Pyxis of al-Mughira

The pyxis of al-Mughira, crafted by the hands of a skilled ivory worker as part of the workshops in the palace city of Madinat az-Zahara.From the collection in the Islamic Art Department of the Musee de Louvre in Paris.

Brief Identification==

This object, named the pyxis of al-Mughira, is a product of the Umayyad dynasty of the Muslim culture in Spain, circa 968 AD. The cylindrical casket with accompanying convex lid are made of ivory and traced with jet, a very dense black coal. The small (15x8 cm) casket, which was presumably used to store jewels, gems, or aromatic substances, is now preserved in the Islamic Art Department of the Musee de Louvre in Paris, France, who acquired the object in 1898. Far more important than the actual function of the container was the purpose - as the pyxis was a symbol of status and power for the Caliph.

Technical EvaluationEdit

This incredibly ornate container was carved from the ivory of elephant tusk, a resource that would have been especially scarce in the foothills of the Sierra Moreno mountains of present-day Spain. It was also inlaid in black jet, making the surface of the container smooth and even, while also adding an element of contrast in color.

This container, as well as the nearly twenty other pieces like it that have been extracted from the archaeological site in the ruins of Medina Azahara, are attributed to the efforts of the workshops of the Madinat az-Zahara. Though it is uncertain exactly who crafted this specific piece, the ivory worker Khalaf is attributed with the completion of several comparable pieces, including the pyxis of Queen Subh. [Makariou, 2010, 320]

Unfortunately, the specific process through which these ivory pieces were forged is largely unkown. It is suspected that either bone or some type of stone was used to make the initial carving, but research does not provide certainty as to what kind of tools and other technologies were used to attain the final product. However, all of the pieces recovered from the Madinat az-Zahara archaeological site are considered luxury crafts, and it can be reasonably inferred that the technologies and methods used in the creation were advanced for their time considering the scarcity of ivory in the area of the object's recovery and the awesome intricacy of the piece.

Local Historical ContextEdit

The pyxis of al-Mughira was a product of the Umayyad dynasty of the Islamic culture in the tenth century AD in what is now present-day Spain.

The object should primarily be viewed as a symbol of immense wealth, power, and status. Beheld exclusively by the Caliph of the time, it can also be seen as an extension of the Umayyad's expression of power and history of the dynasty. It is believed that the object was given as a gift, rather than having been bought and sold on the open market. Either as a coming-of-age gift, or as a symbol of the pending inheritance of Caliph power, the pyxis was made exclusively for the eighteen year-old Prince al-Mughira, son of the elderly, ill Caliph Abd al-Rahman. The object was contracted out to be made, most likely by al-Mughira's supporters, the fityan, orpalace officers. It is still unfound the exact transaction, as the sole creator of the item is unknown, but it is reasonable to believe that the manufacturer was remunerated in same way because of their highly-skilled craft, and their connection to some of the most powerful political figures of the Umayyad Dynasty. In the eyes of the maker, it was quite possibly seen as a huge undertaking, and an example of a work of art that required the greatest deterity. In the eyes of the beholder, Prince al-Mughira, it was symbolic of his political and cultural power, and most likely, a sign of mounting personal import in the Muslim world. 

World-Historical SignificanceEdit

Drawing its origins back to the ruins of the vast palace-city of Medina Azahara, which was built by Abd-ar-Rahman Ill al-Nasir (912-961), the object is but a fragment of a culture of immense extravagance. Abd-ar Rahman served as Caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty, in the capital of Cordoba, very near the archaelogical site where the ivory pieces were unearthed. The world-historical significance of this one small ivory-carved container is vast, as the context of its production is hinged on the establishment of a Caliphate, an independent, ruling state, that served to unite the Muslim world. Technologically, the pyxis was very uniquely designed, complex, decorous piece that would have taken much skill and foreign resources to complete. This fact can be seen as an argument for the Umayyad Dynasty's far-reaching political, cultural, and economic influence in the European and Asian spheres. [Makariou, 2000]

The pyxis of al-Mughira is one steeped in the context of globally advancing Muslim influence. Representing all at once economic, social, cultural, religious, and political ties, this little ivory container is one of the small handful of unconvered artifacts of the Umayyad dynasty, which played a small part in a much larger world-historical impoortance of the rise of Islam as a religion. While true the Muslim faith was gaining in population, this also led to political unrest. Thus, the container, while itself a political object, was also a microcosm of even further overarching tones of political instability and competition within the Muslim world. [Makariou, 2010, 331]

Suggested BibliographyEdit

Makariou, Sophie, and al- Mughīra b.ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III. 2010. "The al-Mughīra pyxis and Spanish Umayyad ivories: aims and tools of power." In Umayyad legacies: medieval memories from Syria to Spain. Ed. Antoine Borrut, Paul M.Cobb, 313-335. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010. Index Islamicus, EBSCOhost (accessed April 23, 2013).

Bernus-Taylor, M., ‘Al Mughira again’, in Furusiyya, vol. II, Ryad, 1996, pp.136–141.

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992.

Sophie Makariou, Arabic Andalusia, Hazan - Workshops world, 2000

Collective, The Andalusias Damascus to Cordoba, Special issue of the journal Eye, 2000

Córdoba, city, Spain. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition,