Mamluk Hand Grenade
Biography Author(s): Sama Mamadova, Allyssa Metzger
When was it made?
<- When was it made?Since the Mamluk dynasty ruled between 1250 and 1517, the vessel can be dated to the that time. However, it is notable that similar objects may have been in use in the Islamicate world as early as the 7th century, and had likely been actively used in battle during the 12th century. Similar vessels were particularly wide-spread throughout Iran, Azerbaijan, and parts of Russia between 11th and 14th centuries.
Who made it?
<- Who made it?The vessel was made by an anonymous artist working under the Mamluk sultanate, which ruled Egypt from 1250-1517. After overthrowing the Ayyubid dynasty (for whom they had been military slaves) and European crusader claims in Egypt, and turning away the Mongol armies in Syria, the Mamluks inherited Ayyubid territories in the eastern Mediterranean, but later expanded the empire to include the vicinity of Mecca and Medina. The capital of this empire, Cairo, became the economic and cultural center of the Islamicate world, and Mamluk society developed a system of generous patronage for scholars and artisans.
The Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382) laid the stylistic template for art and architecture of the subsequent centuries. Despite periods of internal struggle within the Mamluk ruling class, there was tremendous artistic and architectural productivity throughout the Mamluk empire. Artisans developed techniques established by the Ayyubids but also synthesized influences from different parts of the Islamicate world. effectively created a haven in Egypt and Syria for Arabic-speaking immigrants from other conquered Muslim lands. Subsequent invasions of Syria by Mongol armies led to further waves of Syrian immigrants to Egypt, many of whom were scholars and artisans.
Mamluk decorative arts—especially glass, metalwork, woodwork, and textiles—were prized commodities throughout the Mediterranean, where they had a profound impact on local production—for example, on the Venetian glass industry.
Why was it made?
<- Why was it made?While scholars disagree on the purpose of this type of vessel, most believe that vessels like this one were used as hand grenades or fire-blowers. However, many of these objects were ornate and were found empty and intact in civilian dwellings, which is why some scholars question their purpose as hand grenades and suggest that they may have been used to simply strike fire.
Other scholars argue that they were more likely used as containers for valuable commodities—like mercury or perfume—or for beverages—such as wine or beer. The vessels’ strength suggests that they may have been containers for expensive liquids. Still others have posited that they served as water containers used when smoking a portable hookah (more properly termed a ghalian or nargile).
However, the prevalent theory among current scholars is that vessels like this one were used to contain flammable material that was turned into fire for launching or blowing.
What is it?
<- What is it?This is a sphero-conical vessel, about the size of an adult human’s fist. It has thick walls, marked with grooves, narrows opening on the top, with a short neck. The vessel shares its shape with a large group of pottery vessels from the medieval Middle East, which were for a long time considered to be medieval hand grenades, but some historians think they were used for other purposes.
Similar grenade-like objects may have been in use in 683, when the Umayyad army used explosives in a battle against a rebellious governor. Nearly 500 years later, during the Crusades, the vizier to the Ayyubid Caliph handed the city of Cairo over to European crusaders; shortly afterwards, he turned against the Europeans, and used so-called “naphtha pots” to burn down the city. Grenade-like objects were particularly wide-spread in the Middle East and in parts of Russia between 11th and 14th centuries.
Where did it go?
<- Where did it go?This particular vessel was acquired by the Harvard Semitic Museum in 1902 as part of the Selah Merrill Collection by way of the Harvard Divinity School. Selah Merrill was an American clergyman, archaeologist and American consul in Jerusalem in the late 19th century. He collected antiquities, ethnographic material, and specimens of natural history from Jerusalem. The vessel was probably purchased by Merrill from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem in the late 19th century, before it was given to the Semitic Museum with collectibles.
How was it made?
<- How was it made?So-called “stoneware” vessels like this one were usually made of dense clay which was fired at a high temperature in a kiln. Some stoneware was glazed on the outside. Others, like this example, were left unglazed; many of these have intricate decorations incised on them, such as intertwined serpents.
How was it used?
<- How was it used?Scholars disagree on the purpose of this type of vessel. Those who argue that they were hand grenades cite evidence that these vessels contained a petroleum product which could be ignited and thrown at enemies. If this theory is correct, such use of the vessels had a significant impact on the outcomes of certain key battles in the Islamicate world. In 683, the Umayyad army used explosives against the rebellious governor of Hejaz. In 1167, Shawar, the vizier to the Ayyubid Caliph Athid, used so-called “naphtha pots” to raze Cairo after he had handed the city over to European crusaders but had turned against them shortly afterwards. During the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) when Europeans crusaders sacked the city of Constantinople, the French chronicler Geoffrey de Villehardoin described “Greek fire” being used against the crusaders.
Other scholars propose that the vessels could have been used as water containers which would have been attached to portable hookahs (more properly referred to as ghalians or nargiles) which were particularly popular in the Safavid Empire (1501–1736). An affinity for using ghalians or nargiles later spread to the South Asian Mughal Empire (1526 – 1540 and 1555 – 1857).
Still other scholars who believe that the vessels may have held mercury, suggest that they were important for creation of medicinal drugs against headaches, paralysis, palsy, deafness, insanity, and loss of vision, itch, and mange. Mercury was also used in the Middle Ages as a veterinary ointment and as vermicide and poison against lice, mice, snakes, and scorpions, as well as for industrial purposes, such as the backing of mirrors and embellishments.
However, the current consensus is that the vessels were used to contain flammable material which was used for launching or blowing fire.
Where was it produced?
<- Where was it produced?We do not know exactly where this stoneware vessel was made. Because the Mamluk empire stretched from its base in Egypt, into the Syrian (Levantine) territories that had formerly belonged to the Ayyubids, and even further into the region of Mecca and Medina (Hijaz), we cannot even determine the specific region in which it was produced.
However, the influx of artisans to the Mamluk capital of Cairo, especially in the 14th century, makes Egypt a likely place of origin. Alternatively, the vessel may have originated near Jerusalem, where it remained until it was purchased in the late 19th century before being transported to the U.S.
Material Composition: terracotta
Rights: © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Sources and Further Reading:
“Object #1,” Medieval Object Lessons, accessed August 4, 2020, http://dighist.fas.harvard.edu/projects/MOL/omeka/items/show/13.