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On the Magic Carpet of the Met

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John Stewart Kennedy Fund/Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ivory panel that formed one side of a casket; 4 x 8 inches, from Spain, probably Cordova, tenth to early eleventh century

To look at the glassware, the carved wooden panels, the exquisite stucco work and the silver dishes associated with Syria, Iraq, and Iran—displayed in Gallery 451 as “The Art of the Early Caliphates (7th to 10th Centuries)”—is to look at an artistic landscape still bathed in the late afternoon sun of antiquity, whether this is the antiquity of the Eastern Roman Empire or the ever-present, proud memory of the Sasanian Empire of Iran.

It is the same with the populations of these regions. The majority of them continued to live in a late late antique world. Over much of the Middle East, Christianity took a long time to shrink into the position of a religious minority. Well into the Middle Ages, Christians in the Middle East and Zoroastrians in Iran and Central Asia were the majority, and the Muslims were a vivid but small minority.

To take one example: the Syriac-speaking populations of what are now Syria, eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq continued to act as intermediaries between the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean and the new Arabic culture of Baghdad in Mesopotamia. As late as the eighth century CE, abbots of great Syriac monasteries on the Euphrates still wrote about the river Tiber in Rome and the relation of the story of Romulus and Remus to the New Year’s feast of the Roman Kalends (first day) of January. This was a feast that Christians had continued to celebrate with pagan exuberance—despite the admonitions of their bishops—well into Muslim times, in great basilicas as far apart as Antioch and Tunis. In large areas of the Middle East, no clock had struck to sound the end of late antiquity.

Indeed, far from vanishing, these Christian populations played a crucial part in passing on to the Muslims much of the culture of the Greco-Roman world. This transfer happened through innumerable dialogues between representatives of the old world and their new Arabic-speaking interlocutors.

Listening to these scraps of dialogue (many of which are preserved in as yet unpublished Syriac texts), we can catch a hint of a decisive if barely audible conversation: the long, slow parley by which many members (but by no means all) of the Christian and Zoroastrian communities of the region slowly but surely talked themselves into being Muslims, while bringing into Islam much of the richness of their own culture and worldview. Seen in this light, what matters about the civilization of Islam in its first centuries is not that it created a tabula rasa. Rather, it is the exact opposite. What is truly impressive is the poise and adaptability with which a relatively small, dominant group of Muslims rode the huge swell of an ocean whose waves came from the deep past.

In the course of this constant, self-conscious dialogue with an older world, decisive choices were made. The portrayal of living figures in religious settings came to be widely rejected as a Christian abuse, not suitable for Muslims. Most of the figures and faces (many of them very beautiful) that we see in these galleries occur in nonreligious scenes. For a century, roughly between 740 and 840, the Middle East was shaken by a sharp debate on the use of images in worship. In Byzantium, this debate took the form of what we call the Iconoclast Controversy. Religious images survived: the walls of Byzantine churches came to be crowded with tranquil, late-classical faces. In Islam, by contrast, the tide of ornament, which was already running fast in late antiquity, reached a new height. The spread of ornament over flat surfaces created a new and distinctive form of beauty, in which one might say that weaving had replaced painting and stone carving as the master art.

Yet viewed from the West, both religious zones (Christian Byzantium and the Muslim territories) seem, despite their differences, to have much in common. Both were zones of flat art. Both opted against three-dimensional sculpture. Anyone who comes from a prolonged stay in Greece or the Middle East to the Western medieval art exhibited in the Cloisters Museum in New York is liable to be shocked, for a moment, by the heavy, seemingly bulbous statues of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints that proliferated in medieval Catholic Europe. What for us is a sign of realism and a welcome bridge toward human contact with divine and holy figures would have struck Byzantine Christians quite as much as Muslims as somehow overdone. Such art lacked the reticence and the sense of transcendence conveyed by quiet surfaces where the eye itself has to work—to give three-dimensional form to an icon of a saint or to search out, in the midst of exquisitely woven patterns, the mighty letters of citations from the Koran.

The second impression, as one walks through these rooms, is of the sheer size of the Islamic world in its final form, and of the extraordinary degree of mutual visibility that existed between its various regions. But what were the themes that passed with greatest frequency and insistency from one end of this great echo chamber to the other?

The first, of course, is the omnipresence of the Koran. Korans similar to those that occupy the center of the exhibition at the Morgan Library can be found in almost every room of the new galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. But what needs a leap of the imagination to enter into is the manner in which the omnipresence of Korans (or of citations from the Koran on objects of every kind) was based on a sense of the peculiar omnipresence of God in Muslim thought and piety.

This is a God who is always present everywhere. There is no special place reserved for God, where He might be more present than anywhere else—no body and blood of God in the Eucharist, no haunting presence of Christ and the Virgin in icons. Even the cult of saints, which was widespread among Muslims in all areas, never held the same unchallenged high ground as it did in contemporary Catholic Europe.

In the same way, no human activity was closed to God. Medieval Christians professed to be shocked by the ease with which Muslims combined piety and warfare. Nor was sex considered to be a no-go area. Celibacy was practiced by some Muslim ascetics. But it never carried the symbolic charge that it carried in Catholic Western Europe. We need to remind ourselves that Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī was a near contemporary of Saint Francis and his celibate followers. By contrast, in Rūmī’s mausoleum at Konya, in present-day Turkey, the huge sarcophagus of this spiritual giant, built in 1274, is flanked by the smaller tombs of an entire family of thoroughly well-married descendants.

What we tend to forget in making this somewhat obvious distinction between medieval Christianity and Islam is the intimacy that such an attitude toward the omnipresence of God bestows on the Koran itself. It is a book for all places and all seasons. In the words of the prayer of the calligrapher of the great Koran produced in the Persian city of Shiraz in around 1580 (which we see first as we enter the exhibition at the Morgan Library):

Oh God, make for us the Koran a constant companion in this world, a consoler to the grave, and…a guide for all good works.

The sound of the recitation of the Koran, always in its original Arabic, wove a divine thread through the noise of every day life. In a Sufi meeting place in medieval Cairo, skilled readers were employed to read out portions of the Koran from a window that overlooked the busy street, so that the holy words might be heard by passersby, and “refresh whoever hears it, or soften his heart.”

But these galleries make clear that the Koran was not the only great echo that resounded throughout this world. It requires a further leap of the imagination to recapture the weight of a parallel phenomenon: the role of luxury itself as part of a worldwide language of power. So much of what we see in these galleries is as much a product of a world of princes as is the art of the Italian Renaissance—in Florence, Venice, and papal Rome, and in the royal courts of sixteenth-century Europe. What we have to understand is the almost numinous authority that such art conveyed. It reached back to the great monarchies of the pre-Islamic Middle East, and especially to Sasanian Persia. (It is entirely apposite that one exit from these galleries leads directly to the section on the ancient Near East, where we are immediately confronted with the silver head of a Sasanian king, possibly Shapur II (310–379), one of the great kings of Persia.)

This art of the princes stretched to every corner of the Muslim territories. It eventually reached far down the social scale, in a remarkable process of democratization, so as to bring a touch of royalty to merchants, townsmen, and artisans, who dined off golden lusterware and burnished tin rather than from the gold and silver of ancient kings. It cast a penumbra far beyond the clear shadow of the Koran. This was an art of luxury that crossed all frontiers. European Christians constantly benefited from it—from the silk robes of the Christian kings of medieval northern Spain to early modern times, when the velvet sashes of Kashan, in Iran—“a high point in the history of weaving that has never been equaled since”—were prized by the Polish nobility and great Ottoman kaftans sheathed the Calvinist princes of eastern Transylvania.

For the art of princes was not marked out as a religious art. It was an art of power, comfort, and majesty. Access to it enhanced the prestige of Western Christian princes. Even the Oliphant (the famous ivory trumpet with which Roland was said to have summoned the armies of Charlemagne against the Muslims of Spain) would have come to Christian Europe as a gift from a Muslim court. Almost a millennium later, the situation was the same. A comparison of the textiles and the decorative metalwork of Europe and the Middle East, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, such as was made available in the magnificent 2007 exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum “Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797,” shows that the great seesaw of the princely arts—in which paintings and monumental architecture (the stuff of conventional art history) counted for less than jewelry, worked metal, and stupendous textiles—was evenly balanced between Venice, Istanbul, and Shiraz.

Let us conclude on this theme. It was brought to our attention by a genius and a genial giant in the study of Islamic art in all its periods and territories—the late Professor Oleg Grabar. The mark of Oleg Grabar is plain throughout the Met’s catalog. It is explicitly acknowledged in the article written for the catalog by Olga Bush, “Art of Spain, North Africa, and the Western Mediterranean.”

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