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 (died 1449) was Timur’s grandson and Babur’s uncle. He is known also to have had a passion for jade in keeping with his Central Asian heritage and the jade cup was his prized posession. The jade cup is oval in shape and can easily fit in one’s palm. More bowl-shaped than cup-shaped, it has an inscription in Arabic which declares “Ulugh Begh Kuragan” or Royal son-in-law Ulugh Beg. The jade cup has a handle that is carved like a dragon — at least that’s what the placard said, but to be honest I couldn’t really make out that detail. The cup is supposed to have been made in Samarkand with a handle that shows its connection to the East and an Arabic inscription connecting the Central Asian region to its Islāmic heritage in the West.
Ulugh Beg was a patron of culture and a pious Muslim. But he was also known to be quite liberal when it came to alcoholic drinks. I like to imagine him testing his drinks for poison in the jade cup first (it was believed that a poisoned drink would crack the jade) and then drinking it as he worked in his observatory in Samarkand. I can imagine him working late into the night revising and correcting astronomical charts and a faithful slave/servant refilling the jade cup at regular intervals. I can also imagine the cup giving him solace as he watched the empire slip from his grasp during the two years of his reign. Ulugh Beg’s jade cup is a silent and inanimate witness to those tumultuous times of the 15th century. It was probably Beg’s constant companion, considering that he believed in the powers of jade.
As I stare at the cup though the protective glass it is encased in, I wonder at the possibility of the cup spilling out the contents of the conversations overheard, plots hatched, scientific discussions participated in, etc. Or act like a pensieve for anyone willing to just dive in and get a glimpse of those tumultuous and exciting times.I wish…
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.