A Fatimi Carved Wooden Panel

Written by: Yusuf Umrethwala

Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah’s graduating class of 2020/1441 consider themselves fortunate to be bestowed with the privilege of acquiring and presenting a wooden panel attributed to the Greater Western Palace of the Maulana al-Imam al-Aziz Billah AS in the august presence of al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS.

The Fatimi provenance of the wooden panel

The wooden panel pictured here is related to a group of panels that were originally made1 for the tenth century palatial complex of the Western Faṭimi Palace during the reign of al-Imam al-Aziz Billah AS and were later reused in a hospice commissioned by the Mamluk Sultan, al-Qalaʾūn (r.1279-90).2 It was crafted during a period when wood carving was flourishing and designs were based on prior Abbasid and Tulūnid forms. These designs consisted of a complex repertoire of vegetal and figural motifs that utilised interlacing patterns, foliated intersections and overlapping fields. Woodwork hailing from the Faṭimi period is rare and much of what does survive is due to its reuse in construction dating to later dynasties. Most of the city of Cairo was razed to the ground in 563 H/1168 CE on the orders of the Vizier of al-Āʿḍid, Shawar, to prevent it from falling into the hands of twelfth-century Crusader armies.3 During the Mamluk period the site of the palace became a hospital in which many friezes were later reused. The area, later abandoned, was a source from which many panels such as this were eventually excavated throughout the twentieth century.4 Similar pieces with regards to style and provenance can be found in several museum collections, notably the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, which has an identical lintel that, due to matching dimensions and design, may have formed the top of this panel (inv.no. 3391, Plate LIX, 8248).5 A set of six pieces with similar bird motifs can also be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and be deemed as sister panels of this fragmented wooden panel.6 Another well-known piece, carved with two figural horses, can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv.no.11.205.2).7

Design and Motifs

The recently acquired fragmented panel is comprised of the following visual patterns and features:

1. Two consecutive enclosing lobes, shaped as spear-heads, where the base of the first lobe connects with the top of the second spear-headed lobe.

2. Two adjacent vines run through the design; one being plain and the other bearing carved double-outlined circles, similar to the running band of small pearls incorporated in one of the outlined friezes of the mihrab in al-Jāmiʿ al-Juyūshi.

3. A bud motif, placed in the upper arch of the first lobe, which by its design and shape, probably resembles a rosebud.

4. A bird motif, centered in the fragmented plank, situated in the upper arch of the second lobe. The bird is most likely a pigeon, a motif extensively used to represent nature and living creatures in Faṭimi art. The bird seen in this motif is highlighted by its wings half open, as though it is preparing for flight. It can also be perceived as a bird resting in its nest, formed by the encircling vines of the lobe. This vivid depiction of a bird placed in a floriated setting has been later repeated in the fine arts of the Faṭimi era. A special tirāz, made for al-Imam al-Hakim AS incorporates in its two parallel woven lines, a depiction of two pigeons facing each other, where each pair is separated by a floriated design, as mentioned by al-Daʿi al-Ajal Syenda Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS in al-risālat al-sharīfah : Shukro Neʿam Ashāb al-Barakāt,

تتوسطهما حلقة زخرفية طرازية بيضاء تتكرر فيها صورة حمامتين متواجهتين بينهما شجرة على أرضية زرقاء، يدل على اهتمام الإمام الفاطمي والمقام الحاكمي بالحمام

(At the center of the two parallel woven lines on the tirāz fabric is a chain of embroidered motifs. Figures of two brilliant gold pigeons facing simplified tree motifs, alternating with palmette-decorated hearts on a blue tapestry, are seen recurring throughout the fabric. This craftsmanship signifies Imam Hakim’s AS regard for pigeons. )

(The golden tirāz fabric exhibiting pigeon motifs is said to be attributed to al-Imam al-Hakim Billah AS. Image courtesy: The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA).

5. Five different pairs of foliated leaflets emerging from the two interwoven lines. (i) A pair of singular leaflets in the upper arch of the first lobe, which encloses on the bird motif. (ii) A pair of leaflets with three petals in the lower base of the first lobe. (iii) A pair of leaflets with two petals on either side of the chain-like knot connecting the two lobes. (iv) A pair of inverted leaflets identical to the ones mentioned in (iii). (v) A larger pair of compound trefoil leaflet motifs, bearing three-wide petals at the base of the fragmented panel.

The pattern of leaflets in points (ii), (iii) and (v), are identical to the foliated designs present in a stucco frieze, which runs on either side of the mihrab of al-Imam al-Muʿiz AS in al-Jamiʿ al-Azhar. This solidifies the inference of the panel belonging to Faṭimi origin and craftsmanship. Another profound resemblance of the vegetal designs and motifs can be witnessed at the mihrabof al-Jamiʿ al-Aqmar, which were originally derived from the mihrab of al-Imam al-Amir AS, commissioned much later by him in 519 H.8

(Left)The wooden Faṭimi mihrab commissioned by al-Imam al-ʿAmir AS in 519 H. The designs of this mihrab were replicated at the mihrab of al-Jamiʿ al-Aqmar (Center). A vector tracing the designs and motifs of the wooden panel (Right).

The pattern of design at both ends of the detachment of the fragmented panel suggests that this panel could be several meters long, consisting of identical planks, similarly carved with narrow foliated borders enclosing a frieze of alternating lobed spear-head shaped leaflets, each containing a figure (supposedly a bird) at its centre.

Iconography and Symbolism – The Bird

As mentioned earlier, the recently acquired fragmented Faṭimi panel comprises a bird motif, centred in the fragmented plank, situated in the upper arch of the second lobe. Birds are extensively used as representations of nature and living creatures in Faṭimi art and style. Historians mention that from the earliest days of Islam, birds have appeared as a decorative feature and part of the classical heritage in almost every area of Islamic art and architecture.9 It is said that birds fulfil a specific role in Islam. One of the reasons why the bird theme is so prevalent in Islamic Art is that birds convey a blessing (baraka). It is also said that the association of birds with augury or omen may account for their appearance at an opening or entrance as it is the case with this Faṭimi wooden panel, which is thought to be one of a group of panels that were fixed on the door in the qasr of the Western Palace. The bird’s presence may act as a talisman to dispel evil, or even as a barrier against poison.10 In the chapter of Medicine in Kitāb Dāʿim al-Islam, Syedna al-Qadi al-Noman RA has narrtaed a discourse from Amir al-Mumineen Maulana Ali b. Abi Talib AS which says “There is no such thing as a contagion (ʿadwa), a bad omen of a bird (tiyara), or a bad omen of an owl”.11 This discourse ascertains the concept of baraka and its association with birds in Islamic beliefs, and dismisses the misconception of deriving bad omen from birds. In Arabic poetry, Sufi texts, as well as many Islamic philosophical texts, birds also seem to appear as a simile or as representatives of heavenly bodies. Elsewhere, a frieze of birds carries an astrological meaning as well. There grew a concept of winged creatures which were able to defy the laws that tie the other inhabitants of the world to its surface.12

Like mentioned earlier, it is worth noting that the bird motif in the panel has its wings half open as if preparing for an upward flight. In Faṭimi theology and literature, birds have always beared lofty and esoteric connotations. In many places these connotations have even been used to express the belief of transcendence from the material world to the metaphysical realm. The occurrence of the bird on this panel in this context is quite opportune and could refer to the story (hikaya) of the birds that together escaped from the net they were trapped in. It could also refer to the philosophical poem of Ibn Sina, in which a similar analogy of birds is used to connote the meanings of ascension.

All these features are perfectly and skillfully blended together please the eye. Patterned lines give the work a pleasant rhythm; the curved lines reveal calmness, gentleness and beauty. The lines overlapping indicate a kind of unity and depth, bringing all elements together within the composed structure. An unending and continuous pattern of tranquilly spiraling lines reveals a quiet peacefulness. These features compel the intellect to ponder upon the depth of these designs and seek connections between it’s exoteric and esoteric symbolism.

This artistic piece of Faṭimi woodwork, bears the essence of both Islamic and Mesopotamian origin. Despite this panel being only a fragment of a supposedly larger piece, its virtue is sufficient to help us comprehend the distinguished nature of Faṭimi art. Not only does this specimen exemplify the intricacy and perfection of Faṭimi craftsmanship, but it is also a vibrant testimony to how Faṭimi art can inspire deep contemplation of its esoteric symbolism. It is apt that such a piece be gifted to the Faṭimi dāʿī Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS. The transferal of this Faṭimi piece, a remnant of the Faṭimi palace was bound to be drawn to this Faṭimi personage. As Imam AS states: ‘Our belongings yearn for us.’

References

• Al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna al-Qadi al-Noman RA. Kitāb Dāʿim al-Islam vol.2. Muassassa al-Noor Publications, Beirut 2005. Pg. 87.

• Alleaume, Ghislaine, and André Raymond. The Glory of Cairo: An Illustrated History. Cairo: Te American University in Cairo Press, 2002.

• Al-Sulaiti, Fatema. ‘Faṭimid Woodwork in Egypt: Its Style, Influences and Development’, 1 June 2010.

• Bloom, Jonathan, and Institute of Ismaili Studies. Arts of the City Victorious: Islamic Art and Architecture in Faṭimid North Africa and Egypt. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008.

• Bloom, Jonathan M. ‘The Origins of Faṭimid Art’. Muqarnas 3 (1985): 20–38

• Contadini, Anna. Faṭimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V & A Publications; London, 1998.

• Charbonnier, Jean-Michel, Institut du monde arabe (France), and Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Les Faṭimides: trésors du Caire. Paris: Beaux Arts SA, 1998.

• Dr. Ahmed Fikri , Al-Funun-Al-Islamiyah

• Edmond Pauty. Bois sculptés d’églises coptes, Époque Faṭimide. Par Edmond Pauty, Etc. Pl. XLV. Le Caire, Musée National de l’Art Arabe (CAIRE), 1930. 78

• Lamm, C. J. Faṭimid Woodwork, Its Style and Chronology: Some Early Egyptian Draw-Loom Weavings: Coptic Wool Embroideries: The Spirit of Moslem Art. Le Caire: Institut français d’archéologie du Proche-Orient, 1936.

• Maqrīzī, Aḥmad ibn ʻAlī, and R. J. C. Broadhurst. A History of the Ayyūbid Sultans of Egypt. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

• O’Kane, Bernard. The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo (Egypt). Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2006.

• O’Kane, Bernard, and Robert Hillenbrand. The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

• Richard Ettinghausen. Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (New York, N.Y.), 2013.

• Saifuddin, Ja’far us Sadiq M. 2000. Al Aqmar: a living testament to the Fatemiyeen. Croydon: Graphico.

• Yeomans, Richard. The Art and Architecture of Islamic Cairo. Reading: Garnet, 2006.

Notes


  1. This woodwork comes from a private collection and hence, it has never seen the public’s eye. Its description as well as its aesthetics match the panels studied by Contadini. In her book titled “Faṭimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum”, she has mentioned that the Fatimi wooden panels at V&A Museum have many sister panels. Some of them have been found, while some still remain undiscovered. Also, the remnants of the complex from which this panel was procured is the exact same complex from where Contandinis woodworks were taken from. Due to many reasons, including the ones mentioned above make us believe that this fragmented woodwork has other sister panels which were originally made for the Western Fatimi Palace in the tenth-century. For details, see: The Elegant Woodwork of the Faṭimi Era. 20th April 2020. Jupiter Printers, Mumbai. (ISBN: 978-93-5408-008-1).  
  2. Contadini, Anna. Faṭimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V & A Publications; London, 1998.  
  3. Maqrīzī, Aḥmad ibn ʻAlī, and R. J. C. Broadhurst. A History of the Ayyūbid Sultans of Egypt. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. 
  4. Charbonnier, Jean-Michel, Institut du monde arabe (France), and Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Les Faṭimides: trésors du Caire. Paris: Beaux Arts SA, 1998.  
  5. Edmond Pauty. Bois sculptés d’églises coptes, Époque Faṭimide. Par Edmond Pauty, Etc. Pl. XLV. Le Caire, Musée National de l’Art Arabe (Caire), 1930. 
  6. Contadini, Anna. Faṭimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V & A Publications; London, 1998.  
  7. Roy, Alexandra. “A FATIMID CARVED WOOD PANEL, PROBABLY FROM A PORTAL, EGYPT, CAIRO, 11TH CENTURY | Arts of the Islamic World.” Sotheby’s. Accessed May 20, 2021. https://www.sothebys.com/buy/1867ebb2-0abf-4fb6-9a59-004dcd1e9d74/lots/e8614423-54d6-4f0a-aeb3-0b165bf9e279
  8. Saifuddin, Ja’far us Sadiq M. 2000. Al Aqmar: a living testament to the Fatemiyeen. Croydon: Graphico. 
  9. O’Kane, Bernard, and Robert Hillenbrand. The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.  
  10. O’Kane, Bernard, and Robert Hillenbrand. The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.  
  11. al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna al-Qadi al-Noman RA. Kitāb Dāʿim al-Islam vol.2. Muassassa al-Noor Publications, Beirut 2005. Pg. 87. 
  12. Ibid.