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A small, long, flat decorated case, rectangular with rounded edges

A slim brass case is embellished with intricate designs incised on its lid, which are inlaid with silver and gold accents. Apart from the clasp and hinges, the sides are unadorned. At each end, the rounded corners of the lid form a semicircle which is completed within the lid’s design, and within each circle are complex, finely wrought geometric designs. A third circle in the center is similarly embellished, and on either side of it are bands connecting it with the circles at the edge. Within these bands are incised phrases in Arabic script, the letters of which feature stylized faces on the tops of the long upstrokes.

Gallery Text

As central control weakened in the Abbasid Empire, regional dynasties arose to support, challenge, or redefine the authority of the caliph in Baghdad. The arts flourished in many centers, and wealthy merchant and professional classes emerged. A dramatic increase in productivity and innovation and an unprecedented expansion of figural decoration characterize the arts of this period.

A transforming event was the influx of Turkic and Mongol peoples from Central and Inner Asia. Most of the objects in this case were created in lands ruled by the most important of the Turkic dynasties, the Great Seljuks (1038–1157), and their immediate successors, the Atabegs. The Mongol invasions into Islamic lands began in the early 1200s and culminated in the 1258 sack of Baghdad. Eventually, the Mongols established their rule as the Yuan dynasty in China, the Chagatay Khanate in Central Asia, the Golden Horde Khanate in southern Russia, and the Ilkhanid dynasty (1256–1335) in greater Iran. The integration of a vast Eurasian territory into the Mongol Empire facilitated commerce and communication, bringing fresh Chinese inspiration into Islamic art.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Pen Box with Hadith Inscription
Artists' Tools
Work Type
pen box
second half of the 14th century
Creation Place: Middle East, Iran, Western Iran
Jalayirid period
Persistent Link


Level 2, Room 2550, Art from Islamic Lands, The Middle East and North Africa
View this object's location on our interactive map

Physical Descriptions

Brass, incised (thuluth band) and inlaid with silver and gold
H. 4.5 x W. 5.4 x L. 24.8 cm (1 3/4 x 2 1/8 x 9 3/4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • inscription: Inscribed in Arabic, in human-headed thuluth script:
    The Prophet, peace be upon him, said,
    "The believer is the mirror of the believer."
    The Prophet of God has spoken truly.


Recorded Ownership History
Frances L. Hofer, Cambridge, MA, (by 1979), bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1979.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Frances L. Hofer
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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This penbox is very unusual in bearing such lavish and intricate decoration on the lid and the clasps, and being otherwise completely plain. Such an object would normally have decoration on all sides, including the interior and the bottom. The Arabic inscription in human-headed script is a hadith, or a quote ascribed to the Prophet Mohammed. This is also rare on Islamic metalwork, which usually bears benedictory phrases, verses from the Quran, dedications to rulers, or information about the artist. Notes from the Glory and Prosperity exhibition, Feb - June 2002.

Publication History

  • Kristin A. Mortimer and William G. Klingelhofer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press (Cambridge and New York, 1986), page 82/figure 87
  • Harvard University Art Museums, Director's Report / Harvard University Art Museums, 1990-1991 (1992), p. 14
  • Annemarie Schimmel, Terres d'Islam: Aux Sources de l'Orient Musulman, Maisonneuve et Larose (Paris, France, 1994), Pg. 107
  • Rahim Habibeh, Inscription As Art In the World of Islam - Unity In Diversity, exh. cat., Hofstra University (Hempstead, NY, 1996), page 34/figure 1
  • Melanie Michailidis, Glory and Prosperity: Metalwork of the Islamic World, brochure, ed. Marsha Pomerantz, Harvard University Art Museums (2002), p. 3, fig. 3

Exhibition History

  • Islamic Art and the Written Word, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 10/05/1983 - 11/27/1983
  • The Heavenly Court: Persian Poetry and Painting, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 02/09/1985 - 03/31/1985
  • Geometry of the Spirit: Islamic Illumination and Calligraphy, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 04/30/1988 - 06/26/1988
  • Enter Ye the Garden: Prayer Rugs of Islam, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 05/26/1989 - 08/20/1989
  • Arabesque, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 12/01/1990 - 03/24/1991
  • Transformations: Asia East and West, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 12/19/1992 - 02/14/1993
  • Calligraphy and the Arts of the Book, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/25/1993 - 01/30/1994
  • The Continuous Stroke of a Breath: Calligraphy from the Islamic World, Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 12/20/2003 - 07/18/2004
  • Overlapping Realms: Arts of the Islamic World and India, 900-1900, Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 12/02/2006 - 03/23/2008
  • Re-View: Arts of India & the Islamic Lands, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 04/26/2008 - 06/01/2013
  • 32Q: 2550 Islamic, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

  • Google Art Project

Verification Level

This record was created from historic documentation and may not have been reviewed by a curator; it may be inaccurate or incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at