Most of the objects in the museum collections originate in or around Abingdon. One object on display however has come from as far away as Cairo. It is the enamelled glass vessel displayed with other objects from medieval Abingdon.
The vessel was not found whole, only fragments of it remain, but they are enough to hint at the fascinating story behind it. The sherds were found in 1983 in Lombard Street, where a house was demolished prior to the development of the site. Before the new building was erected, the AAAHS excavated the site. The demolished house incorporated a timber structure of an older house (15th or 16th century), and in the basement a pit was found to contain 15th century rubbish. The pit also contained the glass fragments, but as it turned out they go back much further than the 15th century.
The glass is clear, with decoration in enamel and gilding. An inscription went round the rim, and the body of the glass were two horsemen, one on a white horse, one on a red. The riders are depicted wearing turbans and kaftans and holding polo sticks. These features are not immediately obvious, but have been reconstructed by comparison with other glass vessels of the same type. The shape was also reconstructed to be that of a slim beaker with a wider rim. On display at the museum you can see the glass fragments attached to a reproduction of the beaker as it probably was.
Research revealed further that the beaker was made probably in 1250-1260 in Cairo. This could be deduced from the decorative elements on the glass, which combine elements typical of the Ayyubid sultanate and the Mamluk sultanate.
The Ayyubid dynasty was founded in 1171 by Saladin and ruled much of the Middle East during the 12th and 13th centuries. Their empire included Syria and much of the eastern Mediterranean, the western part of the Arabian Peninsula (Upper Mesopotamia, Hejaz, Yemen), Egypt and parts of Tunisia.
The Mamluks were part of the Ayyubid military and state administration. Mamluks were bought as slaves, but after being educated and trained they were freed, with the expectation that they would still serve their master, but no longer owned. Ayyubid sultans and high-ranking emirs had their own Mamluk military corps.
After a conflict between the Ayyubids and their Mamluks, the Mamluks overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan Turanshah and seized power, first in Egypt in 1250. In 1260 they also came to power in the Syrian part of the empire.
The decoration on the glass found in Abingdon indicates that it was made during that transition period.
The inscription has been reconstructed as ‘Glory to our lord the sultan’, a phrase that is found on Ayyubid objects from 1240, but which remained in use under the Mamluks. The depiction of the horsemen is described as being of Ayyubid style, with the knotted tail on the horses as a typical element.
The bird-like emblem, which appears on the strip with the inscription is a Mamluk heraldic device, however. Through this combination of features the Abingdon glass has been dated to the period immediately following the overthrow of the Ayyubid dynasty.
The place of production for the beaker has been identified as Cairo. Cairo was the capital of the Mamluk empire, and the economic, cultural and artistic centre of the Islamic world. The production of enamelled and gilded glass was a specialty of the region ruled by the Mamluks. The gold and enamel – powdered glass in an oil-based medium – were painted onto the glass with a reed pen or brush, and then the glass was fired in a kiln to fix the colours. The technique had developed earlier in Syria, but since Cairo became the Mamluk capital, glassware from that period is usually presumed to come from Egyptian rather than Syrian workshops.
The decorated glass vessels were not for everyday use, but for special occasions. They were not only produced as commissions, e.g. from the sultan’s court, but also for trade.
So now we know when and where the glass was made. But when and how did it come to Abingdon? That question cannot be answered definitely, but there are some possibilities.
One theory that has been put forward is that a participant in the Seventh Crusade acquired the beaker in Egypt and brought it back to England.
The Seventh Crusade was started by the French king Louis IX in 1248. The king of England, Henry III, was occupied with domestic struggles and had no inclination to join the crusade, but a small force of Englishmen took part. The destination was Egypt, where the crusaders landed in 1249. They ran into difficulties straight away. In the end, the crusaders were defeated by the Egyptian forces, and Louis IX was taken prisoner, only to be freed after payment of a large ransom.
It is certainly possible that one of the English contingent acquired the glass in Egypt, but a high class item like that is not something you can just buy anywhere. It is doubtful that the footsoldiers of the crusade had much opportunity to go shopping for luxury goods.
While it is possible that the glass came to England in the aftermath of the Seventh Crusade, there is a much likelier route: trade.
As mentioned above, fine glasses like this were produced for commercial purposes. Trade routes criss-crossed the Mediterranean, and Cairo was one of the economic hubs. Not only were goods produced by the Mamluks exported to Europe, their territory also provided a conduit for commodities from South East Asia, such as silks and spices. But decorative pieces from the Mamluk workshops – wood carvings, inlaid metalwork, textiles, but in particular enamelled glass – were prized in both the Islamic world and Europe. Venice was another trading hub in the Mediterranean, and the glass could easily have been traded on from there to eventually reach Abingdon.
Venice was also a centre of glass making in the 13th century. The workshops were centred on the island of Murano. Craftsmen from the Middle East came to Venice, sharing not just their skills, but also their style, which influenced the glass made in Venice during that time. So the Middle East–Venice connection was well established, and the theory that the glass made its way there from Egypt is entirely plausible. And it is equally easy to imagine the glass’s journey from Venice onwards.
Marian Wenzel writes in her article about the Islamic glass: “It would be tempting to see the name ‘Lombard Street’ as indicating the presence of Italian bankers or merchants, but there is no sufficiently early record of the street-name.”
It is not necessary, however, to assume the residency of an Italian merchant to make the journey of the Islamic glass via Venice plausible. Several fairs were held in Abingdon every year, and the goods on offer were not confined to local produce, but included fancy goods from further afield. St Mary’s Fair in particular, held annually in September, was attended by traders from far and wide, including foreign merchants, their stalls stretching along Bury Street. Among the goods on offer were spices, textiles from Italy and the Low Countries, and amber from the Baltic coast. It is therefore not inconceivable that one of the merchants offered fine imported glasses such as this one. Did anyone in Abingdon have the money to buy such luxuries? Probably yes. Abingdon was a country town, but a prosperous one, with flourishing industries and trade. And if no one else, certainly the rich Benedictine Abbey would have been able to buy something like the glass. If we presume the Abbey as the former owner of the glass, it might also have received it as a gift from a visitor, or as a bequest.
All of this has to remain conjecture, though, along with any speculation of how the glass came to be in that particular house in Lombard Street. What is certain is that the glass is a rare find, and one that opens a window from Abingdon onto the wider world.
The article quoted is Marion Wenzel, Thirteenth-century Islamic Enamelled Glass Found in Medieval Abingdon, Oxford Journal of Archaeology Vol.3 No. 3 (November 1984)
Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer