Ebony is a dense type of hardwood, yielded by several species in the genus Diospyros, that has a slick, smooth texture and therefore an aesthetic appeal. Because it is so high in natural oil, ebony acquires a highly natural shine once finished. Its reds and browns have pleased the eye throughout time and space.
DID YOU KNOW?
The word ebony came through Ancient Greek (ebenos), Latin, and Middle English into the English language. The Ancient Egyptian name for it was hbny.
Did you know?
There are different kinds of ebony wood. They are native to southern India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, West Africa, or Mauritius.
DID YOU KNOW?
A STEADY GROWTH
An adult ebony tree can reach a height of about 30 feet and grows slowly. It is unknown what exactly its life expectancy is but the tree can easily live 500 years. Ebony wood is one of the hardest on our planet. Whereas its fruit attracts monkeys, its leaves are fit to feed elephants with.
Ebony is one of the most sought-after—and expensive—types of wood. In Ancient Egyptian history it was part of long-distance trade and used for ornamental purposes in royal tombs. Later in time, it was cut into wands, frames, and drinking cups, even into handles of Samurai swords. Up until today it is carved into luxurious furniture and beautiful ornaments, although the general focus has shifted to smaller items. Think of the black keys of a piano, tuning pegs, plectrums... Black chess pieces were traditionally made from ebony, too. Unfortunately many species yielding ebony are now considered threatened because of unsustainable harvesting.
THE ISLAMIC TRADITION
In the Islamic arts tradition ebony is applied through the marquetry technique, which consists of covering wood with veneer or inlaying it with thin strips of ebony, other types of wood, mother of pearl, or tortoise shell. This technique first appeared in Mesopotamia and was also famed in Pharaonic Egypt. Ebony inlay was often used as part of geometric decorations, composed of bold semi-circles, circles, arches, pillars, stars, and vegetal decorations. Artistically, the roots of these motifs are said to lie in Sassanid, Byzantine, and Coptic art.
In Umayyad and Abbasid Egypt, woodcrafts adorned doors, windows, pulpits, dining tables, chairs… The style spread to Muslim Spain, too. al-Hakam II, the 10th-century Caliph of Córdoba, commissioned a new minbar or pulpit for its Great Mosque in 965, which took about five to seven years to finish and was celebrated by many writers for its outstanding craftsmanship. It was made out of ebony, boxwood, and scented woods, and inlaid with ivory and sandalwood.
During Fatimid reign in Egypt, styles and designs evolved further. Figurative and animal designs became in high demand. Under the Atabeg Seljuqs and the Ayyubids, inlaid woodwork was especially used for the purpose of furnishings in religious buildings. The (eventually destroyed) 12th-century minbar of the al-Aqsa mosque was made by craftsmen from Aleppo and carried a sample of the marquetry technique, and there are pulpits made from ebony wood in Morocco and Turkey as well.
It was the Mamluk woodworkers who truly excelled in this art. Ivory polygonal elements would be cut separately and later set in ebony filaments. Quranic verses in ivory thuluth script were set alongside arabesques into wood panels. The patterns adopted in this woodwork echoed those in Mamluk bookbinding and manuscript illumination. The wood itself was imported into Egypt and Syria from Sudan and India. Ebony inlay beautified structural elements such as ceilings and domes, but also portable furnishings such as window grilles, wall panels, and shutters, and smaller objects such as hexagonal tables, board games, chests, and wooden Qur’an stands and boxes. Large Mamluk buildings commissioned by sultans and amirs showed intricate geometric designs revolving around star patterns in ivory and wood. Baybars I, the first Mamluk sultan, commissioned a minbar for the blessed Prophet’s Mosque in Madina, and one of the finest pulpits was ordered by Sultan Lajin for Ibn Tulun’s mosque, made out of sycomore, teak, and ebony. It is possible that the Ottomans, who generally preferred simplicity in style, took the art of marquetry over from the Mamluks.