Museum Treasure: Ulugh Beg’s cup

What if I were to tell that there exists a cup so mystical and magical that it has the power of detecting poison. Would you believe me? No? I thought not, and honestly I wouldn’t believe it if someone had told me about this.

But nevertheless, such a cup did exist about six centuries ago in Central Asia. It was a time of great upheaval and power struggle in the region when old dynasties were giving way to the new. Often caught in the crossfire of the conflict between the East and the West, it was also a time of great suspicion, prejudice and uncertainties in this region. Such an atmosphere was perfect for beliefs in charms and talismans to take root and grow. And the belief in protection was vested in Jade, a compact, opaque gemstone ranging in color from dark green to almost white. According to Central Asian belief, jade could detect poison and could also protect one from illness, earthquakes and lightning. Soldiers from this region often decorated their swords, belts and saddles with jade.

So, to get back our the story of the cup with the power to detect poison… it is made of jade and once belonged to the mathematician, astronomer and prince of the Timurid Empire, Ulugh Beg. Today, that jade cup is an exhibit in the Islāmic Room of the British Museum in London.

Ulugh Beg’s Jade Cup

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Museum Treasure: The limestone door

There is a room in the British Museum at London that, perhaps, receives more visitors than others. This room is a veritable treasure trove of Egyptian artifacts — there are busts of pharaohs, sculptures of Egyptian gods and goddesses, sarcophagi, giant scarabs, ships, and what not. A giant bust of Rameses II towers over the exhibits and it is quite difficult to notice the other exhibits under it’s rather overwhelming gaze.

Therefore, it was only on my third or fourth visit to the British Museum that I saw the “Limestone door of Ptahshepses” properly. I mean, I had noticed it before, but had not actually seen it, if you know what I mean.

The Limestone Door

That day, I spent quite some time searching for the mechanism that operated the beautiful and imposing door. I mean it was a door wasn’t it? Which meant that it would open and close. Right? Wrong. If only I knew how to read the hieroglyphics on the door or had read the information plaque carefully, I would have saved myself I would have saved myself those minutes of growing frustration.

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Museum Treasure: The gold helmet

Helmets, chain mail, daggers, guns, arms, ammunition and other macho stuff are not really my kind of thing and it is this section in a museum that I breeze through or prefer to give a miss. So that day at the British Museum in London, should actually have seen me ignoring Meskalamdug’s helmet, but for two things—it was made of gold, and it had the cutest ears I had ever seen. :-)

The gold helmet of Meskalamdug

This helmet, dates back to about 2600-2400 BC and was found in the tomb of Meskalamdug, a Sumerian prince, in the ancient city of Ur (now in present day Iraq). The top of the helmet has a wavy design (probably to mirror hair) and at the back is a little hollow bump, perhaps to accommodate Meskalamdug’s hair bun. And yes, the helmet also has these really cute and life-like ears and ear holes carved on them. Though the helmet is designed to look like a battle helmet, it was reportedly worn by Meskalamdug for only ceremonial purposes. Gold symbolises strength and power, and Prince Meskalamdug had both.

Meskalamdug’s helmet at the British Museum London is an electrotype of the original which is or rather was at Iraq Museum in Baghdad. In the pillaging and sacking of the city that followed the fall of the Saddam Hussein government, the gold helmet was one of the many artefacts looted from the Iraq Museum.

When I saw this artefact in London, the enormity of the fact that the original had been lost, perhaps for ever, did not sink in. It’s only as I write this post that I realise that the electrotype at the British Museum may be the only piece available for the world to view and admire.

A very sobering thought indeed !

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

Museum Treasure: The suit of spades

It is the year 1678 in London and an uneasy religious calm and simmering tensions prevails in the city. Indeed, this is the prevalent mood across England and Wales. Though it has been 150 years since the English Church split from the Roman Catholic Church bitter differences remain between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. The reigning monarch, Charles II, is a worried man as his successor and brother, James II is a Roman Catholic.

On the morning of 12 October, the magistrate of Westminster and strong supporter of Protestantism, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey receives a report of an alleged Catholic plot to assassinate the King. On October 17, Godfrey’s body is found on Primrose Hill; it is automatically assumed that he has been killed by the Catholic plotters. This discovery sets off a wave of anti-Catholic sentiments and a chain of arrests and executions follow.

This event, which becomes part of the larger Popish Plot, is widely documented and recorded. One of the more unusual ways it has been documented is in a pack of cards now displayed at the British Museum, London !

The suit of spades from a pack of Popish Plot playing cards

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Museum Treasure: The Lachish Reliefs

The British Museum‘s exhibits can delight a layperson, a history buff and a museum junkie at the same time. One of its more impressive exhibits is a set of stone panels known as the Lachish Reliefs. In its original form, the Lachish Reliefs (700-692 BC) would have been vividly painted. But the soft sepia tones that the frieze has acquired today (and enhanced by the lighting in the room) makes the viewer feel that is watching a documentary, albeit one etched in stone.

The Lachish Reliefs

Lachish (present day Tell ed-Duweir) is about 40 km south-west of Jerusalem. In 700 BC, Lachish was a heavily fortified hill town in the Kingdom of Judah and was strategically located on an ancient trade route that linked Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and the riches of Egypt. At the end of the 8th century BC, Hezekiah, the King of Judah, rebelled against the Assyrians, who had built an empire that stretched from Iran in the East to Egypt in the West, and who controlled the region. Naturally, this rebellion did not go down very well with the Assyrians, whose King Sennacharib led and won a campaign against Lachsih.

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Museum Treasure: The Jade Bull

The bull stares at me and I eye him warily. Gathering my courage, I step a little closer to admire his shiny coat and curved horns, which makes for a magnificent sight. Still keeping an eye on him, and without making any sudden movements, I take out my camera and take a picture without a flash. I don’t want disturb the bull, you see. Though the picture is not great (I think my hands shook), but it is still a good capture.

The Jade Bull

I met this bull in December 2008 during one of my many visits to the British Museum London. I can’t remember the details now, but I think he was part of a visiting exhibition from a museum in China, and not part of the British Museum’s collection (they don’t have any information on this bull on their website).

Yes, this is not a real bull, but believe me staring out of his cabinet at the British Museum he looked real enough. He was no bigger than my palm, and yet every feature of his was clearly visible, right down to slightly flared nostrils. Carved out of very dark green jade, he looked very much alive and full of barely suppressed energy. It was almost as if he was just waiting for an opportunity to break free from his confinement. He could have been the proverbial bull in a museum china shop !

So, what do you think?

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.