Venetia Porter



Mysterious Inscriptions on “Frozen Water”: Early Medieval Islamic Rock Crystal Seals

A significant number of early medieval amulets from the Islamic world are made of rock crystal – the material described by the Classical and early Arab authors as “Frozen water.” They are engraved in reverse and so are technically seals and contain strings of Arabic letters in angular Kufic style or “linear Kufic,” as it is sometimes described. These obscure inscriptions are clearly magical in intent. They are sometimes combined with other “magical” elements such as fivepointed stars, or recognisable phrases of a benedictory nature. Although in some examples, similar configurations of letters can be detected, of the examples studied, not one is exactly the same as the other. They can include words such as ajal “hurry,” “haste” – one of a number of words believed to hasten the action of a spell. The question is what was the function of these objects and how they were used. Were they stamped onto something or did the fact that they are engraved in reverse add to their obscure magical quality? In a pioneering work, based on a group of these rock crystal seals in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, Luvik Kalus put forward the theory that certain words appearing within the lines are associated with water, which led him to suggest that these objects would have been used to induce rain or draw water into wells.

This paper will place these rock crystal seals within the context of magical objects where this style of inscription is also found. Working from a group of about 40 rock crystal seals, in a number of public and private collections, it will look in detail at these inscriptions, and discuss how such stones could have been used, bringing in documentary sources on rainmaking ceremonies (istisqa) and the medieval use of gems, and re-examine the assertion of the link with rain making.


Venetia Porter is a curator of the Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art collections at the British Museum and was previously curator of Islamic coins in the department of Coins and Medals. She studied Arabic and Islamic art at Oxford University and obtained her PhD on the medieval history and architecture of the Yemen from the University of Durham in 1992. Her areas of research and interest have focused on Islamic pottery, particularly medieval Syrian pottery and Islamic tiles, Islamic coins, and medieval Yemen. She has worked on Arabic inscriptions and Arabic and Persian amulets and seals in the British Museum, which are the focus of a forthcoming catalogue.In 2003, she curated the exhibition Mightier than the Sword, which was shown in the Potter Museum, University Melbourne, Venetia Porter Mysterious Inscriptions on “Frozen Water”: Early Medieval Islamic Rock Crystal Seals Curator of the Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art collections, British Museum [email protected] Australia, and then traveled to the Islamic Arts Museum Kuala Lumpur in 2004. In 2006, she curated the exhibition Word into Art: Artists of the Middle Eastern Art, at the British Museum, which will travel to Dubai in February 2008.


Islamic Tiles (London: British Museum Press, 1995)

Co-editor with J. F. Healey, Studies on Arabia in Honour of G. Rex Smith, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002)

Co-author with Heba Salih: Mightier than the Sword (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2004)

Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East (London: British Museum Press, 2006)

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