Vol. 3    Issue 13   16-30 November 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Medieval Islamic ewer sold for over £ 3 million

A 1000-year old ewer, carved from flawless rock crystal and decorated with cheetahs and link chains, was sold by Christie’s in London for more than £3 million on October 7, 2008. The ewer from the Fatimid royal treasury in Egypt was earlier mistaken for a French claret jug and valued at £100-200. Christie’s described the ewer as “one of the rarest and most desirable works of art from the Islamic world” (The Guardian, October 8, 2008).

The fascinating world of Islamic glassware

The history of glassmaking goes back to about 5000 years. The earliest finds of coloured glass beads date back to 3000 BC in Egypt. Such beads have been discovered in Mesopotamia as well. The Phoenicians, well-known maritime traders in the ancient world, played an important role in the transportation and dissemination of glass. In the first century AD, important innovations in glassmaking were made by the Romans. With the shifting of the centre of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in the 5th and 6th centuries, the eastern lands emerged as important sites of cultural production.

Muslim artists and craftsmen learned the techniques of glassmaking from the Romans and subsequently introduced new innovations. Glassmaking was taken to new heights by artists and craftsmen in Syria in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the 8th century, Egyptian artists discovered the technique of decorating glass with metallic stains, usually copper and silver. Lustre-painted glassware, perfected by Egyptian and Syrian artisans and craftsmen, was highly valued and traded as far as China and Thailand.

In the 13th century, Muslim artists in Egypt and Syria began to enamel glass with polychrome colours. For centuries artistic glassmaking in the Islamic world had no serious rival anywhere in the world, including Europe.

The Fatimid period (909-1171) was a golden age of arts and crafts. Cairo became a major centre for the production of artistic objects and artefacts. Textiles, furniture, ceramics, glass objects and metalware made in Cairo were highly valued and were exported to the entire Mediterranean region. Fatimid glassware is distinguished by its strikingly wide range of forms and colours. Egyptian bowls were much sought after in Italy (where they were known as bacini), which were used to decorate facades or as liturgical vessels. The technique of making rock crystal artefacts was perfected in Fatimid Egypt and such artefacts were exported as luxury goods to Europe. Hundreds of exquisite rock crystal objects were deposited in church treasuries, where they were used as reliquaries.

Decorated and gilded glass objects made in Egypt and Syria began arriving in Venice through trade and diplomatic gifts around the 10th century. A fairly large number of glass vessels are preserved in the Treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica, some of which had arrived in Venice as part of the booty from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Treasury has the largest single collection of Islamic glassware in Italy.

Enamelled and gilded glass objects from Islamic lands caught the fancy of European knights and princes and members of the nobility. Venetian artists and craftsmen saw the commercial potential of decorated glass and began avidly copying the techniques and designs of Islamic glassware. Soon this became a thriving industry and Venice emerged as a prime centre of glassmaking in Europe. The success of glassmaking in Venice was partly due to the import from the Eastern Mediterranean of raw materials for glassmaking, including high-quality soda ash, cobalt mineral, high-grade alkali and broken glass.

Malta’s Islamic legacy

The European continent is characterised by wide-ranging and significant diversities, which are manifested in its numerous languages and dialects, in the ethnic composition of the population, in religious and sectarian distinctions, in customs and cultural traditions, and in national and regional identities. There are nearly 80 indigenous languages in Europe and 20 of them are officially recognized by the European Union. The European Union’s recognition of the continent’s diversity is reflected in its motto In varietate concordia (united in diversity). This was reiterated in the EU’s Berlin Declaration, approved on March 25, 2007, which said, “We, the citizens of Europe, have united for the better. The unnatural division of Europe is now consigned to the past. We preserve in the European Union the identities and diverse traditions of its member-states”.

Islamic civilization has exercised a profound and enduring influence on Western civilization, which encompasses languages and literary traditions, science and medicine, philosophy, arts and crafts, and architecture. Islamic influences continue to reverberate in present-day European societies.

Malta, an island country situated in the south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, consists of thee inhabited islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) and two uninhabited islets. The capital city is Valletta. Malta joined the European Union in 2004. Malta’s population of 400,000 is ethnically mixed, consisting of Italians, Arabs and British. Nearly 98 per cent of the population consists of Roman Catholics. There is a small Muslim population of 3000, most of whom are foreigners and expatriates.

Muslim conquest of Malta

Arabs from North Africa conquered Malta in 870 when it was under Byzantine rule. In the course of time, large numbers of Muslims arrived from Sicily and North Africa and settled in Malta. Muslim rule lasted for a little over two centuries until 1091 when Malta was conquered by the Normans. Ibn Abd al-Mumin al-Himayri, a 14th-century Arab geographer and historian, has described the Arab conquest of Malta in his book Kitab al-rawd al-mitar fi khabar al-akbar.

The Normans, who had earlier seized Sicily from the Arabs, allowed the Muslims to remain in the island. They were themselves influenced by the Arabic language and Islamic culture. In 1224 Muslims were expelled from Malta, but the pervasive influence of Arabic remained ingrained in popular speech.

The Maltese language is a composite, hybrid language, composed of elements drawn from Arabic, Romance and English. The influence of Arabic on Maltese has been profound and many scholars consider it as an offshoot of Arabic. Some 43 per cent of words in Maltese have been derived from Arabic, an equal percentage from Italian, six per cent from English, and three per cent from Latin and Romance languages. Many family names as well as names of cities and streets reflect their Arabic origins. There is a town called Zejtun, derived from the Arabic Zaytun. There is an old town known as Mdina, obviously derived from the Arabic Madinah (city).

Interestingly, the Maltese word for the Christian feast of Lent is Randan, derived from Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. The Maltese word for God is Alla, evidently derived from the Arabic Allah. A famous street in Malta is known as Tariq Miskita, derived from the Arabic tariq (way) and the Spanish mesquita (mosque). In ancient times a mosque stood at the place. Hundreds of words in Maltese betray their Arabic origins. These include flifla (from the Arabic filfil or pepper), rabat (camp), gzira (from jazira or island), ghar (cave) and ghid (from the Arabic id or feast). Many words in Maltese, which have been derived from Italian and Romance languages, have been Arabicized.

There is a well-known saying in Maltese Tkellem bil-Malti jekk tridni nifhmek (Speak Maltese if you want us to understand you). Interestingly, every word of the proverb is of Arabic origin.

There is a central mosque in Malta and an Islamic cultural centre, which serve as focal points of religious and cultural solidarity for the island’s Muslim community.

The world’s largest private collection of Islamic art

One of the fascinating aspects of the legacy of Islamic civilization is the amazing profusion and variety and the breath-taking beauty of artistic objects and artefacts produced by Muslim artists and craftsmen during the fourteen centuries of the Islamic era. Thousands of such objects are preserved in museums and private collections around the world.

In recent years, Islamic art has been in the focus of attention in the West where thousands of books and learned articles on the subject have been published, international conferences on Islam’s cultural and artistic legacy have been organised, and scores of exhibitions on Islamic art objects have been held. A fabulous exhibition on Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797 was organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris at Pallazo Ducale in Venice between July 28 and November 28, 2007. The exhibition sought to highlight the positive consequences of Venice’s highly fruitful interaction and exchange with the Islamic world over nearly a millennium from the 9th to the 18th century. During this period, a wide range of artefacts, luxury goods and art works flowed from East to West, and sometimes from West to East, through commercial, diplomatic and cultural exchanges. Many works of Islamic art, now in European and American museums as well as in private collections, had passed through Venice and were acquired in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The exhibition brought into focus the degree to which Venetian craftsmen, artists and artisans sought to emulate Islamic styles, techniques and motifs in glassmaking, ceramics, paintings, textiles, metalware, lacquerware, book bindings and arms and armour. Nearly 200 artefacts and objects from more than 60 public and private collections around the world were on display at the exhibition.

The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris organised an exhibition on “The Golden Age of Arab Sciences” in March 2006. More than 200,000 visitors from across the country feasted their eyes on illustrations and objects that focused on the amazing and wide-ranging contributions made by Muslim scientists, physicians, engineers and architects from the 8th to the 14th centuries.

The Khalili Collection

Nasser David Khalili, a 63-year old Iranian-British connoisseur and collector of art objects and property dealer, has the distinction of having the largest and one of the most precious private collections of Islamic art objects from around the world. Khalili, born in a Jewish family which deals in carpets, lacquerware and other Islamic antiques in Isfahan, is on Forbes billionaire list and is the only billionaire in the world whose fortune is derived predominantly from artistic possessions. In the Sunday Times Rich List 2007 ranking of the wealthiest people in the UK, Khalili was placed 5th with an estimated fortune of £ 5,800 million.

Muslim artists and craftsmen learned the techniques of glassmaking from the Romans and, at the same time, introduced new innovations. Glassmaking was taken to new heights by artists and craftsmen in Syria in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the 8th century, Egyptian artists discovered the technique of decorating glass with metallic stains, usually copper and silver. This lustre-painted glassware, perfected by Egyptian and Syrian artisans and craftsmen, was highly valued and traded as far as China and Thailand.

In 1967 Khalili left Tehran for New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science. In 1978 he decided to settle in London for good. He began frequenting the city’s leading auction houses, which whetted his appetite for art objects. His passion for art objects and artefacts soon turned into a lucrative business. He once said, “I used to buy 50 pieces (of art) for $100,000. Over the course of the following year I would keep the five best and sell the rest for $500,000”. One of the most precious and rarest objects in the Khali Collection is a manuscript Jami al-Tawarikh, written by Rashid al-Din in Tabriz in 1314, which Khali purchased for $10 million in 1990 at Sothbey’s auction. The manuscript is now valued at $20 million.

The Khalili Collection contains a wide range of rare Islamic art objects and artefacts from around the world, including rare illuminated manuscripts of the Quran dating from the earliest centuries of the Islamic era, papyri, old manuscripts, miniature painting, ceramics, masterpieces of calligraphy, metalware, glass objects, carpets, textiles, jewellery, maps, coins and astrolabes. The collection that began in the 1970s has now more than 25,000 artifacts valued at $1.6 billion. The entire collection is held by a trust, the Nour Foundation, originally set up by Khalili’s late father.

The Khalili Collection has a rare copy of a 12th century copy of the Quran from Valencia, Spain. There are more 8,000 Islamic coins in the collection, the largest private collection of coins in the world. Nearly 10 per cent of them are either unique or are previously unrecorded, and more than 1200 are gold, including Arab gold coins which bear Latin inscriptions. A rare Islamic coin is an Abbasid dinar struck in 788-89. There are 2,000 ceramic objects, 1000 pieces of metalwork and 300 Islamic glass objects. The collection has a large number of lacquer objects, including more than 500 pen boxes, bookbindings, mirror cases and caskets.

The catalogues of the Khalili Collection run into 27 volumes, of which 17 have already been published. In addition to the catalogues, the Nour Foundation has published a series of books on Islamic art called Studies in the Khalili Collection. The first volume in the series Arabic Papyri, published in 1992, provides a fascinating account of the evolution of Arabic writing in the first three centuries of Islam.

Selected Islamic art objects from the Khalili Collection have been exhibited in several countries, including Switzerland, Spain, Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, London, Australia and the US.

In 1988 Khalili donated $1 million for the establishment of a chair in Islamic art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a research fellowship in Islamic art the University of Oxford. Khalili is the founder and chairman of the Maimonides Foundation, named after the celebrated Jewish philosopher of Andalusia, which strives to promote peace and understanding between Jews and Muslims.

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