From Mosul, northern Iraq, AD 1230-50

Inlaid with a verse from the Qur'an and symbols of the planets and the zodiac

The pen-box has a long section for pens, with smaller containers at one end for ink, sand (for blotting the ink) and threads (for cleaning the reed-pens). The Arab historian Qalqashandi, claimed that large square-ended pen-boxes like this were often used by treasury scribes because they could put a supply of accounting paper in the lid. He also wrote: 'know that it is necessary for the scribe to do his utmost to adorn the pen-box, to make it excellent and to look after it.' The owner of this pen-box has chosen to adorn the inside of the lid with a finely written verse from the Qur'an (11:88): 'I desire only to set things right so far as I am able. My succour is only with Allah; in him I have put my trust.'

The sides of the box are decorated with twelve roundels containing personifications of the planets in their day or night houses. Scenes along the front include (from right to left): Mars in Aries (a warrior holding a sword and riding a ram); Venus in Taurus (a lute-player riding a bull); Mercury in Gemini (two figures holding a staff); the Moon in Cancer (a cross-legged figure holding a crescent before her face); the Sun in Leo (a figure with the face of the sun riding a lion); Mercury in Virgo ( two figures holding ears of corn).

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More information


R. Ward, Islamic metalwork (London, The British Museum Press, 1993)

T. Richard Blurton (ed.), The enduring image: treasures, exh. cat (British Council, 1997)


Length: 36.800 cm

Museum number

ME OA 1884.7-4.85


Gift of Sir A.W. Franks


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