According to William Robinson, International Head of Islamic Art at Christie’s in London, there are three primary factors that make this monumental royal Mamluk Qur’an extraordinary.
The first lies in its royal provenance. ‘From the dedicatory inscription on its double-page illuminated frontispiece, we know that this Mamluk Qur’an was made for the Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qaytbay, who reigned from 1468 to 1496,’ states Robinson.
The inscription in gold thuluth, an elegant angular Islamic script, is painted on a lapis lazuli ground. ‘It’s rather unusual for a Qur’an dating to this period to come complete with its original and unrestored front and back pages, as well as the name and date of the scribe,’ explains the specialist. ‘Mamluk Qur’ans of this size with a royal dedication are extremely rare. This is why they get so much attention when they do come to market.’
For Robinson, Sultan Qaytbay of Egypt was the last great sultan of the Mamluk period (1250-1517). His reign — over an area that spanned present-day Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Syria, as well as parts of Arabia — witnessed the last period of Mamluk stability and the construction of spectacular institutions and foundations across the region, from Cairo to Mecca.
Illuminated monumental Qur’ans were a speciality of the middle and later Mamluk periods and were often commissioned by Mamluk sultans as endowments for these institutions, where many still reside. This explains why there are very few Qur’ans of this size in private hands.
‘Although this monumental Qur’an is more than 500 years old, its pages are in excellent condition and retain their bright, fresh, cream colour’ — William Robinson
The second factor is the size of the folio, which measures 68 cm by 45.5 cm (26¾ in x 18 in). This roughly equates to the half-Baghdadi size of paper developed in the city of Baghdad and adopted throughout the medieval Islamic world. For Robinson, its great size — large Qur’ans from this period are usually quarter-Baghdadi in size or smaller — suggests that it was indeed endowed to one of Qaytbay’s foundations, and only later sold to a private collector.
‘Mamluk paper is generally of very good quality,’ he says. ‘Although this monumental Qur’an is more than 500 years old, its pages are in excellent condition and retain their bright, fresh, cream colour.’ They are also free from two of the deadliest scourges of ancient books of the Islamic world: insects and damp.
The third factor that makes this Qur’an so exceptional is its script. ‘It's rare to see naskh script on this scale in a volume of this size,’ the specialist explains. ‘Its compact nature makes it more commonly employed in volumes on a far smaller scale.’
In substantial Qur’ans such as this one, one would normally expect to see muhaqqaq, a script with much longer, elegant verticals. ‘Yet, on this scale,’ says Robinson, ‘the large naskh is wonderfully easy to read.’ The naskh in this volume has flow, strength, and individuality. ‘The scribe plays with form here and allows himself quite a bit of freedom,’ observes the specialist.
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The scribe Tanam al-Najmi, who describes himself as al-Maliki al-Ashrafi — which translates as ‘of al-Malik al-Ashraf’, ie, ‘of Sultan Qaytbay’ — is likely to have been part of the royal scriptorium. Although he adheres to the general rules of the codified script, every now and then he completely ignores them. ‘His quirks, together with a few evident mistakes, suggest that he took certain liberties when writing at speed,’ Robinson explains.
This magnificent Qur’an has been in the same private collection since 1982. ‘To the best of my knowledge,’ our expert concludes, ‘nothing comparable to this has come to market in the past 30 years.’