Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum
Hegira 3rd century / AD 9th century
Alabaster, relief-cut, engraved.
Height 27 cm, width 29 cm, depth 29 cm
The shape of this capital suggests that it might have been used to crown the top of a half-column. Its surface is decorated with three ornamental bands. The topmost band reflects the ancient abacus: at its top it bears a half-palmette tendril covered in blossoms. This tendril is framed above and below by two smoothly finished but well-defined lines. The middle section is decorated with stylised interconnecting half-palmette tendrils that cover its entire area. These tendrils curl out into volutes at the corners, thus echoing the acanthus decoration of the capitals of Antiquity. However, while Antique ones were modelled three-dimensionally, the foliage here is completely two-dimensional. A simple astragal delineates the lower border of this principal motif. Beneath it is a thinner band with a further half-palmette tendril that decorates the lower end of the capital. Given its overall design, this capital is in the tradition of Byzantine examples that borrowed and abstracted from Antique representations. This tendency to borrow and abstract led, within the evolution of Islamic Art, towards an arabesque form. This capital, with others that are decorated in a very similar way, must have been used for a monumental building, of which little is known, located in the short-lived Abbasid residence of Raqqa.
The acanthus plant is a type of thistle still frequently found around the Mediterranean. It was first employed in Greek art from as early as the 5th century BC, as a decorative element for burial stelae. It was later adopted in Roman art, and then evolved in Islamic art into a versatile half-palmette form, which was used as a basic motif for decoration in art and architecture.
Alabaster is a naturally sourced type of plaster that is pure white and very fine-grained. It is easy to work with and has therefore been used since Antiquity for architectural ornamentation, panelling and sculpture.
This alabaster capital, produced for an early Abbasid palace in Raqqa, Syria, shows a design of undulating stems with half-palmettes. It thus demonstrates a stage of the typical Islamic decorative repertoire before it developed into more abstract patterns such as the arabesque.
According to information given by F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld, the capital originated from the town of Raqqa, which was only temporarily inhabited, and where the Caliph al-Rashid built palaces c. 185 / 800. It is possible that the capital comes from a Caliphate building from this period, which would date it to the beginning of the 2nd / 9th century.
Bought from Friedrich Sarre via an art dealer in Aleppo.
As this capital, according to the information offered by Sarre and Herzfeld, originates from the temporarily inhabited residential town of Raqqa, it is probable that it is part of the ruins of a Caliphate building.
Dimand, M. S., “Studies in Islamic Ornament I: Some Aspects of Omaiyad and Early ‘Abbasid Ornament”, Ars Islamica 4, 1937, pp.293–337.
Hillenbrand, R., Islamic Art and Architecture, London, 1999, pp.38–61.
Kautzsch, R., Kapitellstudien, Berlin; Leipzig, 1936.
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Catalogue, Mainz, 2001, p.28.
Sarre, F. and Herzfeld, E., Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-Gebiet, Berlin, 1911–20, Vol. 2, p.352, ill. 321; Vol. 4, plate 140, 1.
Annette Hagedorn "Capital" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;de;Mus01;5;en
Prepared by: Annette Hagedorn
Translation by: Maria Vlotides, Brigitte Finkbeiner
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: GE 07
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Abbasids | Al-Raqqa: Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s Capital in Syria
MWNF GalleriesArchitectural Elements
DownloadAs PDF (including images) As Word (text only)