A Sultan as splendid as the sun: the radiating inscription under Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun (r. 1293-1294, 1299-1309, 1309-1341)



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Ornately inscribed metals are typical of Mamluk-era artistic output, with highly intricate, honorific inscriptions dominating the richly decorated surfaces. The radial inscription reveals a new approach towards displaying a ruler’s sovereignty – presenting a king as unique and powerful as the sun. The Mamluks were a Turkic people ruling over a largely Arab population. As outsiders stuck with upholding an enervated caliphate and Muslim converts posing as defenders of Islam, they faced problems of legitimacy that were of less relevance for the Mongols. And yet, the Mamluks were participating in this shared Turko-Mongol culture though in a somewhat diluted form. Thus, while carving out a new space for themselves as the rulers of a major sultanate and attempting to present themselves as suitable heirs of the Caliphal genealogy, they were also formulating a new visual language that could simultaneously communicate claims of sovereignty to their rivals, the Mongols, and at home to the highly competitive mamlūk ranks as well as the dominantly Arab populace of Cairo. Metal objects were often used in gift giving between the empires, and while they served as diplomatic tools, al-Nasir’s new visual strategy meant they would also have invoked themes of mystical kingship that surpassed, in the words of Oleg Grabar, their role as mere calliphoric objects, or carriers of beauty. Lovely though they were, they also delivered a message of cosmic sovereignty and control. This message challenges modern scholarly interpretations of Mamluk inscriptions as mere writing, permitting a more polyvalent reading of the active interaction between words and their design as carriers of meaning that go beyond the literal.

Geographically, the Mamluks were located at the center of an increasingly cosmopolitan region. In addition to his shifting relations with the Mongols, al-Nasir Muhammad also received the first papal envoy to Cairo since the time of Sultan al-Salih Ayyub (1205-1249). With an expanding, privileged audience and increasing global political position, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad used fine metals with rich inscriptions that resonated with astronomical and mystical beliefs to convey a monumental and cosmological vision of his role as an prototypical Islamic ruler to his subjects, allies, and rivals alike, securing the inner stability of his empire, while communicating his sovereignty globally.