The incription in the cartouches around the rim of this basin read, 'izz li-mawlana al-sultan , al-malik al-malik a , al-ashraf qansuh , al-ghawri , 'azza nasrahu, 'Glory to our Lord, the Sultan, the Possessor, al-Malik al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, may [God] glorify his victory'. Around the body is the inscription, wa al-imam al-a'zam al-malik , sultan al-islam wa al-muslimin , muhyi al-'adl fi al-'alamin , qatil al-kafirin wa al-mushrikin, 'And the Greatest Imam, the King, the Sultan of Islam and Muslims, Reviver of Justice in the Worlds, Slayer of Unbelievers and Polytheists'.
Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghuri (r. 1501-16) was the penultimate Mamluk sultan - his reign marks the finale of Mamluk pious and artistic patronage. He commissioned a great number of buildings and built a commercial and residential quarter in Cairo. Metalwork from the reign Qansuh al-Ghuri is very rare. The Islamic Art Museum in Cairo has three mosque lamps from his madrasa which was founded in AH 909/1503 AD and a dish dated AH 922/1516 AD (all published in Gaston Wiet, Catalogue Général du Musée Arabe du Caire, Cairo, 1932, nos.239, 508 and 3169, pls.XX-XXI, XIX and LVI, pp.28-29, 37-40 and 76-77). The Topkapi has a lamp and the Harari Collection another dish (Wiet, op.cit., no.24).
The form of this basin is familiar: it is found in numerous Mamluk examples - see for example one in the British Museum made circa 1330 for Sultan Nasir al-Din Muhammad (inv.no.51 1-4 1, Esin Atil, Renaissance of Islam, Art of the Mamluks, exhibition catalogue, Washington D.C., 1981, no.26, pp.88-89). The decoration on the other hand is unusual. It relates very closely to that of so called Veneto-Saracenic metalwork, which is characterized by extreme fineness and dense small-scale designs. Combining this distinctive decoration with a classic Mamluk shape, blazons (contained within a lobed rather than the more typical rounded cartouche) and the name of a Mamluk Sultan - the basin provides compelling support for the argument that Veneto-Saracenic was produced in Egypt or Syria, rather than by Muslim craftsmen settled in Venice.
A very closely related basin to ours is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon (donated by the Marquis Arconati-Visconti in 1961, previously in the ancienne collection Raoul Duseigneur, inv.E 538-50, Rémi Labrusse, Islamophilies. L'Europe modern et les arts de l'Islam, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2011, cat.358, p.354). That is said to be inlaid with silver, although no trace is visible in the catalogue image. The Lyon basin bears the name of a seemingly unidentified Abdu 'Abdullah bin al-Wafa'i. Another closely related basin, though of shallower form and without the wide flaring rim, is in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan (inv.1657, published in Doris Behrens-Abouseif, 'Veneto-Saracenic Metalware, a Mamluk Art', Mamluk Studies Review, vol.9, no.2, Chicago, 2005, fig.4, pp.149 and 162). The three basins together are decorated in a style akin to that of conventional Veneto-Saracenic ware, including a number which are European in form. All have the same engraved patterns with a sequence of curved cartouches of alternating format with flowers in the background. In her discussion of the Lyon and the Milan basins, Behrens-Abouseif writes that they could have been produced by the same hand as the a Veneto-Saracenic jug, of very European form, also in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum (inv.1656, Behrens-Abouseif, op.cit., fig.5, pp.149 and 163).
Our bowl is an important addition to this small corpus. None of the vessels mentioned above bear the name of an identified patron. Ours, which has the name of Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri, provides firm evidence that it - as well as the others, both classically Mamluk and those more commonly thought to have been made in Venice - must have been produced under the Mamluk realm rather than further afield.
A Mamluk provenance is supported by contemporaneous elements of architectural embellishment that use similar intricate decorative flourishes to those used on Veneto-Saracenic vessels. The walls between the pendentives of the sabil-maktab of the funerary mosque of Amir Khaybak (1502-21), for instance, are carved with a pattern of dark arabesques that stand out against a lighter grey stone ground and turn through small 'endless-knots' - a decorative feature found both in our bowl and in the wider corpus of Veneto-Saracenic metalwork (Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Cairo of the Mamluks. A History of the Architecture and its Culture, London, 2007, fig.330, p.314). Amir Khayrabak (more commonly known as Khayrabak Bilbay) was recruited by Qaitbay but was appointed governor of Aleppo during al-Ghuri's reign, where he remained until the Ottoman conquest of 1517.
This basin was probably never intended to be inlaid. A bowl and a candlestick, each made for Sultan al-Ashraf Saif al-Din Qaitbay either have no precious metals or otherwise only small silver dots (Atil, op.cit., nos.34-35, pp.100-03). A ewer made for the wife of Qaitbay, now in the British Museum, uses silver sparingly, but the main inscription was left as polished brass (Rachel Ward, Islamic Metalwork, London, 1993, pl.94, p.118). This is generally explained by the world shortage of precious metals at the time, but Atil - using the example of the candlestick made for Qaitbay mentioned above - writes that a new style of decoration was becoming increasingly popular at the time - objects were being incised with a sharp tool and a black bituminous material was being applied to the sunken areas of the background. Familiar also in silver and gold inlaid metalwork, when used alone on brass the bitumen created a feeling of depth, and the practice became predominant in the ensuing years, replacing the technique of inlaid metalwork (Atil, op.cit., p.101). This bowl supports Atil's theory of the lack of inlay representing a new style, rather than economic concern. Bearing the name of a Sultan, it would no doubt have been produced according with the highest qualities and latest fashions.