The inscription in the ivory panel along the top of the penbox reads iftah dawat sa'ada bi-taraqi wa/['uluw] martabah wa 'izz baqi baraka (Open the penbox of good-fortune with proficiency and exalted rank and eternal glory. Blessing).
This inscription is important in the inclusion of the word martabah (exalted rank). Apart from this it is a relatively frequently encountered benedictory sequence, made specific by the opening reference to the pen box. This particular word however alludes to the rank of the owner, indicating that this was a specific commission. In later Mamluk Egypt pen cases were a symbol of authority, and the title of dawadar (holder of the [sultan's] pen box) was one of the most prestigious positions for the amirs to hold at the royal court.
There are very few objects indeed from the mediaeval Islamic period which are made of ebony. This black wood is the heart wood of the Diospyros ebenum tree that is native to South India and Sri Lanka and can also be found in the Sudan. It had been appreciated from ancient Egyptian times - in fact the word ebony itself derives from the ancient Egyptian word used for the wood.
There are two well-published ivory boxes to which this pen case relates, each of which has survived in a church treasury since the middle ages. The first is the so-called Writing Case of St. Leopold that is in the Museum des Chorherrenstiftes in Klosterneuberg (Europa und der Orient, exhibition catalogue, Berlin, 1989, no, pp.198 and 548-9). This is of course not a writing case nor, as one scholar suggested, a box for gamespieces. It is a jeweller's box with the main compartment for his scales and subsidiary compartments for weights and possibly stones. There are numerous later comparable examples of this form, from late Islamic Spain, Ottoman Turkey and even Qajar Iran. This was clearly demonstrated by Sophie Makariou ("A new group of Spanish ivory Pen Boxes?", Journal of the David Collection, Copenhagen, 2005, vol.2,2, pp.184-195). The proportions of the cusped ends on the interior here, within a raised double outline, and the designs of the scrolls filling the spandrels at the edges of the cusped element are very similar. The other comparable ivory box is a shallow rectangular box that is in the church at Bagnoregio bear Viterbo in Italy (Francesco Gabrieli and Umberto Scerrato, Gli Arabi in Italia, Milan, 1979, pls.516-7, p.470). There it is the roundels at each end of the side which are very similar indeed to those at each end of the top of our pen box, and a similar roundel is the central focus on the cover. Both ivory boxes also share with the present pen case the feature of large plain areas of surface, which is not the case with most other mediaeval Islamic ivories.
In the 1989 Berlin catalogue the jeweller's box is very safely catalogued as "Islamic, 12th century". Gabrieli and Scerrato suggest that the Bagnoregio box was made in 12th century South Italy or Sicily. Other authors have studied these pieces. Ernst Kühnel suggested that the jeweller's box was "Sicilian (?) circa 1200" (Ernst Kühnel, Die Islamischen Elfenbeinskulpturen, Berlin, 1971, pl.107). He also linked it to four remarkable panels in the Hermitage Museum, together with a related panel in the National Museum in Ravenna that are filled with lively animals against a scrolling vine ground. While the main composition appears to be very different, there are a number of similarities in the smaller motifs, notably the raised bands of double ribs that form the geometric design, and the scrollwork on the haunches of the animals. Avinoam Shalem, when discussing the two boxes, places them consecutively in his inventory and attributes each to "Sicily(?), 12th century" (Avinoam Shalem, Islam Christianized, Islamic Portable Objects in the Medieval Church treasuries of the Latin West, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1998, pp.256-7). Most recently Angel Galán y Galindo places the jeweller's box with three others of the same form in the National Archeological Museum, Madrid, in the cathedral treasury in Toledo, and in the cathedral treasury in Orense, each of which is of similar form and for the same purpose. These four form the complete section titled "Islamic ivories of unclear origin" in his exhaustive survey (Angel Galaán y Galindo, Marfiles medievales del Islam, Cordoba, 2005, II, pp.412-417). The author however places the panels linked by Kühnel firmly into late 10th or early 11th century Fatimid Egypt (op.cit, II, pp.365-374).
One of the supporting factors for placing these ivory boxes in Sicily at this period is the lack of meaningful inscriptions. The Klosterneuberg jeweller's box has an inscription running round the central panel on the interior which just repeats the kufic word baraka (blessing). The same inscription is found on the side panels of the Orense jeweller's box. Accepting that our pen case is a part of this group, and the dating to be from the 12th century, the Sicilian origin is no longer tenable since the Fatimids had been pushed out of Sicily by the Normans long before, so the use of a meaningful Arabic inscription is inconceivable. In her discussion of the jewellers' boxes already noted, Sophie Makariou suggests cautiously an attribution of Spain, and somewhat stronger, a dating of 10th-11th century (Makariou, op. cit., pp.192-194). She also regrets the lack of epigraphic evidence and the improbability of the situtation being made clearer in the foreseeable future.
The inscriptions on this pen box mean that it must have been produced in an Islamic context. The script is not consistent, but would seem to indicate a date certainly no earlier than the 11th century since some of the letter forms are showing distinct tendencies towards naskh, and a 12th century date is the most probable. This style of script however would tend to rules Spain out as a possibility. The use of a heavy black mastic around the lettering is also something that was common in Egypt in the 14th century, as seen in a cylindrical ivory box in the British Museum (Journal of the David Collection, vol.2, 2, fig.119, p.217). The ebony from which it is made is a strong indicator that it is likely to have been made somewhere with access to the trade routes to India, or to the Sudan. Furthermore there is a substantial body of examples of silver inlaid brass pen boxes from Egypt and Syria which follow exactly the same form as the present example, with the same shaped internal divisions. It seems therefore most probable that the penbox was made in Egypt in the 12th century, during the late Fatimid period.
The mounts are unlike any other examples on either Islamic or European mediaeval objects. They are very well fashioned, with much more powerfully conceived mouldings than the attenuated terminals one normally encounters on hinges and locks. The workmanship clearly echoes the scrollwork carved in the roundels. We could assume that the penbox was originally intended not to have mounts, since the inscription panel runs straight through under the clasp. Inlaid brass penboxes of the same form also do not have pronounced hinges or clasps. Again there are Egyptian/Syrian examples where the clasp closes over the inscription rather than leaving a gap at that point. These mounts are clearly designed and specially made for this pen box, and relate to no other mounts. Other Egyptian ivory boxes appear to have been made without any thought about the hinges which were then added over the existing decoration (Galán y Galindo op. cit., p.363 for example). This is in notable contrast to the practice in Spain. It seems most probable that they were made either contemporaneously with the pen case or, if not, very shortly thereafter, before a new style would have meant a completely different form.