Holding Memory in a Cup

Made of rare white jade, this tiny inscribed cup speaks volumes about the past.

By Asian Art Museum

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions, in Gallery 4 (probably 1447-1449, Timurid period (1370-1506))Asian Art Museum

At just over one inch tall and less than two inches in diameter, this cup from Central Asia offers a glimpse into how ideas about personal identity, family history, and prestige were conveyed through works of art.

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions side viewAsian Art Museum

Inscribing Memory

Made of rare white jade, this minute cup features the written word as its main decoration. Names of owners or artists on artworks are relatively uncommon in art from the Islamic world, yet this cup boasts royal inscriptions made nearly two centuries apart.

The inscription on its body bears the name and titles of its royal patron, ‘Ala ud-Daulah, reflecting his pride and pleasure in owning this object, and perhaps, of the very human desire to be remembered.

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions (2019)Asian Art Museum

The sultan son of the sultan, 'Ala ud-Daulah Bahadur Khan, may [God] perpetuate his kingdom, ordered the completion of this container.

— Adaptation of translation by Wheeler Thackston

Take a closer look at the main inscription on this cup and hear it read aloud.

Folio from a Zafarnama (Book of victories) by Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi (died 1454); recto: text; verso: illustration: Timur grants an audience on the occasion of his accession to the throne at Balkh (1436 (839 A.H.)) by Calligrapher: Ya'qub b. Hasan, Patron: Ibrahim-SultanSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Who was ‘Ala ud-Daulah?

‘Ala ud-Daulah (1417–1460) was a great-grandson of Amir Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire that ruled over parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan during the fifteenth century.

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions side viewAsian Art Museum

Little is known about ‘Ala ud-Daulah’s life, but his name lives on through this inscription. It suggests that ‘Ala ud-Daulah, who came from a family renowned for its patronage of the arts, was a man of refined tastes.

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions bottom / side viewAsian Art Museum

A Rare Work

Just one of two known works in white jade associated with Timurid rulers, the pure, translucent white is among the rarest and most sought-after hues.

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions top / side viewAsian Art Museum

Preserving Memory

Nearly 175 years after its creation, a second inscription was added to the cup’s rim by the Indian Mughal emperor Jahangir (ruled 1605–1627). The Mughals were descendants of the Timurids, and Jahangir was a connoisseur known for collecting artworks associated with his culturally sophisticated ancestors.

Composed as a lyrical short poem in Persian and barely visible to the naked eye, this inscription bears Jahangir’s name, his father Emperor Akbar’s name, and a date. The inscription’s content and its refined calligraphy reflect the emperor’s pride in owning this cup.

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions (2019)Asian Art Museum

This life-prolonging jade container belongs to Jahangir Shah, son of Akbar Shah. For as long as the angels’ celestial sphere revolves, may the world remember Jahangir Shah AH 1030 [1620–1621 CE]; 16 [Jahangir’s regnal year].

— Adaptation of translation by Wheeler Thackston

Take a closer look at the inscription on the rim of this cup and hear it read aloud.

Padshahnama plate 10 : Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies (8 March 1628) (1630 - 1657) by BichitrRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Collapsing Historical Time

Jahangir began marking his place in a family lineage through artworks. Inscriptions mentioned Jahangir’s name along with his father’s and their Timurid ancestors', thus “collapsing historical time and bringing together royal ancestors in an imaginary family reunion.” This practice was continued by the later Mughal emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

Cup with calligraphic inscriptions Cup with calligraphic inscriptions (probably 1447-1449, Timurid period (1370-1506))Asian Art Museum

Drinking Vessel or Jewelry Box?

The inscriptions on this cup call it a durj, which in Arabic and Persian denotes a small container used as a jewel box. Drawing on the use of durj in Persian poetry, where it serves as a metaphor for a cup holding “rubies” (red wine), some scholars suggest that this cup was used as a drinking vessel.

Cup with European mount (1650-1750, fittings approx. 1850-1880)Asian Art Museum

Reused and Repurposed

The Indian jade pictured here was also adapted by a later owner who had the metal fittings added in Europe. Precious objects, whether valued for their expensive materials or aesthetic beauty, are often repurposed to keep with changing tastes and lifestyles of their owners. Look out for other examples of reuse in the Asian Art Museum's collection. What memories do you think they hold?

Credits: Story

Masterpiece presentation made possible with the generous support of Tina and Hamid Moghadam.

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