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Collection Highlight: An Illuminating Egyptian Treasure

2 April 2024

By Loubna Zeidan

This exquisitely detailed blown glass lamp, on view at the Museum of Islamic Art, transports visitors to a monumental mosque and madrasa complex of Mamluk-era Cairo.

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For two and a half centuries, Mamluk rulers oversaw an empire that stretched south from Syria to Nubia, and east from Libya to the Arabian Peninsula. The tremendous wealth from trade of the Mamluk sultanate was reflected in the patronage of religious and civic construction, especially mosques and madrasas. The large spaces of these buildings required ample lighting, leading to the production of a relatively high number of hanging lamps in Egypt and Syria. Examples that survive today serve as tangible reminders of this era's significant architectural and artistic achievements.

This particular lamp was most probably made for the monumental mosque and madrasa complex of Sultan Al-Malik Al-Zahir Sayf al-Din Barquq in Cairo, which was completed in 788 AH/1386 CE. It presents a typical decoration for glass lamps produced during that period, with inscriptions in blue enamel and gilding on the neck, and — in reverse — a blue background with a floral interlacing motif on the globe-shaped body. The red outlined calligraphy on the body of the lamp would originally have been filled with gold.

Both the lamp’s decoration and shape may have been inspired by Mamluk metalwork, which can be seen as one of the greatest achievements of medieval Islamic craftsmanship.


The lamp's inscriptions offer a glimpse into the artistic and religious fervor of the era. Photo © Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Significant Inscriptions

Gilded mosque lamps like this one would only have emitted a very pale light through the base and top, but with their bold inscriptions, they drew attention to the identity (and piety) of the founder of the building.

In this example, the inscriptions, which are written in thuluth script, mention Sultan Al-Malik Al-Zahir Sayf al-Din Barquq twice — on the body and in the circular medallions on the neck — while the other inscriptions are taken from the Qur’an.

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. His light is like a niche in which there is a lamp, the lamp is in a crystal, the crystal is like a shining star.”

This quotation around the lamp's neck is from the Sura al-Nur (The Light), part of verse 35. It emphasises the sensorial, luminous aspect of the Qur’anic text and is often used for lamp decoration.

And around the body, the inscription says: "Glory to our lord, the Sultan the Ruler al-Zahir Abu Sa’id, May God grant him victory."

Lamps in the name of Abu Sa’id Barquq (another name for Sultan Barquq) are the most numerous to have survived from the Mamluk period. The great majority of them are now housed in the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art, as the Egyptian authorities collected all remaining original lamps in Cairo for safekeeping in the late 19th century. A companion piece with the same interlacing decoration around the neck is in the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art.


Sura al-Nur (The Light), part of verse 35, elegantly embodies the essence of the lamp's purpose. Photo © Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A Noble Provenance

The lamp figured in the inventory of French Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, a philanthropist and a patroness of dance from the Rothschild banking family, who inherited through a trust part of the major art collection assembled by her grandfather Baron Alphonse James de Rothschild (1868-1949). The collection included notable Flemish 17th-century and Old Master paintings, and several Islamic and Venetian glass objects.

Following her death in 1999, the baroness's art collections was put up for auction in London in December 2000. This lamp was part of a sale that featured masterpieces of Islamic and Venetian glasswork, Renaissance decorative art, 19th-century artefacts in Mamluk-revivalist style and several pieces of historicist, Renaissance-style jewellery.

Loubna Zeidan is a Senior Editorial Specialist with Qatar Museums.

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