with arched compartments, consoles and tables — often reflect the ornate heaviness of late Victorian taste. Popular in Egypt and North Africa as well, these pieces are often difficult to assign to a specific country of origin. Wonderful examples of Syrian inlaid furnishings can be seen in the Azem Palace Museum, originally the residence of an 18th-century Ottoman governor, and the Khaled Azem House, both in Damascus, as well as the Touma Collection at the Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, West Virginia.
The use of mother-of-pearl inlaid decoration in Cairo can be traced to the 13th-century Mamluk period. Here too, few early examples survive, mostly mosque furnishings.
In his hook Glimpses of the Land of Egypt, published in 1852, the artist W. H. Bartlett provides a wonderful description of a traditional Cairo interior:
“The entrance...is by a door covered with minute and elaborate carving. The middle of the room is lower than the rest, and...with the fountain in the center is paved and inlaid with marble of different colours. To the right on the wall is also a sloping marble slab with starlike edges over which the water pours and trickles, thence passing through pipes into the basin of the fountain.... The raised part of the room is paved with common stone and covered with mats in summer and carpets in winter; this is surrounded by a divan or low seat around the walls, covered like a sofa, and with long cushions resting against the wall for the entire length, sometimes with others in the angles; these are all covered with materials in richly ornamented patterns, more or less expensive. The roofing is supported by carved beams which with the intervening flat space are decorated and gilt in the richest manner. Of the windows, some are glazed, and are richly ornamented with stained glass, others looking into the verdure of the garden, have simply open lattice ironwork. In the recesses of this room are different...cabinets, fancifully inlaid with pearl and having small panels of delicate and intricate carving.”
During the 19th century, Cairo craftsmen, in addition to carrying out commissions from local residents and supplying the burgeoning trade with England, produced many pieces of inlaid furniture for Egypt’s growing foreign community, estimated at 100,000 in 1879. They adapted and embellished European furniture designs, but also continued to produce polygonal tables, Qur’an stands and bridal chairs with caned canopies. Interestingly not all those producing inlaid furnishings were Egyptians: Records indicate that one highly successful workshop was owned by Giuseppi Parvis, an Italian whose cabinetry was displayed in the Egyptian exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.
While Egypt’s 19th-century rulers clearly preferred European furniture, there is some evidence of royal patronage for locally produced mother-of-pearl inlaid furnishings. Al-Hilmiyya, a well- known workshop and school for inlay and carved woodwork, was founded by the mother of the khedive Abbas Hilmi II, who ruled from 1892 to 1914.
In addition to the geometric inlay using mother-of-pearl with fruitwood veneer, the Egyptians favored darker, more iridescent mother-of-pearl set into ebonized wood. Marvelous examples of this ebonized look, together with an inlaid mashrabiyyah screen, can be seen in Cairo’s Manyal Palace, a complex of Islamic pavilions built at the beginning of this century.
Though relatively few Americans had ventured to the Middle East, they too eagerly adopted the exotic new styles. Design publications and French-trained decorators, important arbiters of taste in the 19th century, first introduced this latest European trend into fashionable circles. Beginning in the 1870’s, Moorish and Turkish smoking rooms began to appear in well-appointed homes in the United States. Period photographs reveal that the design of these interiors, filtered through European taste, had only the vaguest association with their original Middle Eastern sources of inspiration; rather, fantasy, romance and exoticism ruled.
Even for those Americans who had traveled to the region, the objective was never to duplicate an Arab or Turkish interior. In describing his New York apartment, designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, who had visited Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, made perfectly clear that his intention was only to give a suggestion of Moorish style. As demonstrated by the interiors of Olana — an ornate Islamic-Victorian mansion built for 19th-century American landscape painter Frederick Church in Hudson, New York — inlaid tables were an important element in the vast clutter that characterized this style.
Thousands more Americans were introduced to inlaid furnishings at the major international expositions that took place in this country particularly the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, where the Turkish bazaar was one of the most exotic attractions, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In the years that followed the Philadelphia exposition, when these exotic styles were widely adopted, the presence of an inlaid table signified its owner’s cosmopolitan taste. By the end of the 1880’s, even middle-class households boasted a Turkish “cozy corner,” or Moorish details in one of their rooms. Macy’s, in response to demand, opened up an Oriental department.
While the vogue for exotic furnishings came and went in Europe and America, the Middle East continued to produce mother-of-pearl furnishings, though in smaller quantities. Commissions were undertaken for a number of early 20th-century rulers in the region, including Egypt’s King Farouk and the Hashemite King Faysal, who reigned briefly in Syria and later Iraq. When Sharif Hussein of Makkah, great-grandfather of Jordan’s King Hussein, went into exile on Cyprus in the 1920’s, he took with him his suite of Syrian inlaid furniture, eventually leaving it with the Greek family with whom he stayed. In a wonderful turn of fate, the descendants of that Greek Cypriot family contacted King Hussein several years ago, offering to return the suite. This handsome settee, with matching side chairs and occasional tables, now stands in Amman’s Nadwa Palace, the royal residence.
In the last few years, renewed interest has sparked a revival of the art of inlaid mother-of-pearl, particularly in Syria, whose craftsmen have been supplying commissions to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. There is hope that this ancient craft will survive in the hearts and homes of those who love it.
Beth Houston is a New York design consultant and writer who has written about decorative arts and style in Egypt, Spain and Turkey.