Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700
Objects from one of the finest collections of Islamic metalwork in private hands will be on view for the first time in the United States in “Fountains of Light: Islamic Metalwork from the Nuhad Es-Said Collection” The show, which opens at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) on September 17 and continues indefinitely, features 27 elaborately inlaid base metal vessels—crafted in the Islamic world between the 10th and 19th centuries—that were intended to rival the finest works in gold and silver. “Fountains of Light” discusses the history of this important art form, as well as the materials and techniques used in creating these masterpieces.

On view are:

  • a luxuriously decorated incense burner made for Nasir al-Din Muhammad (reigned 1294–1340), the Mamluk ruler of Egypt and Syria
  • a ewer made for Abu’l Qasim Mahmud ibn Sanjar Shah, the “atabeg” or ruler of northern Mesopotamia in 1208
  • silver inlaid keys for the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, commissioned during the same period by the Mamluk rulers as symbols of their role as “defenders of the faith of Islam.”

Thirteenth century candlesticks from Anatolia, in present-day Turkey and a 14th century Syrian pen case are examples of more common everyday objects transformed into works of art through the technique of inlay.

Assembled over a mere 2 1/2 year period by Palestinian-born businessman Nuhad Es-Said (1937–1982), this superb collection “provides a unique opportunity to present a comprehensive overview of the development of this artistic tradition,” says Massumeh Farhad, associate curator of Islamic art at the Sackler and neighboring Freer Gallery of Art. “The Nuhad Es-Said Collection is especially strong in objects from Egypt and Syria and complements the fine Islamic metalwork that is housed at the Freer.”

The Islamic era began with the migration of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622. Islam soon became a major religious, social and political movement, spreading initially across the area encompassing present-day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as large areas of northern Africa. Over a period of centuries, while competing dynasties vied for political dominance, a singular faith unified this otherwise diverse region.

Throughout this period, distinctive local artistic traditions flourished and were adapted to express new social, cultural and political needs within each region. Despite their formal and artistic range and variety, almost all these traditions shared the same preoccupation with surface decoration, which drew on calligraphy, figural, geometric and vegetal designs.

The most prevalent Islamic metalwork objects include vessels such as dishes, boxes, pen cases and inkwells, incense burners, candlesticks, jugs and ewers — the finest of which were frequently commissioned by the ruling classes.

The exhibition describes the techniques and materials, including gold and silver, copper and its alloys, leaded brass, steel and high-tin (or white) bronze, that were used by craftsmen in the Islamic world. Manufacturing methods including casting, hammering, sheet-metalworking, spinning and turning are also examined, and the significance of the broad variety of designs that decorate the exhibition’s objects is discussed.

A fully illustrated catalog of the collection titled Islamic Metalwork: The Nuhad Es-Said Collection, by Dr. James Allan, (London, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2nd edition 1998) is available at a cost of $90.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

spacer gif