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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Muhammad ibn Mahdi
Pen Box with Inscriptions, Portrait Medallions, Animal Combats, and Flowers; with Ink Holder
Artists' Tools
Work Type
pen box
April 8, 1813
Creation Place: Middle East, Iran
Qajar period
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Opaque watercolor, gold-colored pigments, and lacquer over brass layer on pasteboard; with ink holder
5 × 5.4 × 26.7 cm (1 15/16 × 2 1/8 × 10 1/2 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • inscription:

    Arabic inscription in the riqa’ script on the lid

    Calligraphy is beauty for the learned, perfection for the rich, and wealth for the poor.

    He wrote it in the year 1228/1813 of hijra.

    الخطُّ لِلْحکیم جمالٌ و لِلْغنی کمالٌ و لِلْفقیر مالٌ

    حرَّرَه فی سنه ۱۲۲۸ من الهجره

    Couplet in Persian on the lid

    I am not deficient in art, it is the fault of my fate;

    One cannot fight with the divine decree.

    ز هنر کمی ندارم چکنم کمست بختم

    نتوان ستیزه کردن به قضای آسمانی

    Arabic poem on the top

    The eloquence of Sahban and the calligraphy of Ibn Muqla,

    The wisdom of Luqman and the piety of Ibn Adham,

    If all is gathered in one man and the man is poor,

    He is not valued the amount of a dirham (silver coin).

    فَصاحَةُ سَحْبٰانَ وَ خَطَّ بنْ مَقْلَةٍ

    وَ حِکْمَةُ لُقمانَ وَ زُهْدُ ابنُ اَدْهَمٍ

    اِذَا اجْتَمَعَتْ فی المَرْءِ وَ المَرءَ مُفْلِسٌ

    فَلَیْسَ لَهُ قَدْرٌ بِمِقْدارِ دِرْهَمٍ

    Inscriptions on the outer walls of the sliding compartment

    This pen box is deserving of the pens of the rose-garden (of paradise).

    The raw silk (liqa) for its ink-holder deserves to be [made] from the curls of the houris.

    The ink-holder should be [made] of the ruby of paradise, the spring of paradise (kawthar) should be the ink,

    Leaves of the heavenly tree (ṭūbā) should be the paper; it is deserving of a scribe from the youths of paradise (ghilmān).

    این قلمدان را قلمهای گلستان لایق است

    لیقه از بهر دواتش زلف حوران لایق است

    لعل جنت را دوات و آب کوثر را مداد

    برگ طوبی کاغذ کاتب ز غلمان لایق است

    This rare (worthy of being presented) pen box which is (full of) meaning throughout,

    Describing its paintings does not need expression.

    I asked the mind “who is the creator of this [pen box]?”

    It said it is the work of Muḥammad ibn Mahdī.

    این تحفه قلمدان که سراپا معنی است

    وصف نقشش ز بیان مستغنی است

    گفتم به خرد که آیا صانعش کیست

    گفتا عمل محمد بن مهدی است

    Finished in entirety by the hand of God’s lowliest creation Muhammad ibn Mahdi.

    Thursday the sixth of Rabi’ al-thani of the year 1228 from the hijra [of prophet Muhammad] (8 April 1813)

    تمام شد کلاً بدست اقلّ الله خلق ابن محمد مهدی یا محمد

    یوم ۱۰۰ پنجشنبه ششم ماه ربیع‌الثانی فی سنه ۱۲۲۸ من الهجره

    This rare pen box, which is of auspicious effects,

    Is an adornment for the garden of the art perfection.

    Because of the excellence of the naskh and riqā’ scripts,

    It is a pleasant prospect for all discerning persons.

    این تحفه قلمدان که مبارک اثر است

    زیبندهٔ بستان کمال هنر است

    از خوبی خطّ نسخ و زخطّ رقاع

    نظاره‌گهِ تمامِ اهل نظر است

    Oh you whose calligraphy has revealed hidden secrets!

    Oh you from whose pen flows the water of life!

    It would be befitting if for your ink-holder,

    Ink is brought from musk and raw silk (liqa) from the curls of beloveds.

    ای خطّ تو اسرارِ نهان کرده عیان

    ای آبِ حیات از قلمت گشته روان

    میزیبد اگر بهرِ دواتت آرند

    از مُشک مداد و لیقه ز زلفِ بتان


Recorded Ownership History
Ezzat-Malek Soudavar, Geneva, Switzerland (by 2014), by descent; to her son Abolala Soudavar, Houston, Texas (2014), gift; to Harvard Art Museums, 2014.

Ezzat-Malek Soudavar (1913-2014) formed this collection over a period of sixty years. She purchased the works of art on the international art market.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of A. Soudavar in memory of his mother Ezzat-Malek Soudavar
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Cover and sliding compartment with rounded ends. The top is decorated in horizontal format with cartouches containing Arabic and Persian inscriptions and floral sprays, and medallions containing bust portraits of an Indian and a European youth. On the sides, the floral motifs alternate with cartouches with animals in combat. The outer sides of the sliding compartment also bear inscription cartouches. The multiple inscriptions, written in naskh and riqa’ scripts, praise the high quality of calligraphy on the pen box as well as the merits of calligraphy and calligraphers in general.

Publication History

  • Massumeh Farhad and Mary McWilliams, ed., A Collector’s Passion: Ezzat-Malek Soudavar and Persian Lacquer, Harvard Art Museums and Freer/Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution (Cambridge, MA/Washington, D.C., 2017), pp. 56-57, ill.; p. 123, cat. 72

Exhibition History

  • 32Q: 3620 University Study Gallery, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 08/17/2017 - 01/07/2018

Verification Level

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at