The remarkable artistic achievements of the Mamluks of Egypt

Just the other day we sold a small bronze coin issued by one of the 14th Century Mamluk rulers of Egypt, Syria and the Levant, pictured below. Inexpensive and similar to countless thousands of examples that were produced by the Mamluk sultans over a period of over 250 years, its simple but satisfying floral scroll decoration and Arabic script belie the remarkable artistic output of these rulers.

Islamic coins, Mamluk coins, Mamluk art
14th Century Mamluk Bronze Coin

 

The Muslim Mamluk rulers of Egypt and Syria came to power in AD 1250 and their line, divided into two separate dynastic phases, continued until AD 1517 when the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt. They were descended from an elite class of mainly Turkish, Crimean, Georgian and Circassian mercenaries and personal bodyguards who had served the previous Ayyubid Dynasty. With their center of power in Cairo, their long rule over Egypt, the Levant and Syria included such accomplishments as the spectacular defeat of the Mongol invaders in AD 1260, the siege and capture of most remaining Crusader castles and cities in the Levant, total defeat of the Eighth Crusade and expansion into parts of Nubia and Anatolia.

Priding themselves for their culture and learning, the Mamluks were great patrons of the arts. With political instability in the east, particularly in what is now Iraq and Iran, artisans and craftsmen sought out stable patrons, and the Mamluks were keen to capitalize on this. Under their patronage architecture and the arts of glass making, metalworking and textiles achieved great heights. Glass making and textiles already had a long tradition in Egypt, the former going back to Dynastic Egypt, and the later to antiquity as well, especially under Coptic Christian production. Skilled metal workers and engravers arriving from the eastern Islamic lands in the wake of the Mongol invasions brought with them new styles and techniques.

Below are just a few images to highlight these achievements. The museums in which some of these objects are housed also harbor many other examples of Mamluk and other Islamic art and their online collections are a good starting point for further study.

mausoleum of sultan Barsbay 1432
Stone tracery on the dome of the Mausoleum of Sultan Barsbay, Cairo AD 1432
The Mosque, mosoleum and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan 1356
The Mosque, Mausaoleum and Madrasa complex of Sultan Hassan. Cairo, AD 1356
Mamluk Carpet Cairo 1475-1500 V&A Museum
Large Mamluk carpet made in Cairo, circa AD 1475-1500. Now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Cairo early 16th Century Mamluk, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.jpg
Fragmentary Mamluk carpet, Cairo, early 16th Century, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Enameled and Gilded Bottle,late 13th century Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Mamluk enameled and gilded blown glass bottle, late 13th Century, Cairo or Damascus, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
enameled and gilded glass candlestick 1340-1365 Corning Museum of Glass
Mamluk enameled and gilded glass candlestick, probably made in Cairo, circa 1340-1365. The unusual shape is based on bronze candlesticks. In the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY.
Islamic brass casket inlaid with silver and gold
Mamluk storage casket, made circa 1366-68 for a Mamluk nobleman. Brass inlaid with silver and gold wire. In the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England.
Late 14th Century Mamluk brass bowl with inscription, engraved and inlaid with silver, The British Museum
Late 14th Century AD Mamluk brass bowl with Arabic inscription, engraved and inlaid with silver. In The British Museum, London.

 

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