Visual arts The recently opened Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization aims to document the past and inspire present-day visitors.
Tradition and history
The calm of a Monday afternoon in the Museum of Islamic Civilization in Sharjah is absolute. Inside the grand building, opposite the Corniche, sunshine floods the long hallways and silent exhibits with a mellow light. I'm accompanied by Charles Pocock, a Dubai-based Islamic antiques expert and dealer, who was so enthused by his initial visit to the museum a week or so ago, shortly after it formally opened, that he is accompanying me for a return visit. Looking down the cavernous main hall - this building used to be a souk - we survey the capacious museum. Pocock, a veteran of Islamic art and cultural institutions worldwide, looks impressed.
"I've seen similar places all around the world," he explains. "But, as an education resource, this place is the best in the world. I've visited museums such as the British Museum, the Ashmolean [in Oxford], the V&A [Victoria and Albert], the Louvre, collections in the Metropolitan, Smithsonian, Topkapi in Istanbul - and they have wonderful artefacts in their collections. But this is accessible to everyone, adults, youths, children, Muslim, Christian..."
The museum has only been open to the public for a matter of weeks, but represents over four years of work by a small, dedicated team of curators, working with the vast collection of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the ruler of Sharjah. With over 5,000 items, presented in a variety of contexts, the museum was intended to provide a lavish yet accessible overview of Islamic beliefs, inventions, culture and society. Spend a couple of hours roaming the vast exhibition and it becomes clear that that aim has been comfortably attained.
Spread over two floors, the collection captures the knowledge and progress made by Muslim scientists, artists, craftsmen and thinkers from the eighth century to the present, from across the Islamic world. We begin our visit with an extended ramble through the main ground-floor area devoted to science, medicine and discovery. This is a magical laboratory of delights, as the museum curators have had all manner of tools, weapons, architectural models and arcane inventions dating back to the 10th century recreated for exhibition. There are, for instance, trebuchets, slingshots, catapults and clay boules that would be fired at enemy lines.
"These grenades used to be full of explosives," explains Pocock. "Naptha. Or scorpions or snakes. Delightful." Elsewhere, we find some early navigational devices. Muslim scientists used existing Hellenic and Persian technology to create new tools and here are a few examples - a beautiful array of brass navigation astrolabes and compasses used by seafarers and travellers. Other models are interactive.
"All these things here," remarks Pocock admiringly, as we press buttons and pull levers, causing machinery behind glass to slowly grind into life. "They give you a real feeling what these inventions were about. They have built the best models of the purest items, from Islamic art and history and civilisation. It reaffirms that this is a museum of Islamic civilisation, not just Islamic art. This really is about education. Look, it's how things actually work. They have invested a fortune in putting these things together, and it's been done very well."
When the sight of two grown men giggling over a cow rotating on a manually controlled spit becomes too much for a weary-looking security guard, we cross the hall, past a life-size model of an elephant with a water-clock in its stomach, to the Islamic Faith section, a repository for an array of information about the lives of Muslims through the ages. There are models of mosques, grand affairs dating back to the 10th century and built in the Ottoman style.
Pocock, who specialises in ancient manuscripts, hurries me over to the display of Quranic texts to point out one of his favourite exhibits. This is a single vellum page, dyed a rich cobalt blue and featuring a sura in kufic script. Its extremely rare. "This is the blue page, from the Fatimid era, 10th century, from Tunisia. Every major museum must have a rare work, and this is the one here. We have here gold ink on vellum, which is a form of animal skin used as paper. There are four Qurans in existence that use this. The Fatimids were devoted to exuberance, style. They had a deep understanding of aesthetic purity, and this example, from the Great Library of Kairouan, demonstrates that. As a piece, this is important to look at as an example of superb Islamic manuscripts. Gold has been used for every single letter as a symbol of devotion. When these blue pages come up for auction, they sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. They are very hard to find."
Moving into the adjoining area, we find ourselves in a space devoted to the Haj and Mecca. In the centre of the room is a vast, heavy black cloth, intricately decorated with gold calligraphy and patterning. This is the kiswah, a door hanging from the Kaaba. It is an awesomely-executed piece, rich with detail and geometric symmetry. Traditionally, these coverings are used once a year and then cut up and distributed to pilgrims. Here, presented flat, under a sloping mirror, the covering's intricate detailing and tooling are displayed to magnificent effect.
"This is draped over the door of the Kaaba, and it's black silk. The tradition of draping the Kaaba comes from pre-Islamic times. It's 40 metres high and 12 metres long. Solid gold embroidery - it's fantastic. Solid gold and silver thread - the weight is huge." After lingering a while longer, admiring the variety of exhibits detailing the fundamentals of belief and practise, we move upstairs. Here, under a huge dome decorated with stars, the museum branches off into galleries, taking themes such as metal, glass, ceramic and wooden crafts, design, decorative arts, calligraphy and textiles.
Aisha al Deemas is the museum's curator. "On the first floor," she explains, "the galleries are chronologically set up from the first century AH [Anno Hegirae] to the seventh. You can see ceramics, glassworks, textiles and so on, but we've arranged them by period. This way, you can see how the works transformed over time. Each gallery has a combination of mediums, showing how traditions have survived until present times."
From the Persian pottery of the tenth century to a shimmering metal box with delicate engravings from 20th century Spain, the wealth of riches on display is dazzling in its diversity. "I think every artefact has another side to it," says Deemas. "Yes, it's the art of making it, but you're also seeing the civilisation that made it, used it and lived with it, and that tells you something about the people that made it... Art is just one part, there is so much more than just art."
Meanwhile, Pocock prowls the gallery with happy absorption, frequently emitting enthusiastic noises as he happens upon one delight after another. He hurries me over to a glass cabinet that contains a woven silk tunic from Iran, dating to the 14th century. "This is a piece very similar to one that's in the Aga Khan exhibition in Lisbon. Decorated with floral roundels and designs, it's more central Asian, I'd say. The type of embroidery done here is very hard to do today. None of the top fashion designers could do this. It's a princely jacket. As a piece, this is one of the real highlights of the museum."
The evening is wearing on and it is time to leave. But exiting the gallery is difficult. At every step, our attention is caught by yet another item which requires closer inspection. Gently ushered downstairs, Pocock beams approvingly at the friendly security guard. "Just by walking through these rooms you see stoneware, metalware and ceramics, the likes of which you cannot see anywhere else in the Gulf. It is fantastic."
As we prepare to finally leave, via a detour to the museum bookshop and ground-floor antique coin display (complete with sliding magnifying glasses), we are already planning a follow-up visit to get to the vast areas that we didn't see today. A museum such as this merits that much overused phrase "world-class" by actually succeeding in its ambition to not only document the richness of Islamic history, but by inspiring today's visitors.
As Deemas points out, "Islamic civilisation did not end a thousand years ago, but continues up to present times. So, we want for young Muslims who come here to take part and contribute to civilisation. We don't want it to be history and long gone, but involved with community now, and we hope that our audience is as wide as we can get. Everybody." Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. 06 5566002. www.islamicmuseum.ae.