World record price for an Islamic scientific instrument sold at auction.
A magnificent and extremely rare Islamic Mecca-centred world map, a masterpiece from Safavid Persia, sold for £1.86 million at Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art Sale on Tuesday14 November. It had an estimate of £1,500,000-2,000,000.
The map, formerly on display at the Harvard Museum of Art, and dating from the last quarter of the 17th century, is the finest and most complete Mecca-centred world map of only three surviving examples (the other two were discovered in 1989 and 1995) and is the most important Islamic scientific instrument ever offered at auction.
Nima Sagharchi, Bonhams Group Head of Middle Eastern, Islamic and South Asian
Art commented, “Steeped in historical, scientific, and religious significance, this rare and
captivating 17th century Islamic world map, crafted in Safavid Persia, stands as testament
to the grandeur and precision of Islamic art and science. We are absolutely delighted with
The discovery of these maps proved a real turning point in the academic understanding of
Islamic cartography. Recognised by the historian and author, Dr David King as the only
surviving examples of Islamic world maps with localities properly marked on a coordinate
grid, the maps revolutionised our understanding of Islamic cartographers and the scientific
sophistication of their instruments. King notes, “These instruments are of a kind previously
unknown to the history of science.”
King continues, “As maps, their most remarkable characteristic is the complex nature of
the mathematics underlying the cartography. As artefacts, their importance lies in their
being the sole known examples of a medieval cartographic tradition of outstanding
At its heart, the map’s intent is simple, to guide the beholder to Mecca, yet its historical
significance radiates far beyond its use. The map positions Mecca not only as its
geographical centre, but in a wider sense, it is representative of a time when the Middle
East was itself the intellectual, artistic, and scientific focal point of the world.
Believed to have originated from Isfahan, a city renowned for its masterful metal
craftsmanship, the world map is both signed and inscribed with the name of its maker and
patron. The artisan behind this masterpiece, identified only as “Husayn” would have
belonged to the top echelons of instrument creators for this period. The equally elusive
“Sayf Al-Dawleh”, is identified as the patron, an honorific broadly used throughout the
Islamic World, meaning “Protector of the Realm”. This title would have been bestowed on
a Safavid courtier, nobleman or public official.
The world map was on loan to the Harvard Museum for more than 15 years. More recently
it has been exhibited at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas. The map has also featured
in numerous prestigious exhibitions and publications including a retrospective of Islamic
Metalwork at the Harvard Museum in 2002, and a major exhibition of Saudi archaeology
organised by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and the Smithsonian Institution.