The “Cup of Pharaoh” from Samarra and the Reuse of Ancient spolia as Water Features in the medieval Islamic World
Keywords:Samarra, fountains, basins, spolia, labra
This paper opens with a consideration of the biography of a large basin discovered during excavations at the Abbasid capital of Samarra. The large, circular, basin from Samarra closely matches historical descriptions of a fountain located in the city’s Congregational Mosque which became known as “kasat firun,” or the “Cup of Pharaoh” and, since its discovery, this excavated basin and the historical account of the fountain have often been conflated as one and the same. The excavated basin is carved from a non-local—and probably Egyptian—stone which may have generated its mysterious association with the Pharaonic past. A consideration of the possible sources from which such a large stone basin might have been obtained during the Islamic period, however, opens up a wider discussion related to the reuse of pre-Islamic artefacts as water features. This paper explores possible scenarios through which the basin from Samarra might have been acquired by the Abbasid caliphs alongside the logistics associated with its transport to Samarra. In addition, the likely motivations for the installation of this enigmatic stone basin are evaluated—including pragmatic reuse of an impressive piece of stonework, a symbolic statement of contemporary pre-eminence over the rulers of the past or perhaps even beliefs in the quasi-magical powers of ancient objects. Alongside this, the existence of several comparable, near-contemporary, basins, demonstrate that the reuse of objects from the past as contemporary water features in important locations, was a wider practice seen in both the Islamic world and beyond. As an object that seems to have led multiple lives, the complex biography of the basin from Samarra illuminates the ways in which material remains of the past were understood and repurposed during the Abbasid Caliphate.
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