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Abdalla April 22, 2006
Doors, Pair, ca. 1325–1330; Mamluk period (1250-1517) Attributed to Cairo, Egypt Wood inlaid with carved ivory panels; H. 65 in. x W. 30 1/2 in. (165.1 x 77.5 cm) Edward C. Moore Collection, Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891 (91.1.2064)
After the fall of the Ayyubids, started by the historically famous Salah Al-Din AlAyyubi, who took Jerusalem back to the Muslims during the Crusades, the class of Turkish or Circassian slave soldiers called the Mamluks took over the Ayyubid Empire, which encompassed present-day Egypt, Syria, Jerusalem, and the cities of Mecca and Medina. The Mamluk dynasty, dating from 1250-1517, consisted of the Bahris and the Burgis, which were of Qishqaq and Circassian Origins, respectively.1 They did not have successions to the throne; instead, this dynasty was plagued with conspiracies and murders to reach the supreme power. Even Baibars I, the first Mamluk Sultan, reached that height of power through assassinating his partner, Kutuz, whom they won the war against the Mongols.2 The Mamluk dynasty ended when Sultan Tuman Bey II was defeated outside of Cairo by Ottoman Sultan Selim the Terrible.3 This pair of doors from the Mamluk period made of wood inlaid with carved ivory panels is part of a minbar in the mosque of Amir Sayf Al-Din Qawsun, who was the cupbearer of Sultan Al-Nasir ibn Qala’un. It stands 65 inches tall and is located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the doors are closed, the main motif of this ivory panel is an intertwining geometric pattern that seems to have a main circular shape. It is known that repetition of geometric design, called arabesque, is one of the main elements that distinguishes Islamic art from other types of art. One repeated geometric design in the pair of doors is the circle. This circular shape consists of (from inside out): a twelve-pointed star in the center, surrounded by twelve elongated diamond shapes that are placed between the points of the star. Between those diamond shapes, there are twelve elongated hexagons that are finally lined with twelve five-pointed stars in between the hexagons. This circular shape gives the impression of a sunflower, with its radiated dark areas on the petals, and finally the yellow petals. The five-pointed stars make the perfect separation between the “floral” geometrical shapes without losing the arabesque flavor that is so typical in Islamic art. Examining the door from top to bottom, the pair of doors as a unit has a fine horizontal ivory panel at the top. Separated by a piece of wood, the “floral” motif begins; however, not as a full circle. It begins as two quarters of two different circles, which adorn the top two corners of the rectangle. Then, as the five-pointed stars perform their jobs as the “floral” separators, a full circle of the floral motif begins to surface. Since there cannot be another circle without disrupting the overall picture of this wooden ivory panel, there are two halves of different circles on either side. Then, another full circle, and to adorn the lower two corners of the rectangle, another two quarters of different circles were placed. Finally, another piece of thin horizontal ivory panel is separated from the main decoration by a piece of wood. Another striking feature of this wooden ivory panel is the way the five-pointed stars are placed. They are placed as if they were “flowing” through floral motifs, just like
1 Goodarzi, 2006: April 18. 2 Stierlin, 1997: 23 3 Pg. 40
Marwa M. Abdalla April 22, 2006 how water would seep through smooth, almost identically shaped rocks down to the bottom. This would have not occurred if there were not a special shaped hexagon4 in between every cluster of three five-pointed stars. There are four of them, lined relatively on top of each other, and exactly in the middle. As with all artwork, there is potential meaning in the pair of doors’ floral motif. Keith Critchlow wrote an excellent review of the relation between geometry and philosophy in Islam and cosmology. He stated that Ibn Al-Arabi, one of the famous Muslim philosophers, said that the universe is within a “sphere of potentiality,” or that it is finite.5 In order for any potential to be released, there must be activity. Therefore, according to Ibn Al-Arabi, the first activity is contraction and expansion. The first activity is shown through the existence of day and night.6 Day expands to its limit in the summer solstice (June 21) when the day is longest, and night contracts to its densest point, while the opposite occurs during the winter solstice (December 21).7 Both day and night are equal during the spring and fall equinoxes (March and September 21).8 These four major cosmological points refer to the four cardinal signs in astrology: Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn.9 Both Cancer and Capricorn are the solstices, and Aries and Libra are the equinoxes.10 There is a sense of balance and symmetry in Islamic art, whether it is in the art, or the potential interpretation of the art. Critchlow shows the relation of astrology to human life. He states that during the year, the expansion poles made by Aries and Libra are balanced by the contraction poles of Cancer and Capricorn, which also refers to the “essence of human life-that is, the contraction and expansion that constitute the life rhythm of human breathing.”11
The first image shows the Aries-Libra expansion polarity, which is balanced (figure 2-right) by the CancerCapricorn contraction polarity. These initial polarities are the cardinal signs. The next set of polarities (not shown) would be the fixed signs, and then the mutable signs. In astrology, other than the four elements, there are the three qualities, which are cardinal (initiation/compulsiveness), fixed (stability/obstinacy), and mutable (change/flexibility) signs.
But life is not that simple that it could be limited to these four polar signs. There has to be more, which he illustrates gracefully through his algorithmic manner of unfolding one truth after another. He states that the Divine Intellect, according to Plotinus, goes through three steps: proceeding, maintaining, and returning, or what Critchlow better
4 The special shaped hexagon looks almost similar to a cut diamond, ready to be placed on a ring. 55-10 Crithlow, 1988: 48 6 7 8 9 10 11 Pg. 49
Marwa M. Abdalla April 22, 2006 describes as, “the function of the spirit that is simultaneously coming into being, preserving being, and returning from being.”12 This concept is shown through the transfer of, in this case, the fire element through three different signs. Since Aries is the first sign, its fire is transferred to the fixed sign of Leo, which is then transferred to the mutable sign of Sagittarius, and finally goes back to Aries.
The formation of a triad starts with Aries at the top, going to Leo to the bottom left, then Sagittarius at the bottom right, and the cycle repeats again. There is another interpretation for the transfer of an element. Figure 4 (right) shows that the transfer of the fire element from Aries to Leo is the initial descent, or the descent of the baby from its mother’s womb. From Leo to Sagittarius, the fixing of expansion can refer to the expansion of the baby into adulthood, and from Sagittarius back to Aries, is the regression of the human being back to its childhood state, though he is getting old. He is also going back to his Creator.
The transfer of an element to make the triad formation is also applied to the other elements as well. The polar signs and their triads form the twelve zodiac signs, which correspond perfectly to the twelve-pointed star motif of the pair of doors.
The formation of the twelve signs occurs after all the triads have been formed (figure 5-left). The triad shown in figure 3 and 4 was the fire triad. Water, Air, and Earth triads followed, respectively, forming the twelve-pointed star that is also shown on the pair of doors. The fire signs are the signs of exploration, the fulfillment of desires, and creative growth. The water signs in astrology reflect the emotional and spiritual aspects of human life. The air signs depict the intellectual growth humans attain as they age. The earth signs depict the materialistic aspects that one tries to gain in life through work and the search of security until death. Therefore, as a person ages, idealistically he evolves in exploration (fire), emotionally and spiritually (water), intellectually (air), and materialistically (earth) until he dies.
Not only does this reflect the twelve months of the year, it also reflects the twenty-four hours of the day.13 Moreover, the Persians made perfect pentagons within the five12 Pg. 49; Muslims believe that they are born into this world from G-d and they try to preserve what He has given them through acts of righteousness, and when they cease to exist, they go back to their Creator in the hereafter.
Marwa M. Abdalla April 22, 2006 pointed stars to represent humans and the heart.14 These stars are used in the decoration of the pair of doors to separate the floral motifs.15 The best way to illustrate the relation between the impact of cosmology on philosophy and human life in Islamic art is to again use Critchlow’s facts to this paper’s advantage. In the Qur’an, Critchlow makes a reference to a passage that states, “We shall show them our signs on the horizons and within themselves, until it be clear to them that He is the Truth,” and Ibn Al-Arabi stating that “cosmology is an exterior perception and an interior psychological and spiritual reality, both reflecting the unitive truth,” which he says is a heliocentric and anthropo-/geocentric views, because humans have their experience of space through their centric view, while there is also the cosmological view.16 None negate the other, because both exist separately, and coexist in the holistic view. Planets, from the anthropocentric view, make loops and go through retrogrades, which justifies the Greeks naming them “planets” because they act like wanderers with no certain straight path.17 According to Plato, Critchlow states, the planets were the gods, and Plato knowing well that the gods do not behave irrationally, the gods communicate to humans through geometry, because planets move in geometrical forms.18 Islamic art also conveys the subtleties of cosmology, religion, and philosophy through its geometry. Islamic art is not representation of the Greek gods, per se, but the movements of the artistic hands acted as if they were the planets that used the geometric language to try to convey the relation between the exterior (cosmology) and interior (human) worlds through the embrace and linkage of Islam. So not only are the minbar door pieces aesthetically pleasing to the eye, there is a whole universe that can be interpreted through geometry used by the artisans.
13 This reflection is based on the fact that each of the twelve signs rises above the horizon every two hours during the day. 14 Pg 56; This could be stretched further to include that the Leo sign rules the heart, and the house it rules in astrology is the fifth house, which is the house of creativity, pleasure, and children. 15 This can be interpreted as humans are around the floral motifs, just as the earth that is filled with people that circulates around the sun. So there is this “heliocentric” view of the cosmos, yet the floral motifs seem to orbit around the clusters of three five-pointed stars (humans), which reflect the geo-/anthropocentric view. The helio/geo/anthropocentric view will appear later in the paper. 1615-17 Pg 51; Retrograde is when a planet seems that it is moving backward from the geocentric view. 17 18
Marwa M. Abdalla April 22, 2006 Bibliography: Critchlow, Keith. “Astronomical and Cosmological Symbolism in Islamic Pattern: The Objectivity of Sacred Geometry.” Architecture Based on Islamic Theories.1988: 47-56. 25 Mar. 2006. <http://www.archnet.org> Goodarzi, Shoki. “Mamluk Period.” Stony Brook University Staller Center, New York. 18 April 2006. Stierlin, Henri and Anne. Splendors of An Islamic World. London: Tauris Parke Books, 1997.