The world's oldest handbag?

Bag, Mosul, northern Iraq, 1300-1330

A 14th Century woman's accessory from Northern Iraq, the centrepiece of a new exhibition at London's Courtauld Gallery, may be the earliest surviving handbag in the world, writes Tanvi Misra.

Made of brass and inlaid with gold and silver, the bag is the only one of its kind - which made it difficult for experts to work out what it was. Previously thought to be a work basket, document wallet, or even a saddlebag, it is now understood to be a woman's handbag made in Mosul in the 1300s.

Most decorations on the bag are traditionally Islamic, but a court scene shows Mosul's metalworkers adapting to appeal to their new rulers from the Mongol Il-Khanid dynasty.

Detail of court scene on the lid

A man and a woman (slightly damaged) in Mongol clothing and feathered hats appear seated on a dais, surrounded by attendants and courtiers, including a falconer on the far left, a lute player on the far right and parasol carrier (also on the right).

Courtier carrying lady's handbag Handbag over the shoulder, mirror in right hand, napkin in left

There's even a page carrying the handbag itself, along with a mirror and napkin - everything the noblewoman may need to freshen up, says Rachel Ward, curator of the exhibition. "It is great to have an object that we can associate directly with a woman," she says. The association can be made partly because the bag is consistently present beside Mongol noblewomen in manuscripts from the time held in the British Library.

The representation of the woman in the scene is telling, Ward adds. "These images of a ruler or nobleman seated alongside his consort reflect the public role that women played in Mongol culture," she says. It's unusual for them to be portrayed like this in Islamic art, either before or after the Mongol period.

With its ornate exterior, this predecessor of the modern-day Prada was made to be envied. What was inside, though, was private - and to us, unknown.

"My guess would be that what's inside that bag is what's inside your or my bag," says Ward. "Things you wouldn't want on display."

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