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Cup with Calligraphic Inscriptions

This cup is a rare example in white jade, being one of only two artworks in this color and material from the Timurid period.

Hear the inscriptions on this rare drinking cup in white jade from the Timurid period (1370-1507) read aloud.

Jades in Iran and India

This cup is a rare example in white jade, being one of only two artworks in this color and material from the Timurid period. Beautifully made jade objects gained popularity under the powerful Timurid dynasty (1370–1507), which ruled parts of modern Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. The Timurids, important patrons of art and literature, were considered models of cultural sophistication throughout the Islamic world. Their love for exquisite jades was continued by their descendants, the Mughal emperors of India (1526–1858).

Writing as an Art Form

Elegant calligraphy is the highest form of art in Islamic culture. It ornaments the written word and the knowledge that it represents. Producing a beautiful inscription requires many skills: a calligrapher needs command over different styles of writing, impressive hand-eye control, and an artistic eye to lay out the text into a balanced composition, so that the words fit within the given space and remain readable.

The challenge must have been great for the artists of this drinking cup. Jade is an extremely difficult substance to manipulate and cannot be carved with cutting tools like chisels. Rather, it is ground down using a manual rotary tool with an abrasive wet paste. To use such a technique—on a small, rounded object—to create a harmonious composition with the curving letters of the Persian-Arabic script demands great talent and precision.

What the Inscriptions Can Tell Us

Names of artists or owners on artworks are relatively uncommon in Islamic art. The two royal inscriptions on this cup make it a rare object. ’Ala ud-Daulah (d. approx. 1460), whose name is on the main inscription, was the great-grandson of the Timurid dynasty’s founder, Timur (Tamerlane, 1336–1405). Little is known about ’Ala ud- Daulah’s life and career and he may easily have been forgotten in time, but through this elegant inscription his memory as a cultured patron lives on.

The Indian Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569–1627), who owned this cup nearly175 years after it was made, had his own name added on the rim. The Mughals, fifth-generation descendants of Timur, left their Central Asian ancestral home for India and regarded their Timurid heritage with a sense of connection and loss. By collecting masterpieces of Timurid art and inscribing their names on them, Mughal emperors affirmed their Timurid legacy.

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