His Highness the Aga Khan: Qualities of rock crystal are symbolic of the beauty and ever-unfolding mystery of the Creator

The term ‘rock crystal’ is derived from the Greek word for ice, krystallos, because the Greeks thought that the rock crystal was formed by water frozen on mountaintops at extreme temperatures that it could no longer melt.

Rock crystal vessel, 4th-3rd century BCE, Late Classical or Early Hellenistic. The two vertical lugs are pierced to accommodate a string for suspension, or conceivably a missing lid. The Met Museum.

A pure form of the silica mineral quartz, rock crystal has been valued for its transparency and flawless structure since the third millennium BCE. The Babylonians (ca. 2000 BCE) thought that owning items of rock crystal would increase a person’s wealth; in ancient China, rock crystal was used to symbolise victory; the Egyptians used it in their jewellery and in the eyes of their sculptures. In some cultures, rock crystal was considered a divine stone and used by some mediums to communicate with the forces of nature.

In medieval times, the production of rock crystal can be traced to the Sasanians (ruled Iran 224-651 CE) and continued in Basra, Iraq by the Abbasids (750-1258 CE). Basra may have been the major centre for art; however, craftsmen moved to the Fatimid capital of Cairo which was a major centre of art, commerce, and scholarship. Although no tools or workshops of the medieval manufacturing process have survived, Fatimid rock crystal objects were among the finest and most desired items produced.

rock crystal
Rock crystal chess piece, probably a king, late 9th century-early 10th century, Egypt or Iraq. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Rock crystal carving was an art that required great skill, reaching its peak during the Fatimid period (909-1171), ‘when large quantities of the raw material were imported to Cairo from the East African coast.’1

rock crystal
Rock crystal ewer, Egypt, 1000-1050. Victoria & Albert Museum
rock crystal
Rock crystal cup carved in the shape of a flying fish, dated ca. 1580, Milan, The Rosenborg

Cup made of rock crystal, carved in the shape of a flying fish. Made in Milan c. 1580. From medieval times and onwards cups such as this one, were used as decorative pieces on dinner tables. The purity of the crystal is said to have represented the light of the Lord.’2

About the rock crystal, Alain Boucheron (b. 1948), the renowned Paris jeweller stated:

“A rock crystal represents at once both turbulence and limpidity, and its dual, even ambiguous nature is the very essence of the mineral’s magic… It conjures up all that is finite yet never-ending, instantaneous though eternal; both heat and cold, immobile yet changeable. This explains why Georges Sand said that it represented the limit between ‘the visible and the invisible.

At the inauguration of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, His Highness the Aga Khan explained the mystery of rock crystal:

Interior of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa. Image: RAIC Architecture Canada
Delegation of Ismaili Imamat
His Highness the Aga Khan, speaking at the opening ceremony of The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, situated on Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Looking on is the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, then Prime Minister of Canada. Photo: AKDN/Gary Otte.

“When I invited Professor Maki, a master of form and light, to design this building, I made a suggestion to him – one that I hoped would help connect this place symbolically to the Faith of Islam. The suggestion I made focused on creating a certain mystique, centred around the beautiful mysteries of rock crystal.

Why rock crystal? Because of its translucency, its multiple planes, and the fascination of its colours – all of which present themselves differently as light moves around them. The hues of rock crystal are subtle, striking and widely varied – for they can be clear or milky, white, or rose coloured, or smoky, or golden, or black.

It is because of these qualities that rock crystal seems to be such an appropriate symbol of the profound beauty and the ever-unfolding mystery of Creation itself – and the Creator.”
His Highness the Aga Khan
Inaugural Ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa, Canada
6 December 2008

1The Met Museum 
2The Rosenborg 
Jonathan M. Bloom, Arts of the City Victorious, Yale University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2007


Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer at Ismailimail, although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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