Highlight of the Week: Tombstone of ‘Abbas, son of ‘Abdallah, son of Muhammad, son of Nasih

Gravestones from the historic cemetery al-Ma’la, north of Mecca are among the extraordinary cultural treasures of Saudi Arabia; they illuminate the 700-year time span from the early Islamic period (9th century) to the zenith of the Ottomans (16th century). Apart from a multitude of historically relevant information about the person interred, the person who commissioned the stone, and the date, gravestones also reflect the broad scope of variations as well as the development of Arabic calligraphy in a unique way.  The contrast between the hewn, natural rock and the extremely fine calligraphy with its decorative design is a fascinating effect.

  • Tombstone of ‘Abbas, 9th century, Basalt, H: 61 cm, B: 35 cm, T: 11 cm, locality: al-Ma’la cemetery, Mecca
    Tombstone of ‘Abbas, 9th century, Basalt, H: 61 cm, B: 35 cm, T: 11 cm, locality: al-Ma’la cemetery, Mecca
  • detailed view, Tombstone of ‘Abbas
    detailed view, Tombstone of ‘Abbas
  • detailed view, Tombstone of ‘Abbas
    detailed view, Tombstone of ‘Abbas
  • detailed view, Tombstone of ‘Abbas
    detailed view, Tombstone of ‘Abbas

The inscription done in basalt shows a special form of kufic script, which is also called floriated kufic, because single letters end in half-palmettes and floral elements. At the top the inscription is closed with a decorated tympanum. The field above shows tendrils, also called arabesque. The inscription contains religious formulae from the Quran. On the one hand the basmala, the invocation of God "In the name of God Almighty and Merciful". This is a credal statement which introduces 113 Surahs of the Koran. Many Muslims speak the basmala before doing important work or actions. On the other hand the name of the deceased in keeping with the formula "Place [name] among the companions of Muhammad in Paradise", followed by a closing exclamation.

Of special interest is the fact that several ‘grave stelae’ were reused, a practice that has to do with the hardness of the material – basalt is difficult to work. Thus, incised on the reverse side of three gravestones are inscriptions from earlier Islamic times.

A new highlight each week!

In the coming eleven weeks we would like to provide you with one outstanding object of this exhibition each Thursday. See amazing art treasures from Saudi Arabia: e.g. a golden funerary mask, statues larger than life or a door from the Ka'bah, the  central sanctuary of the Muslim world. Let yourself be surprised!