Name of Object:

Incense burner


Cairo, Egypt

Holding Museum:

Museum of Islamic Art

About Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

Date of Object:

Hegira 8th century / AD 14th century

Museum Inventory Number:


Material(s) / Technique(s):

Copper inlaid with gold and silver.


Diameter 13 cm

Period / Dynasty:



Egypt and Syria.


An incense burner that assumes a spherical shape, and which divides into two hemispheres, one half of which contains the coal vessel used to light the incense. The object is decorated with vegetal decorative motifs such as half-palm fans, quatrefoil leaf designs and geometric decoration such as quasi-circular shapes. The pierced decoration was incorporated into the empty spaces in between the other decorative components; fundamentally the piercing was used to create apertures through which incense could dissipate.
This piece is made out of copper and inlaid with gold and silver. Metal-inlay techniques were practised in Egypt since the Pharonic period and continued in use until its proliferation during the Mamluk period. The widespread use of metal-inlay techniques was furthered during the periods of Ayyubid and Mamluk rule by the migration of craftsmen from Mosul in Iraq to Egypt specialising in inlay work.
Many designs of incense burner were used to perfume a variety of places. They were used in mosques, churches, residences and for a variety of occasions. Different incense fragrances were used, for example Indian sandalwood, frankincense, musk and camphor among others.

View Short Description

This inlaid burner is made up of two halves, one of which contains the fire bowl, while the other is perforated to allow the incense to be diffused. Incense was used in Muslim society for cleanliness and purification in houses and public establishments. Incense was made of musk, sandalwood and camphor.

How date and origin were established:

The piece was dated based on a study of its production techniques, which included the inlay work with gold and silver, and the decorative piercing. Dating was also possible by studying the decorative components of the incense burner and also by comparison with analogous objects held in other museum collections such as at the British Museum where there is an incense burner (Inv. No. 781230682), published in the exhibition catalogue on Mamluk art by Esin Atil (1981).

How Object was obtained:

This object was purchased in 1945 from a dealer of antiquities, Ralph Harari.

How provenance was established:

Metal-inlay techniques flourished during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods in both Egypt and Syria to where craftsmen specialising in this technique migrated from Mosul in Iraq.

Selected bibliography:

Abu Shal, N., Al-Mabkhara fi Masr al-Islamiya [The Incense Burner in Islamic Egypt], MA thesis, University of Cairo, 1984.
Aga-Oglu, M., “About a Type of Islamic Incense Burner”, Art Bulletin, No. 27, 1945.
Atil, E., Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks, Washington D.C., 1981, p.59.
Badr, M., Atharal-fan al-Saljuqi ala al-hadara wa al-fan fi al-asrayn al-Ayyubi wa al-Mamluki fi Masr [The Influence of Seljuq Art on Civilization and Art during the Ayyubid and Mamluk Periods in Egypt], PhD thesis, University of Cairo, 1995.
Stierlin, H., and Stierlin A., Splendours of the Islamic World: Mamluk Art in Cairo (1250–1517), London, New York, 1997.

Citation of this web page:

Muhammad Abbas Muhammad Selim "Incense burner" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2020.;ISL;eg;Mus01;13;en

Prepared by: Muhammad Abbas Muhammad SelimMuhammad Abbas Muhammad Selim

He graduated from the Faculty of Archaeology, Cairo University in 1974 and received an MA on Abbasid Tiraz textiles from the same university in 1995. He has worked at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo since 1975. He attended a textile conservation course in Vienna while studying different collections at Austrian museums for five months. He co-authored the first catalogue of the Abegg Foundation in Bern in 1995, the catalogue of the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo and the forthcoming catalogue of the Egyptian Textile Museum. He lectured on Fatimid Art in Switzerland in 1997 and at the Ismaili Centre for Islamic Studies in London in 2003. He has classified and studied the Islamic collection at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London, and is currently preparing to publish its catalogues.

Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez

Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.

True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.

MWNF Working Number: ET 23


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