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‘World’s earliest surviving handbag’ comes from Iraq

The brass handbag dates back to the 14 century Mongol-influenced Mosul

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The centerpiece of a London exhibition could possibly be the world’s earliest surviving women’s handbag.

The artifact, which dates back to the 14th century, was found in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

“The bag is a rare example of a medieval item that we can be sure was for the use of a woman,” Rachel Ward, guest curator of London’s Courtauld Gallery exhibition, told Al Arabiya News.

The brass handbag, inlaid with intricate scenes of court life in gold and silver, was initially thought for many years to be a wallet or a document carrier, or even a saddlebag.

Scenic bag

However, the exhibition said it “proposes that it is in fact a handbag or, more properly, a shoulder bag, made in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq around 1300-30.”

Ward explained that “the lady depicted in the court scene on the lid represents the owner of the bag, and she is wearing a long robe with full sleeves with a floral pattern which closely resembles Mongol robes made from cloth of gold which have been found in Central Asia.”

In 1258, the Mongols captured Baghdad, which was the seat of the Islamic Caliphate at the time, and in 1262, they claimed control over Mosul.

After the Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the 13th century, the region became open for trade routes across Asia.

Hulegu, who was the Mongol leader Genghis Khan’s son, established a smaller dynasty, the Il-Khanids, to rule the south-western territories, which eventually expanded to include Anatolia and Iraq.

The Il-Khanids furnished their courts with luxury items from around the world. They bought porcelains and lacquer from China, silverwares and silks from Central Asia, enameled glass from Syria.

Asian aesthetics

These imported materials from China have “introduced an east Asian aesthetic into Islamic art,” said Ward.

The bag is also probably used only by noblewomen as they “were always carried by an attendant,” she added.

“There are several 14th century paintings in the exhibition which show attendants carrying bags for noblewomen,” said the curator, illuminating some aspects of the class structure witnessed during that era.

“The noblewomen themselves did not carry anything - that was the job of their servants,” she added.

Not excavated

The bag, which “was not excavated but has been in use ever since it was made in the early 14th century,” was later acquired by the English collector Thomas Gambier-Parry in 1858 during his visit to northern Italy and the Dalmatian coast.

“He bought other examples of inlaid metalwork in Venice and the bag may have been acquired In Venice also.”

The handbag is shown together with other Islamic treasures from Feb. 20 till May 18.

On display, there is an intricately inlaid bowl with a lid, which symbolizes the close trade links between the Islamic world and the West.

The bowl is signed twice, in Arabic script and Roman capitals: “Amelei Malen Mamud” (“The work of master Mahmud”).