SHELL - Aga Khan Museum
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The Aga Khan Museum: Ivory and Mother-of-pearl - 18th century CE  Place your mouse over the image
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Ivory and Mother-of-pearl

Object name


18th century CE

Materials and technique

Maximum Ø 14.5 cm

Accession number


Using the natural shape of this shell and its lustrous mother-of-pearl lining, the artist has created a pleasing decorative programme of eight concentric circles engraved with verses from the Qur’an. The delicate floral vinescrolls in the widest circle recall Deccani painting as well as the spiral scrollwork backgrounds of Ottoman sultans’ tughras (monograms) and the cobalt blue decoration of early sixteenth-century Ottoman ceramics. The style of nasta'liq script, however, would suggest an Indian or Iranian hand. Gujarat was a major centre of manufacture of mother-of-pearl and perhaps this object was made for export to Turkey. No matter where it was produced, the quality of skill demonstrated on this object suggests that it was made for a person of high standing. It is difficult to find an equivalent object that has been written about or even discovered. The structure of the decoration on the inside is reminiscent of therapeutic magical cups. It consists of double concentric circles which define the areas for “magical writing”, engraved on marked lines in the middle circle. A motif with splayed beams starts in the third circular band from the bottom of the object and is recalled in the seventh band, “in sun-like fashion”, revealing the medallions on which the texts are engraved. Finally the eighth band, here with concentric circles and lines of “magical writing”. Liquid can be poured into the shell’s concave space, thereby coming into contact with all the inscriptions and elements inside. Depending on the different known uses of these cups, the patient can drink the liquid, pour it over his head, spray himself with it or use it to massage parts of the body. Apart from the “magical writings” in the middle circle, there is a Shia supplication starting with “qul”, followed by “Ya 'Ali”, repeated three times, on the second circular band. Within the medallions of the next, third, circular band is to be found a series of extracts from the Qur’an, each time introduced by the expression bismillah, which signals a change of sura. Thus, starting with the medallion which we will number 1, since it is the only one with the expression bismillah in the first line, moving clockwise around to medallion 11, we can find Suras al-Kafirun (The Unbelievers), 109, verses 1-6; al-Tawhid (Pure Worship), 112, verses 1-4; al-Falaq (The Dawn), 113, verses 1-5; al-Nas (Mankind), 114, verses 1-6; al-Qalam (The Pen), 68, verses 51-52, the last two of the sura; finally, al-Isra' (The Night Journey), 17, verse 81. Suras 109, 112, 113 and 114 are special in that they all start with “qul” and appear on the object in full. In the fourth, sixth and eighth circular bands, the inscriptions are engraved on lines radiating from the centre. Whereas, on the one hand, the inscription in nasta'liq of the fifth circular band, verse 31 of Sura Al 'Imran (The Family of Imran), 3, once again beginning with “qul”, is circular; on the other hand, the texts of the seventh circular band are again to be found engraved on the medallions. Among the latter, we find the beginning of sura 48, al-Fatih˛ (Victory). Suras 109, 112, 113 and 114, as well as Sura 17, verse 81, the beginning of Sura 48 and Sura 68, 51-52 appear in therapeutic magical cups, and often as well the first four suras.