Tulunid Panel

A Tulunid panel, Aleppo wood, late 9th century, 73 cm in height, Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Brief IdentificationEdit

This Aleppo pine panel was carved during the Tulunid dynasty (868-905 CE) of Egypt during the late 9th century CE. Though its use and exact site of discovery are unknown, this piece blends the artistic styles and themes of Abbasid Iraq and Egypt, a uniqueness common of an arguably golden age of Egyptian history. At 73 centimeters in height, this carving is currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The ornamental style of this Tulunid era panel is found in and on the commissioned constructions in Egypt of Ahmad Ibn Tulun (r. 868-884 CE), father of the Tulunid dynasty (868-905 CE), originally sent by the Abbasid caliph to govern Egypt as governor regent. Ahmad Ibn Tulun managed to govern Egypt semi-independent of the Abbasid caliphate in Samarra, founding a short lived but successful dynasty that would prosper under his leadership.

Technical EvaluationEdit

Though the wood carver’s identity and the tools used to carve the panel both remain unknown, the wood used most likely came from Aleppo in present day Syria [See Esposito 1999, 243]. Because of Egypt’s dry climate, much of the woodwork since Umayyad times has remained well preserved, and “because of its scarcity it has been valued as a precious commodity” [See Yeomans 2006, 71].

The beveled style that this panel is carved in was first found at the Abbasid capital of Samarra in Iraq in the mid-9th century [See Bloom 2009, 280]. Under the rule of a Turkish, Abbasid caliph-appointed governor regent, Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the beveled style familiar to Abbasid Samarra found its way into Egypt [See Ettinghausen 2001, 66]. This specific beveled style, also named Samarra C, the third of three unique Samarran relief decoration styles [See Bloom 2009, 280], saw a significant change in Egypt, “where the abstract vegetal motifs of [Samarra C] were often transformed into animals” [See Bloom 2009, 280], as depicted in this Tulunid panel.

This carving was gifted to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France by French physician Daniel Fouquet in 1892, who apparently obtained it on his travels in Egypt [See Aufderheide 2003, 12]. It remains on display to this day in the Louvre.

Local Historical ContextEdit

The panel was carved during the Tulunid dynasty of Egypt, fathered by the Abbasid governor regent Ahmad Ibn Tulun. A thirty-three year old Turkish soldier, Ibn Tulun was sent by the Abbasid caliph to serve Egypt as governor regent, but within one year “he managed to gain his own military and financial foothold on the province” [See Rahman 1989, 129]. Although technically not governor until 872, Ibn Tulun brought about an era of material prosperity and progress even considered to be a golden age in Egyptian history [See Donzel 1994, 459]. During his rule over Egypt, government finances were restructured, agriculture, commerce and industry were stimulated, and large scale public building projects were undertaken [See Rahman 1989, 129], where this Tulunid panel was one of many ornamental carvings found in and on Ibn Tulun’s building projects. Ibn Tulun commissioned the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Ibn Tulun’s capital Al-Fustat which is now part of present day Cairo, that still stands today as one of the oldest mosques in the city [See Strayer 1985, 381].

The Abbasid Iraqi themes of sculpture and architecture found during this Tulunid dynasty were brought into the Egyptian province by Ibn Tulun, who spent his early years at Samarra [See Strayer 1985, 380], and by those that he commissioned for his construction projects, "where texts mention the presence of Iraqi craftsmen in Egypt" [See Strayer 1985, 381]. This transfer of Iraqi architectural and decorative traditions to Egypt was only accomplished with close economic and political ties between the two realms.

Even while managing to maintain financial, political and infrastructural policies in Egypt, Ibn Tulun extended Tulunid control “into Syria (and sometimes parts of Iraq) and westward into Libya [Goldshcmidt 2008, 42]. But Ibn Tulun’s reign was short lived. Soon after his death in 884 CE, Ibn Tulun’s successors were claiming their independence from Abbasid Iraq. Then in 905, Abbasid armies reasserted their control of Egypt, bringing the successful Tulunid dynasty to an official close [See Tignor 2010, 139]. Despite the Tulunid dynasty’s mere thirty-seven year life-span, “the regime left a magnificent gift to future generations” [See Tignor 2010, 140], where a golden age of artistic and political prosperity flourished in Abbasid Egypt.

World-Historical SignificanceEdit

Though this Tulunid panel's use and greater meaning remain debatable, the piece itself represents a blending of cultures, specifically traditional Egyptian themes introduced to Abbasid Iraqi ornamental styles. Once the foreign Abbasid styles became established in Egypt in the Tulunid Dynasty, "Iraqi styles coexisted with local Egyptian ones" [See Strayer 1985, 381]. Even as connections between Iraq and Egypt dwindled following the Tulunid era, a renewal of these artistic traditions with their own hyrbrid styles of Iraqi and local Egyptian elements, "a process given a new impetus by the Fatimid conquest of 969" [See Strayer 1985, 381], propelling this blend of styles into a new era of Egyptian history.

The architectural and ornamental styles brought by Ahmad Ibn Tulun and his commissioned artisans made a lasting impression on Egyptian culture that still stands today, as with the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo [See Strayer 1985, 380]. The many panels found in and on Tulunid constructions carved with unique Tulunid styles, like this one, still raise the curiosity of the artistic and historical community to this day.

Though the Fatimid caliphate would soon engulf much of northern Africa, Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and the western coasts of the Arabian peninsula, during his governorship Ahmad Ibn Tulun would see the unification of Egypt and Syria under his rule as well as overseeing the construction of a naval base at Acre [See Donzel 1994, 459].

This Tulunid panel embodies the unique nature that was the Tulunid dynasty of Egypt, one of prosperity and growth in the political, economic and artistic developments of 9th century Egypt. The art style here would leave a legacy that represents a golden age of both Egyptian and Islamic history.

Suggested BibliographyEdit

Aufderheide, Arthur C., The Scientific Study of Mummies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 12.

Bloom, Jonathan M., The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture: Delhi to Mosque (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 280.

Donzel, E. Van, Islamic Desk Reference (New York: Brill, 1994), 459.

Esposito, John L., The Oxford History of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 243.

Ettinghausen, Richard, Islamic Art and Architecture: 650-1250 (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 66.

Goldshcmidt Jr., Arthur, A Brief History of Egypt (New York: Facts On File, 2008), 42.

Rahman, H. U., A Chronology of Islamic History 770-1000 CE (London: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1989), 129.

Strayer, Joseph R., Dictionary of the Middle Ages: Volume 6 (Canada: Collier Macmillan Canada, Inc., 1985), 380-381.

Tignor, Robert L., Egypt: A Short History (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010), 139-140.

Yeomans, Richard, The Art and Architecture of Islamic Cairo (Reading: Garnet Publishing Limited, 2006), 71.

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