Medieval Metalwork in Bilād al-Shām

By Gregory Bilotto

Through the generous support of the Palestine Exploration Fund, I was able to visit two mediaeval Islamic archaeological sites and the metal artefacts recovered from their subsequent excavations for my research in metalwork in Bilād al-Shām (the Levant). These two sites, Ḳayṣāriyya (Caesarea) and Ṭabariyya (Tiberias), have provided the largest quantities of metalwork datable to the Fāţimid period (909-1172 CE).

My interest in mediaeval Islamic metalwork stemmed from working in numerous archaeological excavations completing my MA degree in Islamic architecture while living in Cairo, Egypt. My graduate studies focused the architecture of the Fāţimids – a dynasty that reached ultimate feats in structure and design.

Fāţimid decorative arts, principally the often-overlooked study of metalwork, also helped express these accomplishments. It was Fāţimid artisans’ metalwork production in mediaeval Bilād al-Shām, Ifrīḳiya (North Africa) and Miṣr (Egypt) that inspired me to continue my research in the doctoral programme at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Fig. 1. Copper-alloy vessels, 11th century CE cache Ṭabariyya, Israel Museum.
Photo G Bilotto, April 2016, courtesy Dr Na’ama Brosh.

Travelling from London to Jerusalem, my research brought me to the archaeological sites, but also to several museums in the Holy City. The Israel Museum, which contained a large quantity of the excavated metal objects (Fig. 1), had among its collection a copper-alloy and enamel vessel with human figural decoration. This type of decoration and enamel technique is exceptionally rare as there are no related examples from the Fāţimid period.

Fig. 2. Fāţimid copper-alloy vessel with human figural decoration in enamel, Israel Museum. Photo G Bilotto, April 2016, courtesy Dr Na’ama Brosh.

After holding this precious metal vessel in my hands, carefully examining the facial expressions and epigraphy, there is no doubt that it represents the epitome of Fāţimid art, which is truly incredible (Fig. 2). I also had the opportunity to visit the museum store administered by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in Bet Shemesh, outside Jerusalem (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. A view of the IAA store, Bet Shemesh. Photo G Bilotto, April 2016, courtesy Dr Ayala Lester.

The store holds the remainder of the excavated metalwork, mostly consisting of tools and scrap. These objects were extremely helpful in determining centres of metalwork production and technique (Fig. 4). My research continued in Jerusalem with examination of several mediaeval Islamic metal vessels at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum and a unique Fāţimid metal object at the Leo Aryeh Mayer Museum of Islamic Art.

Fig. 4. Copper-alloy scrap, 11th century CE Ṭabariyya, IAA store. Photo G Bilotto, April 2016, courtesy Dr Ayala Lester.

Arriving at the ruined mediaeval city of Ḳayṣāriyya for the first time, I was amazed and awed. The majestic coastal city has an exotic and almost tropical quality (Fig. 5). The living history was tangible, with years of habitation from the Romans to the Ottoman Empire, one can imagine ships and armies of conquest arriving throughout time.

Fig. 5. A northern view, Ḳayṣāriyya, with its antique and mediaeval ruins. Photo G Bilotto, April 2016.

The metal cache I was interested in was secreted away during the 11th century CE – a time when one of these conquering armies was invading; another such event occurred at Ṭabariyya.  I noted many unpublished details about the geography during my visit, and examining the findspot for the cache of metalwork was not only exciting but extremely helpful in placing the material in context (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Findspot of the Fāţimid metal cache, Ḳayṣāriyya. Photo G Bilotto, April 2016.

Further Reading

Arnon, Y., et al. 1999. ‘The Fatimid Hoard from Caesarea: A Preliminary Report’, in M. Barrucand (ed), L’ Égypte Fatimide: son art et son histoire, Paris: Presse l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 233-48.

Hirschfeld, Y., et al. 2008. Tiberias Excavations in the House of the Bronzes, Final Report

Volume I: Architecture, Stratigraphy and Small Finds, (Qedem 48), Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Khamis, E., 2013. The Fatimid Metalwork Hoard from Tiberias: Excavations in the House of the Bronzes, Final Report Volume II, (Qedem 55), Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Rosen-Ayalon, M., 2013. ‘A Unique Metal Object from Tiberias’, Atiqot 76, 173-81.

Stacey, D., et al. 2004. Excavations at Tiberias 1973-1974: The Early Islamic Periods, (IAA Reports 21), Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.