islogo.gif (778 bytes)

In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful


Art of the Mamluks

Art Of The Mamluks, by Dr. Esin Atil, published by the Smithsonian Press.

Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1981
Esin Atil
Publication made possible by a grant from United Technologies Corporation.

About the Author: Esin Atil, a native of Turkey, received a Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Dr. Atil has been curator of Near Eastern art at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Historical Summary: Mamluk Empire (1250 - 1517 AD)

    Following the Ayyubid state in 1250 AD, the Mamluk sultans established a formidable empire, ruling Egypt, Syria, and Palestine for more than two hundred and fifty years, their frontiers extending from southeatern Anatolia to the Hijaz and incorporating parts of Sudan and Libya. Soon after coming to power, they defeated the mongols and explled the last of the Crusaders from the Near East. Trade and agriculture flourshied under Mamluk rule, and Cairo, their capital, became one of the wealthiest cities in the Near East and the center of artistic and intellectual activity. It also became the seat of the caliphate and, thus, the most prestegious capital in the Islamic world.

Illuminated Manuscripts

    The exquiste illuminations, calligraphy, and bindings of Mamluk Korans are unequaled in any other Islamic tradition of bookmaking. The technical and artistic virtousity found in these manuscipts is representative of the Mamluks, who, embracing Islam with the fervor of converts, endowed elaborate religious complexes and supplied each major foundation with its set of Korans.

    Illuminated heading with Surat al-Fatiha (The Opening; I:1-7). This Koran was donated by Shaban II (1363-76) to his foundation in 1376, four years after it was copied on the fifteenth day of Muharram 774. The text is framed by a gold braid with touches of color applied to the knots and enclosed on both sides by a white braid.

    Double finispiece with Surat al-Falaq (The Daybrak; CXIII: 1-5) and Surat al-Nas (Mankind; CXIV: 1-6). Donated by Sultan Barsbay to his madrasa in the Ambarian district of Cairo, March 16, 1425. Written in nashki script with kufic headings.


    The art of the Mamluks is possibly best known for the cration of spectacular metalwork, examples of which are among the most cherished possessions of many public and private collections around the world.

    Key (bronze: inlaid with silver, 1363/64). Donated by Sultan Shaban II to the Kaaba in Mecca. Among the sacred objects commissioned by Mamluk sultans were keys for the Kaaba in Mecca, the most revered shrine in Islam. Mecca and Medina were under the jurisdiction of the Mamluks, and the sultans were responsible for the maintenance of mosques in these cities and the protection of the pilgrimage routes. Many rulers spent a substantial portion of state revenues on the construction of buildings and donated valuable Korans and metalwork to teh mosques. Shaban II (1363-76), who restored the pavement of the court of the mosque enclosing the Kaaba, donated this silver inlaid key to the shrine.

    Pierced globe (brass: inlaid with silver, circa 1270) was made for Badr al-Din Baysari, one of the important Syrian amirs in the early Mamluk period.

    The socket and neck unit (brass: inlaid with silver & gold, circa 1290) belong to the famous candlestick made for Zayn al-Din Kitbugha while he was an officer in the service of Sultan al-Mansur al-Ashraf Khalil (1290-93).

    Rosewater sprinkler (brass: inlaid with silver & gold, mid 14th century). Made for Sultan Hasan who is renowned for having built the most impressive complex in Cairo and for donating hundreds of lamps to light his madrasa. A substantial amount of metalwork was commissioned by the Sultan and his amirs.

    Box (brass: inlaid with silver, 15th century. This small oval box with flat top appears to have been made for an unknown patron by an artist named Muhammad ibn Ali al-Hamawi (from Hama), who was the timekeeper at the Great Mosque of Damascus.

IslamiCity acknowledges the use of the book, Art Of The Mamluks, by Dr. Esin Atil, published by the Smithsonian Press in creating these pages.