Copper, a metal that has never lost its usefulness

Copper, a metal that has never lost its usefulness

Copper, a metal that has never lost its usefulness

A large copper tray with fruits set before the sultan.

Copper is a metal used for thousands of years and is relatively abundant in such mountainous areas as the Lake Van district in eastern Anatolia, the mountains of Lebanon and the Red Sea hills of the eastern desert of Egypt. Its use is traced back to approximately 5000 BC, when mankind began to shape it into weapons and other items. In fact copper gave its name to the Chalcolithic era, the period of time between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, with bronze being an alloy of copper.

The earliest use of copper in the Near East comes from the Sumerians who manufactured spears, arrowheads and tools such as chisels from the metal as early as 6000 years ago. They also used copper in works of art. The Sumerians smelted the copper, beat it into a thin sheet and then hammered the sheet over a wooden frame to obtain the pictorial presentation they wanted. They are thought to have taught the Egyptians how to use copper but, as there were sources for copper in Egypt, it’s possible that they discovered it on their own.

The ancient Egyptians have left us clues about their abilities to use copper. They mined copper ore and then smelted it at high temperatures to provide rolls that they could cut and / or beat into the shape they wanted. These forms included bowls and basins for the upper class and even pipes for drainage in their lavatories.

Copper is a very soft metal and it didn’t take long for the ancients to realize they could toughen it by adding other ingredients such as tin or arsenic. Since tin is rarely found together with copper, it had to be imported from elsewhere. A particular source for the Mediterranean area was on the island of Cyprus although Cyprus had its own copper mines that it exploited for export. One copper alloy is bronze, a metal that the Greeks used spectacularly well and gave to the Romans. The statue of the Greek god Apollo that was found intact in Gaza recently was completely made of bronze and is tentatively dated between the fifth and first centuries BC. As for the connection between Rome and Cyprus, the Latin for copper was “aes Cyprium” because so much copper came from there. In turn the Romans introduced copper to northern Europe.


Tombac censer. 17th century.

Copper in Anatolia

Leaving aside what western sources (see above) say about the discovery of copper, Turkish sources state that copper has been uncovered in prehistoric sites such as Çayönü, Çatalhüyük and Suberde that take the dating for its use back to 7000 BC. However it wasn’t smelted but the pieces of ore were beaten into the shape wanted such as small tools like needles and hooks and for decorations like rings and beads. According to Dr. Ülker Erginsoy in his book “İslam Maden Sanatının Gelişmesi,” copper in its natural form would have been easy to see in streambeds. When exposed to oxygen, it turns a purple green and when rubbed by hand a red substance appears. As it is a hard substance, it can easily crack when struck but if it is heated and then cooled by putting it into cool water, it becomes more malleable. Generally speaking, a wood or wood-coal fire is sufficient for heating the ore. Copper was used in combination with alloys such as tin to make bronze and zinc to make brass.

Marlia Mundell Mango in her book on “Byzantine Trade, 4th to 12th Centuries” traces the spread of Byzantine made copperware up to England and Scandinavia in the north, east into the Near East and south to Egypt. She gives various types of vessels such as ewers and basins, lamps and lamp stands, flasks, jugs, cauldrons and chalices.

In the Near East, the Byzantine copperware would have met with that of the Sasanid / Iranian and early Islamic copperware which flourished between the mid-seventh century and the mid-11th century.

Similar decorative motifs and themes persisted throughout although the Islamic forms became both less naturalistic but more abstract and symbolic. Arabic script was used more frequently, emphasizing the Islamic nature of the copperware. The Fatimids of Egypt on the other hand were influenced more by their origins in North Africa and basically did not influence the copperware of the Near East.

Into the mix came the Seljuk Turks who carried the influence of Central Asia through the Middle East into Anatolia. According to Erginsoy, “Seljuk metalwork confronts us with a great variety of and great innovations in materials, techniques, vessel types, forms and decoration, with a combination of the ancient cultural traditions of the adopted lands and those of native Seljuk Central Asia.”

In terms of material, the Seljuks used brass alloy was used to a greater extent than bronze. Gold and silver became reserved much more for jewelry. The technique of pierced work came into much greater use than before and brass began to replace bronze. The craftsmen of Khorasan brought inlay techniques used with red copper and silver leaf on bronze with them at the beginning of the 13th century but turned to using brass more because it was lighter in color. The forms of the various vessels produced increased as did the type of vessel. Some pieces even bear the name of the owner or the craftsman who created the work.

There are fewer examples of actual artifacts from the Anatolian Seljuk period than from other Seljuk areas. Of these there are candle holders, bowls, mirrors, lamps and door-knockers. Cast bronze artifacts are to be found among them. Erginsoy concludes, “Innovations in the field of metalwork, during the Seljuk period, both in materials used, techniques, vessel types, vessel forms and decoration give this period a special importance in the history of Islamic metalwork. It was during the Seljuk period that Islamic metalwork reached its peak.”

The Ottomans inherited the traditions of Islamic metalwork. The Ottomans inherited the traditions of Islamic metalwork. According to information provided by Topkapı Palace Museum, all of the pots used to cook food in the palace kitchens were made entirely of copper. Produced in the Süleymaniye district, these pots were hammered into shape and then chased and incised to provide decoration. They were used to serve as many as 5000 people every day and more on special occasions. In the 16th century vessels made of copper to which a gold and mercury alloy had been applied became popular and were known as tombac. Both the copper ware and tombac group are on display at Topkapı.