Caroline Perry looks at aristocratic life in medieval Iraq, as depicted on a 13th-century Islamic ewer
If every object tells a story, this beautifully decorated ewer from medieval Iraq is bursting with narrative. Both literally, from the inscription round the base of its neck, and figuratively, through the scenes depicted on the roundels, "The Blacas Ewer" (so called because it came to the British Museum from the collection of the Duc de Blacas) depicts the daily life of the ruling class in medieval Iraq. The ewer, or large jug, comes from Mosul, a thriving market town on the banks of the River Tigris, which reached its zenith in the early 13th century, under the leadership of Badr al din Lulu. It is one of the most spectacular pieces of Islamic metalwork in existence and one of the most important.
Literary sources tell that Mosul was the place for the best inlaid metalwork in the Arab world. The Blacas ewer is one of only two extant pieces undoubtedly made in Mosul - the inscription at the base of the neck tells us where and when it was made and by whom: "Decorated by Shuja' ibn Man'a of Mosul in the month of Rajab (April) in the year ah629 (ad1232) in Mosul.".
This ewer is, therefore, very important to art historians: all pieces of metalwork thought good enough to be from Mosul have to be compared to it.
Indeed, the ewer is a good example of the way in which many museum pieces are attributed - often only one or two objects can be said, without doubt, to be from a particular place or by a particular person. The rest are attributed through careful comparison.
Since we know the ewer was made in Mosul in 1232ad, we can learn about life there at that time by studying its decoration. Clearly, there was a wealthy elite who could afford to buy such intricately decorated wares. Even though the ewer is missing its base, spout and lid, it is still a very impressive object. The body was hammered from one sheet of brass, then it was inlaid with silver and copper to a staggering level of detail. The background is based on the patterned Chinese-influenced silks traded in the city; the place was famed for its "mosulin" (meaning "from Mosul" and from which we get the word "muslin"), a cloth noted in the city by 13th-century Venetian explorer Marco Polo.
The roundels, of which there are 14, and friezes show busy scenes packed with animals and figures. Geometric designs interlock with elegant calligraphy, giving an overall effect of luxury and wealth. Every centimetre of the object is covered, to the extent that dainty arabesques can be glimpsed behind the lines of calligraphy. Thus all the traditional features of Islamic art are there: calligraphy, geometry and arabesque, interspersed with fascinating little vignettes.
Here is life in medieval Iraq, at a time when it was under threat from both the Crusaders to the west and the Mongols to the east. Some scenes show courtiers engaged in or practising combat, on horseback and on foot. Others show hunting and falconry, and aristocratic life at home, with seated musicians playing for their patron, or ladies at their toilette gazing into a mirror or choosing jewels for the day from a casket held by an attendant.
Yet some of the vignettes are much more complex. For example, in a wonderful echo of contemporary literary accounts, which tell us of traffic jams in the streets of Mosul caused by rich people being carried along in litters, we see a lady sitting in her camel-litter, with two servants attending her. The servant at the front raises his hand to his mouth as if to shout to people to get out of the way. Another roundel depicts a scene from the 12th-century Persian epic poem Shahnama (Book of Kings). In the poem, King Bahram Gur goes hunting with Azade, his favourite musician, and tries to impress Azade by claiming he could shoot a deer twice with a single arrow. He waited until the deer scratched its ear with its hoof and then shot the animal, pinning its foot to its ear. We know from the poem - but don't see on the ewer - that Azade was not impressed.
He foolishly showed his scepticism and came to a sticky end at the hands of the King. The inclusion of the scene on the ewer shows that the story had become part of the repertoire of entertainment for the elite. It is easy to imagine servants like those seen on the ewer entertaining their noble employers with recitals from the epic.
The way of life depicted on the ewer was soon to be devastatingly interrupted when the Mongols sacked Mosul in 1261. But why was this piece made, apart from advertising the owner's wealth and status? Its representation of the human form means that we can be sure the ewer was not meant for ritual ablution before prayer. Though not specifically prohibited in the Qur'an, figural representation is referred to in the Hadith (or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) where it is noted that God, not man, is the creator of living things. This led to a Muslim reluctance to portray the human form, with the result that figural representation is never used in a religious context. Nor could the ewer be used for decanting wine - the brass would react with the alcohol and render the wine undrinkable. The maker would have had to apply a thin layer of tin to the inside of the vessel to make it suitable for wine. So it seems to be a rather exclusive water container, probably used to pour water over the hands before dining.
Carolyn Perry is director of programmes at the MBIFoundation, a UK charity which promotes links between the Middle East and Europe
* Islamic Art By Barbara Brend British Museum Press pound;16.99
* Islamic Metalwork By Rachel Ward British Museum Press, out of print, but available in libraries