“Among the largest and most impressive objects produced by the Ayyubid and Mamluk metalworkers is a group of basins that are almost identical with slightly flaring sides and flaring rims” (Esin Atil, Renaissance of Islam, Art of the Mamluks, exhibition catalogue, Washington D.C., 1981, p.69). Two of the most renowned of all pieces of Islamic metalwork, the Baptistère de St. Louis in the Louvre (Atil, op.cit., no.21, pp.76-79), and the d’Arenberg basin in the Freer Gallery (Esin Atil, W. T. Chase and Paul Jett, Islamic Metalwork in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1985, no.18, pp.137-147) are of this form. The present basin was made at a time when the full Mamluk style was maturing into its best-known variant, the script becoming completely dominant. As Rachel Ward notes, “During the fourteenth century the egocentric tendencies of the Mamluk amirs became even more explicit on the metalwork they commissioned. The titular inscriptions are larger and bolder, inlaid with wide areas of sheet silver so that their message cannot be missed” (Rachel Ward, Islamic Metalwork, London, 1993, p.113). This basin is however a rare combination of the fully formed massive thuluth script and the figural roundels that were such a prominent feature of earlier vessels.
The form itself, with very little variation, goes back to the beginning of the 13th century, for example a basin in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo made for al-Malik al-Amjad Bahram Shah (r.1182-1231) (Harari Collection no.15, now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo; M. Gaston Wiet, Catalogue générale du musée de Caire, objets en cuivre, Cairo, 1984 reprint, p.65) and one in the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin made for Abu’l Qasim Mahmud bin Sanjarshah bin Ghazi (r.1208-1251) (Friedrich Sarre, Sammlung F. Sarre, Erzeugnisse Islamischer Kunst, Teil.I, Metall, Berlin, 1906, no.19, pp.12-13 and pl.VI). Examples from the 13th century are known, some thought to have been made in Mosul. Others were made in Ayyubid Syria, frequently by craftsmen from Mosul such as the basin in the Louvre Museum, Paris, made for the Ayyubid Sultan al-Adil made by Ahmad b. 'Umar al-Dhaki (Sophie Makariou (ed.), Islamic Art at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2012, no.118, pp.175-7).
It is through the Mosul influence that the roundels with their mounted figures appear in Mamluk metalwork. Julian Raby, in a recent study, discusses metalwork associated with Mosul and its influences (Julian Raby, “The Principle of Parsimony and the problem of the ‘Mosul School of Metalwork’”, in Venetia Porter and Mariam Rosser-Owen (eds.), Metalwork and Material Culture in the Islamic World, Art, Craft and Text, London, 2012, pp.11-85). This article shows very clearly the strong link between the design of metalwork figural designs and contemporaneous manuscript illustration. That Mosul craftsmen worked for Ayyubid patrons is attested by many vessels, for example the Louvre basin already noted, and a ewer in the same museum made for Sultan Salah-al-Din Ayyub that is signed by Husayn b. Muhammad al-Mawsili (Makariou, op.cit., no.96, pp.146-7). The continuing direct influence of Mosul through into Mamluk period metalwork is demonstrated by a tray now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York commissioned at the beginning of the 14th century for Daud, the Rasulid Sultan of the Yemen, made by Ahmad b. Husayn al-Mawsili, working in Cairo (Atil, op.cit., no.22, pp.80-1).
The use of mounted figural roundels to divide script on the inner side of a flaring basin rim is found on an example attributed to “Jazira or Syria” dating from 1240-1300 in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (Sheila Canby et al., Court and Cosmos, the Great Age of the Seljuks, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2016, no.125, p.209). All three process in the same direction; one is a falconer; the others are more difficult to determine. The same combination on the interior is found on a “Syro-Mesopotamian” basin dated to circa 1275 in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran (Eva Baer, Metalwork in Mediaeval Islamic Art, New York, 1985, pl.213, p.263). A contemporaneous basin in Palermo dating from the second half of the 13th century has a very similar decorative band of a falconer dividing strong script around the flaring interior (Francesco Gabrieli and Umberto Scerrato, Gli Arabi in Italia, Milan, 1979, pls.206-208, pp.182-3). The same series of mounted figures, although not dividing script in this instance, is also found on a ewer in Bologna, made for the Amir Turuntay al-Tabakhi, vizir at the court of Sultan Qala'un circa 1280 (Gabrieli and Scerrato, op.cit, pls.564-569; Giovanni Curatola, Eredità dell’Islam, exhibition catalogue, Venice, 1993, no.173, pp.302-304). The tray made for Sultan Daud already noted above, as in our basin, divides the bold fully developed Mamluk script into three panels by cusped roundels each containing a horseman, an archer, a lancer and a huntsman. The archer on our basin is very close to that in a roundel on the exterior of the Baptistère de Saint Louis, although there it is a lion rather than the deer seen here that is killed (D.S.Rice, The Baptistère de Saint Louis, London, 1953, pl.VII). A similar depiction, marginally closer, is on one of the bands of the interior of the Baptistère de Saint Louis (Rice, op.cit., pl.XXV). The mounted falconer appears on a considerable number of vessels. The warrior battling a lion that appears twice here is the most distinctive depiction. It is found in the same Baptistère de Saint Louis panel as the archer (Rice, op.cit., pl.XXV). Its 13th century Syrian or Jaziran antecedent is also found on the penbox formerly in the Jasim Homaizi Collection and now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (James Allan, Metalwork Treasures from the Islamic Courts, Doha and London, 2002, no.4, pp.26-29).
The turban depicted on the falconer in the later 13th century Palermo basin is particularly well-drawn and very similar to those on our horsemen. The same turban is found on a mounted polo player on the Baptistère de Saint Louis (D.S.Rice, op.cit, pl.VII) as well as on a number of the standing and mounted figures (pls.XIV, XXXI, XXXII and XXXVI). Even more similar in their turbans are the figures worked by the same craftsman, Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, in his small bowl with figures donated by Mme Marquet de Vasselot to the Louvre Museum, dating from the late 13th or early 14th century. (Atil, op.cit., no.20, pp.74-75). The turbans there, their design and their construction, each fashioned from a series of different silver inlaid panels bound by a diagonal strap, are identical. This would indicate a similar date for our basin, relatively early in the reign of Sultan an-Nasir Muhammad, probably somewhere between 1300 and 1320, contemporaneous with the tray made for the Rasulid Sultan Daud.
It was during the reign of this, the most long-lived and magnificent of the Mamluk sultans, that inscriptions came to dominate the decoration on metalwork, and figural designs became less and less prominent. A clear indication of the change in taste is shown by a basin in the British Museum which in many ways is very similar indeed to ours (Atil, op.cit., no.26, pp.88-89). Made for the same sultan, with very similar broad inscription, banded above and below by almost identical foliage interrupted by gold-inlaid 'izz li-mawlana al-sultan roundels, the large roundels in the main bands both inside and out are filled with the sultan’s blazon ringed by foliage rather than the horsemen seen here. A further basin with different more curvaceous outline, probably made for the same sultan although lacking his given name, is in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (James Allan, Metalwork Treasures from the Islamic Courts, Doha and London, 2002, no.18, pp.64-67). Again, with the exception of a band of animals, the decoration is restricted to inscriptions and foliage. The present remarkable basin, made as a royal commission in the earlier part of the rule of the longest reigning Mamluk sultan, perfectly shows the mature powerful Mamluk style as it emerges.