Inkwell of cylindrical form with shallow cover. Three palmette mounts one with loop handle, decorated with incised details and inlays with interlacing strap-work enclosing paired birds on an incised scroll ground, bands of inscriptions interrupted by twelve small roundels with the zodiacal signs.
AKM605, Inkwell

© The Aga Khan Museum

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On Display
  • Accession Number:AKM605
  • Place:Iran, Khurasan
  • Dimensions:14 x 10.2 cm
  • Date:12th-13th century
  • Materials and Technique:bronze, silver-inlaid
  • Known in Arabic as mihbara and in Persian as dawat, inkwells were common tools used by scribes in the medieval Islamic world, along with pen boxes(see AKM609) and other writing implements (see AKM622).[1] This inkwell [2] may once have held black ink manufactured from a mixture of oak galls and metal.[3] The two handles situated either side of the inkwell’s body may have been used as slots for a handle or sling, facilitating the object’s transport.[4]

Further Reading


Inkwells served practical functions, protecting ink from dirt and powder and enabling ink to be transported easily—a necessity since scribes travelled often. Inkwells were made from a variety of materials, including glass or wood.[5] Although textual records indicate that writers prohibited the use of inkwells made of precious materials, such as those seen in this example from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, this interdiction was rarely heeded.[6] The use of bronze and silver here may suggest the inkwell was owned by a scribe employed as a high-ranking bureaucrat, or, alternatively, a member of the urban middle class, which emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries.[7]


Similar to AKM604, this inkwell bears several inscriptions on its lid and body bestowing well wishes upon the owner.[8] Its lobed lid handle and circular shape echo the signature metalworking technique from Khorasan, which is located in today’s northeastern Iran and Afghanistan.[9] These inkwells were likely produced in the 12th and 13th centuries.[10] The copious calligraphic decoration—clearly visible in silver inlay against the copper of the inkwell’s lid and body—speaks not only to the object’s role as a calligraphic instrument, but also to its social value, as the reading of the numerous benedictory messages running along the inkwell’s body would have activated its quasi-talismanic functions.[11] This apotropaic function may have been heightened by the inclusion of astrological motifs running along the upper and lower bands of the object’s body, interspersed amongst the engraved well-wishes in Arabic script.[12]


Featured in between these calligraphic bands are pairs of birds enclosed in arch-shaped frames, outlined in silver inlay through a complex pattern of knotted lines. These arch compositions may have been consciously selected to echo the overall architectural shape of the inkwell itself, which, with its tapered handle and rounded frame, may suggest the form of a circular building such as a tower.[13] Alternatively, the conical lid may have referenced the shape of a domed, circular tent, whose portable and transitory nature was not dissimilar similar to that of the inkwell itself. [14] In either case, the inclusion of the arched frames may have constituted a deliberate move to take this architectural reference further, as the arches could be read as small, compartmentalized units within the larger structure of a tower or tent.[15]


— Michelle al-Ferzly

[1] Baer, Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art, 66–67.
[2] Relevant publications by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture concerning this object include Chefs-d'oeuvre islamiques de l'Aga Khan museum: accompagne l'exposition organisée a Paris, musée du Louvre, du 5 octobre 2007 au 7 janvier 2008 (Milan; Paris: 2007), 164–65, no. 58; Spirit and Life: Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection (Geneva: 2007), 127, no. 91; Splendori a Corte: Arti del Mondo Islamico (Geneva: 2007), 124, no. 91; and Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book & Calligraphy (Geneva; Istanbul: 2010), 136, no. 58.
[3] Déroche, Manuel de codicologie des manuscrits en écriture arabe, 120.
[4] Graves, The Arts of Allusion, 109.
[5] Baer, Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art, 67.
[6] Ibid., “dawat,” in Encyclopedia of Islam II, 203–4.
[7] Taragan, “The Speaking Inkwell from Khurasan,” 39–40.
[8] Graves, “Say Something Nice,” 327-328.
[9] Ibid., The Arts of Allusion, 106.
[10] Ibid., The Arts of Allusion, 106.
[11] Ibid., “Say Something Nice,” 326.
[12] Ibid., “Say Something Nice,” 326. For a discussion of the significance of astrological imagery in objects and its talismanic function, see Carboni, Following the Stars, 6.
[13] Melikian-Chirvani, “State Inkwells in Islamic Iran,” 73-74; Graves, The Arts of Allusion, 116-117.
[14] Graves, The Arts of Allusion, 115-116.
[15] Ibid., The Arts of Allusion, 12.

Relevant publications by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Canby, Sheila R; Azim Nanji; Aimée Froom. Splendori a Corte: Arti del Mondo Islamico. Geneva: 2007. ISBN: 9788885982949.
Makariou, Sophie; Monique Buresi; et al. Chefs-d'oeuvre islamiques de l'Aga Khan museum: accompagne l'exposition organisée a Paris, musée du Louvre, du 5 octobre 2007 au 7 janvier 2008. Milan; Paris: 2007. ISBN: 9782350311326.
Graves, Margaret S; Benoît Junod. Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum. Masterpieces of Islamic Art. Berlin: 2010. ISBN: 9786054348084. 

Baer, Eva. Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983. ISBN: 9780873956024
---. “Dawat.” Encyclopaedia of Islam II, eds. P. Bearman and Th. Bianquis. Leiden: Brill: 1981, 203–4. ISBN: 9789047412007
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.
Déroche, François, ed. Manuel de codicologie des manuscrits en écriture arabe. Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale de France, 2000. ISBN: 9782717721065
Graves, Margaret. The Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, and Architecture in Medieval Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780190695910
---. “Say Something Nice: Supplications on Medieval Objects, and Why they Matter.” Studying the Near and Middle East at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 1935-2018, ed. Sabrina Schmitde. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2018, 322–30. ISBN: 9781463207502
Kana’an, Ruba. “The de Jure ‘Artist’ of the Bobrinski Bucket: Production and Patronage of Metalwork in pre-Mongol Khurasan and Transoxania.” Islamic Law and Society 16.2 (2009): 175–201. DOI: 10.1163/092893809X12469547140955
Melikian-Chirvani, “State Inkwells in Islamic Iran.” Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 44 (1986): 70–94.
Taragan, Hana. “The Speaking Inwell from Khurasan: Object as “World” in Iranian Medieval Metalwork.” Muqarnas 22 (2005): 29–44. ISBN: 9789004147027

Note: This online resource is reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis. We are committed to improving this information and will revise and update knowledge about this object as it becomes available.


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