Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum
Hegira 4th–5th / AD 11th–12th centuries
Length 50 cm, width 11.5 cm
Fatimid or Norman
Sicily or southern Italy.
The hunting horn or bugle has been carved from an ivory tusk and is nearly entirely covered in decorative work. Only the mouthpiece, two indented bands, on which to attach straps, and a thin band around the edge, remain undecorated. Framing friezes of creeping tendrils and half-palmettes enhance these indented bands. The engraved relief carving consists of three friezes portraying animals and mythological creatures intertwined with vines. The middle frieze is composed of five rows of animals, whereas the remaining outer two friezes only contain one row of animals each. The individual rows are linked through diamond-shaped and circular designs, and decoratively filled with grapes.
Oliphants were probably well known in Egypt during the Fatimid period, even if not a single one has been preserved. In return, great numbers of them were made in Sicily and southern Italy. Until AH 493 / AD 1071 Sicily was part of the Fatimid empire. The numerous decorative motifs, particularly those in the ornamental friezes, were believed to have been crafted by skilled Muslim artisans working in southern Italy, because they strongly resemble or are copied from the Fatimid repertoire. Berlin’s particularly large oliphant has a number of counterparts. It is especially close in comparison to the horns of the Egyptian group. Ivory horns could be used as hunting horns due to the low but loud sound they produced. According to the legend of Roland, Roland blew on an oliphant to call for help before his death in the battle of Roncesvalles against the Arabs in AH 161 / AD 778. The majority of horns made of ivory – both a precious and an expensive material – were probably created to fulfil European demand. They have mainly been preserved as part of church treasury, where they were kept as relics, as reminders of Roland’s martyrdom, and thus held as exalted objects in Christendom.
Because of the loud tones which they produced, such carved ivory horns decorated with animals were used as instruments for hunting calls or to produce a signal in case of attack or danger. Known in Fatimid Egypt, they spread throughout southern Italy after the fall of the Fatimids.
Probably part of the treasure held by the Cathedral of Speyer; then later became part of Prussia’s royal art collection
The object belongs to a larger collection sharing the same stylistic markings and dated to the 11th–12th century.
Transferred from the Arts and Crafts Museum in Berlin in 1906.
It has not been possible to establish the object’s precise provenance. However, the literature states that the collection to which this oliphant belongs demonstrates Fatimid influence. The exact origin has yet to be established.
Budde, H. and Sievernich, G. (eds.), Europa und der Orient, Catalogue, Gütersloh-Munich, 1989, no. 3/14, fig. 224.
Kühnel, E., Die Islamische Elfenbeinskulpturen VIII–XIII Jh., Berlin, 1971, no. 60, pl.45–6.
Shalem, A., The Oliphant: Islamic Objects in Historical Content, Leiden, 2004, 61–5, pl. I, fig. 24.
Jens Kröger "Oliphant" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2018. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;de;Mus01;11;en
Prepared by: Jens KrögerJens Kröger
Jens Kröger is a historian of Islamic art and archaeology. He studied European art history and Ancient Near Eastern archaeology at the Free University of Berlin and obtained his Ph.D. in 1978 on Sasanian and early Islamic stucco (Sasanidischer Stuckdekor, Mainz: von Zabern, 1982). As a curator at the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, he has participated in numerous exhibitions and published on the subject of pre-Islamic and Islamic art, including Nishapur: Glass of the Early Islamic Period (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995), and edited Islamische Kunst in Berliner Sammlungen (Berlin, 2004).
Translation by: Maria Vlotides, Brigitte Finkbeiner
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: GE 16
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Normans in Sicily | Royal Art and Architecture
Virtual Visit Exhibition Trail
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