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The Aga Khan Museum: Wood and Lacquer - Almohad, 12th century 	 Place your mouse over the image
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Wood and Lacquer

Object name
Polychrome Beam

North Africa

Almohad, 12th century


Materials and technique
Pine, carved and painted

30.8 x 313 cm

Accession number


The Arabic inscription on this beam may be translated as follows: “We are a people who do not find shame at death in combat; Even when we consider [the tribes of] Amir and Salul. Love of death brings us closer to our fated time Whereas they hate the moment and drag out the hours. None of us has died in his bed And no one was killed without being avenged. Our lives are run on the steel of our swords On nothing but our blades do they meet their end.” This is one of two carved, painted and partially gilded pine friezes that has come from an Almohad palace. The use of pine rather than cedar clearly leads us back to Arab Andalusia. The preserved parts, 6.26 metres long, are decorated with an inscription in al-tawil meters reproducing an ode of pre-Islamic Arabia. The equal lengths of the two parts, of over three metres, and the sequence they form, enable to render how they would fit in a square room of just over nine square metres. One could link them to later constructions, such as the Tower of the Captive at the Alhambra, which was square, with a section of a qasida inscribed on each wall. The two friezes were placed on two perpendicular walls, probably at the base of the ceiling. Indeed, the two texts follow each other, and both belong to a qasida of the poet Jahiliyya Samaw’al ibn 'Adiya, who died in circa 560. The text differs in parts from the edited text of the Diwan; notably, in the first hemistich of the last verse, the subject changes; the “I” becomes “we”; in one of the verses, the word dhibat is substituted with suyuf (the swords); lastly, an entire distich has been displaced to later on in the text. However, as each distich constitutes a complete sense unit, this shift hardly affects the flow of the text. The use of pre-Islamic poetry deserves to be highlighted: it indicates a particularly literate environment replete with memories of original Arab poetry. This sensitivity underscores once more Spain’s role as the land of the preservation of classical Arab poetry. This in turn gave way, more than a century later, to a dialogue between the most illustrious of poets, historians and viziers of Nasrid Spain, Lisan al-Dın ibn al-Khatib (died in 1374 CE), and the greatest historian of Islam, Ibn Khaldun (died in 1406 CE), on the preservation of the vestiges of the literary glory of the Arabs at the end of Arab Spain, whereas in the rest of the Arab world, where history is still being written, a technical and practical language has been born. The inscription is couched in angular writing without any diacritic signs. The letters are reduced to a third of the available height on the base-line, strongly contrasting with the long downstrokes. The crossed lam-alif is characterized by a polylobate motif in the upper third. Lastly, the loop of the lam rises and curls around the downstroke. The size of the downstrokes rules out the inscription belonging to the Almoravid period. However, the contours of the torus and several epigraphic marks make it more similar to an undated Qur’anic inscription at the Batha museum in Fez or a prismatic stele in the same museum dated 580 H/1184 CE. The form of the ha, made with two embedded spherical triangles (or twisted ha) is a specific marker of this inscription; it was present in the East at the end of the eleventh century and is to be found on two funerary inscriptions in Badajoz dated respectively 539 H/1144 CE and 556 H/1160 CE. Equivalents can also be found in the Marinid and Nasrid inscriptions, however, it is the plant-like decoration, which simplicity contrasts with the Marinid woods, which conduces to its assignment to a much earlier date, in the course of the twelfth century.

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