That's the view of Islam from the Aga Khan's collection. How refreshing it is
I popped into a pub in Avebury last week while filming a documentary about the famous Avebury rings, the extraordinary complex of standing stones that looms up all around you in this strange Wiltshire village. Because of the unimaginable effort that must have gone into erecting this mysterious prehistoric temple, Avebury is a good place to re-examine your cultural values, to see things from a global perspective. In particular, it's an excellent place to think about Islamic art.
The pub was one of those traditional-looking ones, packed with horse brasses and serving pub grub. In the middle of every table was a yellow flower in a vase. Only when I sat down and rubbed a leaf did I confirm that the flowers were fake. Every table in the pub had exactly the same synthetic tulip on it. Here we were, in a picturesque village packed with English flowers, roses and dahlias in every direction, yet this seemingly traditional village pub couldn't even be bothered to get us some real ones.
My thoughts turned immediately to the magnificent collection of Islamic art I had just seen back in London, at the Ismaili Centre, opposite the V&A. There are manuscripts in this show that took 20 years to paint. There are pieces of jewellery of such impossible intricacy that you cannot believe a human hand could ever have made itself small enough to fashion them. In some of the Korans, a single letter took a team of scribes a month to lay down. It was all done for the love of God. And how thoroughly it shamed the plastic flower on my pub table in Avebury. What kind of a culture have we become that we cannot even be bothered to pop into the garden once a week to find a real flower?
I'm an atheist, so there is much about Islam that I don't approve of. I question the mind-set of all religions. But one thing that always delights me about this noticeably fierce faith, and leads me always to thank God for it, even though I know there is no God, is the effort that went into the creation of Islamic art. If it took a lifetime, it took a lifetime. If you grew old making it, you grew old making it. It's the acceptable product of blind faith: without our imaginary gods, we humans could never have become the artists we were.
Yet the colossal effort that went into producing the finest Islamic wares seems never to result in art that feels laborious or heavy or sweaty. On the contrary. The huge team of painters, calligraphers and illuminators who beavered away for 20 years on the greatest Persian manuscript in existence, the extra-special Shahnama, made in the 1530s for Shah Tahmasp, emerged with something as delightful and buoyant as a butterfly flitting through an Avebury garden. The single page from this masterwork on display here, showing musicians performing at a gift-giving ceremony, is such a happy creation. The patterns shimmer busily. The colours swirl like music itself. And the crowded scene conveys such a vivid impression of lots of pleasures being shared by lots of people. If you want to know why life is worth living, stare at the great Shahnama.
Called Spirit & Life, the show features work from the private collection of the Aga Khan. Those who know the Aga Khan only from his colourful appearances in the gossip columns of Private Eye, or the frequent namechecks his horses get in the Saturday-afternoon racing, may be surprised by the thoughtfulness of his Islamic holdings. Islam can, of course, do gaudy as spectacularly as any Russian jeweller at the tsarist court. If you've been in the Topkapi Palace, in Istanbul, you will know how big the rubies and emeralds can grow when Islamic art decides to be showy. But the Aga Khan's collection isn't like that.
His fine selection of objects from all corners and all epochs of the Islamic world – precious books, painted miniatures, glass, metalwork, jewels, plates, vases; by Fatimids, Safavids, Mughals, Ottomans and Qajars – manages somehow to convey an impression of modesty and restraint. For instance, there's a page in the show from one of the most celebrated of all early Korans, the Blue Koran, made in North Africa in the 10th century, and written in gold on blue parchment. First the koranic verses were traced on the blue background with animal glue. Then the powdered gold was painstakingly added.
Enjoying Islamic calligraphy is generally a difficult task for us western art critics. With the best will in the world, staring at page after page of swirling arabesques whose language you do not understand and whose sentiments are beyond your religious scope is a demanding cultural experience. But not with the Blue Koran. This is a piece of calligraphy with the mood of a celestial map. Besides, the discovery that blue and gold go together magically well is not unique to Islam. Van Gogh's Starry Night comes in these colours precisely because they are immediately reminiscent of the sky and the stars. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, before Michelangelo repainted it, was blue speckled with gold. Henry VIII had his walls at the Palace of Whitehall decorated in the same combination. The difference between all these and the Blue Koran is that they are easy to date, while this startling piece of 10th-century Islamic minimalism might have been finished yesterday.
Everywhere in this show, there is unimpeachable historical proof of the fact that Islam's original ambitions were completely different from the dark and dour thinking that motivates the modern Islamist. The beliefs that drive today's petrol bombers and honour killers are a grotesque mutation of what is an uplifting and happy faith. The evidence is all around you here.
From 10th-century Egypt, there's a rock-crystal dish cut from a single block of quartz with unimaginable precision and nerve. From India, in 1700, there's a perfectly delightful scene of redheaded cranes dipping in a river. In Kashan, in modern Iran, 1,000 years ago, someone painted a seated ruler beaming at you with tangible niceness from the centre of an amber-coloured lustre dish. And, though I have seen some beautiful Iznik bowls in my time – let's face it, they're all gorgeous – I may not have seen one that combines tulips and hyacinths and carnations quite as intoxicatingly as the one placed here in the Ottoman section.
The show has a decent go at organising its material into dynasties and themes. Images of Paradise take up one display case, Love and Literature another. The Fatimids have a section. The Safavids have a section. But I'm afraid I kept being successfully tempted by something in the corner of my eye, and scuttling off the prescribed track. No matter. Another of the defining characteristics of Islamic art is the way it resists easy groupings and seems to come at you from all angles at once.
I've walked past the Ismaili Centre countless times on my way to and from the V&A, and never before ventured inside – partly because it is such an ugly building, but chiefly because I didn't have much of a clue about who or what the Ismailis actually were. I now know that they are a branch of Shi'ite Muslims, and that their leader, the Aga Khan, is the 49th imam, descended directly from the prophet's daughter, Fatima. I don't know for sure that the 49th imam set out deliberately to challenge the prevailing attitudes to Islam with his exhibition. But I suspect he did. He certainly knows that art doesn't lie.
Spirit & Life: Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, at the Ismaili Centre, SW7, until August 31
Art challenge cliches on Islam
By Stephanie Holmes
A new exhibition of Islamic art from across the Muslim world aims to do far more than unite unusual, luxurious and rarely-seen objects.
Organisers of the London event say that they hope the illuminated Korans, the perfume bottle carved from rock crystal and the leaf skeleton decorated with sacred text will change the way people think about Islam.
The fabric of the Mongol robe was embellished with designs in gold
The Aga Khan, leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Shia Muslims and organiser of the project, believes arts can become "a medium of discourse that transcends barriers".
"The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is a clash of ignorance," he said in a recent speech.
He hopes the objects will spark a cultural dialogue and increase understanding about Islam within the West.
Alnoor Merchant, the keeper of the collection at London's Ismaili Centre, points to a slim column of white marble slowly rotating in a glass case.
On one side are flowers, sculpted out of the stone in the Roman era.
On the other, an Arabic script records the details of the life and death of a North African leather merchant.
An architectural fragment has thus been transformed into a tombstone, re-used and re-interpreted centuries later.
"Islam is falsely represented in some contexts," Mr Merchant says.
The Blue Koran: one of the most sumptuous examples of the text
"This exhibition seeks to show that Islam has a heritage that is a shared legacy - it is not about killing and suicide bombings."
Many objects reveal these cross-cultural linkages and histories of rulers of different faiths who admired and respected each others traditions, he adds.
The 165 objects on display form part of a broader collection which will open at the Aga Khan Museum in the Canadian city of Toronto, in 2010.
They include a page from one of the world's most sumptuous Korans, the "Blue Koran", whose gold script stands out against a deep indigo parchment.
The North African Koran's pages were dyed with lapis lazuli.
"It was made in imitation of the precious Christian Byzantine texts and documents printed on purple parchment," Mr Merchant says.
Other texts on display include a single page from a vast Koran whose pages stretch 2m (6.5ft) in height and a scroll the width of a palm with a microscopic text probably painted with a single-haired brush.
Organisers also hope the exhibition will also break stereotypes about Islam as an austere faith.
In pictures: Islamic art
Among the exhibits is a miniature of a poet, many highly decorated musical instruments and countless paintings of princes hunting and scholars dancing.
There are also images of people playing backgammon and musical instruments in gardens with flowering trees.
And tucked into a corner of one of the cabinets is an image showing a young couple framed in gold foliage.
But look closely and you will see that the young woman is administering brand marks on her partner's arm as a test of the sincerity of his love.
"Music was an integral part of our culture," Mr Merchant says. "The notion that music was not allowed is a fallacy. Music and gamesmanship were a part of normal life."
The Spirit & Life exhibition, Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, is on display at London's Ismaili Centre until 31 August 2007.
Art review - SPIRIT & LIFE - Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection
His [Aga Khan's] message is probably one we can all learn from, whether we call ourselves Sunni or Shi'a. It is a shared belief that Muslims need to work hard to portray Islam in a positive way, be it with different types of communication, including visual discourse such as this exhibition.
By Zara Aliah Singh - The Muslim News UK
This month, the Ismaili Centre is hosting the Spirit and Life exhibition, consisting of over 160 pieces of Islamic Art spanning over 1000 years.
Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, hosted the opening of the exhibition on July 12. It is due to end on August 31, when the exhibition will be displayed around Europe and eventually end up in its permanent home in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada.
With immense Sufi and Shi'a influence, as well as some examples from Sunni Islam, the exhibition in London is home to a range of textiles, paintings, manuscripts of the Qur'an, musical instruments and miniatures. It also includes portraits of Ottoman sultans and Qajar shahs of the 19th century. The exhibition aims to express the wide range of Muslim civilisations including China, Morocco, India and Iran.
The display of art is split into different categories, the most stunning being The Word of God, specifically manuscripts of the Qur'an. It takes the most beautiful colours and calligraphy to express the incomparable beauty of the words of Allah, the Most High, yet even in its simplest form, verses from the Qur'an in plain Arabic with no colour is still visually stunning.
The Qur'an folio in kufic script is central to this part of the exhibition and dates back to the 8th century in North Africa. It excels in beauty as the early kufic script written on parchment can easily take ones breath away when teamed with the rich history of such Arabic scripts. The Blue Qur'an is an example of this tradition. The Qur'anic text is written in gold kufic script on indigo-dyed parchment. The piece is described as "one of the most extraordinary Qur'an manuscripts ever created" and it is easy to see why. The simplicity of the gold against the blue cloth is easy on the eye, while the sweeping style of the kufic script adds to the detail of the text. One can only imagine the time and energy that was put into creating this piece. The fusion of Persian and Indian art is expressed with the whole Qur'an written on one piece of cloth, also a wonderfully detailed artifact.
Some of the most rare and precious examples of Islamic art ever produced - and which have never before been exhibited in this country - can now be seen gracing the exhibition spaces of the Ismaili Centre in London until August 31 2007.
The exhibition, entitled Spirit & Life, features over 165 objects that have been cherry-picked from the Aga Khan's private collection and includes precious manuscripts, intricate metalwork, beautifully decorated ceramics, painted miniatures and exquisite jewellery among other treasures.
The Aga Khan is the 49th Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and has direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad through the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the first Imam, and his wife, Fatima, the Prophet's daughter.
The timing of the exhibition could not be more pertinent - it was 50 years ago exactly on July 11 2007 that Prince Karim al-Hussain became the present Aga Khan IV. To help celebrate the Aga Khan's Golden Jubilee, The Prince of Wales opened Spirit & Life with a speech about the significance of the exhibition to both East and Western cultures.
"I understand that this is the first time these masterpieces of Islamic art have been seen in London. They are of quite exceptional historical importance and beauty," said The Prince of Wales.
"But, perhaps still more importantly, they also convey the clearest possible message about the close ties between the Abrahamic Faiths. For example, the magnificent Eleventh Century Canon of Medicine, which originated in Iran, was equally indispensable to Western scholars for the better part of five hundred years."
Certainly, Spirit & Life celebrates much that our two cultures have in common and the fact that our similarities are greater than our differences. It is this message, in a spirit of peace and understanding, that the Aga Khan hopes to convey by presenting us with some of the choice pieces from his treasure-trove.
As Prince Charles touched upon, the best example of this shared culture is the extraordinarily rare Canon of Medicine dated 1052 CE, which was created by the 'Prince of Physicians' Ibn Sina or Avicenna.
This medical encyclopedia became the standard medical textbook used throughout the Middle East and Europe until the 16th century. To be able to look upon the title page gives a real sense of history. Just how many eyes have looked upon it and how many lives have been saved as a result of the wisdom contained within?
There are many other precious manuscripts, including a folio from the Persian epic, Shahama or Book of Kings. This was made for the Safavid ruler of Persia; it took the poet Firdausi almost 35 years to write and is decorated with 258 minatures, meticulously painted by many of the finest Persian artists of the 16th century.
Of course, no collection of Islamic art would be complete without the Qur'an, the holy book of the Islam faith, and Spirit & Life does not disappoint. Here you can see a page from the Blue Qur'an, which was created for the Fatimid imam-caliphs ruling North Africa in the early 10th century. With its gorgeous blue paper and swirling gold-leaf calligraphy, it's surely one of the most luxurious and sumptuous manuscripts ever produced.
The exhibition gives a real flavour of the diversity of Muslim artistic traditions. It also provides a fantastic geographical range of artefacts coming from as far apart as India in the East to Morocco in the West and spanning over a thousand years from the ninth to the 19th century.
Another highlight is a complete robe from the Mongol period – again, another rare and sumptuous example. It is typically Mongol, with full skirt, broad wrapover and long sleeves and is thought to originate in Central Asia in the late 13th or early 14th century.
Then there are everyday objects that have been beautifully decorated so as to elevate them above the ordinary, such as the ornate11th century bronze bird incense burner, a masterpiece of medieval bronze casting.
Spirt & Life celebrates all that is life-affirming about the Muslim world and the Islam faith and pays homage to the devotion that goes into artworks created from spiritual passion. Let's hope by reminding us of what good humans are capable of it helps in some small way to bring peace and harmony once again between the cultures of the East and West.
As the Aga Khan himself says: "I hope that this exhibition will hold a special significance at a time which calls for enlightened encounters amongst faiths and cultures."
Ismaili Centre, London
The Ismaili Centre, 1 Cromwell Gardens, London, SW7, England
Ismaili Centre, London
The Ismaili Centre
1 Cromwell Gardens
For your edification and delight
Jul 26th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Works of art from the Aga Khan's collection on show in London
"THE supposed 'clash of cultures' is in reality nothing more than a manifestation of mutual ignorance," writes the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's 15m Ismaili Muslims, in his introduction to "Spirit & Life: Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection". Be reassured: the exhibition, at the Ismaili Centre in London until August 31st, is no judgment-paralysing blockbuster. It is small but with big ambitions, both to educate and to delight. With some 160 objects and works of art, from a still growing collection already six times that size, the show sets out to illustrate 1,000 years of Islamic artistic and scientific accomplishments in countries from China to Spain. Inevitably, it is just a taster show. But it's a honey of a primer, by turns beautiful, eye-opening, mysterious and puzzling.
The material is organised into two broad areas: "The Word of God" and "The Power of the Sovereign". Among the items in the first category are more than a dozen Koran folios, all with exceptional calligraphy. Even so, a page from the North African "Blue Koran" (early 10th century) stands out from the rest: few Korans were written on coloured vellum and this is the only known example dyed indigo blue. The Aga Khan writes that "masterpieces are like the ecstasy of the mystic...a stirring of the soul." The Blue Koran, its gold Kufic script—simultaneously compacted and stretched horizontally—performing a tightly sprung, lyrical dance across a sea of inky blue, is such a masterpiece.
There are many more modest objects in the exhibition. A charming 20th-century, white felt Turkish dervish's cap is decorated with artful geometrical black embroidery spelling out a call to prayer. Produced in large numbers, it illustrates that religious texts are not confined to the page. Similarly, several wood beams are carved with phrases from the Koran. There are tankards, daggers, earrings, coins, writing implements and graceful wooden musical instruments, some with intricate bone inlay (one of the Aga Khan's many international projects seeks to preserve and promote Central Asian music).
An Iranian 16th-century brass boat-shaped vessel (historically used for wine) with dragon-head spouts at either end is, in fact, a dervish's begging bowl. But why, or how, could a wandering holy man, dressed in not much more than a loin cloth, travel with such an elaborate receptacle for hand-outs? The catalogue has fine introductory essays but falls down when it comes to the detailed entries.
An incense burner some 1,000 years old (photograph)
Miniature painting is probably the Islamic art best known to Westerners. Several in the exhibition illustrate fables; others are portraits of rulers, hunting scenes being popular. The finest and most famous is a page, densely populated with elephants, horses, hunters and princesses, from the 16th-century illuminated Persian manuscript known as the Houghton Shahnama, or Book of Kings. In 1959 Arthur A. Houghton, an American collector, bought the entire manuscript with its 258 illuminations but then broke it up, selling some leaves, giving away others. In 1994 his heirs and the Iranian government agreed to a swap: in exchange for 118 miniatures, the heirs got a nude by Willem de Kooning. Probably each side felt it had got the better deal.
In 2010 the Aga Khan's museum in Toronto will be finished. Until then "Spirit & Life" will travel to Paris, Lisbon, Bonn and, in 2009, the United States. Toronto, like London, already has an Ismaili social, cultural and religious centre built by the Aga Khan. Yet it was not his first choice for the museum. Twice the Aga Khan tried to acquire sites near the Thames in central London. In 2002 and again the following year, he was defeated, his bids eventually turned down. There was little publicity about his project and no political leader backed it. The Aga Khan chose Toronto instead. London's loss, however much deserved, is a tragically missed opportunity.
For 50 years, an enigmatic billionaire has been a spiritual figurehead to millions of Ismaili Muslims.
To celebrate, he's showing off his art collection. Paul Vallely explores his wonderful world
Published: 14 July 2007
Amid the breath-taking collection of pieces from the previously unseen art collection of the Aga Khan which opens in London today - including an 11th-century bird incense burner, exquisite textiles and ceramics and ancient manuscripts finely decorated with gold and lapis lazuli - is a segment of a book by a man with two names.
Its title is The Canon of Medicine and it was a primary medical text for an extraordinary 500 years through Europe and the Middle East. The medieval scholars of Christendom called him Avicenna. But in his native Persia, the man who was the foremost physician, astronomer, logician, mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist and theologian, of his day was called Ibn Sina.
The days when two great cultures could lay common claim to such a sage seem long gone in our own age, when relations between Islam and the West are commonly characterised as a "clash of civilisations". But the antidote to the sound and fury of our modern discourse may yet be found in the great storehouse of such art.
Certainly, the Aga Khan believes so. The man whose personal wealth is said to exceed $1bn is an anomalous figure. He is, on the one hand, a twice-married jet-setter who owns a chain of luxury hotels, an airline, mobile phone companies, hundreds of thoroughbred racehorses, valuable stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia, a grand estate near Paris and more than 90 businesses employing more than 36,000 people. But he is also the spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims who, in what is described as a dizzyingly complex system of tithes, pay him what is thought to be hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The man who this week celebrated his 50th anniversary as Aga Khan has unconditional control of this massive fortune. Prince Karim Al Husseini, the 49th Imam of the Ismailis and the fourth Aga Khan, does enjoy the appurtenances of wealth, though one of his spokesmen this week, while conceding his boss did own two jets, pointed out that his car is only an Audi and that his yacht is 25 years old.
But the Aga Khan takes his duties as a religious leader seriously. Though his business portfolio is run for profit, most of his investment is in small and medium-size enterprises in Africa, India, Pakistan and the poorer parts of Asia, which he set up as engines of employment to promote economic self-reliance among the poorest people. And he runs the Aga Khan Development Foundation, the world's largest private aid agency, which gives away $300m a year for rural development, education and healthcare in the developing world.
Now he wants to turn even his private art collection into an ethical instrument. "Political situations with a theological overlay are causing disaffection or antagonism between communities of the same faith, and even more so amongst different faiths," he said, as the final touches were being put to the exhibition in the Ismaili Centre in London this week. "At the centre of this turbulence is Islam. We cannot let this continue."
His exhibition, he hopes, will provide the opportunity for a more enlightened encounter and go some way to dispelling the "countless misconceptions and misunderstandings" between Islam and the West, a gap which did not gape so dangerously in the more tolerant time of Ibn Sina. Today, he said in a rare interview on American public radio, "knowledge of the different civilisations of the Islamic world, of the pluralism of that world, of the plurality of interpretations of Islam, is very, very shallow indeed, and is a significant contributor to misunderstanding." This was true not just of non-Muslims but among many who hold the faith and who falsely believe that the beliefs of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims "are all identical" when they are not.
That such sentiments are voiced by the leader of the world's Ismailis is itself an indicator of the possibility of change. For his sect grows out of the very prototype of Islamist terrorism.
In the 7th century, Muslims split into the Sunni and the Shia, in a dispute over who should succeed the Prophet Mohamed. The Sunni wanted the caliph elected. The Shia insisted succession should remain within the direct line of the Prophet's closest relatives. Sunnis placed the emphasis on primarily political and military leadership; the Shia emphasised the need for wisdom and spirituality. Eventually, the Shia themselves divided. Most, including the majority populations in Iran and Iraq, believe there was an unbroken line of 12 imams, the last of whom will return to usher in a reign of justice.
But the second biggest group, the Ismailis, trace their own leadership from the seventh imam, Isma'il bin Jafar, and believe a mystical teaching is passed down from one imam to the next. The present Aga Khan was a 20-year-old student at Harvard, when, in 1957, his grandfather nominated him (bypassing his two sons, including the playboy Aly Khan) as the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Ismailis.
What historically defined the Ismailis was a mystic secret society known as the hashishinnya - from which we get our word assassin - whose members specialised in bold, politically motivated murders. Their targets were the Sunni rulers known as the Seljuks. Their aim was to kill only their target, without additional casualties, and they wanted to dispatch their victims in public. Rejecting poison, bows or other weapons which could allow the attacker to escape, they preferred daggers. They never committed suicide afterwards, preferring to be killed by the entourage of their victims.
They soon built up a fearsome reputation which inspired terror out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. They were led by Rashid Al-Din Sinan known to the Crusaders as "The Old Man of the Mountains". The legends grew wild. The word hashishinnya was said to derive from reports that they took hashish before missions to calm themselves, boost their strength or turn them into madmen in battle. Modern scholarship discounts all this as sheer invention by bewildered opponents desperate to seek some convincing psychological explanation of the fearless zealotry of the assassins. There is no evidence to suggest hashish or any other drug was used in any systematic fashion.
But what is more remarkable is the way that the Ismailis then slowly transformed themselves into a different religious disposition. They became more mystical, seeing particular significance in different numbers, seven being a central one. They began to pray three times a day instead of five. But, most strikingly, they began to acculturate themselves into the different societies in which they found themselves as they spread across Asia and Africa, then Europe and North America.
Ismailis were crucial in translating the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, preserving them when Western Europe lost the originals. Ibn Sina did not just produce that classic medical textbook but also a philosophy that profoundly influenced that of Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of Western theology and philosophy. The Ismailis established the world's oldest universities. Through them, agriculture, commerce, the arts, the sciences and philosophy flourished.
"The central trait of their long history is a remarkable tendency to acculturate to different contexts," says Ali S Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and culture at Harvard. Today, though the Ismailis are but a small minority of Muslims - about 20 million, against 120 million Shia and more than a billion Sunnis worldwide - their influence is disproportionate.
It has brought them to an outlook on life which can act to bridge the chasm which some see between Islam and the West. "The role and responsibility of an Imam," the Aga Khan said, "is to interpret the faith to the community, and also to do all within his means to improve the quality, and security of their daily lives." At its heart is an active struggle for social justice and human development through wealth creation, one which extends beyond the Ismaili community itself into the wider societies in which it finds itself.
Through the Aga Khan Development Network, it works for reductions in global poverty, advancement of the status of women and the furthering of pluralistic values. It is involved in a great breadth of activities from disaster relief, basic healthcare, rural development, microlending to the poorest and the promotion of private enterprise to architecture, culture and the revitalisation of historic cities. It has more than 300 schools and 200 hospitals and clinics, and finances risky projects of which commercial investors fight shy. It is the biggest single investor in Afghanistan, with a $400m development portfolio there.
"If you travel the developing world, you see poverty is the driver of tragic despair," the Aga Khan said. By assisting the poor in business "we are developing protection against extremism".
His view of Islam, as a teacher of compassion, tolerance and upholder of the dignity of man strikes a very different note from the discordant voices of extremism.
His exhibition of art, like his other works, will, he hopes, speak that truth more loudly still.
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Ten thousand people have already come to see an exhibition featuring Islamic masterpieces at the Ismaili Centre in London. And the exhibition just opened in the middle of July. The collection is a unique preview of 165 works of art from across the Islamic world -- a collection meant to encourage understanding and dialogue. From the British capital, Paul Burge reports.
The "Spirit and Life" is not just an exhibition showing the history of Islamic art. It has a message for its viewers.
Many of the paintings, manuscripts and ceramics show the early overlapping of eastern and western cultures and Muslim and Christian identities.
The artwork spans more than 1,000 years of history from the ninth to the 19th century. The pieces come from a huge geographical area too -- from as far west as Spain, to Indonesia in the Far East.
The exhibition shows how Muslim and Christian cultures exchanged ideas about medicine, education, philosophy, religion and trade over hundreds of years.
Alnoor Merchant, co-curator
Alnoor Merchant is co-curator of the exhibition. "There must have been the exchange of goods, the exchange of craftsmen who were coming from the West to the East. We know of outstanding trade routes between the Middle East and Italy as well"
Advanced knowledge of mathematics and medicine became the hallmark of the Muslim courts between the eighth and 12th centuries.
One example of the overlapping of knowledge between east and west is shown in Samanid court official Ibn Sina's "Canon of Medicine."
Co-curator Alnoor Merchant says the text is an important encyclopedic body of medical knowledge in the Islamic world. It became the standard reference text in the medical schools of Europe until the beginning of modern times. "You have there a very fine example of a scholarship that had originated with the Greek and the ancients which came down through the translations of the Muslim scholars who added to that corpus of knowledge and then it appears back in the West at the time of the Renaissance. And this exhibition reflects a number of objects and works that relate to that transference."
The team behind the "Spirit and Life" exhibition says showing this history of the mixing of Muslim and Christian cultures and identities reinforces the Ismaili Centre's mission -- to encourage understanding and dialogue between eastern and western societies.
Professor Azim Nanji
Professor Azim Nanji is director of the Ismaili Centre. "It uses art as a common language. It's a shared vocabulary no matter what culture you belong to. And particularly there are items here that show that the West and Muslim world were always in interaction -- and I think that's an important message for our times. "
After the exhibition in London, these Islamic masterpieces will be shown at Ismaili Centres around Europe. Then they will become a key part of the permanent collection at the new Aga Khan
From vases to manuscripts and Qur'ans, Islamic art at the Louvre
13 hours ago
PARIS - The Louvre Museum's futuristic, glass-roofed gallery for Islamic art won't open until 2010 but three exhibits starting this month in Paris hint at what is to come.
The highlight is a Louvre show on Iranian art, with dozens of jewel-hued manuscript pages showing fanciful illustrations of princesses, flowering trees, horsemen and mythical flying beasts. Many pieces were loaned by Iran's museums at a time when its government is in a standoff against the West over its disputed nuclear program.
"I thought it would be opportune to draw attention to an aspect of Iran that people simply do not know, or are unfamiliar with," said Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, curator of the show "The Song of the World: Art of Safavid Iran."
Displaying nearly 200 manuscript pages, vases, dishes and other treasures, the show covers the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran from the early 1500s into the 1700s and converted the country from the Sunni to Shiite strain of Islam.
Many of the pieces, such as plates or vases, look merely decorative to the untrained eye. But there's an underlying symbolism.
"The point of Iranian art . . . is the celebration of the constants of the world as God's creation," said Melikian-Chirvani, who writes under the byline Souren Melikian as art editor of the International Herald Tribune.
That means a dish is not just a dish - it's a symbol of the sky and the universe, Melikian-Chirvani said. Golden rosettes on manuscripts are not mere artistic flourishes, they're stand-ins for the sun. Clouds represent springtime. Many artistic metaphors were inspired by poetry, which is intrinsically linked with the country's art.
The Iranian show runs alongside a smaller Louvre exhibition, a display of masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum, expected to open in Toronto in 2011. The Aga Khan is spiritual leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims around the world.
One highlight is a historic Qur'an that fits on only two pages, its ink characters as tiny as particles of dust.
Another piece, a silk coat decorated with green birds, is believed to have come from Iran sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries, though there's a possibility it was made in China.
The Middle East was a crossroads, absorbing influences from east and west and spreading its own art and ideas around the world. Louvre director Henri Loyrette called it a "world where the circulation of people and goods led to an intermingling, a unity that is an essential key to understanding the world of Islam."
A third exhibit on art from the Islamic world runs at the Museum of Decorative Arts - housed in a wing of the Louvre, though it is administered separately from the vast museum. It's called "Pure Decoration?"
The Louvre opened a department of Islamic art in 2003. But the existing gallery can display only a fifth of the Louvre's 10,000 pieces of art from the Muslim world, and an $88-million expansion is in the works.
The new gallery, designed by Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini, will juxtapose a freeform glass roof - looking something like rushing water - with a neoclassical courtyard. The result will blend tradition and modernity at the Louvre in the same way that I.M. Pei's glass pyramid did.
The Louvre's Islamic art gallery opened under then-president Jacques Chirac, who said he wanted to highlight the contributions of Muslim civilizations on Western culture. Chirac, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, constantly pushed for the idea of a "dialogue of cultures" to break down the misunderstandings between the West and the Muslim world.
"The Song of the World" and "Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum" run at the Louvre through Jan. 7. "Pure Decoration?" runs at the Museum of Decorative Arts from Oct. 11 through Jan. 13.
Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan
Closing Address by His Highness the Aga Khan
at the "Musée-Musées" Round Table
Louvre Museum - 17 October 2007
Ladies and Gentlemen
Shortly after the announcement of our museum in Toronto, the aim of which is to present Islamic art in all its beauty and diversity, I had the immense pleasure of receiving Henri Loyrette’s invitation to stage an exhibition here at the Louvre.
I thank Mr Loyrette and the management of the Louvre most warmly for organising this round table and inviting me to speak this evening. This is a completely new situation for me, since I have never previously taken part in this kind of initiative in France, much less at the Louvre. You will not be surprised if I confess that I feel as though I am sitting an extremely important school examination for which I have done no preparation at all! So I approach the task with deep trepidation!
When I was invited to talk to you about the future of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the objects that will be on show there, I was asked to explain the significance of our exhibition and the role museums might play in improving understanding between East and West.
The meaning of our exhibition was certainly better illustrated by my brother Prince Amyn, and the director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Luis Monreal. I myself could not have explained the technicalities, but I think it is interesting to know about the framework within which our initiative is taking place, and it is to this issue that I shall turn now. It is, of course, risky to generalise about a world as diversified, complex and pluralistic as the Islamic world in this day and age. I shall allow myself to take that risk and attempt to explain to you some of the strategic aims we considered in relation to putting our collection on exhibition.
I believe that today the Islamic world’s view of its own future is seriously affected by a divergent squint. It is a world split into two tendencies: on the one hand, modernisers and believers in progressive change, on the other, traditionalists who might even be described as hidebound. Both seek to determine future directions to be taken by the Ummah which will reinforce its identity, or rather its identities, while remaining rooted in a truth which is firmly Muslim. In practice, these two tendencies can be seen in the political domain in the differences between theocratic governance and the secular state; between the application of Sharia in all legal fields and the complete absence of Sharia or its application only in the domain of civil law; between economic and financial systems based on Sharia and systems that are essentially liberal and westernised; between religious education at every level and a national system with no reference at all to religion throughout the whole educational process, apart from the madrasa option for very young children.
In this context, we thought it essential, whichever choice Muslim populations may indicate to their governments, to clarify certain aspects of the history of Muslim civilisations in order that today’s two main tendencies, modern and traditional, can base their ideas on historical realities and not on history that has been misunderstood or even manipulated.
Firstly, the 1,428 years of the Ummah embrace many civilisations and are therefore characterised by an astonishing pluralism. In particular, this geographic, ethnic, linguistic and religious pluralism has manifested itself at the most defining moments in the history of the Ummah, hence the objective of the Aga Khan collection, which is to highlight objects drawn from every region and every period, and created from every kind of material in the Muslim world.
The second great historical lesson to be learnt is that the Muslim world has always been wide open to every aspect of human existence. The sciences, society, art, the oceans, the environment and the cosmos have all contributed to the great moments in the history of Muslim civilisations. The Qur’an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God’s creation. Our collection seeks to demonstrate the openness of Muslim civilisations to every aspect of human life, even going so far as to work in partnership with intellectual and artistic sources originating in other regions.
The third important observation we can make about the Ummah today is that the two main tendencies, traditional and modern, are trying to maintain, indeed to develop, their Islamic legitimacy. Loss of identity, anxiety about the risk of being caught up in a process of westernisation that is essentially Christian and is perceived as becoming less and less religious, are deep and very real concerns. Where the two tendencies diverge is on the question of how to maintain and strengthen this identity in the future.
Here, I would like to digress in order to illustrate how deep this loss of identity can be, even though it passes unrecognised until it is too late. Thirty years ago, I and a number of Muslim intellectuals met to ask ourselves an apparently simple but in reality extremely complex question: “Has the Muslim world lost the ability to express itself in the field of architecture, a field admired and acknowledged as one of the most powerful manifestations of every great Muslim civilisation?” The response was a unanimous ‘Yes’. Since then, many efforts have been made to reverse the situation, including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, but one of the causes was that, throughout the Ummah, none of the teachers in any of the schools of architecture had studied in their home countries. Without exception, every teacher of architecture in every school and university in the Muslim world had been trained abroad, without any reference whatsoever to the Muslim world. This is, by the way, one of the reasons we are pleased to have been able to include in our collection some documents of unique architectural interest.
For the populations of the Ummah, loss of identity is an unquestionable reality, as it is for all societies. Perhaps one of the keys for the Muslim world will be to perpetuate their cultures in the modern world by means of rediscovered ancient and newly inspired sources. The Muslim world’s two main tendencies, traditional and modern, will both have a role to play but if one attempts to achieve exclusivity at the expense of the other, the consequences will be predictable and highly damaging.
The second issue about which I have been asked to talk to you is what the role of museums might be in promoting understanding between East and West. It is a huge question to which I shall not try to give a comprehensive response but I should nevertheless point out that the Muslim world, with its history and cultures, and indeed its different interpretations of Islam, is still little known in the West. Even today in secondary and even university education in the West, the study of the Muslim world is still a specialist subject. One example is how little the Muslim world features in the study of humanities in the West, where courses are essentially centred around Judeo-Christian civilisations.
This lack of knowledge is a dramatic reality which manifests itself in a particularly serious way in western democracies, since public opinion has difficulties judging national and international policy vis-à-vis the Muslim world. There are an infinite number of historical reasons for this, but perhaps there is also a fear of proselytisation. Be that as it may, the two worlds, Muslim and non-Muslim, Eastern and Western, must, as a matter of urgency, make a real effort to get to know one another, for I fear that what we have is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of ignorance on both sides. Insofar as civilisations manifest and express themselves through their art, museums have an essential role to play in teaching the two worlds to understand, respect and appreciate each other and ensuring that whole populations are given fresh opportunities to make contact with each other, using new, modern methods imaginatively and intelligently to bring about truly global communication.
Western museums, particularly those in Europe, have some extraordinary collections of Muslim art. Obviously, the Louvre and the Museum of Decorative Arts are the richest and I congratulate and thank them for the efforts they are making, with government backing, to fill the enormous void, a veritable black hole, which threatens us in this conflict of ignorance. Rest assured that you can fully count on us to play our part, however modest.
I shall finish by saying a few words specifically about our museum in Toronto. As you will have gathered, I am firmly convinced that better knowledge of the Muslim world can overcome distrust and therefore that city has been a strategic choice. While some North American museums have significant collections of Muslim art, there is no institution devoted to Islamic art. In building the museum in Toronto, we intend to introduce a new actor to the North American art scene. Its fundamental aim will be an educational one, to actively promote knowledge of Islamic arts and culture. What happens on that continent, culturally, economically and politically, cannot fail to have worldwide repercussions – which is why we thought it important that an institution capable of promoting understanding and tolerance should exist there.
The museum will also belong to the large Muslim population living in Canada and the USA. It will be a source of pride and identity for all these people, showing the inherent pluralism of Islam, not only in terms of religious interpretations but also of cultural and ethnic variety. Furthermore, the museum will show, beyond the notoriously politicised form of Islam which now tends to make headlines, Islam is in reality an open-minded, tolerant faith capable of adopting other people’s cultures and languages and making them its own. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Muslims of North America will play an important role in the development of states and populations within the Ummah.
Outstanding patrons, beautiful objects: Metaphors for humanism and enlightenment
Alnoor Merchant addresses the audience at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Photo: Courtesy of the Ismaili Council for the USA“He gave quite a lot of information, but within a narrative that held the audience's attention with stories and there were even a few moments of suspense and intrigue,” said Dr Kathryn Woodard, an Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University in College Station.
She was commenting on a talk delivered by Alnoor Merchant, Acting Head Librarian and Keeper of the Manuscript Collections at the Library of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Merchant recently conducted a four-city lecture series on Muslim artistic, scientific, and architectural patronage. The lectures were held at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Stanford University, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in February 2009.
Captivating his audience with an array of historic artefacts from the Aga Khan Museum collection, Merchant described their origins and the important role played by patrons in the history of Islamic art. He recounted the exuberance and dynamism of artistic environments established from Indonesia to Spain by patrons who attracted celebrated artists to create vibrant and unique masterpieces.
Although patronage of arts was primarily practiced by the royal court, it expanded to include other wealthy individuals and affluent business merchants. Merchant explained that these works of art were not only made to grace the royal court — they also reaffirmed relationships between the king and his people.
Folio from the Blue Qur’an — North Africa, possibly Qayrawan, 9 – 10th century. Photo: Courtesy of Alnoor MerchantCommencing his lecture with an artistic leaf from the famous Blue Quran, Merchant noted that beautifully decorated manuscripts adorned with calligraphy were perhaps the most essential elements of Islamic art. One of finest examples of Quranic productions, the Blue Quran is written on blue parchment in gold kufic script.
Recalling that the first revelation received by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) opens with the injunction Iqra — which means “recite” or “read” — Merchant asserted that Allah “taught man by the pen that which he knew not,” (in reference to Surah 96). “Here the importance of learning and knowledge is very fundamentally linked to the Islamic ethic,” he explained.
Beyond Quranic manuscripts, patrons supported other artistic creations including glassware, pottery, textile, ceramics, and even jewellery, which were often adorned with calligraphy, arabesque, and figural motifs of birds, animals and even human faces. Merchant delighted audiences with pottery from the tenth century bearing an inscription that reflected one of the traditions of the Prophet: “Generosity is at the disposition of the dwellers of paradise.” The Museum of Fine Arts may wish to use this piece for fundraising purposes, quipped Merchant.
Illuminated manuscripts and miniatures were also favoured by patrons. Miniature paintings date back to the 1630s and were particularly important within the Persian and Mogul traditions. Merchant showed several examples of colourful miniatures, mostly depicting intellectual and spiritual discussions.
Manuscript of the Qanun fi’l-tibb of Ibn Sina, vol 5 — Iran or Mesopotamia, dated 444 H / 1052 CE. Photo: Courtesy of Alnoor Merchant
One example portrayed a discussion exchange between a prince and a number of scholars. In many of the paintings intellectual discussions were symbolised as spiritual nourishment through accompanying illustrations of water, which Merchant explained symbolised bodily nourishment: “Even today this is what you find in an architectural setting, where you will find perhaps a Quran school on a level above a fountain.”
Music was another important form of patronage in Muslim civilisations. Merchant showed an example of a miniature that illustrated the work of Nasir al-Din Tusi, a thirteenth century philosopher and astronomer, whose work was patronised by the Ismaili rulers of Alamut. The miniature had illustrations of music, yet it accompanied Tusi’s work on ethics. Merchant explained by quoting Tusi: “No relationship is nobler than that of the equivalence, as has been established in the science of music.”
“The most significant visual element, even today, is the patronage of buildings,” said Merchant. He noted that the finest craftsmen were recruited from across the Muslim world to build impressive monuments that demanded superb decorations, tiled interiors and painted exteriors. This led to a discussion on geometric motifs, which were sometimes used in combination with calligraphy, arabesque, and figural motifs. The repeating geometries constitute infinite patterns that symbolically extend beyond the material world. For many, geometry provides a spiritual representation of the infinite nature of Allah’s creation.
Biconical gold bead — Egypt or Syria, 11th century. Photo: Courtesy of Alnoor Merchant
Turning to the Aga Khan Museum, which is due to open in Toronto, Canada, Merchant noted that it will be dedicated to the acquisition, preservation and display of artefacts from various periods and geographies, relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Islamic communities. Mawlana Hazar Imam “has identified the need for greater engagement between the East and West,” said Merchant. “The primary objective of this museum is to use culture and art towards creating an educational understanding between communities; to show the diversity and the pluralism that exist within the artistic traditions of Islam.”
Audience members were appreciative of the lecture. “Both my husband and I enjoyed this program,” said Faranak Zafarnia, President of the Society of Iranian American Women for Education.
The lectures were made possible through the generous support of The Institute of Ismaili Studies, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Ismaili Council for the United States.
The King and the Aga Khan will inaugurate “The Worlds of Islam”
June 2, 2009
Posted by ismailimail in Art and Culture, Museum, Trust for Culture.
News story about the Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Collection of the Aga Khan Museum exhibition that is to be held at the Caixa Foundation in Madrid, Spain.
The Worlds of Islam – Collection of the Aga Khan Museum
June 3, 2009
Posted by ismailimail in Art and Culture, Islam, Museum, Trust for Culture.
Excerpt translated via Google from Spanish to English. The source also lists scheduled programs.
Aga Khan’s collection has valuable and significant pieces of almost all of the historical dynasties of the Muslim world, of which the exhibition is a collection of some 180 objects spanning 1400 years of history and summary, in wood, stone, gold, bronze, ivory, glass, ceramics, fabrics, parchment and paper, the best artistic achievements of the Islamic world in a vast geographical area that stretches from the Iberian Peninsula, the ancient al-Andalus, to China.
Exhibition from Aga Khan Museum Collection Inaugurated by King of Spain and Aga Khan in Madrid
Exhibition from Aga Khan Museum Collection Inaugurated by King of Spain and Aga Khan in Madrid
Please also see: Photographs and Opening Hours, Location and Related Events
Joint Press Release
Madrid, 4 June 2009 – His Majesty the King, His Highness the Aga Khan, the Honorary President of "la Caixa" and First Vice-President of "la Caixa", Ricardo Fornesa, today inaugurated the exhibition "The Islamic Worlds in the Aga Khan Museum Collection" at CaixaForum Madrid. Jaime Lanaspa, Director of "la Caixa" Foundation and Luis Monreal, Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture also attended the opening ceremony.
The aim of the exhibition, organised by "la Caixa" Social and Cultural Outreach Projects and devoted to ancient cultures, is to show how people from different times and places have confronted major global concerns and also to widen our own world view. Outstanding among recent "la Caixa" events have been exhibitions of Indian figurative sculpture and Etruscan civilisation.
"The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection", organised by "la Caixa" Social and Cultural Outreach Projects in cooperation with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture – the cultural arm of the Aga Khan Development Network – presents a total of 190 artefacts representing fourteen centuries of history and extending from the Iberian Peninsula to the Far East. After its first showing at CaixaForum Madrid, the exhibition will travel to Barcelona where it can be seen from October 2009 to January 2010.
CaixaForum Madrid Presents The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection
The Kings of Spain at the opening of The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection exhibition at CaixaForum Madrid.
MADRID.- “la Caixa” Social and Cultural Outreach Projects at CaixaForum Madrid shows some of the greatest treasures of Islamic art, from ancient al-Andalus to India.
The art, the history, the traditions and the geographies of the Islamic world from the Far East to the Iberian Peninsula are the subjects of the exhibition The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection. Organised by ”la Caixa” Social and Cultural Outreach Projects in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, it contains some of the finest productions, not only of the Islamic sphere, but of universal art, with the common denominator of the Arabic language and the Muslim religion. The Aga Khan Museum Collection includes valuable and important pieces from the historical dynasties of the Muslim world. They describe the magnificence of the courts of the Abassids, Fatimids, Safavids or Moguls and show the ductility of Islamic art, capable of conveying a message, not always a religious one, adopting different styles and combining elements from different cultural traditions: from Roman to Persian, from Turkish to Chinese, from Mahgrebi to Hindu, transforming what it imitated and giving it a personality of its own.
The exhibition, which can be seen at CaixaForum Madrid until 6 September, presents a set of 190 objects spanning 1400 years of history and summarizing, in wood, stone, gold, bronze, ivory, glass, ceramic, fabric, parchment and paper, the finest artistic accomplishments of a world that stretched from ancient al-Andalus to India.
The exhibition The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection, curated by Benoît Junod, director of Museums and Exhibitions at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, can be seen at CaixaForum Madrid (Paseo del Prado, 36) from 5 June to 6 September and will later travel to CaixaForum Barcelona.
His Majesty the King; His Highness Prince Aga Khan; and the honorary chairman of ”la Caixa” and first vice-chairman of Fundación ”la Caixa”, Ricardo Fornesa, have inaugurated today at CaixaForum Madrid the exhibition The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection. The inauguration was also attended by Jaime Lanaspa, director general of Fundación ”la Caixa”, and Luis Monreal, director general of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
The purpose of the exhibitions which ”la Caixa” Social and Cultural Outreach Projects devotes to the cultures of Antiquity is to show the different ways in which men from different places and in different periods have confronted the great universal questions, and to broaden our perspectives on the world. Among others, ”la Caixa” has recently mounted outstanding shows such as the ones devoted to Indian figurative sculpture or Etruscan civilisation.
The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection, organised by ”la Caixa” Social and Cultural Outreach Projects in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture –the cultural agency of the Aga Khan Development Network– shows a set of 190 objects of Islamic art spanning fourteen centuries of history and from the Iberian Peninsula to the Far East. The exhibition is curated by Benoît Junod, director of Museums and Exhibitions at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, with the assistance of a scientific committee of international experts. After being shown first at CaixaForum Madrid, the exhibition will travel to Barcelona between October 2009 and January 2010.
The exhibition sets out to question current commonplaces about the polarity between East and West and reconcile points of view about Muslim culture, an integral part of the Spanish historical heritage. Through works of art of different periods and geographical origins, the exhibition reflects the splendour of Muslim culture in its full diversity, bringing out the pluralism of Islam, both in interpretations of the Koranic faith and the variety of styles, materials and techniques that make up its artistic expressions.
The works come from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), which has one of the finest collections of Islamic art in the world, put together by the Aga Khan over the last two decades. It contains important, valuable pieces from almost all the historical dynasties of the Muslim world, a summary in wood, stone, gold, bronze, ivory, glass, ceramic, fabric, parchment and paper of the finest artistic accomplishments of the Islamic world.
At present, the AKTC has a project to build a museum in Toronto (Canada) to house the collections permanently. Meanwhile, the works are being shown in different cities around the world. For the exhibition at CaixaForum Madrid and CaixaForum Barcelona the collection has been reorganised, bearing in mind that it is to be shown in a country that has had its own Muslim culture.
Among the outstanding works on show is a rich group of manuscripts and miniatures with figurative representations, which are among the finest productions not only of the Islamic sphere, but of universal art. They help refute the widespread commonplace of the prohibition of images in Islamic art, since although Islam does not use animal or human motifs in buildings or objects related to religion, in the official or private civil sphere there have been representations of living beings, often profuse. It was merely a matter of aesthetic preferences and historical moments.
The first followers of Islam were nomadic tribes who had no artistic tradition. That is why one of the characteristics of Islamic art is its capacity to fuse and synthesise the outstanding features of the art of the nations it conquered. By combining those influences, they succeeded in creating an artistic style of their own, easily recognisable even today.
The exhibition presents the different Islamic dynasties, with their radiuses of territorial influence, which appeared in the wake of the dismembering of the Abbasid caliphate in the late 9th century: the Omeyas (al-Andalus), the Fatimids and the Mamelukes (Egypt), the Ottomans (Turkey), the Safavids and Qajars (Iran) and the Moguls (India). The Fatimid court was outstanding for its opulence, as some of the pieces of jewelry on show bear witness. The essential features of Islamic court culture are traced through a generic portrait of the profile of their sovereigns. Emphasis is placed on the high cultural level of the Islamic courts that were responsible for spreading knowledge of Ancient Greece to the West through their Arabic translations.
The exhibition also reflects some of the fundamental features of Islamic architecture, such as a capital in the Roman tradition with Islamic ornamental motifs, as well as carved wooden beams and doors. The outstanding examples of painting are to be found in the books illustrated with miniatures and the portraits of kings and sultans.
The works on show are distributed in three large sections. A central part is devoted to The Koranic Faith and the other two provide a cultural tour of the Islamic courts through the metaphor of the journey in two geographical stages: From Cordoba to Damascus and From Baghdad to Delhi.
The Koranic faith - The Koran was a source of inspiration for artists, craftsmen and architects, creators of luxurious books with beautiful calligraphies and works of a refined sensibility that spread its teachings throughout the Islamic world. Copying verses from the Koran was regarded as a devout practice; hence their presence on a wide range of surfaces. In this section we can admire the different styles of Arabic writing, all of high ornamental value.
The Koran and its supports. In this area there is a splendid collection of Korans from the entire geographical arc represented in the exhibition, from 9th and 10th century folios written in gold, from North Africa, to a 19th century Indonesian Koran, with pieces of porcelain, painted ceramic, gold or carved wood inscribed with the sacred text. The first manuscripts were written on parchment and, in the 10th century, its replacement with paper increased the production of Korans in the Islamic world. The Aga Khan Museum collection has small format copies for private use together with larger ones that were used in the great mosques. Koranic inscriptions were incorporated into architecture, carved in stone or in the form of friezes on bricks and tiles. The word God was also written on humble surfaces –leaves, shells– as a lasting act of devotion and artistic virtuosity.
Mysticism. The mystics, known as Sufis or dervishes, seek union with God through prayer and the dikr, the repetition of sacred words and phrases. One of the most famous was the poet Yalal al-Din Rumi Their followers, the Mevlevi dervishes, have spread their poetry all around the world. Princes and rulers had dervishes as their spiritual advisors and in some works of art they appear represented next to them talking about religious subjects.
Pilgrimage and prayer. The diversity of artistic styles of the works in this section show the impact of pilgrimage on the whole Islamic world, with expressions of devout art of different kinds according to the country and the moment, from the decoration of travel documents to mural ornamentation of the pilgrims’ houses in Egypt or the souvenirs derived from the experience itself. The pilgrims’ desire to show that they had observed the precept led to the distribution of plans of Mecca, the Great Mosque or the different places they had visited.
From Cordoba to Damascus - The Omeya caliphate drew the Peninsula into a vast transcontinental empire which, from Cordoba to Damascus, became the backbone of human civilisation. Everything new came from the East: the literary and scientific works of Antiquity, lost after the fall of the Roman Empire and conserved in Arabic translations, and the works of the great Muslim humanists and scientists, fundamental for the development of astronomy, mathematics or natural history. The artistic styles from Byzantium or ancient Persia also travelled along the trade routes.
Al-Andalus and Mahgreb. Between 711 and 714 the Arabs conquered the Iberian Peninsula. The Omeya dynasty introduced an artistic model with Syrian roots with a mixture of Roman-Byzantine and Persian elements. In 756 the Omeyas, defeated in Syria, took refuge in al-Andalus and art heightened its oriental features. The influence of Andalusian art was felt in Morocco and Tunis and even in sub-Saharan regions, in Mauritania and Mali. It lasted until the Middle Ages, with periods of exquisite refinement, such as the sultanate of Granada.
Egypt and Syria. In 750 the Abbasids defeated the first Islamic dynasty, the Omeyas, and the cultural and political centre shifted from Damascus to Baghdad. For five centuries, Syria and Egypt lived a series of upheavals. The political fluctuations were reflected in the mixture of artistic motifs, styles and techniques, with influences in both directions. For example, glazed ceramics were developed in the 8th century in Egypt and Syria and exported to Iraq, from where they were reintroduced into Egypt as a decorative element in the Fatimid period.
In the 10th century the Fatimids came to dominate Mecca and Medina, Yemen and parts of Palestine and Syria. The military clashes between different factions created economic difficulties for the caliphate which, in 1060, could not pay the soldiers’ wages, which led to the sacking of the treasury. The description of the sacking provides an outstanding testimony to the luxury and refinement of the court, as we can see in the exhibition: objects carved out of rock crystal for keeping precious substances, fabrics as fine as cobwebs with the name and titles of the caliphate, jewels made in delicate filigree and enamel.
The Fatimid dynasty succumbed in 1171 to Saladin. When he died the government passed into the hands of the military caste of elite slaves, the Mamelukes. One of the requisites for coming to power was to have been born a slave and most of the constructions of the period were monumental mausoleums, with enormous domes, to highlight the individual personality of each ruler. These architectural complexes were equipped with copies of the Koran, lamps, candelabras and luxury objects.
Anatolia: the Ottomans. The objects on display in this room date from the 15th-18th centuries. In that period the Ottoman, Safavid and Mogul states dominated a vast territory between the Middle East, Africa and India, and made huge profits from trade. The sultans fostered the creation of an imperial artistic style that incorporated non-figurative decoration, plants or flowers. In the second half of the 16th century the portrait became popular to show the mark of the rulers, with the figure of the sultan, magnificent, cultured and powerful, surrounded by his subjects.
From Baghdad to Delhi - The Muslim Arab conquerors of the 7th century invaded all the territories of their old rival, the Persian Empire, and created a single territorial unit between the Tagus and the Indus. The dominant Persian presence was joined by influences from the Far East through trading and cultural contacts and the presence of Chinese artists.
Mesopotamia. In 750 the capital of the Muslim world moved to Baghdad. The ancient Persian culture left a very visible trace on the artistic expressions of the region. The taste for the exotic, which is reflected in the ceramics, was encouraged by trade with the East. It was an age of splendour for the publication of books, with scientific and literary works and the “princes’ mirrors”, instructive tales which the rulers used as manuals for their education.
Iran and Central Asia. In 651 the Islamic conquest of Iran was completed. Greater Persia –which at different times in history included Iran, Iraq, Armenia, zones of Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and some coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula– became part of the Abbasid caliphate. Among the pre-Islamic Iranian traditions were glass and metal craftsmanship, stuccoed mural painting and the silk industry. Decorative motifs from the Near East, like pairs of birds or gryphons, lions or strings of pearls, were incorporated into the Islamic visual repertory. One of the outstanding contributions was in the literary sphere: the Shahnama (Book of Kings), which recounted the legends of the ancient Iranian kings and heroes, was profusely illustrated.
In Iran the Muslims received the influence of China. The Seljuks and the Mongol khans who overthrew the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 introduced an aesthetic of far eastern inspiration, with Chinese ornamental motifs (the lotus, the dragon and the phoenix), and wood carving techniques. The art of the 16th century was open to foreign influences. New ways of metal working appeared, making it possible to produce openwork steel plates and small objects. In the 17th century interest in the portrait grew, partly as a consequence of the import of European engravings. Each court developed its own iconography. The Safavids used to have themselves portrayed at reception ceremonies for foreign ambassadors, to glorify their supremacy and magnanimity.
The Qajar dynasty ruled in Iran from 1779 to 1925. Fat′h Ali Shah began his reign amidst an unstable political situation and perhaps for that reason promoted the propaganda of his imperial image, with a large number of portraits to be hung in all official buildings. Later Nasir al-Dan Shah promoted the artistic ideas and technologies of Europe. He himself was an amateur photographer.
India and the Moguls. The characteristic of the art of the Moguls is naturalism: portraits of sultans and important persons of his dynasty, plants and animals from India and scenes from the history of their kingdom. One of the most important forms of their art is painting, used as a resource in the service of power. Genealogical and historical pictures emphasized the legitimacy and power of the different dynasties. Other works show the importance given to the darbar ceremony, the public audience, and the darshan ceremony, which featured the divine enlightenment of the sovereign through a ritual representation. Painting is associated with other arts in compositions that set out to arouse in the spectator sensory experiences similar to those of music, or in paintings that recreated epic or legendary literary themes.
Islam recaptures Spain
Stunning exhibition from Aga Khan Museum Collection in Madrid
Fourteen centuries of a breathtaking history that extends from the Iberian Peninsula to the Far East unfold in Madrid these days, thanks to the stunning exhibition hosted at the CaixaForum Madrid, at the Paseo del Prado. This amazing exhibition that was inaugurated June 4 by the King and Queen of Spain, is jointly organized by the "la Caixa" Social and Cultural Outreach Projects in cooperation with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture –the cultural arm of the Aga Khan Development Network.
The Worlds of Islam in the collection of the Aga Khan Museum December 21, 2009
Posted by ismailimail in Art and Culture, Exhibition-World of Islam, Museum, Trust for Culture, Video.
The Worlds of Islam to the Caixa Forum in Barcelona. The Caixa Forum Barcelona hosts until 17 January the worlds of Islam exhibition, masterpieces from the collection of the future Aga Khan Museum, which will be built in Toronto. The exhibition includes nearly a thousand works that span a thousand years of history. Manuscripts, miniatures, capitals, beams, jewelry and glass and ceramic vases are some examples.
Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum - Masterpieces of Islamic Art
Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum - Masterpieces of Islamic Art
17. März 2010 - 06. Juni 2010
An exhibition of the Aga Khan Foundation. Organizer: Berliner Festspiele
Ein Katalog liegt vor.
This is the first time the Aga Khan’s collection has been exhibited in Germany. More than 200 masterpieces have been chosen to document more than one thousand years of cultural history. The works on display in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau are from the collection of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Karim Aga Khan IV is the spiritualhead of the Ismaili Muslims. He is also regarded as a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. His collection is considered to be one of the world’s largest and most valuable collections of Islamic art and will be housed from 2013 onwards in the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.
The Berlin exhibition will show some of the most important works of art from traditionally Islamic countries, including pages from the Persian heroic epic“Shahnama”, or “Book of Kings” by the poet Firdawsi. The miniatures are among the most remarkable in the world. Furthermore there is the oldest known Arabic manuscript of the later translated “Canon of Medicine” by Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Abu Ali Ibn Sina was a philosopher and physician. For over 500 years his magnum opus served as a standard work and textbook for physicians in Europe. Other outstanding cultural artefacts are a very well preserved Mongolian robe of silk damask from the 13th century and a double page of the “Blue Koran” from the 9th century. The blue parchment sheets are written in golden letters in the Kufi script and are among the most valuable and elaborate Koran manuscripts in the world.
In general the artworks on display– paintings, drawings, book illustrations, manuscripts, inscriptions, metalwork vessels, ceramics, and wood carvings – make one realize the extraordinary variety and overwhelming richness of an Islamic culture which from the 8th to the 18th centuries stretched from the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula all the way to China.
Wo finden Sie die Themen dieser Ausstellung noch?
Aga Khan, Baghdad, Damascus, Egypt, Islamic Art, Islamic Culture, Koran, Manuscript, Moghul Empire, Persia
Exhibition: Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum
by Jeff Black on March 11, 2010
The Aga Khan’s treasures are coming to Berlin. This is great news.
Having seen evidence of the Ismaili leader’s hand in rebuilding, preserving and advertising Islamic culture in Pakistan and in Egypt, I am pretty sure that this will be an impressive, meticulously curated show.
I can scarcely think of another organization that has done more to improve the visibility of Islamic cultural history in the Western eye than the Aga Khan Development Network, the foundation run by the current Aga Khan (when he’s not raising racehorses).
Part of that network, The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, has taken its collection of Islamic art on the road for the past several years ahead of the completion of a new museum home in Toronto.
From March 17 the touring collection will be exhibited in Germany for the first time, at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. I missed this exhibition in London in 2007, and I’m particularly looking forward to the scrollable digitised illustrations from the work of Iran’s national poet Firdousi.
This is what the trust says about museums:
Museums can testify to the existence of other cultures and faiths in ways that go beyond the written or spoken word. They provide evidence of other realities, other histories and other influences beyond the ones we might have learned or perceived.
Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum
20/03/2010 by Elvira
Exhibition: 17 March - 6 June 2010. This is the first time the Aga Khan’s collection has been exhibited in Germany. More than 200 masterpieces have been chosen to document more than one thousand years of cultural history. The works on display in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau are from the collection of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Karim Aga Khan IV is the spiritual head of the Ismaili Muslims. He is also a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. His collection is considered to be one of the world’s largest and most valuable collections of Islamic art and will be housed from 2013 onwards in the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.
The Berlin exhibition will show some of the most important works of art from the Islamic world, including pages from the Persian heroic epic “Shahnama”, or “Book of Kings” by the poet Firdawsi. The miniatures are among the most remarkable in the world. The exhibition includes the oldest known Arabic manuscript of the “Canon of Medicine” by Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Abu Ali Ibn Sina was a philosopher and physician. For over 500 years his magnum opus served as a standard work and textbook for physicians in Europe. Other outstanding cultural artefacts include a very well preserved Mongolian robe of silk damask from the 13th century and a double page of the “Blue Qur’an” from the 9th century. The blue parchment sheets are written in golden letters in the Kufi script and are among the most valuable and elaborate Qur’an manuscripts in the world.
The exhibition is arranged under two main headings: “The Word of God”, concerning Qur’an manuscripts, illustrated sheets and objects that deal with the pilgrimage to Mecca or Islamic mysticism and have served many artists and architects as a source of inspiration. “The Route of the Travellers” takes the visitor on a journey through the Islamic world, which once stretched from Al-Andalus, the Muslim part of the Iberian Peninsula, through the Maghreb and Sicily, Fatimid and Mameluke Egypt, Ottoman Constantinople, Omayyad Damascus and Ayyubid Baghdad and on to Persia, Central Asia and the Moghul Empire in India.
The works produced in this period testify to the skills and creativity of the various societies and reveal both Asian and European influences.
In general, the artworks on display – paintings, drawings, book illustrations, manuscripts, inscriptions, metalwork vessels, ceramics, and wood carvings – offer a view into the extraordinary variety and overwhelming richness of an Islamic culture which, from the 8th to the 18th centuries, stretched from the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula all the way to China.
Berliner Festspiele. An exhibition of the Aga Khan Foundation.
Curator Benoît Junod
Media partners rbb Kulturradio, rbb radioeins, Der Tagesspiegel
Co-operation partner Wall AG
The Aga Khan’s personal collection of art is on show in Berlin. He says he hopes to wipe away the mutual ignorance that the western and the Islamic worlds share about each other with the display. Catherine Hickley reports
The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, is a generous man. He heads a network of non-profit development agencies and plans to open a museum for his collection of Islamic art in Toronto in 2013.
Until the building is completed, he is loaning the art to museums around the world. The current beneficiary is Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, where “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum” is showing through June 6.
The 73-year-old philanthropist, in an introduction to the catalogue, says he believes that tensions between Islam and the western world are less about a “clash of civilisations” than “a battle of mutual ignorance.” Exhibiting his collection, which spans a vast area from Spain to China, is a way to fight that ignorance. Quranic scripts, inscribed in gold and bordered with gouache arabesques in blues and reds, originate from Iran, Turkey and India. Verses are written on a sea shell from the 18th century, and in tiny letters across a piece of green Indian cotton bordered in gold and blue.
The most astonishing script is on a gilded chestnut leaf whose filaments shine like filigree jewellery. The calligraphy is shaped to resemble a boat with oarsmen. It is a virtuoso piece of 19th-century Ottoman craftsmanship — and so fragile and delicate, it’s hard to imagine how it survived.
Two lacquer book covers from 16th-century Iran, inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl, show flowers, birds and deer among the branches of a tree.
Illustrations from scenes of the Persian epic The Book of Kings, written by the poet Ferdowsi in about 1010 AD, depict king sitting on an elephant and inspecting his troops.
The colours, design and motifs of the gouache-and-ink decorations of flowers and animals called to mind Rajasthan’s exotic palaces.
The Aga Khan and the Hungarian-British lawyer Edmund de Unger must have found themselves competing for the same Islamic art treasures in their collecting careers. Now the two rival (or complementary) collections are on display in the same city.
De Unger has promised his Keir Collection to the Museum for Islamic Art, housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, as a long- term loan after his death. The museum is home to the 17th- century Aleppo room from Syria and the eighth-century facade of Mshatta palace from a Jordan desert town.
An exhibition of the first 112 of 1,500 objects that De Unger plans to loan to Berlin provides a taste of what is to come. His passion for Islamic art began with carpets; every floor in his home was covered in them — three-deep.
De Unger turned to lusterware — glazed metallic ceramics which he describes as “the greatest gift the Islamic potter has made to mankind.” He also acquired metalware, books and rock-crystal ornaments, including an exquisite bead in the shape of a crouching hare from Egypt, about 1,000 years old.
The collector’s tales, as recounted in the catalog, are the stuff of novels: De Unger describes seeking shelter from the rain in a Paris bookstore and finding a 14th-century Jalayrid (Mongolian rulers of Persia and Iraq) manuscript. To avoid setting off alarm bells with the owner, he added four other uninteresting books to his purchase.
Interview with Claudia Ott
A New Chapter in the History of Arab Literature
An almost 800-year-old manuscript is shedding new light on one of the hidden jewels of Arabic literature. Orientalist and translator Claudia Ott recently identified the oldest known manuscript of "The One Hundred and One Nights". She talked to Loay Mudhoon about it
Claudia Ott: "'The Hundred and One Nights'" and 'The Thousand and One Nights' were contemporaneous with one another, the one probably better known in the west, the other in the east of the Arabian world."
| Just a few days ago you found what is probably the earliest manuscript of "101 Nights". Can you tell us how this discovery came about?
Claudia Ott: In March this year, I was lucky enough to be invited as a musician to play at the opening of the "Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum" exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. After the first rush was over and I had a little time to wander through the exhibition, a manuscript in a glass cabinet with art objects from Andalusia caught my eye. It was some distance away from the other manuscript treasures on show, such as the "Blue Koran" with its gold script on a lapis lazuli background.
It was written in red ink and in a very old Maghreb style of writing. It read: "kitâb fîhi hadîth mi'at layla wa-layla" – the book with the story of one hundred and one nights – I could hardly believe my eyes. Luckily, through my job as musician, I had got to know the exhibition curator, Benoît Junod, and got his permission, when the exhibition was over, to take a look at the colophon and other details of the manuscript's production.
What is it that is so important about this discovery?
The treasures of the Aga Khan are considered to be amongst the greatest and most valuable collections of Islamic art
| Claudia Ott: The colophon provides a date for the manuscript of 632, which is equivalent to 1234 or 1235 by our calendar. The colophon, however, does not belong directly to "101 Nights", but to a geography book that is bound into the same volume, and which is probably written by the same person. The ending to "101 Nights" itself is missing, which makes the whole thing more intriguing and tantalizing.
The text takes us only as far as the 85th night. So the manuscript fragment actually does not have a colophon of its own. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has announced that it is going to carry out a scientific examination of the paper and binding. If it turns out that the same writer was responsible for both books then it will prove that this manuscript of "101 Nights" is more than 500 years older than the currently oldest extant manuscript. The writing style indicates that the manuscript came from the Maghreb region of North Africa, or from Andalusia. This manuscript could be exactly the key that scholars have long hoped to find.
Now that it has been identified, what will happen to the manuscript?
Claudia Ott: Several top international scholars are now working on the manuscript and trying to establish its age. I, too, have been busy, consulting colleagues, looking for advice. With such an important discovery it is important that every aspect is thoroughly discussed; there are still a great many questions that need answering. And – well, as translator, I can tell you that the stories in "One Hundred and One Nights" really are something rather special. I couldn't wait to get started on the translation, the very same day – actually, night, to be more precise.
You spent several years working on a translation of the oldest surviving manuscript of "The Thousand and One Nights", the so-called Galland Manuscript, published by Muhsin Mahdi in 1450. In what ways are "The Hundred and One Nights" and "The Thousand and One Nights" related to one another?
Claudia Ott: Both works tell stories that belong to a long tradition that takes us from Indian literary motifs, via Persian translations, and into Arabic literature. Even though the framing narratives are quite different, there are similarities. In both collections we meet the vizier's daughter Scherezade, for example, who succeeds in saving her own life and the lives of many other women, by telling stories. There are even some stories common to both collections – the story of The Ebony Horse, for example, or The King's Son and the Seven Viziers.
However, there are divergent opinions on the relationship between the two books. There is already a critical edition of the "101 Nights" based on much more recent manuscripts from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whose publisher, Mahmud Tarshuna, claims that "101 Nights" is the substantially older and more original text. His argument uses motifs from the framing narrative to claim that the "101 Nights" is closer to the Sanskrit and Pali texts of their old Indian literary sources than "1001 Nights" is.
But we also have some very old sources for "1001 Nights". In Chicago in 1949, a double sheet of paper was discovered in a pile of papyrus that had been brought back from Egypt. It bore the title "Thousand Nights" ("alf layla" in Arabic) and the beginning of a description of one night. The double sheet is a palimpsest dated 879. Its origins are evidently not Egyptian, where papyrus was still preferred to paper at that time, but Syrian.
It must have been brought back to Cairo from Antioch as war booty in 878. If we add on the years when the book must have been lying around, before its page was taken for use as scrap paper, then we are talking about a date of around 800 by our calendar. That makes it the oldest fragment of "The Thousand and One Nights" ever discovered.
This also fits with what the Arabic sources tell us. Contemporary booksellers reports make it clear that a complete version, with 1000 Nights, must already have existed in the 9th century. Over the centuries several fragments of the work have been found, each of which have probably looked rather different from one another. The 1001st night was probably added in the early 12th century. In a notebook, discovered by chance in the Geniza in a synagogue in Cairo, there is the first known mention of the complete title on a lending note from around 1150: "Alf layla wa-layla" – "The Thousand and One Nights".
So I am convinced that "101Nights" and "1001 Nights" are part of a parallel tradition. "The Hundred and One Nights" and "The Thousand and One Nights" were contemporaneous with one another, the one probably better known in the west, the other in the east of the Arabian world. But all of this is something that requires further investigation. A magnificent chapter in Arab literary history has just been reopened.
As the Museum is being constructed, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has mounted a series of travelling exhibitions in Europe.
From October 2010 to January 2011, the Aga�Khan Museum collection will travel to the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul, Turkey
U P C O M I N G : Istanbul Exhibition
From October 2010 to January 2011, the Aga Khan Museum collection will travel to the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Entitled Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum - Arts of the Book and Calligraphy in the Islamic World, the exhibition will be held within the framework of Istanbul 2010 - European Capital of Culture. For the first time since Parma in 2007, the artefacts on display will not be a general presentation of “highlights” from the collection, but will be an exhibition that brings together examples of the written word on a variety of objects (ceramics, wood, metalwork, textiles, etc.) with their counterparts on parchment and paper. The exhibition aims to show how the art of the book - in calligraphy, illumination and illustration - evolved over time in the Islamic world. A section within the exhibition on techniques and materials of book-making and the “KItabkhana” will be prepared in cooperation with the Centre de Conservation du Livre in Arles, France.
Istanbul Opening for “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book and Calligraphy”
Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul, 5 November 2010 – 27 January 2011
For more information, please see: Speech by Prince Amyn Aga Khan and Photos
Istanbul, 5 November 2010 - Following seven different exhibitions in Europe that have attracted over half a million visitors, a new selection of masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum will be on show at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul, from 5 November 2010 to 27 February 2011. The exhibition, which is sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), has been organised in close cooperation with the host museum.
The exhibition is the first created from the Aga Khan Museum collections to centre on the Arts of the Book and Calligraphy. It showcases important works on paper and parchment from all parts of the Muslim world, from Andalusia to China, including gold and turquoise illuminated manuscripts from the tenth through the nineteenth centuries. The manuscripts will be complemented by a wide range of rare objects in textile, stone, wood, ceramics and metalwork from the same period, many of them with calligraphic inscriptions or decoration reminiscent of illumination.
Speaking at the inauguration of the exhibition, Prince Amyn Aga Khan said, "Whether it occurs along the great trade routes, over land or over sea, or whether it occurs for reasons essentially geographic, this dialogue of cultures has nearly always resulted in an upsurge of creativity, in a continuing cultural renewal. In my view, this dialogue is more essential today than ever."
The Director of the Museum, Dr. Nazan Ölçer, remarked that “the collection of Aga Khan Museum, via the universal language of art, tries to eliminate the prejudices against Islam in the post 9/ 11 world. In this exhibit, we aim to recreate a dialogue of mutual understanding and tolerance by showing the reflections of Islamic art all around the world.”
The exhibition features miniature paintings from the celebrated Shahnama of Shah Tamasp; the earliest known manuscript of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, which became the medical reference book in Europe for several centuries; and a manuscript of the 101 Nights, recently brought to light, which pre-dates all other known versions by 500 years. Rare pages and illuminated volumes of the Qur’an will be shown, including a page from the “Blue Qur’an”, which is celebrated for its gold text on aquamarine-dyed parchment.
The objects to be displayed will include an eleventh century silk robe with facing birds from Central Asia; a gold, turquoise and ivory box produced by Persian goldsmiths working for the Ottoman court at the beginning of the sixteenth century; a portrait of the poet Hatifi painted by Bizhad; and a portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Selim II attributed to Haidar Reis Nigari (1494–1572). The catalogue of the exhibition will feature original articles by leading art historians such as Oleg Grabar, Francis Richard and Michael Barry and will focus on the arts of the book and calligraphy.
The masterpieces in the exhibition are part of the collections of the Aga Khan Museum, which is currently under construction in Toronto, Canada. The Museum will open in 2013. As the first major educational and exhibition centre in North America dedicated to Muslim arts and culture, the Museum’s mission is to acquire, preserve and display artefacts -- from various periods and geographies -- relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Islamic communities.
The Museum collection contains over one thousand artworks spanning over a millennium of history. The objects – in ceramic, metalwork, ivory, stone and wood, textile and carpet, glass and rock crystal, as well as manuscripts and miniature paintings on parchment and on paper – present an overview of the artistic accomplishments of Muslim civilisations from the Iberian Peninsula to China.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is the cultural agency of the Aga Khan Development Network. Through education and cultural initiatives in music and the arts, AKTC aims to highlight the contributions of the Muslim world to global cultural heritage. It also implements programmes aimed at the physical and social revitalisation of communities with the aim of improving the quality of life and, through its architectural programmes, promotes debate about contemporary design problems.
“Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book and Calligraphy” follows the Sakɪp Sabancɪ Museum’s exhibition on the history of Turkey’s largest city, “Legendary Istanbul: From Byzantium to Istanbul - 8000 Years of a Capital”, and is also organised as part of the activities celebrating Istanbul’s selection as the European Capital of Culture in 2010.
Located in Emirgan, in one of Istanbul's oldest settlements on the Bosphorus, the Sabancı University’s Sakıp Sabancı Museum features a rich permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, conservation units and model educational programs. It also hosts various concerts, conferences and seminars.
For more information, please see Aga Khan Museum site and the Sakip Sabanci Museum's website.
Sakıp Sabancı Museum is bringing some extraordinary exhibitions to Istanbul and Treasures of The Aga Khan Museum is the latest. Below, you will find a small tour of the exhibition but meanwhile read what the SSM website says about the collection.
January 19, 2011
Tracing Islamic History Through Its Scripts
By SUSANNE FOWLER
ISTANBUL — At first, the play of light on the floor at the entrance to the main exhibit hall of the Sakip Sabanci Museum appears to be a modern, geometric carpet. But in the end, the projected pattern is a clue to what lies ahead in “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book & Calligraphy.”
The image, it turns out, is a representation of geometric Kufic script, an angular 13th-century style of Arabic writing used by the scribes who were the rock stars of early Islamic arts because of their power to spread the word of God.
The exhibition, designed by the Czech architect Boris Micka, traces the transition of Islamic writings from animal-skin parchment to paper, and from blocky, time-consuming print to a quicker cursive script and colorful illustrated texts. Examples appear on materials including wood, metal, ceramics and textiles from North Africa to Iran and the Far East.
Graphic design enthusiasts will be fascinated by a timeline that shows the transitions to different scripts and styles that emerged over time — clues that often help researchers pinpoint the provenance of antiquities.
Examples of the various styles are preserved on a variety of materials, including luxuriously decorated and bound books, carved wooden beams, or a blue-and-yellow silk robe whose exquisite condition is probably thanks to its having been stored for centuries in a cold and low humidity environment.
The items, on display through Feb. 27, form part of the Aga Khan’s collection of Islamic art from the 8th to the 18th centuries, and will find a more permanent home when the Aga Khan Museum opens in Toronto in 2013. The founders say it will be the first major educational and exhibition center in North America dedicated to Muslim arts and culture.
Much of the writing displayed comes from Korans. Scribes faced the daunting task of precisely copying the Muslim holy book and in a way became early page designers, deciding how to present the material in the most harmonious arrangement in the space available.
In one striking example, from the so-called Blue Koran, thought to have been made in North Africa in or before the 10th century, letters in gold script practically pop from a page of vellum that had been dyed with indigo.
Other items on display at first seem less overtly religious in nature, like an earthenware vase, ceramic tiles, or a rock crystal necklace, but their inscriptions speak of blessings, or of giving praise and sovereignty to God.
A brass “beggar’s bowl” decorated with dragon heads from 16th-century Iran also filled a religious role in that it was likely used by a dervish who had renounced worldly goods and survived by collecting alms from generous strangers. The bowl is also decorated with inscriptions and floral engravings.
An Ottoman ivory and gold box, with turquoise and ruby inlays, “is not only both valuable and rare, but of great historical interest as it was made in Istanbul for Suleiman the Magnificent, by Iranian craftsmen working in Turkey,” Benoît Junod of the museums and exhibitions unit of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Geneva wrote in an interview by e-mail.
The most ethereal setting in the show — a cocoon formed by long, flowing white curtains — is given to a 16th-century pierced-steel plate that at first resembles a Turkish tulip with elongated petals. This Shia alam, or standard, which is a type of banner sometimes used during religious processions, is carved with religious inscriptions and decorated with dragon heads, much like the beggar’s bowl.
Another dramatic display involves a wall covered with an image of a folio of the Kitabkhana — a library and workshop for copying books — showing how scribes, illustrators, paper-makers and binders organized their craft.
Other treasures include examples of translations of classic scientific texts into Arabic, like pages from “De Materia Medica,” a first-century Greek manuscript written by a doctor named Dioscorides on the medicinal properties of plants. The page describing the poppy, for example, explains how to grow the flowers and how to harvest opium from them.
While images of people are rare in early Islamic art, they do appear in many of the texts on display, notably in a handful of pages of miniatures from the Shah Tahmasp version of the epic poem Shahnama, or “Book of Kings,” recounting the history of Iran.
“This fantastic manuscript is considered by most experts to contain the most accomplished artworks in Persian history,” Mr. Junot wrote.
The book was given to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1568 along with other gifts borne on 34 camels, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The full manuscript had been housed in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul until early in the 20th century, but today its pages are separated and in the hands of various museums and private collectors.
Another rare manuscript is that of “101 Nights,” the less famous counterpart to the tales told by Scheherazade in “1,001 Nights,” and written in the Maghribi script of Spain and North Africa. Just 85 of the 101 stories are intact here, but the collection is thought by many experts to be the oldest known copy of the tales.
For those who share the collectors’ reverence for written material, the exhibit includes examples of the implements used by Ottoman scribes, including steel scissors inlaid with gold, a floral-decorated cylinder for holding pens and a silver inkwell with a turquoise stud.
There are also lacquered pen holders and a rather glorious tool box, a wooden scribe’s cabinet from late 15th- or 16th-century Spain, made of walnut with inlaid bone and mother-of-pearl and decorated with motifs that also appear at the Alhambra, in the Spanish city of Granada.
The exhibition will travel on to the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg; the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur; and the Asian Civilizations Museum, in Singapore. It culminates in a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before the entire collection of more than 1,000 items is transferred to Toronto.
SSM extends Aga Khan exhibition until March 13
17 February 2011, Thursday / ,
The Sakıp Sabancı Museum (SSM) in İstanbul has extended “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum,” an exhibition offering an impressive selection from the Aga Khan Museum collection, until March 13.
The traveling exhibition presents a total of 156 Islamic artifacts dating from the years 800-1800. Curated by Benoit Junod, the selection is on loan from the nearly 1,000-piece Aga Khan Museum collection, whose permanent home in Toronto is set to open in 2013. The museum is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
"Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Architecture in Islamic Arts" at The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Among the paintings in “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Architecture in the Islamic World" at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg is “Emperor Jahangir at the Jharoka Window of the Red Fort in Agra”, seen here in a detail, from a dispersed manuscript of the jahangirnama (“Book of Jahangir”) painting ascribed to Nadir a-Zaman (Abu’l Hasan), Agra, India, c. 1620 Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper.
9 December 2011 - 26 February 2012,
Halls of Byzantine and Middle East
St. Petersburg, 7 December 2011 -- Following eight different exhibitions in Europe that attracted over half a million visitors, a new selection of masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum collections will be on show at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, from 9 December 2011 to 26 February 2012.
The exhibition is the first created from the Aga Khan Museum collections to centre on architecture in the Islamic World. The exhibition, sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), has been organised in close cooperation with the Hermitage.
The exhibition is divided into six sections: “Sacred Typographies”, which explores the sites and monuments of Islamic pilgrimage through paintings and drawings; “Religious and Funerary Architecture”, which examines mosques and commemorative shrines; “The Fortress and the City”, which encompasses forts and fortified towns; “The Palace”, which looks at the residences of royal families; “Gardens, Pavilions and Tents”, which discusses the arts of shelter; and “Architecture and the Written Word”, which focuses on architectural spaces contained in miniature painting.
The catalogue contains essays on these themes by Nasser Rabbat, David J. Roxburgh, Kishwar Rizvi, Renata Holod, Sussan Barbaie, James L. Wescoat, jr. and Margaret S. Graves.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are: a miniature entitled “Emperor Jahnagir at the Jharoka Window of the Red Fort in Agra”, painted in 1620 by Nadir a-Zaman, and a folio from the most famous series of paintings in Muslim art, the celebrated Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp; architectural elements like muqarnas and ornamented wood pieces from fifteenth century Spain as well as glazed turquoise earthenware elements from Central Asia; tiled arches from fifteenth century Egypt and ornamental doors from ninth century Iran; sixteenth century Iznik tiles from Turkey and other objects including inkwells, a carpet and a lamp holder.
When it concludes its run at the Hermitage, the “Architecture in Islamic Arts” exhibition will move to the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, and the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.
The masterpieces in the exhibition are part of the collections of the Aga Khan Museum, which is currently under construction and due to open in 2013 in Toronto, Canada. As the first major educational and exhibition centre in North America dedicated to Muslim arts and culture, the Museum’s mission is to inform, educate, and inspire audiences from all cultures by presenting art created in the Islamic world throughout the past fourteen centuries, along with current paths of artistic practice and cultural development.
The Museum collection contains over one thousand artworks spanning over a millennium of history. The objects – in ceramic, metalwork, ivory, stone and wood, textile and carpet, glass and rock crystal, as well as manuscripts and miniature paintings on parchment and on paper – present an overview of the artistic accomplishments of Muslim civilisations from the Iberian Peninsula to China.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is the cultural agency of the Aga Khan Development Network. Through education and cultural initiatives in music and the arts, AKTC aims to highlight the contributions of the Muslim world to global cultural heritage. It also implements programmes aimed at the physical and social revitalisation of communities with the aim of improving the quality of life and, through its architectural programmes, promotes debate about contemporary design problems.
UPCOMING: The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
From November 2011 until February 2012, the Aga Khan Museum Collection will be shown at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The theme will be "Architecture and its Representations in Islamic Arts". The State Hermitage Museum includes more than three million works of art and artefacts of world culture. Among them are paintings, graphic works, sculptures and works of applied art, archaeological finds and numismatic material. For more information about the State Hermitage Museum, please see their website.
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