Harem wall painting fragments


British Museum

British Museum
London, United Kingdom

These fragments of wall-paintings from the harem baths at Jawsaq al-Khaqani provide a glimpse of important early examples of figurative art in the Islamic world.

The two figures, displayed on these wall painting fragments, are probably slave girls from the harem of Caliph al-Muasim in Samarra, where the walls of the palaces were painted with large scenes of hunters, dancers, and drinkers. The palaces were also decorated with carved wooden panels and stucco (plaster).

The women of the palace were not just wives and concubines but were also poets and musicians. Harem girls were often highly trained in singing, music and literature and it was potentially an attractive career for a woman of humble origins.

Samarra was built in AD 836 as the new capital of the Islamic Empire. At the time it was one of the largest cities in the world, sprawling some 25 miles along the banks of the river Tigris.

Samarra’s name comes from the Arabic for 'Happy he who sees it' and it was created to house the court of Caliph al-Muasim (reigned AD 833-42) and army of Turkish slavesoldiers, after they increasingly came into conflict with the inhabitants of Baghdad.

The site includes palaces and mosques, built on an unprecedented scale, and also a large race-course. Many of the palaces are built right on the waterside, with steps leading down to an artificial water basin.

In AD 861 Samarra was abandoned. The city's decline mirrors that of the Islamic Empire, which became increasingly fragmented from AD 800 onwards.

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  • Title: Harem wall painting fragments
  • Date Created: 800/899
  • Physical Dimensions: Length: 11.00cm; Width: 10.00cm; Height: 1.50cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted
  • Registration number: OA+.10621
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Samarra
  • Period/culture: Abbasid dynasty
  • Material: plaster
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Excavated by Herzfeld, Ernst