Old and New

By Schjeldahl, Peter | The New Yorker, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Old and New


Schjeldahl, Peter, The New Yorker


Fourteen lamps hanging, aglow, beckon you to an entrance to the Metropolitan Museum's Islamic wing, which is open again after eight years of expansion and renovation. The lamps were made recently, in Brooklyn, of clear glass, tactfully absent the garnishes of pattern and color of the venerable mosque lamps in display cases below them. Sheila Canby, the chief curator of the museum's Islamic department, told me that the new lamps are deliberate bait: a bit of theatre to advertise the display of some twelve hundred objects. Fifteen galleries represent historical Muslim realms from Spain to South Asia, between the seventh and the twentieth century. (Trying to do it all in a day will wreck you; come back repeatedly.) Likewise, the museum commissioned, from Egypt, the wooden grilles for the windows that look out onto the atrium of the Roman Court; and Moroccan craftsmen built a lovely tiled and cedar-beamed Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard, with a bubbling fountain. Canby and her team understand that many in the museum's public lack familiarity with Islamic arts. I recall being practically alone on visits to the dim and disheartening cul-de-sac of the old wing. The new one, grandly processional in scheme and finely intimate in detail, does its job of attraction and initiation with judicious flair. But the job is tough.

Clash or no clash, Islamic and Western civilizations hardly harmonize. Consider that almost none of the religious, courtly, and domestic objects in the wing were created for exhibition. They had uses. Many--very many--are beautiful. Beauty rolls in waves and seethes in eddies throughout the installations of dazzling ceramics, noble architectural fragments and statuary, fabulous carpets, enchanting miniatures from manuscripts and albums, and the extraordinarily varied and elegant calligraphy of handmade Korans, along with choice fabrics, metalwork, jewelry, and weapons. But it's beauty with a purpose, and it demands historical awareness. Succinct wall texts helpfully describe apposite regions, sects, dynasties, styles, patrons, and events. As the names take on meaning, the exhibits come alive. I count myself a fit representative of the sketchily informed Occidental viewer, almost confident at some points while gasping like a beached fish at others. The coincidental timing of the new wing's debut invites each of us to a personal Arab Spring.

Born in Mecca early in the seventh century, Islam spread swiftly under the caliphs of Medina and then, starting in 661, under the Damascus-centered Umayyads, whose empire surged as far as the Atlantic and the Indus Valley. In 750, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads. They made Baghdad (and later also Samarra) their capital and instituted the Golden Age of Islam, rich in literature, science, mathematics, and scholarship. The Abbasids gradually lost power amid numerous conflicts: with the Umayyads, who retained Western lands; the schismatic Shia Muslims; the Christians, who waged the Crusades; and the Mongols, who destroyed Baghdad in 1258. Islam was subjected to a new round of conquests in the late fourteenth century, when Timur, or Tamerlane--a Muslim, but ecumenically murderous even of co-religionists--subdued most of western and central Asia. His descendants ruled Iran, among other regions. Their regimes fostered glorious arts, comparable to those of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent. West of them, the Ottomans conquered Byzantine Constantinople in 1453; surged into Europe until they were stopped, twice, at the gates of Vienna, in 1529 and 1683; and dominated the Middle East until the nineteenth century, when temporal Islam underwent spates of humiliation by European powers.

Through it all, one thing remains constant: the Koran. The book of Muhammad's revelations, told to him via the Archangel Gabriel, is central to all Islamic cultures. First propagated orally by the Prophet's followers and inscribed on whatever materials were at hand, the text continued to be handwritten by calligraphers long after Gutenberg mechanically printed the Bible, in the fourteen-fifties. …

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