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London, a world city in 20 objects: inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at GaurMichael Willis, British Museum

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

From the 1300s, when London was still a small town on the River Thames, the city of Gaur in Bengal was a vibrant metropolis. It enjoyed trade links with Thailand, Ceylon, Africa and the Middle East and on several occasions served as the capital of Bengal. By the late 1500s, however, Gaur began to lose its population due to changes in the course of the River Ganga – the main commercial artery of the day. The mosques and tombs in Gaur fell slowly into ruins and the open land between the monuments was given over to rice cultivation, palm groves and mango trees. So it is today.

This inscription is from one of Gaur’s most famous monuments, the Firuz Minar. This high tower has drawn the attention of many travellers. It was illustrated first in watercolours and prints in the 1700s and photographed from the 1860s.

The inscription is fragmentary, with only the right-hand portion preserved. The other parts disappeared more than two centuries ago and have never been found. The inscription is written in Arabic, beautifully carved in a style of calligraphy unique to Bengal. It gives the titles of an important Bengal Sultan: Sayf al-Din Firuz Shah. He was of Ethiopian descent and ruled as king from 1486 to 1490.

Gaur is located in northern Bengal, straddling the border between Bangladesh and West Bengal. The old mosques and tombs are all made of brick, with many still carrying traces of coloured tiles. Doorframes and inscriptions were carved in stone. As Gaur declined, inscriptions began to fall from their original positions. This led to them being collected and stored for preservation. William Franklin, an officer in the East India Company and a prolific writer on history and archaeology, mentions that he found the Firuz Minar inscription stored in an indigo factory at Gaur. Indigo was an important cash crop in the early colonial period because it was the main source of blue dye before discoveries in the 1840s allowed the colour to be produced chemically. Following the same route as indigo, tea and cotton, the Gaur inscription was moved down river to Calcutta and carried aboard ship to London.

Franklin donated the Gaur inscription to the British Museum in 1826 shortly after his retirement from active service. The Gaur inscription is among the first antiquities from this region to enter the collection.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 13 December 2012.

The Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur is on display in Room 34: The Islamic world

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