Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Portugal Celebrates Islamic Art, Past and Present, with Aga Khan Awards

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Portugal Celebrates Islamic Art, Past and Present, with Aga Khan Awards

Article excerpt

"Sitting in a village in the center of Palestine, you have the feeling that nobody knows about you in the midst of all the upheaval of the Arab Spring; then some people notice you, and it makes you feel very good," said Suad Amiry after ceremonies in honor of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2013, held in September in the Portuguese capital.

Amiry, better known as the author of Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, is founder of the Palestinian NGO Riwaq, a winner of this year's Aga Khan Award for the Revitalization of Birzeit Historic Center. The international jury said the Birzeit project "manages to transform not only a neglected historic core but also people's lives, and restores not only buildings but the dignity of their users."

Besides the Birzeit revitalization, four other projects-chosen from nearly 500 entries-share the 2013 architectural prize of $1 million: the rehabilitation of the Tabriz Bazaar in Iran, the Salam Cardiac Center in Sudan, the Hassan II Bridge in Morocco, and the first Islamic cemetery in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg.

Although Portugal was not among the prize winners, nor even represented on the jury, the Architectural Award assumed the importance of a national celebration of Islamic art, past and present. The award ceremony took place in Lisbon's Sao Jorge Castle, with its Moorish fortifications, in the presence of the president and foreign minister of Portugal, the mayor of Lisbon, leaders of Lisbon's Sunni and Ismaili communities, and the Aga Khan. Simultaneously, the City of Lisbon inaugurated an exhibit on "Architecture: the Islamic Heritage in Portugal" in Sao Jorge's main exhibition hall, with the cooperation of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The exhibit features recent excavations of art produced during the Muslim rule in Portugal from 711-1245, and will be open to the public until Jan. 6, 2014.

Addressing the assembly of Portuguese personalities, diplomats and leaders of the country's small Islamic community (about 80,000 in a population of 10 million), Prince Karim Aga Khan noted that this was only the second time the award ceremony was held in a predominantly Christian country (Spain having been the first, in 1998), and praised Portugal's "spirit of pluralism and a respect for diversity." The Ismaili leader explained he set up the architectural prize in 1977 out of concern that the Islamic world was in danger of losing its "proud architectural heritage." He cited as reasons the "colonial impact on Islamic cultures" and the impression that Islamic architecture seemed "consumed by a growing passion to be truly 'modern.'"

This year's projects were more "socially oriented" than those of the past, according to Farrokh Derakhshani, director of the architectural awards, which are presented every three years. He stressed that the prize was not just about restoration or new models of buildings, but rather "the impact on the environment and its users."

Riwaq decided to do "rehabilitation through job creation" in 2000, after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon barred some 150,000 Palestinians-many in the construction industry-from working in Israel, Amiry said in an interview. The Revitalization of Birzeit Historic Center was launched in 2005. Like other Palestinian villages, Birzeit had suffered from the general decline in rural life after 1967, and its situation worsened when Birzeit University moved to Ramallah in the 1980s. …

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