Royal Middle Eastern Folding Tray Table

This beautiful little table from a past QBO sale was designed to serve tea, coffee and snacks; the brass top lifts completely off of the wooden legs so food and drink can be arranged on it in the kitchen and then carried out to your guests. The engraved brass tray has a loop on the back for hanging it on the wall and the legs fold flat when not in use so the table is easy to store. 

These folding tables are popular across much of the Middle East. Most have engraved brass tray tops but there are more elaborate versions that are also inlaid with tin and copper. The legs are often turned wood as in this example, but there are fancier ones made of brass, or of wood inlaid with ebony and bone. Because top and bottom are unconnected and are made of unrelated materials, they often end up separated when sold second-hand. Decorative brass trays are easy enough to find since they are made in great numbers, but you’ll occasionally come across the rarer folding tray stands on their own as well. Because Islam prohibits figural art (representations of animals or humans) many of the trays have spectacular geometric designs, but more secular versions with people or animals are not uncommon, as seen here.

The decorative panels of Arabic script might suggest this tray was made someplace like Egypt but the central motif of a lion raising a sword solidly identifies it as Iranian, specifically the secular, royalty-ruled Persian Iran from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Farsi (the majority language in Iran) uses the Arabic alphabet, just as English uses the Roman alphabet. Arabic script calligraphers sometimes create decorative texts so stylized that the average person can’t read them, so even a Farsi speaker might have trouble reading everything engraved here.

The Lion & Sun symbolized the Kingdom of Persia since the 12th century but it dates to earlier, originating as part of the Babylonian zodiac, where it represented the sun in the house of Leo. Babylonian astronomy arose in what is today Iraq (which shares a border with Iran) and it both predates and heavily influenced the Greek astrology familiar to many Americans. For some reason this tray omits several zodiac signs so we have Taurus, Gemini, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces and of course Leo. Although any form of foretelling is forbidden in Islam because “None in the heavens and the earth knows the unseen except God”, the symbols of the zodiac are taken from the constellations of stars prominent overhead during each month.

 Not only was a working knowledge of basic astronomy crucial for making calendars to help with early agricultural planning, it was also essential for navigation at sea and across deserts, so representations of constellations persisted. And it is worth noting in earlier centuries Persian artists were renowned for expressive, realistic depictions of people and animals, having interpreted the Koran more liberally than current conservative Iranian religious authorities.

In later eras that same lion and sun pairing was used to symbolize the two pillars of Persian society, State and Religion. Today most of us are only familiar with African lions, but there is a slightly smaller Persian lion, Felis leo persicus, also known as the Asiatic lion, which is now only found wild in Gir National Park in India. Until the 19th century they roamed Persia, Arabia, the Ottoman Empire, Mesopotamia, and Central India, so the Persian Empire adopting the lion as its symbol is substantially more legit than Great Britain slapping a rampant lion (and unicorn!) on their Coat of Arms. Need to find a heraldic, historical, astrological tea table? Visit QBO!