On the upper body: al-'izz al-muqm al-d'im al-'umr al-tawl al-salm wa al-'sh al-han al-na'm al-khayr al-jadd al-qdim li-s(hibihi) (Persistent and abiding glory, long and safe life-span, wholesome and comfortable life, fortunate and outstanding blessing to its owner).
On the hinge :
Sana'ahu Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsil bi-Dimashq (made in Damascus by Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili).
This incense-burner is an outstanding example of the metalwork production of the 13th century in western Islamic countries. Through its inscription: 'Made in Damascus by Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili', we know that this incense-burner was created by an artist in the most prestigious tradition of metalworkers of his time, each attaching the nisba 'al-Mawsili', from the city of Mosul, to their signature. Only one other piece is known to carry both a signature using the nisba al-Mawsili and the city of Damascus as a place of manufacture: a ewer in the Louvre, dated 1259 and dedicated to the Ayyubid ruler of Aleppo (OA 7428; D.S. Rice, "Inlaid brasses from the workshop of Ahmad al Dhaki al-Mawsili", Ars Orientalis, Baltimore, 1957, II, p. 326). Moreover, Muhammad ibn Khutlukh also signed one other famous piece of metalwork: an important geomantic divination table now in the British Museum (no. OAI888.05-26.1; Turks, exhibition catalogue, London, 2005, p.100, fig. 57).
The Roman and then Christian tradition of using incense-burners, mainly forliturgy and ritual, was assumed and followed by the new rulers of the ancient Byzantine world. Byzantium had produced many examples of incense-burners from which much later works still drew inspiration. James Allan characterized five main varieties of Coptic and early Islamic incense-burners of which two are hanging varieties and three are standing (op. cit. pp. 25-34). Following his description, this incense-burner has many elements of the fifth group, common in the Jazira and Syria during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods - cylindrical bodied with a domical lid, a horizontal projecting handle and three feet.
Nevertheless, there are number of aspects that prevent this piece from fitting comfortably into this group. The six double arches, separated by six engaged paired-columns, all standing on the same horizontal base, create a remarkable architectural emphasis. The dramatic flame-like shapes, rising from trefoil bases, highly accentuate the striking effect of this metalwork. By comparison with other examples the lid, which is sadly missing, should have been a pierced dome, probably elaborating on the architectural scheme that would have enhanced the overall impression.
There is no doubt that this shape was inspired by architectural prototypes and ancient traditions to which Muhammad ibn Khutlukh had access, whether in the Jazira or in Syria. Sasanian architectural elements survived through the Umayyad era: the palace of Kharaneh (710 AD), particularly the inner vaulted rooms, shows a possible source for the paired arches and the engaged columns in pairs with a single, flat, capital (http://archnet.org/library/images/one-image.jsp?location_id=9078&image _id=42597 and id=42600). Moreover, Allan shows that double arches were not only employed in the architectural style imported from the East but were also used in minor arts. Domed buildings standing on antique columns, such as the octagonal fountain of the Aleppo Mosque (965 AD), were also well known in Greater Syria which in turn probably derived from the Christian ciboria. It seems that Umayyad Syria, and more precisely the Great Mosque of Damascus, could be the source for the design of the base of the incense-burner. Apart from the main rounded arcade, a remarkably close pattern of six interlacing circles, seen on the base of the present incense burner, is found on one of the numerous window-grills of the Umayyad Mosque (706-715 AD; http://archnet.org/library/images/one-image.jsp?location_id=8854&image_ id=64310).
In comparison to all the known incense-burners, the three lion-feet found here are unusually chunky and highly naturalistic, reminiscent of Roman examples. Each lion paw is surmounted by a stylised vase from which a highly sculptured silver-inlaid flame-like shape rises and bulges up. This composition is repeated under each double arch of the round body of the incense-burner, stressing the strong verticality of the whole. There is no known parallel to this flame but, as James Allan remarks: 'One is tempted to assume a Zoroastrian and thus Persian emphasis here; the fact that Muhammad ibn Khutlukh was the maker of the geomantic table in the British Museum, and therefore interested in things outside orthodox Islam, might lend weight to this argument'.
The prominent handle with its wide-jawed dragon head terminal is unusual in its technique of fitting. Although handles are usually riveted directly onto the body of the incense-burner itself, here, it is riveted to an inner cast rod. This conceals the point of attachment and neatly conceals a possibly inelegant fitting. Other contemporary examples of animal-headed handles exist with the same wide-opened mouth on one extremity of the handle and a round knot at its base as illustrated in Allan (op. cit., p.31). A screw-fitting hidden in the dragon mouth probably served to fix tongs used to dispose the embers as seen on an silver incense-burner of the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum (Allan, op. cit. p.66).
Whilst this incense-burner is not dated, we can be fairly sure of a dating of around 1230-40. The geomantic table in the British Museum is dated 639/1241-42 and similarities are striking between the two works, both in the signature and laudatory inscriptions and in the decoration. Nevertheless, there are slight differences between the pattern of half-palmettes running around the lower band of the body and those found on the geomantic table where a trefoil breaks down the tight composition of the foliage band, alternatively appearing upside down between pairs of stem. This suggests possibly that the incense-burner was worked slightly earlier. Moreover, a very interesting parallel for these half-palmettes, of a probably earlier design, is also found on the kursis, the tympanum-shaped hanging-piece, of two astrolabes signed by Abd al-Karim al-Misri one of which is dated 625/1227 (L.A. Mayer, Islamic Astrolabists and their works, Geneva, 1959, pl.xii a).
The rare level of quality reached by the incense-burner of Muhammad ibn Khutlukh, both in its technique and the materials used and its extraordinary audacious shape and design, is most probably indicative of a contemporary prestigious patron. The last Ayyubid Sultan of Aleppo, Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yussuf, (1237-1260) had been an active patron in Syria at that time, as were the Ayyubid rulers of Damascus al-Ashraf (1229-37) and al-Salih Isma'il (1239-45). The name of al-Malik al-Nasir appears on two masterpieces of 13th century metalwork, both in the Louvre: the Vase Barberini (no. OA4090; L'orient de Saladin, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2001, p. 49, fig. 41) and the ewer signed by Husayn bin Muhammad al-Mawsili (D.S. Rice, op. cit, p. 326). Thus there is also a strong possibility that he was the patron of a masterpiece such as the present magnificent incense burner.