Islam perused through its art

Dynasties, cultural wealth and diversity, cross-influences, raids and hegemonies: this is the fascinating history that unfolds through the centuries under the single, unifying power of the Muslim faith, one of the greatest of the monotheistic religions. Beginning in the seventh century, the Arabs built one of the most powerful empires in the world, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River, and turned a large part of the Eastern (and part of the Western) world into Muslim-dominated territory. This fascinating history of the Islamic world as seen through its art and artifacts unfolds before our eyes in the Benaki Museum’s new Museum of Islamic Art (a recently opened annex of the Benaki located at the heart of the Kerameikos district in a neoclassical building complex that the late Lambros Eftaxias donated to the museum), which houses part of the museum’s highly reputable collection of Islamic art. The museum’s curators and experts in the field, Anna Balian and Mina Moraitou, together with their team, have done an excellent job in mapping out a chronologically structured cultural route through the succession of dynasties that make up the Islamic world. The thread begins in the seventh century: The Arabs toppled the Sassanid dynasty of Persia, conquered the southern provinces of Byzantium and the Iberian peninsula and built an empire whose seat was at Medina. The Umayyads – the first Islamic dynasty – then moved the seat to Damascus. After the mid-eighth century, the Abbasids who overthrew this first dynasty (the last Umayyad escaped and established an autonomous dynasty in the Iberian peninsula) founded Baghad as the new capital but around a century later lost control of some of their territories to local dynasties such as the Samanids in East Iran and the Fatimids (a Shi’ite sect who opposed the Sunni caliphs of Baghdad) in North Africa and later, Egypt and Syria. This schematic succession of dynasties is represented in the artifacts shown in the museum’s first hall that covers the period from the seventh-12th centuries. The influence of the Greco-Roman world but also of Byzantine culture in the decorative motifs of artifacts dating from the early Islamic period – the grapevines motif for example – suggest a time of transition as well as a succession of cultural influences that do not stop until the 19th century. A pair of doors from Iraq dating from the mid-eighth century are an outstanding example of classical Umayyad art, with a representation of the «tree of life» amid dense foliage. Also on display is an impressive collection of Fatimid pottery of the so-called «princely cycle.» Originating in Egypt and dating from the 10th-12th centuries, this gold-and-white ceramicware with its figurative decorative motifs suggest that figuration was allowed in the art of Islam as long as it was not related to religious use. In the early 11th century, the Turkish tribes living in the northeast of the caliphate, under the leadership of the Seljuq Turks, overran Iran, Iraq and Syria and later took over Byzantine Asia Minor. Two centuries later, the raids of the Mongol dynasties (their advance into Syria and Egypt was checked by the Mamluk dynasty, 1250-1517) unified Central Asia with China and introduced a decorative vocabulary heavily influenced by Chinese art. In the Benaki Museum’s second hall, which covers the «Classical Period of Islamic Art» from the 12th-16th centuries, several finds show the influence of Chinese art: A turquoize-colored small dish with a lobed rim, for example, clearly mimics Chinese celadon ceramics, and particularly the Chinese stoneware of the Song period which was imported to the Islamic world and admired for its translucence. Gems in this hall include a brass astrolabe dating from early 14th century Syria. The find, which is the only known example of a universal astrolabe, bears the names of its four later owners as well as the inscription of its maker and manufacturing date. It shows the contribution of the Muslim world to the development of astronomy. A densely ornamented brass candlestick inlaid with silver and gold, signed by its master craftsman and dating from early 14th century Iraq, is a fine example of the elaborate and detailed decoration that is one of the distinctive traits of Islamic art. The exhibition moves on to the 16th and 17th centuries, a period in which the Islamic world was dominated by three major dynasties: the Ottomans in the Near East, North Africa and the Balkans (1281-1924), the Safavids in Iran (1503-1732) and the Mughals in India (1526-1858). Sixteenth-century Ottoman Iznik pottery, with its use of a distinctive red color applied to produce an unusual wax-like relief effect, as well as its decorative motifs of tulips, pomegranates and carnations, was very much in demand by European diplomatic missions and was exported to Italy where it influenced local potters. A wonderful selection of Iznik pottery and Ottoman tiles that adorned religious edifices erected by the Sultan are among the most impressive pieces in the Benaki Museum. One is amazed at the broad range of cross-cultural influences which, to a certain extent, were enhanced by commercial exchanges. The motifs on a velvet saddle from Bursa, for example, seem, to a Western eye at least, Italian. A major weaving and trading center, Bursa was the final station for caravans bringing raw silk from Iran as well as a point of commercial exchange for European traders. Seventeenth-century, blue-and-white ceramicware from Iran capture the cultural connections between China, the Islamic world and Europe: A Persian imitation of Chinese pottery, this ware met the Dutch and British markets’ demand for Chinese ceramicware at a time when the Chinese borders were closed. Persian potters had been exposed to Chinese influence in pottery since the ninth century. Also in this hall, it is possible to view the marble floor taken from the reception hall of a 17th century Cairo mansion. A central fountain, wooden window screens and stained-glass windows provide a sense of what these reception halls looked like. The museum’s last hall covers the period from the 17th-19th centuries and follows the gradual shrinkage of the Islamic world as European colonialism spread, the Ottoman Empire grew weaker – starting from the end of the 17th century – and the Russians expanded into the East. One of the Islamic world’s bastions was the Qajar dynasty (1779-1924). It was they who reunified Iran after the collapse of Safavid Empire, transferred their capital to Tehran and managed to resist Russian expansionism. Originating from Qajar Iran is a wonderful collection of enamel-painted jewelry and sumptuously decorated articles. The miniature-like painting is exquisitely detailed and is a striking example of a Persian adaptation of a strong Western influence. In the same hall, there are Persian manuscripts, wooden writing chests decorated with marble and mother-of-pearl (these were luxury items exported from Western India to Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran as well as to Europe) and 18th century ceramic ware from Kutahya. An intricate and diversified culture that ruled a large part of the world, Islam has left its imprint beyond the actual territory it occupied. The new annex of the Benaki Museum, yet one more ambitious project by this reputable institution, offers access to this civilization while also providing a more rounded understanding of history. Benaki’s New Museum of Islamic Art, 22 Asomaton & Dipylou, Kerameikos, 210.322.5550. Open daily from 9 a.m – 9 p.m.

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