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  • His Highness the Aga Khan speaking with Their Majesties the King and Queen of Spain at the inauguration of "The Islamic Worlds in the Aga Khan Museum Collection" exhibition in Madrid.
    AKDN/Hinrick Schmoock
Exhibition from Aga Khan Museum collection inaugurated by King of Spain and Aga Khan in Madrid

Joint Press Release

Madrid, Spain, 4 June 2009 – His Majesty the King, His Highness the Aga Khan, the Honorary President of "la Caixa" and First Vice-President of "la Caixa", Ricardo Fornesa, today inaugurated the exhibition "The Islamic Worlds in the Aga Khan Museum Collection" at CaixaForum Madrid. Jaime Lanaspa, Director of "la Caixa" Foundation and Luis Monreal, Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture also attended the opening ceremony.

The aim of the exhibition, organised by "la Caixa" Social and Cultural Outreach Projects and devoted to ancient cultures, is to show how people from different times and places have confronted major global concerns and also to widen our own world view. Outstanding among recent "la Caixa" events have been exhibitions of Indian figurative sculpture and Etruscan civilisation.

"The Worlds of Islam in the Aga Khan Museum Collection", organised by "la Caixa" Social and Cultural Outreach Projects in cooperation with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture – the cultural arm of the Aga Khan Development Network – presents a total of 190 artefacts representing fourteen centuries of history and extending from the Iberian Peninsula to the Far East.  After its first showing at CaixaForum Madrid, the exhibition will travel to Barcelona where it can be seen from October 2009 to January 2010.

The exhibition sets out to examine current issues surrounding the polarity between east and west and to explore aspects of Muslim culture, which is also an integral part of Spain’s historic heritage. Through works of art from different periods and different parts of the world, the exhibition reflects the splendour of Muslim culture in all its diversity, providing proof of the pluralism of Islam, in its ways of interpreting the Qur’anic faith as well as in the variety of styles, materials and techniques involved in the creation of these works.

The exhibits feature significant and valuable items from practically every dynasty in the history of the Muslim world. These provide an overview of the Islamic world’s finest artistic achievements in wood, stone, gold, bronze, ivory, ceramics and textiles, and on parchment and paper.

Currently, AKTC is in the process of building a museum in Toronto (Canada) to provide a permanent home for its collections. Meanwhile, the works are being shown in various cities around the world.

The exhibition presents the different Islamic dynasties, identifying the territories over which each dynasty ruled following the break-up of the Abbasid caliphate at the end of the ninth century. The Umayyads held sway over al-Andalus, the Fatimids and the Mamelukes reigned in Egypt, the Ottomans in Turkey, and the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. The essential characteristics of Islamic courtly culture can be seen in generic portraits of respective sovereigns in profile. The works of art on display also emphasise the high cultural level of the Islamic courts responsible for spreading knowledge of Ancient Greece to the west via translations in Arabic.

Also reflected in the exhibition are the fundamental features of Islamic architecture, including a capital in the Roman tradition but with Islamic ornamental motifs, as well as beams and doors in carved wood. The most outstanding examples of painting are found in books illustrated with miniatures and portraits of kings and sultans.

The exhibits are divided into three large sections. The central section is devoted to The Qur’anic Faith while the other two guide viewers through various Islamic courts using as a metaphor a journey in two stages – From Cordoba to Damascus and From Baghdad to Delhi.

The Qur’anic Faith

The Qur’an was a source of inspiration for the many artists, artisans and architects who created sumptuous examples of the holy book with beautiful calligraphy, as well as works of refined sensibility designed to spread the teachings of the Qur’an across the Islamic world. Copying verses of the Qur’an was regarded as a form of religious devotion, hence their presence in a wide variety of settings. Throughout this section, visitors can admire distinctive and highly decorative styles of Arabic script.

  • The Qur’an in different media. In this section, visitors can see a splendid collection of Qur’ans from every geographical region covered by the exhibition, from ninth- and tenth-century folios written in gold originating from North Africa to a nineteenth-century Indonesian Qur’an. Displayed along with these are pieces in porcelain, painted ceramic, gold and carved wood with inscriptions from the sacred text. The earliest manuscripts were written on parchment, but in the tenth century, when parchment was superseded by paper, production of Qur’ans increased across the Islamic world. The Aga Khan Museum collection includes both small-format books for personal use and larger Qur’ans used in the largest mosques. Architectural works also incorporated Qur’anic inscriptions, either carved in stone or in the form of a frieze in brick and tiles. The word “God” was also inscribed on more modest surfaces, such as leaves or shells, as abiding acts of eternal devotion and artistic virtuosity.
  • Mysticism. Mystics, known as Sufis or Dervishes, seek union with God through prayer and dhikr, the repetition of sacred words or phrases. One of the best-known mystics was the poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, whose followers, the Mevlevi Dervishes, have spread his poetry throughout the world. Princes and rulers employed Dervishes as spiritual advisors and in some works of art they are portrayed discussing religious topics with their masters.
  • Pilgrimage and prayer. The diversity of artistic styles seen in this section of the exhibition shows the impact of pilgrimage right across the Islamic world. Here, we find the many forms of religious art, varying according to time and place. Examples range from decorations on travel documents to murals from pilgrims’ houses in Egypt and representations of pilgrims’ personal recollections. The pilgrims’ desire to show that they had fulfilled their sacred obligation led to the widespread publication of maps of Mecca and plans of the city’s Grand Mosque and other places visited.

From Cordoba to Damascus

Under the Umayyad caliphate, the Iberian Peninsula formed part of a vast transcontinental empire extending from Cordoba to Damascus which became the pinnacle of human civilisation. All new ideas came from the east, in the form of literary and scientific works from Antiquity, lost after the fall of the Roman Empire but preserved in Arabic translation. So, too, did the works of great Muslim humanists and scientists which laid the foundations for the development of astronomy, mathematics and natural history. The artistic styles of Byzantium and Ancient Persia also spread along the trade routes.

  • Al-Andalus and the Magreb. Between 711 and 714 the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsular. The Umayyad dynasty introduced to the Peninsula an artistic style rooted in Syria with a combination of Roman-Byzantine and Iranian elements. In 756, after their overthrow in Syria, the Umayyads took refuge in al-Andalus and the art of the period showed distinctly oriental characteristics. The artistic influence of al-Andalus was felt in Morocco and Tunisia and even in the sub-Saharan regions of Mauritania and Mali. This continued into the Middle Ages, with periods of exquisite sophistication, such as the time of the sultanate of Granada.
  • Egypt and Syria. In 750 the Abbasids toppled the Umayyads, the first Islamic dynasty, and the hub of cultural and political life moved from Damascus to Baghdad. For five centuries Syria and Egypt lived through a period of constant turmoil. The political comings and goings were reflected in the mixture of artistic motifs, styles and techniques which also came and went. For example, glazed ceramics developed in eighth-century Egypt and Syria, were then exported to Iraq, only to re-emerge as a decorative element in Egypt during the Fatimid era. In the tenth century, the Fatimids came to rule Mecca and Medina, Yemen and parts of Palestine and Syria. Military confrontations between opposing factions created economic problems for the caliph who, in 1060, was unable to pay the salaries of his soldiers, who promptly ransacked the treasury. The description of the raid provides an extraordinary account of the luxury and refinement of life at court, examples of which are featured in the exhibition. They include carved rock crystal containers designed to hold precious substances, woven fabrics as fragile as spiders’ webs inscribed with the name of the caliph and his many virtues, and delicate filigree and enamel jewellery. The Fatimid dynasty was deposed by Saladin in 1171. On his death, power passed into the hands of the Mamelukes, a military caste composed of former slaves. One of the requirements for would-be rulers was to have been born into slavery. Most of the buildings of the period were monumental mausoleums with enormous domes designed to emphasize the distinctive personality of each leader. The buildings were equipped with copies of the Qur’an, candelabra and precious objects.
  • Anatolia: the Ottomans. The objects displayed in this room date from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. During this period the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal states dominated a wide area between the Middle East, Africa and India, making vast profits from trade. The sultans encouraged the creation of an imperial style of art incorporating non-figurative decoration without plant or floral motifs. In the second half of the sixteenth century, portraits in relief became popular. They showed the sultan, magnificent, cultured and powerful, surrounded by his subjects.

From Baghdad to Delhi

In the seventh-century Arabo-Muslim invaders seized all the territories belonging to their former rival, the Persian Empire, uniting the lands between the Rivers Tagus and Indus to create a single entity. Artistically, as a result of commercial and cultural contacts and the presence of Chinese artists, Far Eastern influences were added to the predominant Persian style.

  • Mesopotamia. In 750 Baghdad became the capital of the Muslim world. Ancient Persian culture had left its highly visible imprint on the artistic expression of the region. Trade with the Orient promoted a taste for the exotic, which is reflected in ceramics of the period. Books experienced a golden age with the publication of scientific and literary works and “mirrors for princes”, books of an improving nature which rulers used as educational manuals.
  • Iran and Central Asia Central. In 651 Muslim forces conquered Iran. Greater Iran, which at various points in history had embraced Iran, Iraq, Armenia, parts of Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and some coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula, became part of the Abbasid caliphate. Among pre-Islamic Iranian traditions were craftsmanship in glass and metal, stuccoed mural painting and the silk industry. Decorative motifs of the Near East, such as pairs of birds or griffins, lions and strings of pearls, became part of Islam’s visual vocabulary. One of the region’s most important contributions was in the world of literature. the Shahnama (Book of Kings), a lavishly illustrated collection of legends of ancient Iranian kings and heroes. In Iran, Muslims came under Chinese influence. The Seljuks and the Mughal Khans, who overthrew the Abbasid caliphate in 1258, introduced an aesthetic inspired by the Far East with Chinese motifs such as the lotus flower, the dragon and the phoenix, as well as woodcarving techniques.Sixteenth-century art opened up to foreign influences. New metalworking techniques emerged enabling craftsmen to produce art objects in openwork steel. The seventeenth century saw a growing interest in portraiture, partly as a consequence of the importation of European engravings. Each court developed its own iconography. The Safavids usually had themselves portrayed ceremonially welcoming foreign ambassadors, so extolling their authority and generosity of spirit. The Qajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1779 to 1925. Fat'h Ali Shah came to the throne at a time of political instability. This may have been the reason why he chose to promote the imperial image by commissioning a large number of portraits of himself to be hung in every official department. Later, Nasir al-Din Shah championed artistic and technological ideas from Europe. The Shah himself took a keen interest in photography.
  • India and the Mughals. Mughal art is characterised by its naturalism with portraits of sultans and other illustrious persons, depictions of Indian flora and fauna, and scenes showing important historical events during the sultan’s reign. Painting is one of the key expressions of Mughal art, used as a resource to accentuate the ruler’s authority. Genealogical and historical paintings underlined the legitimacy and power of the various dynasties. Other works illustrated the importance of ceremonies such as the darbar, or public audience, and darshan, a ritual stressing the divine right of the sovereign. Painting overlapped with various other artforms, with compositions designed to provoke in viewers sensory responses similar to their reaction to music, and paintings drawn from the world of literature with scenes representing epics and legends.

Opening Hours, Location and Related Events:  

CaixaForum Madrid
Paseo del Prado, 36
28014 Madrid

Opening hours
Monday–Friday and Sunday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Saturday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

"la Caixa" Social and Cultural Outreach Projects Information Department
Monday – Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Tel.: 902 22 30 40

Entrance to the exhibition is free

Related Events

Prices: Per session: €2 (LKXA, Club Estrella, Carnet Joven and Carnet +25 cardholders: €1). Limited seating

Artistic Mornings: The Worlds of Islam 

Courses led by Islamologist Víctor PALLEJÀ of the University of Alicante

Friday 5 June, 11.30 a.m.

An approach to Islamic art: unity and multiplicity
To gain a better understanding of Islamic art it is important to appreciate how it maintains unity in a context that is very broad and also extremely complex. The usual, sometimes ill-defined, boundaries and concepts must be re-examined so as to achieve a global and intelligent vision of “the Worlds of Islam”.

Thursday 11 June, 11.30 a.m.

The fascination of the written word: epigraphy and the Qur’an
Islam’s sacred text, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a long period, occupies a central place in Qur’anic artistic sensibility. It is crucial to understand why calligraphy is the visual art par excellence and how it offers the reader a deeper comprehension of the language. A study of calligraphy reveals many of the deepest secrets of the calligrapher’s art.

Friday 19 June, 11:30 a.m.

Living in a cosmopolitan culture: architecture and movement
Islamic art and artists have lived in a civilisation that is simultaneously urban and itinerant. Palaces, gardens and houses have frequently provided shelter for people on the move. These twin aspects of artistic life in the Muslim world explain the development and large-scale dissemination of the unique aesthetic that distinguishes Islamic art. Its unique “architecture” goes hand-in-hand with a sophisticated way of life that endured for centuries and is still much admired today.

Friday, 26 June, 11.30 a.m.

Artistic experience and sensibility: pilgrimage and mysticism
The rich fund of allusions and ideas expressed in Islamic art stem from a vast store of traditions and teachings developed within Islam. Specifically, pilgrimage has created a way of life that has allowed art to flourish at every level of society. Among its many spiritual dimensions, the world of the Sufis provides an important inspiration for artistic expression, full of different meanings and communicating artists’ personal experiences.

Music on Film – A Series about the Music of Central Asia
During the Soviet era, the traditions of many Central Asian republics were diluted by the cultural and artistic uniformity imposed from Moscow. Most of the musical traditions of these cultures were lost or forced to undergo considerable modifications to comply with western models and tastes. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 musicians from Central Asia began a journey back to their roots with the aim of recovering and preserving the treasures of their cultural heritage and making them known to a much wider public.

Co-produced by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Smithsonian Institute’s Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the series presents some of the finest exponents of the different musical traditions of Central Asia through the medium of high-quality documentary films. These focus on the lives, work and sources of inspiration of a generation of musicians whose talent and innovative ideas have revitalised this musical legacy. These intimate and moving portraits invite viewers to explore fascinating but still virtually unknown cultures.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009, 7.30 p.m.

Tengir-Too: Mountain Music from Kyrgyzstan. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2005, 24 min, ORIGINAL VERSION WITH SPANISH SUBTITLES

Invisible face of the Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2005, 24 min, ORIGINAL VERSION WITH SPANISH SUBTITLES

Wednesday, 17 June 2009, 7.30 p.m.
Homayoun Sakhi: The Art of the Afghan Rubab. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2005, 24 min, ORIGINAL VERSION WITH SPANISH SUBTITLES

Bardic Divas: Women’s Voices in Central Asia. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2007, 24 min, ORIGINAL VERSION WITH SPANISH SUBTITLES

Wednesday 24 June 2009, 7.30 p.m.

Badakhshan Ensemble: Song and Dance from the Pamir Mountains. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2007, 24 min, ORIGINAL VERSION WITH SPANISH SUBTITLES

Alim and Fargana Qasimov: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2005, 24 min, ORIGINAL VERSION WITH SPANISH SUBTITLES