Name of Object:

Pen box


London, England, United Kingdom

Holding Museum:

The British Museum

 About The British Museum, London

Date of Object:

Hegira mid-8th century/ AD mid-14th century

Museum Inventory Number:


Material(s) / Technique(s):

Brass inlaid with silver and gold.


Length 30.7 cm

Period / Dynasty:



Egypt or Syria.


A rectangular brass pen box with hinged lid and interior compartments, decorated both inside and out with silver and gold inlay. Around the outside a series of medallions alternate with inscriptions; both are surrounded by arabesque scrolls. A radial inscription inside the lid includes the titles of an anonymous amir. On either side of this central epigraphic roundel are two more medallions filled with lotus flowers. Lotus flowers and peonies, derived from Chinese art in the form of chinoiserie, appear in Mamluk decorative arts during the AH 8th / AD 14th century. Chinese motifs were imported to Egypt and Syria by the Mongols in Iran; the influence is also evident in Iranian art of the same period. Like much of the Mamluk metalwork of this period, figurative representation is absent; the decoration comprising calligraphy, together with floral and geometric designs. Pens would have been kept in the larger compartment while the smaller containers at one end were for ink, sand (for blotting ink) and threads (for cleaning the reed-pens).

View Short Description

A brass pen box with compartments to store pens, ink, sand and threads. Typical of Mamluk metalwork from the AH 8th / AD 14th century, this object is devoid of figures and is instead covered in calligraphy with floral and geometric decoration.

How date and origin were established:

By the mid-8th/14th century most Mamluk metalwork was decorated with epigraphy, rather than with figures; this pen box features calligraphic panels with floral and geometric designs. The presence of lotus flowers and peonies also points to the mid-8th / 14th century when these decorative elements became more commonplace in Mamluk art. For example, peonies can also be found on a series of mosque lamps dating to this period.

How Object was obtained:

Bequeathed to the British Museum by William Burges in 1881.

How provenance was established:

Stylistically this pen box relates to other inlaid metalwork objects produced in the Mamluk domains of Egypt of Syria. Moreover, the name of an anonymous Mamluk amir is inscribed on this object.

Selected bibliography:

Ward, R., Islamic Metalwork, London, 1993, pp.111–3, fig. 85.

Citation of this web page:

Emily Shovelton "Pen box" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2020.;ISL;uk;Mus01;29;en

Prepared by: Emily Shovelton
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez

MWNF Working Number: UK1 35