Treasures of the faith
As of today, artefacts are going on show in the Emirates Palace that have never before been allowed to leave their museums in Istanbul. Some, indeed, have rarely been on public display at all.
The objects are being shown as part of Gallery One’s new exhibition, Islam: Faith and Worship, which uses treasures from the Ottoman Empire and earlier dynasties to illustrate the tenets and practice of the world’s fastest-growing religion. From the inspiration of the Prophet Mohammed to Muslim funerary custom, Islam is elaborated as a body of doctrine, a pattern of practices and – on the evidence of the present exhibition – a tradition of the most exquisite artistry.
Sixteenth-century golden locks are chased with holy texts in script so fine it looks like filigree. A wooden Quran box has a lid domed like the Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, and mother-of-pearl marquetry so minutely worked it could pass for a fractal. There are carpets, paintings, weapons and garments, all on loan from seven of Turkey’s leading museums. An embroidered Kaaba curtain has made its first journey outside the walls of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum in almost two centuries. The museum insisted on installing the piece itself: it can be seen draped over a huge curving ramp so that it appears to flow down into the exhibition space. There’s also a sword thought to have been fashioned from the metal of the Prophet Mohammed’s tomb; it, too, has stayed within Turkey’s borders for hundreds of years. These are rare sights indeed.
The show is curated by Dr Sami el Masri, the head of strategic planning at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. How, I ask him ahead of the show’s opening, did he manage to persuade the Turkish museums to offer up their treasures?
“They saw the purpose of the exhibition,” he says. “They saw that the exhibition is not a conventional one. It has more sublime objectives.”
Indeed, the objective is nothing less than an account of the beliefs and practices of Islam – the faith and worship of the exhibition’s title – as illustrated by its artefacts, texts and music. The purpose, which is shared by the Turkish government, is the spread of understanding.
“It’s not easy to be tolerant because you have a predisposed conception of the other,” says el Masri. “To promote tolerance, you need to understand and appreciate... That had a major influence on the design and the elaboration of the storyline of the exhibition. And then the museums very willingly and supportively contributed very special works of art that supported this.”
Each room in the exhibition takes a theme, starting with the names of God and proceeding through the life of the Prophet Mohammed, the five pillars of Islam and the path to the afterlife. This orderly progression was something that el Masri took pains to achieve. “The design of the exhibition started with the storyline, and then the objects were fitted into the storyline – were chosen to support the storyline,” he says. “We’re moving away from the sterile presentation of art objects which obviously don’t give you the full picture.”
Here the presentation is anything but sterile. The exhibition’s looks were conceived by Metin Deniz, a venerable Turkish designer with a long history in European theatre and a CV that includes landmark Turkish exhibitions of Salvador Dalí and Auguste Rodin.
“Stage design and exhibition design is the same,” he explains as he and his team race to complete preparation for the Gallery One show. “Because there is a concept at the start. Somebody gives some text or some material that you must explain, but you are thinking how you can catch the spectator.” His co-designer, Ethem Dogan, adds: “You have to create an illusional environment for the stage, and it’s the same in the exhibition.”
That theatrical sense is vividly present in the Emirates Palace space: the walls have been painted an enveloping pine-needle green. Gold text gleams on the walls, and the display cases are bathed in warm spotlights so that their contents appear to hover in darkness.
The first chamber is intended to recall a cave: the mountain grotto in which the Prophet Mohammed received his first divine revelation. Eleven of the 99 names of God are written on the walls. There will be only one artefact on display: in the centre of the room, a large kudum – a kind of Turkish double drum used for religious music. This part of the exhibition was still under construction when I saw it, so I must trust Dogan’s description of its final form.
The same goes for the next chamber. Dogan explains that it will contain blown-up versions of 16 miniatures from the Sirat-un-Nabi, a life of the Prophet Mohammed that is held under the Sacred Trust at the Topkapi Palace Museum. Music by Buhurizade Itri, the great 17th-century Mevlevi composer, will be piped in to heighten the devotional mood. (Music, in fact, will play an important role throughout the exhibition. If you can get yourself invited to the official opening this evening, you’ll be able to hear a performance by an Ottoman military band who have flown over from Turkey especially; if you’ve never heard Mehter music before, it’s an experience not to be missed.)
Still, for visitors whose interest is primarily in artefacts, things get most interesting in the hall devoted to the five pillars of Islam, where the doctrinal principles indicated in the preceding chambers are given form in concrete ways of life. Indeed, the fact that most of the objects on display are Ottoman means that the exhibition is able to serve a double function: first, as a synopsis of the Islamic outlook per se, and secondly, as an examination of how the Turkish Empire met its religious obligations in practice. As el Masri puts it, the show addresses the questions: “What is Islam? What are the principles of faith, and do they actually practise this faith, and how did people in the Ottoman period practise this faith?”
The answer to the last query must, at least on the present evidence, be “opulently”. A gold finial from the top of a processional flagpole has a cutaway pattern so intricately involuted it looks like a blown-up fingerprint. Another item relating to the haj is similarly magnificent: a mahmel-i serif – a camel litter designed for conveying gifts to Mecca – resembles a great velvet pavilion. Gold thread picks out Arabic verses and floral patterns against the faded grey-green of ancient silk velvet. What a vision it must have made setting out towards the sacred city in the 1870s, the focal point of a great camel caravan. One hardly needs to imagine it: there are reproduction engravings of similar scenes to conjure the spectacle.
Less striking but, in its way, more moving is a tiny gouache miniature of Mecca, created by an anonymous artist towards the end of the 19th century. It all but glows: the blue of the sky blurs into the wide pavements surrounding the Kaaba enclosure. The towers and arches of the surrounding city shine in dream colours. Tiny white-robed figures stand in geometrical patterns. The scene is weightless, ecstatic and serene.
Less peaceful, as you might expect, is the chamber devoted to the approach to the afterlife. Here we find 17th-century talismanic shirts, beautifully decorated with inked-on religious texts to ward off evil. “That’s interesting because it doesn’t only relate to aspects of religion,” el Masri notes, “but also reflects some of the mentality of the time.” Here, too, is a sword believed to have been forged from the iron of the Prophet Mohammed’s tomb, and another sword belonging to Mu’awiya, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Neither have been let out of Turkey in many centuries.
The room’s centrepiece, however, takes us past the border of death. It’s a coffin and cenotaph more than 700 years old, dating from the Seljuk dynasty. The pieces are made of walnut wood, wonderfully preserved: the timbers are straight, solid and richly coloured. The cenotaph could be mistaken for a child’s coffin, 1.2 metres long and roofed like a longhouse. It’s engraved with Arabic script so jagged and widely spaced it might almost be Japanese. It’s a simple thing, plain by comparison with the exhibition’s many treasures, but makes an appropriate capstone to its journey through faith.
Islam: Faith and Worship is at Gallery One in the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, until Oct 10.http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090722/ART/707219972