Friday, September 19, 2014

Highlights of the Museum of Islamic Art

I was out at the museum the other day, I go every couple of months to look at the exhibits and see what new things they had put out from the collection. Between looking at the exhibits and relaxing at the café there it's a nice way to spend a weekend afternoon.

As I wander through the exhibits there are always certain pieces that catch my eye or I just find more interesting than the others. This time I decided to take pictures of them and post it here. These aren't necessarily the finest pieces in the Museum, or the most valuable, but they're ones that I happen to like for a particular reason or another.

This tiny item is an astrolabe, made in the 17th century. The museum has many astrolabes and other scientific equipment that was used by scientists in the Islamic world. I like this one because of its small size and more importantly because of the little fabric protector that came with it. It shows that the owner of the piece thought it was valuable enough to keep it protected, which indicates its importance. Too often nowadays many people see Islam as some kind of anti-science religion but both historically and today that is not the case, as this astrolabe shows. Sadly, extremism getting a lot of attention from the mainstream press is clouding people's views on how Islam treats science.

In keeping with the science theme here is a late 15th century astronomical treatise. I'm not entirely sure where it was made but the Museum signage said the symbol of the Ottoman Sultan of the time is in the book so it was likely written either in Turkey or somewhere near it. Of note is the picture, showing how a solar eclipse forms. The picture has the Sun rotating around the Earth so the book pre-dates the heliocentric model of Copernicus (1543). There's been some speculation that the works of previous Islamic astronomers inspired Copernicus to develop the heliocentric model but this book shows that the model of having the Earth at the center appeared to be the prevailing theory even amongst Islamic scholars.

Islamic art heavily focused on geometric designs and patterns, which would infuse almost everything, from carpets to calligraphy to doors. Case in point, this 14th-century incense burner. Look at all the patterns, calligraphy, and workmanship that has gone into something as straightforward as an incense burner. Even today many Arabs’ taste in things like furniture tend towards styles that are lavish, decorative and ornate, not unlike tastes from the Victorian times in England.

This bowl is one of the central pieces of the museum's collection. It seems oddly simplistic, almost modern, a plain bowl with a single word offset from the center (I'm not even sure what the word is, it's in a stylized calligraphy). Despite its somewhat modern look the bowl is actually from the 9th century from what is now Basra. Many years ago I attended a lecture at the Museum that was about this bowl and its history and what it said about trade routes and cultural influences from other areas etc. It was actually a good lecture, almost an hour talking about this bowl in what it represented.

I don't know what it is about this monkey figurine but I just find it a little spooky staring at me with those holes for eyes. Maybe it’s the lighting. It almost looks, to my completely untrained eye, Mesoamerican but it’s actually Iranian from the 13th century. I wonder what it was for.

Here are a couple of pages of the Qur’an in one of the earliest forms of Qur’anic writing -- Hijazi script. It was in use at around the time of the Prophet and these pages date to the 7th century, which I believe makes them the oldest pages of the Qur’an in the Museum. Hijazi script quickly fell into disuse in favour of the more formalized Kufic script, which dominated Arabic calligraphy for the next 2 to 3 centuries. The standard calligraphy for modern Qur’ans looks nothing like Hijazi or Kufic and I don’t believe either are used anymore.

A bottle over 700 years ahead of its time? Looking at this I could picture this bottle being made in an Art Deco studio from the early 20th century. But it's actually from the 13th century, made in either Egypt or Syria. Cool little bottle.

This mask always catches my attention more because of the display. The lighting and the weird shadows the mask casts looks cool.

While the museum does rotate the collection they always seem to have this portrait of Fath Ali Shah, one of the Shahs of Iran, on display. As you might imagine the Shah was very proud of his beard and that is one serious beard! I don't think the artist was embellishing it either, there are number of portraits in existence of the Shah and I believe they all show that huge beard. As the Shah he was also a style trendsetter so any paintings I've seen of the Persian aristocracy from this period shows a lot of large beards and moustaches. It may have been a masculinity thing, the Shah was also keen to demonstrate his virility and had over 100 children. Having such a large family did not help the Royal Family hold onto power and the Qajar Dynasty lasted less than 100 years after the death of Fath Ali Shah.

Anyone who visits the Museum will remember the room displaying the jewelry from the Mughal rulers of India. I don’t think anyone else did lavish jewelry like the Indians did. Yes, those stones are real -- emeralds, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, all set in gold. And the room displays many more pieces just like the ones you see here. Pretty mind-blowing the amount of precious stones those emperors had available to them.

Finally, there is a document with a very specific signature. This is the tughra (seal) of Sultan Suleiman I, better known as Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman is generally regarded as one of the greatest of the Ottoman rulers and his rule is considered the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire, both artistically and in terms of military might. Most people have forgetten that it was only in the last century that much of the Arabian Peninsula was independent; the area, and much of the Islamic world, was under Ottoman control for nearly 500 years. The tughra on display serves as a reminder that was not all that long ago that the Ottomans were in charge of the region.

If you haven't been in a while take some time to visit the Museum and find pieces that you enjoy.


Anonymous said...

The inscription on THE BOWL was 'what was done was worthwhile' (I remember going to that lecture with you).
BTW, I've always loved the Astrolabes and the Monkey too.

Glen McKay said...

:) spooky monkey