Islamic Glass Bottle with Byzantine, Greek and Arab Inscriptions

Islamic · 13th century A.D.


Enamelled and gilded glass


W: 10 cm

H: 11 cm





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A unique enamelled and gilded glass bottle with Greek inscription and Christian iconography from Late Ayyubid or early Mamluk Syria.

An important enamelled and gilt glass bottle with Byzantine, Greek and Arab inscriptions of circular form with flattened sides, trailed and applied glass with enamelled and gilded decoration on blown glass body, stags and lions interwoven inside a scrolling lattice on sides, the ground with gilded and red enamelled scrolls and depictions ofsmall birds, the top with eight-pointed stellar form, front and back with concentric circular bands of enamel contained between applied bands of glass and punctuated with circular bosses with alternate bands of loose naskh and Byzantine majuscule inscription around a central roundel with falconing figure neck missing, otherwise intact, considerable surface iridescence.

This is a unique survival from mediaeval Syria, an enamelled and gilded glass bottle with both Greek and Arabic inscription and with clear Christian iconography. Both in terms of the iconography and in the techniques it uses it is without parallel in the published corpus of enamelled glass.

The body of this flask was free-blown to form a rounded shape which then had a kick foot impressed to form the base, and the sides were lightly flattened. This form is very similar to that of the typical Mamluk sprinkler or qumqum such as one now in the museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, made for al-Baba Badr al-Din Muhammad, governor of Qus under Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad (1293-1341) (Abd el-Ra’uf Ali Yousuf, ‘Syro-Egyptian glass, pottery and wooden vessels’, in Rachel Ward (ed.), Gilded and Enamelled Glass from the Middle East, London, 1998, fig.6.5, pp.23 and 158). The proportions here are slightly different from those of the normal qumqum, with the kick foot making less of an indentation and therefore each side appearing more round than is normally encountered. The form is also related to that of “pilgrim bottles”, more frequently found in unglazed pottery, with flattened circular sides and much shorter neck and mouth than the qumqum, (for a typical example please see one sold in these Rooms 10 October 2000, lot 266).

There is a much larger enamelled glass vessel in the British Museum that also takes the form of a pilgrim bottle, in that instance copied more closely from a brass original (Rachel Ward, ‘Glass and Brass, Parallels and Puzzles’, in Ward, op.cit, pls.9.,6 and 9.8, pp.34, 164 and 165). While the scale on which that bottle is made is completely different, the two vessels share considerable similarities in the arrangement of the designs, a comparison we shall return to.

There are three bands of inscription on each side. The outermost band in each case is executed in enamel against a white enamel ground. It appears to be Arabic but, although there is considerable variety of letter forms, the inscription is completely illiterate. The middle band is the one that is most difficult of all to decipher. It seems to have been executed in gold script set against a blue enamel ground. The script is Greek uncial but so little is left that it is not possible to say more than that. The inner inscription is also in Greek uncial, but in this case using the same combination of colours and materials as the outer Arabic band. This band is only partially legible, but enough can be made out to be certain that it is literate and that it was at one stage fully comprehensible. It places the vessel clearly within a Christian context especially if one reads the word that follows ???? as ??, a shortened form of “Jesus”. This is therefore the first gilded and enamelled vessel to be placed within an eastern Christian, possibly Byzantine context. The famous gilded and enamelled bowl in the Treasury of San Marco, Venice, while generally agreed to be Byzantine, has iconography that owes nothing to Christianity (Ward, op.cit.,


Art market, prior to 1975;

Ex European collection, 1975;

Acquired in early 2000 in Switzerland.


WARD R. (ed.), Gilded and Enamelled Glass from the Middle East, London, 1998.