The inscription on this very elegant ivory panel reads, baybars al-jashnagir ustadh al-dar.
The Bahri Mamluk sultan, Baybars al-Jashnagir, whose full title was Sultan al-Malik al-Muzaffar Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir al-Mansuri, ruled for only one year - 1309-10 - between the second two reigns of the longest serving Mamluk sultan, Nasir al-Din Muhammad.
Al-Muzaffar Baybars held the office of jashnagir or "sultan's taster" - responsible for checking the sutlan's food for poison - before his short spell as sultan. During the interim that followed al-Nasir Muhammad's second reign, Baybars usurped the throne, but paid with his life on the sultan's return. During his short reign he built a funerary khanqah in the Jamaliyya quarter. When al-Nasir Muhammad returned to power, he closed the khanqah, confiscated its estate and obliterated Baybars' royal titles from the foundation inscription. It was reopened in AH 726/1326 after al-Nasir established his own great khanqah at Siryaqus.
According to Ibn Fadlallah al-'Umari (d.1349), the ustadh al-dar or ustadar, translated as 'steward', was the fourth highest office holder in the Mamluk empire (P.M.Holt, 'The Mamluk Institution' in Youssef M. Choueiri (ed.), A Companion to the History of the Middle East, London, 2005, pp.162-63). Because of the inclusion this title after al-Jashnagir on this panel, it is probable that it was made whilst he was still an emir, before he seized power from al-Nasir Muhammad in 1309. It seems likely that it was made to decorate a structure such as a door, window or minbar of his funerary khanqah, which Maqrizi wrote, was founded in AH 706/1306 AD whilst Baybars was emir and completed in AH 709/1310 AD during his sultanate (Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Cairo of the Mamluks. A History of the Architecture and its Culture, London, 2007, p.161).
When this panel was offered as part of the sale of the collection of Charles Gillot, there was a near-square panel offered alongside it which was decorated with a scrolling arabesque. That panel was exhibited with that offered here in the Exposition des Arts Musulmans in 1903 and was published by Gaston Migeon as 14th century (Exposition des Arts Musulmans au Musée des Arts Décoratifs, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1903, pl.5). The two panels are so similar, in wear and patina and also in the scrolls that fill the backgrounds and issue elegant, curling split palmettes, that it seems probable that they were of the same date, likely that they are the same workshop and very possible that the decorated the same original structure. On the basis of the new proposed dating of this panel, the arabesque panel can probably now also be more precisely placed. An extremely similar inscription panel to ours, with benedictory inscription, is in the Louvre (inv. no.7461, Arts de l'Islam des Origines à 1700. Orangerie des Tuileries, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1971, no.265, pp.186-87). Three other panels in the British Museum seem to bear close similarity in calligraphy and are of similar approximate size (Ángel Galán y Galindo, Marfiles Medievales del Islam, Tomo II, Córdoba, 2005, no.22011, p.384). One of the latter bears the name of Muhammad ibn Qala'un (al-Nasir Muhammad). Assuming that these panels date from his second or third reigns (his first lasted only one year, between 1293-94), it puts them securely into the first half of the 14th century, and close in date to ours - showing a fashion for similarly engraved ivories with royal inscriptions.
A similar panel, about twice the length but approximately the same width as that offered here, is in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. That example bears the name of Sultan Qaitbay (r. 1468-96), whose patronage of the arts is known in several objects and who commissioned a number of sabils, gates, houses, mosques, sabil-kuttabs and wakalas. That panel is said to have decorated either a door, a window or a minbar (Esin Atil, Renaissance of Islam. Art of the Mamluks, exhibition catalogue, Washington D.C., 1981, no.105, p.210). The calligraphy is distinctly heavier than ours displaying the development of the script. Another ivory panel, which has been dated to the 14th century, is in the Walters Art Gallery. That bears the inscription, Night and day have mixed in the enjoyment of it, probably referring to times when the panel provided aesthetic satisfaction. An inscription of this type suggests a secular rather than a religious use and indeed Anthony Welch suggested that the panel once constituted the side of a casket made for a wealthy Mamluk (Anthony Welch, Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World, New York, 1979, no.25, p.87).
It seems that the technique of inlaying ivory into wood became more popular as an aesthetic as the Mamluk period progressed. At the same time, the quality, depth and intricacy of engraving that decorated the ivories degenerated as time went on. This panel is a rare survival of early inlaid ivory, which still exhibits the mastery of engraving of which the Mamluks were capable. It is doubly important in that it records the name of a short-lived sultan whose name al-Nasir Muhammad tried to erase from history.