Oleg Grabar was one of the first few historians of Islamic art and architecture in the United States when he entered the field in the 1950s, and he did more to define it than anyone else. As an academic and author he inspired countless others to follow his chosen path. Professor emeritus at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey from 1990 to the time of his death, he continued to deliver superb lectures and act as an invigorating mediator at seminars, despite his advancing years.
Grabar's extensive archaeological expeditions and research trips encompassed the Islamic world, from North Africa to Muslim Asia, Spain to Iran and India. For seven formative years, from 1964 to 1971, he was involved in the excavations of a palace complex at Qasr al Hayr al Sharqi, a medieval Islamic town partially buried under the sands in a region previously not thought to have had a significant history of human habitation, located in the desert north-east of the magnificent site of Palmyra in Syria. Later, he directed excavations in Israel and Jordan.
Fluent in English, French and Russian, he wrote seminal studies on Islam's earliest monuments, as well as some of its most recent ones. A number of his books became classics of the genre, notably The Formation of Islamic Art and Islamic Art and Architecture, 650 to 1250. He wrote of the influences behind the particular artistic and architectural expressions in Islamic art and discussed the nature of the relationship between faith and social circumstances, but always said he preferred raising questions to finding answers.
In Muqarnas, the periodical that he founded in 1982 and edited for a decade, he published articles by his academic colleagues on such esoteric subjects as "Methods of Constructing Ornamental Systems in the Cupola of the Alhambra" and "Late Nineteenth Century Ottoman Wedding Costumes as Indicators of Social Change". If such papers might seem a little dry to the lay reader, Grabar was more than capable of winning round an audience in person, his generosity of spirit, playful humour and vital presence enlivening any public discussion.
Born in Strasbourg, France, into an intellectual environment (his father was the eminent Byzantine scholar André Grabar) he attended the Université de Paris. At Harvard University he earned his BA in medieval history; at Princeton, his MA and PhD in Oriental languages and literatures and the history of art.
He went on to teach at the University of Michigan and at Harvard and in 1980 was named the first Aga Khan professor of Islamic art and architecture.
He is survived by his wife and son; a daughter predeceased him in 1988.
Born November 3, 1929. Died January 8, 2011.
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