Art aficionados from Muslim lands could hardly have found themselves better placed than in Riyadh or Jiddah this spring. For at either of those cities from February to May, they could have enjoyed an exhibition of art that was also a special sort of "homecoming" - a millennium or more of Muslim art from lands as far apart as Malaysia and Morocco on show in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.
Called "The Unity of Islamic Art," the exhibit, sponsored by the King Faisal Foundation - along with companies and individuals from Saudi Arabia, Europe and the United States - featured 320 works in metal, stone, glass and wood, plus textiles, scientific instruments, jewelry and calligraphy. The first-ever large-scale exhibition of Islamic art to open in Saudi Arabia, the Unity exhibit, appropriately, inaugurated the first of three galleries planned for the King Faisal Center in Riyadh, an autonomous, non-profit agency of the King Faisal Foundation, dedicated to furthering research in Islamic studies. The foundation itself is a philanthropic body set up in 1976 by eight sons of the late Saudi ruler, King Faisal ibn'Abd al-'Aziz; it funds programs and projects ranging from an annual King Faisal International Prize to the construction of mosques in the kingdom and abroad, and the provision of aid to needy nations.
Aside from being the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, the Unity exhibition was notable in that the show was financed by donations from the private sector. Furthermore, it was planned, assembled and mounted in just seven and a half months, as compared to the "normal" two years that, show organizers said, often go into getting such an exhibition off the ground. Finally, all but a few of its pieces came from private collections, some never-before-publicly-shown or catalogued works.
Indeed, one of the co-sponsors called the work by the center - which only opened its doors in 1983 - a "brave, courageous" effort. "What gives you so much pleasure in doing something like this is that it's here in Saudi Arabia," he said. "It's as good as anywhere. Usually when you see an exhibition of this quality it's in London or New York..."
Others called the exhibition an experiment, and still others said it proved Saudi Arabia's ability to handle the demanding logistics of a major art show; since almost all of the objects came from collections in Europe and the United States, Saudia, the kingdom's national airline, had to fly some three tons of priceless pieces safely into Riyadh. And Center Director General Dr. Zaid Abdul Mohsen al-Husain called the exhibition "a duty" of the institution - to let the Saudi people better know their culture, their civilization.
Al-Husain also said that the ex hibition helped to fulfill a major goal of the center: "To expound the role of Islamic civilization and its contributions to humanity in the various fields, and to define the main characteristics which distinguish it from other civilizations throughout history."
Visitors to the exhibition found themselves face to face with some of those characteristics as soon as they stepped into the intimate gallery: a nutshell panorama of the show in the mashrabiya-shaded foyer, including huge, delicately carved Atlas pine doors from Fez, Morocco, dating from the 14th or 15th century and a white-marble panel from 13th-century Ayyubid Cairo, sculpted with monumental calligraphy. Not far along, on a wall in the reception hall, was a giant carpet from Iran woven in the 16th century; dominated by red with an island of green in the middle, the great carpet included beasts of prey, songbirds, ducks, bumblebees and dragon-flies. A gift of the Safavid Shah Sulaiman to Francesco Morosini when Morosini was elected Doge of Venice, the carpet was a magnificent gesture of good will.
Upstairs, the center's manuscript forum showed exquisite examples of calligraphy on richly decorated pages of copies of the Koran, along with a section devoted to Islamic metalwork collected by the late Palestinian-Lebanese Nuhad es-Said. Both emphasized the broad range of Islamic art gathered for the show - but also its unity. As Esin Atil of the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Asian Art wrote in the catalogue, what links all the pieces is "a veneration for calligraphy... an insistence on investing works of art with meaningful themes and symbols... [and a] persistence of harmonious and refined design."
Those hallmarks of Islamic art did not, certainly, spring fully grown from the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was revealed, but developed out of contacts the Muslims made with the cultures around the peninsula as Islam expanded. Essentially, the Muslims possessed only the Koran and the Arabic language when they burst from Arabia in the seventh century, yet, writes Atil, "Within the first century following the death of the Prophet, Islam formulated an artistic vocabulary that became the unique and characteristic expression of this civilization and was unanimously accepted from the steppes of Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. No civilization has been able to spread through such a vast region in such a short time, uniting peoples of widely diverse ethnic and linguistic origins under a single language and artistic expression."
In the exhibition, as in the history of Islamic art, calligraphy was a highlight. The best examples in the exhibition, of course, were mostly from copies of the Koran, because, as Atil explains, "To copy the Koran in the most beautiful and elegant hand became a pious act, and calligraphy evolved as the noblest of the arts." Works spanned the Muslim world from Spain to India, and reached from the ninth to the 18th century, presenting a variety of styles. (See Aramco World, July-August 1964, 1977; May-June 1976; and September-October 1979.)
In the Unity show, calligraphy touched a decorative peak in the almost voluptuous tughras, or monograms, of the Ottoman sultans. One particular example was that of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled in the 16th century; standing 19 centimeters high (7.5 inches), and 33.4 centimeters wide (13 inches), it was done in bold strokes of blue filled with gold or spiraling designs.
Calligraphy, in fact, was one of the most immediately visible elements that unified the exhibition. It figured strongly in metal-work, ceramics, glass and textiles - as well as a calligrapher's inkwell, and an ornate warrior's helmet from 15th-century Turkey.
Other motifs of Islamic art, such as repetitive patterns, were presented through objects emblazoned with flowers and blossoming trees, incredible arabesques with geometrically perfect designs that seemed to continue beyond their physical borders and, perhaps, to reflect the infinity of the universe. Such patterns were highlighted in the central panel of a 15th-century glazed-ceramic mosaic mihrab from the winter-hall of a mosque in Isfahan, Iran; it was saved when the mosque was demolished about 1930.
The "artistry" of Islamic scientists - their translation, absorption and advancement of the bequests of knowledge received from the societies encountered during the growth of Islam - was yet another feature of the exhibition. Splendidly drafted and illustrated works on pharmacology, ophthalmology and human and animal anatomy in the exhibition suggested the spirit that kept learning safe and growing through the so-called Dark Ages in the West. Included, for example, were two pages from the 12th-century "Khawass al-Ashjar," depicting in color four plants and describing their medicinal uses. Part of an illustrated text on pharmacology written by the surgeon Dioscorides, who visited a number of Mediterranean countries while serving the troops of the Roman Emperor Nero in the first century, the book was translated into Arabic in Baghdad in the ninth century.
The lengths to which the Muslims went to obtain the works of the scholars of antiquity is reflected in a copy of "The Politics of Aristotle," produced in Syria in the 13th century. The original translator, in the eighth century, was Yuhana bin al-Batriq, who, according to the accompanying text, discovered the work in a temple at Baalbek, in Lebanon "in the possession of a hermit..." He also translated the works of Galen, Hippocrates and Ptolemy into Arabic, part of the eighth-to-tenth century transfer of knowledge described as "probably the most extraordinary example of cultural transmission that has ever been achieved."
In other sections, the Unity exhibit showed how extensive that transfer was; in one was a collection of finely wrought, inscribed astrolabes, with which the Arabs solved astronomical and astrological problems; in another was a collection of colorful, stylized maps of Syria, of the Arabian Peninsula and of the world.
Fully half of the pieces in the show were included as full-color plates in the 200-page catalogue - itself a collector's item. Drafted by show organizers Oliver Hoare and David Sulzberger and published by the Mobil Oil Corporation, one of the sponsors, the handsome volume presented data about the original provenance of the pieces plus tidbits of history. Its front and back covers, for example, feature brilliant color pages from the 16th-century "Guide" to Makkah and Medina, a 43-page document describing the Hajj, or pilgrimage, in verse and depicting important local sites.
Another item with a story behind it was a 13th-century brass incense globe inlaid with silver. Made in Afghanistan and swathed in calligraphy, the globe was technically refined internally: it contained a gimballed interior support system which prevented the incense coals from spilling. Such globes, wrote the medieval Arab traveler al-Biruni, "were rolled between guests after dinner," apparently to distribute the scent of incense equally.
Background stories about collection pieces clearly are fascinating, but stories about how collections were made are even more so, particularly when they touch on pieces one sponsor called "high stakes" art. One example was a suit of armor from India, standing 1.33 meters (4.25 feet) high in the center of the gallery. Dating from around 1700, it was discovered "in an English stately home" just before the show, exhibit organizers said. Another example is an enameled candlestick, made in Syria near the middle of the 13th century; one of only two known to exist, it was uncovered "in somebody's kitchen cupboard."
The Unity exhibit was essentially different from comparable Western exhibits. As one expert said in Riyadh at the opening: "In the West the concept of art is one of self-expression. But in Islam the function of the artist is to perfect himself and his skill to become a channel to express something higher than himself - the principle of God-given unity and balance in the universe."
The exhibit in Riyadh underlines that concept. As Center Director-General al-Husain commented, "One of the most important characteristics of Islamic culture is that it gives and takes. It gives to the others but it takes from them whatever can be accepted. It's a very dynamic civilization... and this is reflected in the arts." It was also reflected in "The Unity of Islamic Art," a graceful statement about Islam and the art it engendered - now brought home to the land where the faith was revealed more than 13 centuries ago.
Arthur Clark covers Saudi Arabia for Aramco World magazine.