Magic at the museum
Amid the thousands of works on display at Egypt’s Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo are many magical pieces, reports Mahmoud Al-DesouKi
It’s been 112 years since the Museum of Islamic Art opened in Cairo. Amid today’s unparalleled collection of 100,000 objects, visitors can find magic in many forms, including a talismanic shirt said to have protected its wearer from evil and the thrusts of spears and swords on the battlefield.
The shirt, made 349 years ago, is stained with the blood of its last wearer, evidence, it might seem, that magical spells are not all that they are touted to be.
There are only eight shirts of this kind worldwide, with some of them displayed in collections in Iran, Turkey and Germany. It was fashionable for top commanders, especially if they came from ruling families, to wear such shirts on the battlefield, says Abdel-Hamid Abu Alyu, who researched the topic for his Master’s degree at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
Abu Alyu, whose thesis was on the collection of amulets and talismans at the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), discusses the uses of amulets and talismans, Islam’s views on the practice, and the superstitions surrounding magical practices. He also talked to modern astrologers and practitioners of magic as part of his research.
He said that most of the paranormal practitioners he talked to advised him against choosing this field as a subject for academic research. In his eight-chapter thesis, he draws comparisons between the superstitious beliefs of mediaeval amulet-makers and the notions still held by contemporary practitioners.
Some of the mediaeval writers on the paranormal met a sad ending, he says. For example, the 13th-century magician Ahmed Ben Ali Al-Bouni, author of Shams Al-Maaref Al-Kobra (Sun of Ultimate Knowledge), a prominent book on black magic, was murdered.
Amulets became popular during the great famine of 1049 CE, also known as the Mustansiriya crisis or Al-Shedda Al-Mustansiriya, after the caliph Al-Mustansir, which followed a seven-year drought.
The magic shirt that Abu Alyu examined for his thesis is believed to have been made for the Persian ruler Shah Suleiman I. The son of Shah Abbas II and a Circassian slave woman named Nakihat Khanum, Suleiman I was more interested in women than in politics. For the duration of his reign, from 1666 to 1694, he is said to have left matters of government in the hands of his chief eunuchs.
Suleiman died in July 1694 in the city of Isfahan, possibly as a result of heavy drinking or gout. There is no proof that the blood found on the shirt belongs to him.
In the 1930s, the museum bought the shirt that is said to have belonged to him from a man named Mustafa Bey Shams Al-Din for five pounds. But little is known about how the shirt came into Shams Al-Din’s possession or why he decided to sell it.
Persian and Ottoman kings and commanders were known to own similar shirts, which they wore under their military attire when they went into battle. The museum’s shirt is made of linen and bears both Shia and Sunni phrases, as well as verses from the Qur’an.
The shirt is 137 cm long, 89 cm wide across the chest, and 92 cm across the waist, indicating that the man who wore it was of considerable stature and girth. The sleeves are 30 cm wide, indicating that the owner also had stout arms.
The shirt is embellished with geometric designs, numbers, Qur’anic verses and words written in black and red ink. According to Abu Alyu, the writing is faded and smudged with blood. On the left side of the neck is a rectangular design with 42 squares filled with numbers, he added.
According to Abu Alyu, there are hundreds of mediaeval Arabic books dealing with black magic and the paranormal, including some written by such eminent scholars as Al-Ghazali and Al-Telmisani.
Certain verses of the Qur’an are also favoured for talismans and amulets, Abu Alyu said. One is the phrase “fa-allahu khayru hafathan” (God is the best protector). Another is “qull a’uzu bi rabb al-nas” (Say, I take refuge in the God of all people), and a third is “qull a’uzu be rabb al-falaq” (Say, I take refuge in the God of daybreak).
Amulet-makers also often used the 99 names of God. The names of the offspring of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohamed, are also frequently used in the amulets.
Abu Alyu once saw an amulet made in Fatimid times for a boy called Mustafa bin Fatima. The inscription on the amulet read: “By the power and strength of God almighty, the evil eye of the jinn, humans, and demons are to miss the holder of this amulet.”
Most amulets, however, do not have the name of the maker, or even the owner, on them. Rich women would have their amulets designed as pieces of jewellery, but people with more modest means settled for amulets made of fabric, paper, leather or wood.
Abu Alyu recalls that major cities such as Baghdad and Cairo were also only built after consulting astrologers. Again, the advice given at the time did not always foretell the future with any accuracy.
When Baghdad was built in 762 CE, in the time of the caliph Ja’afar Al-Mansur, astrologers were confident about its good fortune. When Cairo was built in 969 CE, astrologers tried in vain to postpone its construction, as they saw that Mars was at its closest point to earth, which they thought foretold the city’s destruction. In hindsight, we can see that Baghdad has repeatedly suffered destruction, while Cairo has had a mostly peaceful existence.
Among the pieces Abu Alyu examined at the Museum of Islamic Art were 31 pieces from Fatimid times, three from Mameluke times, and 40 from the time of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty that ruled Egypt up until the 1952 Revolution.
One remarkable talisman bears the likeness of the khedive Abbas Helmi I and was made for a child. While protective amulets were mostly small in size and two-dimensional, black magic practitioners often also used statues in their work.
In Fatimid times, wax statues were used in spells designed to break up marriages, Abu Alyu said. Black magic practitioners often used organic materials belonging to the target of the spell, such as hair and nail clippings, to help them in their work.
In a counter-offensive against black magic, paranormal practitioners provided protection by making amulets that combined religious incantations with ancient magical formulas, he said.
A considerable part of the magical writing Abu Alyu examined in the museum collection is connected with Fatimid beliefs, including the paranormal formulas used to invoke the protection of the offspring of Ali.