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Crossroads of Culture, 400–1800 | Object Spotlight #1

Lead Curator: Janet Richards, Curator for Dynastic Egypt
Curatorial Assistant: James Nesbitt-Prosser, PhD Candidate, IPAMAA

Personal Piety and Travel: Pilgrim Flasks from Egypt & Iraq

Often used in personal worship rituals, pilgrim flasks featuring imagery related to Christian sites were produced by the thousands in Byzantine Egypt, ultimately spreading far and wide throughout the Christian world.

The iconic pilgrim flasks used by the Coptic Christian communities of Byzantine Egypt were based on a vessel type that dates at least to the Parthian period (247 BC–224 AD). The general shape of the vessel may even go further back, to the “New Year” vessels of Saite-period Egypt. Typically filled with water or oil for acts of personal worship, thousands of these flasks were manufactured from the 5th to 7th centuries AD at pilgrimage sites such as the monastery of Saint Menas at Abu Mena in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Many bear the recognizable imagery of Saint Menas between two camels—an image that echoes themes from the story of his martyrdom, in which the camels carrying his dead body stopped and refused to go farther, setting the site of his burial in Egypt.

Most Menas flasks were found near their production sites in Egypt. But they also have been discovered as far away as England, Austria, and the Crimean Peninsula. The reasons for this wide distribution of flasks could reflect pilgrims traveling from all around the Christian world to Egypt. Alternatively, the flasks may have been part of the exchange of Christian relics between church and secular elites in Europe during the 6th and 7th centuries or simply traded as an exotic commodity in international commerce.

Whatever the reason, people traveling with Saint Menas flasks moved along established Mediterranean and ancient Middle Eastern trade routes over long distances. Their pilgrim flasks were often found at the same sites as other imported Middle Eastern or North African goods.

Fragment of Saint Menas Shrine Pilgrim Flask

Coptic Period (6th century CE)
Probably Abu Mena, Egypt
Gift of A. Boak, 1960. KM 88209

Handled Pilgrim Flask

Glazed buff pottery
Parthian Period (247 BC–224 AD)
Seleucia, Iraq
Part of a legal division of objects, University of Michigan Excavations, 1935. KM 30043

Tiraz Textiles: Communicating Piety & Status

In the early Islamic world, tiraz textiles were covered with decorative elements—from animals to invocations—that varied across time and location.

Inscribed textiles visually communicated social status across the early Islamic world until the 14th century. Woven by specialized craftspersons in royal factories, they were given as gifts to courtiers. Tiraz comes from the Persian word for embroidery. This term could refer to the textiles themselves, to the inscription on the textiles, or to the name of the factory in which they were produced.

The earliest tiraz textiles were not inscribed but decorated with colorful medallions, animals, or other motifs that marked the gradual transition from Sasanian to Coptic and Byzantine traditions. These motifs came back into style in Fatimid-period Egypt of the 11th and 12th centuries AD.

Tiraz textiles varied widely in appearance, both geographically and over time. Yemeni tiraz were dyed in the ikat technique to create a striped lozenge pattern, usually in a palette of greens, browns, and yellows. A Kufic inscription was then added to this dyed pattern, either embroidered or painted onto the textile. These inscriptions typically included the bismillah (the invocation used by Muslims at the beginning of any undertaking), the name of the ruler in whose reign the textile was produced, and the date and place of its manufacture.

In Egypt, tiraz were often used in funerary rituals. The textile was wrapped around the head of the deceased, with the inscription resting over the person’s eyes. Egyptians believed that the blessings from the textile would transmit to the person in the afterlife—attesting to the religious significance of these textiles, which help scholars understand the burial practices of the time.

Tirāz Textile Fragment with Inscription

Cotton with resist-dyed warp (ikat), ink, and gold paint
Yemeni (10th–12th century AD)
Cairo, Egypt
Purchase, Phocion Tano, 1934. KM 22621

“Dominion belongs to Him [God]. Blessing to its owner.”

Textile Fragment with Rabbits Motif

Bast, silk
11th century AD
Purchase, Phocion Tano 1935. KM 22642

Carved Doors: Blessings & Magic

A visual and symbolic tradition spanning paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the practice of carving prayers on door lintels was intended to bless and provide protection for a building’s occupants.

Prayers on door lintels have a long history across the Middle East and stem from a combination of pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. The primary functions of these prayers were to bring blessings to the people in the structure and to serve a magical, protective purpose in warding off evil. The prayers were often carved on doors since many cultures believed that evil could enter structures through such liminal spaces. Examples have been found in both wood and stone.

This panel is part of a larger Kufic inscription. It reads:

“A perfect blessing, all-inclusive grace, and lasting felicity.”

Due to its non-Qur’anic contents, this frieze likely came from the entrance to a private residence. Its inscription would have served as both a decorative element and as a symbolic blessing for the building’s owner, its other residents, and its visitors.

Inscribed Door Lintel

Islamic–Fatimid Period (early 12th century AD)
Probably Cairo, Egypt
Purchase, Phocion Tano, Cairo, 1935. KM 10201