Treasures: Piece Was Meant for a Traveling Scribe

This device seems mysterious at first, but its real use is clear.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

We inherited this piece from a family member. We believe it is some sort of incense burner used for religious ceremonies. The longer shaft is 9¼ inches in length and is hollow inside as if it were meant to hold matches, but there is no area on which to strike a match. The bowl has a hinged top with metal rings. It appears to be brass, but one friend thinks it might be gold (we wish!). Any information would be appreciated.

Thank you,

B.F., Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

Dear B.F.:

Excellent guess, but it is way off the mark.

An incense burner used for religious ceremonies is a romantic notion, but in a way, the real use for the piece may be even more romantic and perhaps more exotic.

But like everyone else, these people have business to transact and/or letters to write to loved ones in distant locales. Into this setting comes a traveling Islamic scribe who earns his living reading and writing letters and documents for those who cannot do it for themselves.

In his sash, this scribe carries a case like the one in today’s question. Inside the long, rectangular tubelike box are pens, while the smaller squarish covered box with the hinged lid contains ink. The scribe sits, and the villagers come to him to write their letters and documents. And in return, the scribe receives a small fee.

The scribe is a respected man, a man of letters and his work is vital to his country and his culture. The box that holds the tools of his trade is called a “qalamdan,” which is also spelled “kalamdan,” and it’s a box for storing a pen or pens. The example belonging to B.F. is a traveling scribe’s version, but there are others that are just boxes of varying sizes made from a variety of materials.

Yes, some are made of gold, a few more are made from silver, and still others are just inlaid with gold and silver. Some are beautifully damascened steel, others bronze, but most are made of brass or lacquered papier-mache. The latter variety is often beautifully painted, usually with a profusion of flowers but more uncommonly with a figural component.

The value of the box depends on the age, the materials used and the artistry shown. Most traveling scribe’s pen boxes are rather humble affairs because their owners were just eeking out a living among the poor villagers. A few qalamdan turn up that are either made from precious materials or are artistic marvels. But unfortunately, the piece in today’s question is not one of these.

Qalamdan such as this one are relatively available and have a modest retail value. This one from the mid- to late 19th century is worth between about $150 and $200.

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