Great Museums


The Art of Islam at The Met and The Louvre

Explore the splendor of Islamic art at The Met and The Louvre in Great Museums Television’s "The Art of Islam at The Met and The Louvre: Foreign Yet Familiar." Narrated by Philippe de Montebello, Director Emeritus of The Met, the one-hour special showcases extraordinary Islamic masterpieces, highlighting connections between Western and Islamic traditions in art, science, and literature.

AIRED: June 20, 2019 | 0:55:43




[ Woman vocalizes ]


Narrator: Today, at a pivotal moment in world history,

two great museums beckon us

to explore the splendor of Islamic art --

lifting the veil on our shared cultural heritage.


The objects on display in the Islamic galleries

at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

and The Louvre in Paris reveal a road map of connections.

This explains why the foreign seems familiar.


[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: I have dedicated my life career to Islamic art

for many years now.

Attracted no doubt by the beauty.


My eye was seduced by the whole culture,

a culture that may look different in some ways,

but, at the same time, is actually quite close.


Narrator: Universal museums,

like The Louvre and The Metropolitan,

help dispel the idea that cultures are exclusive,

when, in fact, they are intertwined.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: Today, we live in a world that is

connected and global,

but our connected and global world

also has a history.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: Islamic art is, without a doubt,

more difficult to access

for those who may not have any knowledge of the culture.

Whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims,

many just don't have any knowledge

of this very complicated history.

Narrator: The art of Islam reflects 14 centuries

of changing political and cultural landscapes

across three continents.

Haidar: So, you're talking about a tremendous mix

of world images, cultures, you know,

and the result that came out

in the literature and the art of the Islamic world

is very exciting.

One of the glories of Islamic art

is inlaid metalwork.

And one of the absolute pinnacles of this technique

and this type of art is the Baptistère de Saint Louis.

Narrator: Created in Mamluk, Egypt,

it became part of the Royal Collections of France.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: It is a basin of metal, copper alloy,

inlaid with silver,

that was crafted in Syria or Egypt

in the mid-14th century.

And this basin will be used later

for the baptisms of royal children,

including Louis XIII.

Narrator: The Mamluks were slaves trained as soldiers

who overthrew their masters

and then ruled an Islamic empire for 300 years from Cairo.

[ Juvin speaks French ]

Inside the basin, we have friezes of riders,

which illustrate the court life

and the warrior concept of the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt.

Narrator: There are scenes of battle and violence --

a decapitated head and severed limbs.


Canby: The interesting thing is, of course,

that there was no resistance to using it

for a Christian religious rite --


Even though it had been made by Muslim craftsmen,

it worked just fine.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: I think that an important thing to understand

when you want to discover Islamic art

is that Islamic art is not simply just an Arab art.

Narrator: Nor is it simply "religious art."

The term "Islamic art" --

coined by 19th-century art historians --

includes all art produced in Muslim lands

from the 7th century forward,

from Spain to Morocco, Egypt,

the Middle East, Central Asia, and India,

to the borders of China.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: Today, we tend to think that Islam

is the East.

At least that's how Islamic art

is presented in Western culture.

But Spain was Islamic,

and Morocco is a Western kingdom.

Narrator: Take, for instance, the roaring Monzón Lion,

a cast bronze fountain spout created between

the 12th and 13th centuries in Islamic Spain.

In characteristic Islamic style,

the surface of the Lion is completely covered

with engraved decorations,

including Arabic calligraphy.

Haidar: Now, obviously, you are talking about a huge variety.

You're talking about Spain to India and beyond.

And everything in between has its own style.

It has its own materials, and you might even say,

"What's common between all of this?

What unites all of this?"

Narrator: The most obvious connection is

the presence of Islam.

Muslims believe that God revealed a new faith

to the Prophet Muhammad,

beginning in 610 AD,

near the city of Mecca,

where the well-established Jewish, Christian,

and Pagan communities rejected him.


He moved to Medina and died 10 years later, in 632.

Yet, in that mere 10-year span,

Muhammad and his army succeeded in conquering

most of the Arabian peninsula for Islam.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: When we talk about Islamic art,

everyone expects objects coming from a mosque,

and I think it is important to say and repeat

that Islamic art is not only a religious art,

but at the same time, we also have to show

in what way Islamic art is religious.

Narrator: Traditionally, the creative focal point

for Muslim communities is the mosque.


In its very simplest form, the mosque is really a structure

that gives you the direction for worship towards Mecca.

That's often just a simple wall with an indentation in it

that indicates the direction that Mecca lies in.

Narrator: Over time, this indentation,

called a "mihrab" or prayer niche,

became more elaborate.

The brilliant blue tiles of this dazzling mihrab

are distinct to the Iranian city of Isfahan,

the blue city.

More than 600 years ago, artisans cut and pieced together

tiny glazed ceramic tiles

to produce the scrolling foliage and calligraphic designs

of this meticulous masterpiece.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: These mosaics techniques were first developed

in the Greek and Roman worlds.

It's a little-known fact that the cultures of Islam

used the technical and decorative repertoires

of late antiquity.

Narrator: As Muslim armies conquered

more and more territory,

local artistic traditions were blended

into an evolving Islamic style.



In the 12th century,

Muslim artisans skillfully hammered and pierced copper

to create the intricate openwork pattern

of this mosque lamp.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: And then there is an inscription

on the upper part of the bowl.

"There is one God, and God is God,"

and that is what creates the first pillar

of the Islamic faith.

Narrator: Designed to hang from the ceiling,

the lamp filled the room with filtered light,

symbolizing the presence of God.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: For me, it symbolizes the foundation

of Islamic art.

It is a lamp that comes from the famous Dome of the Rock,

built by Abd Al Malik,

one of the first Caliphs in the Umayyad world

in the end of the 7th century.


Narrator: The Umayyads are responsible

for the first great monuments of Islamic art and architecture.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is

the oldest Islamic shrine in the world,

built on the site of a Roman temple.


[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: And this is a symbolic way, I think,

to show that the Caliph Umayyad

is the new Roman Emperor of this Mediterranean world.


Narrator: The Umayyads set up their new capital

outside of Arabia, in Damascus, Syria,

an area that had long been exposed

to the cultures and sensibilities

of the Mediterranean world.

Here, they built the Great Mosque of Damascus,

which employed forms and elements of classical art

familiar to westerners,

like columns, vaults, and domes.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: We're talking about a territory

that partly overlapped the ancient Roman Empire.

We, at The Louvre,

wanted to reiterate that continuity,

between antiquity and the Islamic world.

Narrator: At The Metropolitan, this bronze Umayyad pitcher

from the 7th century shows the merging

of Persia's 4,000-year-old artistic traditions

with a new Islamic aesthetic.

Haidar: And it has this long handle,

very elegant handle, and if you look at it,

you see that it's actually a feline,

perhaps some kind of a leopard or mountain cat

that's elegantly stretched its whole body

over to form the handle.

But what is it doing?

All around the rim is a goose that it's chasing.

It's hunting a goose.

It's really the great Persian theme of hunting

which informs so much of Persian art.

Narrator: But the body represents a transition in taste

from figural art to repetitive designs.

Elaborate patterns of scrolling vines,

geometric shapes, or calligraphy

often point to an Islamic influence.

Calligraphy is a way to reproduce the written word

through an artistic drawing.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: Obviously, calligraphy as a core component

of Islamic art is not a coincidence.

It is fundamentally related to the fact

that the Islamic world is an entity with Islam

as its dominant and official religion.

Narrator: Arabic calligraphy is found everywhere in Islamic art.

The hull of this galleon glows with sweeping golden strokes.

A closer look shows the image to be a "calligram,"

composed of calligraphy.

Canby: The writing of calligraphy

was considered the highest art.

More important than painting and other arts

because it was devotional and because, of course,

the first thing that a great calligrapher would do

would be to copy the Qur'an.

The Qur'an is the holy book of the Muslims.

It is the revelation handed down from God to Muhammad.

It is canonical.

No word in the Qur'an changes.

They are the same words that were written down

after Muhammad recited them in the 7th century.

[ Juvin speaks French ]

Interpreter: This manuscript is a Qur'an from the time

of the Mamluk Sultanate.

It was made in Egypt in Cairo

at the end of the 14th century.

Narrator: The back of the book is actually the front.

Arabic, like Hebrew,

is read from right to left.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: And then we have a double opening page

with a particularly elegant design.

Again with a frame to highlight all its splendor.

And we have the first verses of the Qur'an that were copied

on a delicately decorated background

with plant foliage dotted with lotus buds.

Narrator: It's natural that a beautiful sacred book

would need to be displayed with elegance and respect.

Bookstands like this one, called "rahlas,"

were the focus of artistic enterprise

throughout the Islamic world.

It's made from a single piece of wood

that would have had to be split and separated

so that it falls in the form of an "X,"

but if you stand it up together, you can see that it was,

essentially, formed from a single piece of wood.

On the sides of this bookstand, you find extraordinary,

very fine, very deep carving.

And if you look at it closely, you realize that it's been

conceived of on three different levels.

You have almost secret, hidden inscriptions

at the very deepest level.

God's name

and the sacred name of the Prophet

underpin everything else that you see.

Narrator: Sacred writing is woven into every aspect

of Islamic life.

The 99 names of God are stitched

around the circumference of this prayer rug

at the Louvre.

[ Charlotte speaks French ]

Interpreter: In Islam, there is a way to evoke God

through a number of names and adjectives,

and they are all mentioned here.


You also have many inscriptions,

and that makes this rug a high quality.

It is very, very difficult to weave the inscriptions

because you must be very precise and, as you know,

writing is very important in Islamic art.

Narrator: Arabic script in the Qur'an was

the physical manifestation of God's message.

As the empire spread beyond its early borders,

the Prophet's native tongue became the official language,

tying religion to power and the Arabian identity.



Haidar: When you come to our galleries or to any museum

or any place where you have evidence, objects, scholarship,

you're not just told that Greek medicine

was translated into Arabic,

but there you have the manuscript itself,

the evidence itself with all the accurate information.

That's the great thing about a museum.

You can make up your own mind about it,

and you've got all the tools before you to do so.

And that is really very empowering.

Narrator: When the Umayyad Dynasty

fell to its rivals, the Abbasids,

in the 8th century,

the center of the Islamic world shifted east to Baghdad,

and so did the seat of collected knowledge.

This marked the start of the Golden Age of Islam.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: We have to keep in mind that the Islamic world

served as a kind of conservatory

for the knowledge inherited from antiquity.

Narrator: In Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphs

gathered scholars to collect and translate

all the knowledge in the known world.

It was an epic undertaking.

For 400 years,

the arts and the sciences flourished.

It was all destroyed when the Mongols conquered Baghdad

in the 13th century.

But what they achieved in that period

is known as a Golden Age of Islam,

because it advanced

all the things that humanity values,

not just the Muslim world, but the world.


Narrator: These are pages from a popular medical reference

titled "De Materia Medica,"

one of the first scientific texts

to be translated from Greek to Arabic

in 9th-century Baghdad.

It was written by Dioscorides,

who was a Greek who lived in what's now Turkey

in the early first century A.D.

And this was translated into Arabic

and then illustrated.

Narrator: It's a pharmacopeia, with descriptions

of about 1,000 medicines made from plants.

This page, on the other hand,

shows men making medicine out of honey.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: It is through these Arabic translations

that texts from classical antiquity,

especially Greek and Roman,

were retransmitted to the West.

Narrator: When we study the ways cultures converge,

science often lies at the intersection.

This is an Islamic astrolabe, meaning "star holder,"

based on an ancient Greek instrument

for predicting the position of the moon, stars,

and other planets.

In fact, some of the instruments that you see were

shared technologies between Muslim and Christian sailors

who would love to get their hands

on these kind of advanced instruments

while they were establishing trade routes around the world,

because everyone always wants the latest gadget,

whether it's an iPhone or an [chuckles] astrolabe.

It's a kind of unifying interest.

Narrator: The astrolabe was refined in the Islamic world,

most notably by the astronomer al-Sufi,

who described 1,000 different uses

for this instrument,

including the direction of Mecca for prayer.

Here we have a manuscript,

which is the "Book of Images of the Fixed Stars" by al-Sufi.

Now, this was written in the late-10th century


then copied and copied and copied.

Narrator: This 15th-century copy,

made 500 years after al-Sufi's original,

is open to a double page showing two enthroned figures.

Canby: Really what this is, is the constellation Cassiopeia.

And Cassiopeia, in this book,

and all the other constellations,

are shown in two views.

The one on the right as if seen from outside

the heavens looking down.

The one on the left, as if we were looking up,

seeing the stars in the heavens.

Narrator: Over the centuries,

court astronomers updated their calculations.

Canby: There's a lot of variability in the sky,

and although they're called the fixed stars,

nothing's fixed at all,

so that was part of the genius of these scientists,

that they understood that

and that they were such good mathematicians

that they could recalculate

and recalculate over time.


[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: We must keep in mind that

familiar words like "algebra" or "algorithms"

are originally from Arabic.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: And this domination in geometry and algebra

directly influences their artistic productions.


Narrator: The sophisticated application of geometry

can be seen in this elegant vaulted ceiling

from Mamluk, Egypt.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: This vaulted ceiling has

traveled from Egypt to Europe to France

in the late 19th century,

but it was only recently assembled

for the opening of the new halls in the Louvre Museum.

This allows us to evoke the splendor of princely interiors.

That shows a finely carved stone decoration

with some arabesque of plants and geometric patterns.

Narrator: The art of geometry cannot be denied

in these 14th-century Egyptian doors.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: We can see the complexity

of the geometric pattern

on which the decoration is based.

This decoration is organized

around what is called "star polygons."

These are the patterns that we can see here.

Narrator: Exotic woods, like African rosewood and ebony,

were often imported at great expense

from faraway lands.

[ Juvin speaks French ]

Interpreters: In these regions, wood was rare,

and they were trying to utilize

every single piece of wood that they had.

Narrator: By the Middle Ages, a thriving merchant economy

and a sophisticated network of trade routes

helped established the Islamic world

as the first truly universal civilization.


There wasn't the idea of being a world apart.

It was really a world that was connected to the wider world

and that, I think, helped facilitate robust economies

and, you know, rich, you know, opulent courts.



Canby: Architecture is one of the glories of Islamic art.

Across the Islamic world from Spain to India,

one can think of the most notable buildings

in the whole world, most famous buildings,

and they are Islamic.

Narrator: One of the most important monuments

in the Islamic world is in Spain.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba is considered

the oldest Islamic structure in Europe

and the most innovative.

Canby: The early conquerors of Spain,

the early Muslim conquerors of Spain,

built the Great Mosque in Córdoba.

The beautiful mihrab,

the marvelous multilayered arches

with the kind of striped

or ablaq decoration.

Narrator: The mosque's unique style is distinct

to Moorish Iberia,

where a confluence of cultures caused the Spanish lands

to develop differently from the rest of Europe.

The Arabs had come in the 8th century,

but the Iberian Peninsula was inhabited

by Christians and Jews, at that point.

There, for a while,

people really seemed to live in peace

with one another and tolerance.

Narrator: This courtyard at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

celebrates the artistic harmonies

created by these overlapping cultures.

It was constructed inside the museum

by artisans from the imperial city of Fez

in Morocco.

We wanted to create a Moroccan court

because it's related to the gallery

for Western Islamic art,

the art of Spain, North Africa, and Southern Italy,

the eight centuries of Islam in Europe.

And we also wanted to bring the hand

of a kind of living craftsman to our galleries.

Narrator: The starting point for the Moroccan Court

was four freestanding columns from the 15th century --

original works of art.

Haidar: But everything that's carved around them,

the stucco above and the woodwork

and the tile work is all modern,

and it's all been made in an appropriate style

by these living craftsmen.

Narrator: Out of 40,000 craftsmen in Fez,

the Met chose the Naji family company,

run by four brothers and their father.

Adil: We are seven generations in this business,

but for me and for my family,

it's unlike any other project that we ever undertaken

because this will serve as reference for scholars

to learn more about the Islamic architecture.

We were working in Morocco for almost six months,

in which we fabricated all the loose tiles.

Narrator: The cut-tile pieces were then fitted together

on the floor like a puzzle

but upside down before, being set in a concrete mortar.

Adil: We had to get some variation of colors --

for instance, three shades of blue.

There are two shades of green,

so it has the characteristic of an ancient, antique panel.

The wood was carved in Morocco, out of cedar,

from the Atlas Mountains of Fez.

And we used some of the best woodcarvers

in the city.

Narrator: The plaster was carved on site

by master craftsmen who excel in sculpting arabesque

or "flowing vegetal" compositions.

Designs were laid down with stencils,

then fashioned by hand using special tools.

Adil: For us, we were transported

back to the year 1300.

For instance, the plaster on the walls,

they were smoothing it with their hands.

When I look at this court, I see hands everywhere.

Everything is touched by hands.

Haidar: It's incredibly magical when you have artists

actually working in the spaces with the art of the past.

By highlighting this incredible art that still survives,

we actually accomplished a great deal.

We got a Moroccan court out of it, for sure,

but we also --

We were able to really elaborate the idea

of eight centuries of Islam in Europe

and its connection to North Africa.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: We can, indeed, wonder

about the place of Islamic art at The Louvre

and in Western art collections.

In Europe, the Islamic world was, and is,

right here at home.

The Islamic world was, and is, European.

Narrator: Many Islamic objects found in the collections

of European museums were gifts from rulers

or taken as the spoils of war.

Interpreter: As far as the Louvre is concerned --

and you may already know this -- the museum dates back to 1793

and is a product of the French Revolution.

Narrator: The French Royal Treasury

included magnificent pieces of Islamic art

and became the property of The Louvre in 1793.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: As early as 1893, The Louvre opened a section

on "Muslim" Arts.

That was the word that was used in the late-19th century.

Narrator: Today, the new Islamic galleries of The Louvre

are marked by an undulating golden roof

that conjures images of a floating veil,

a flying carpet,

or windblown desert sands.

The surrounding neoclassical facades

affirm the place of Islamic art in European art collections.

[ Juvin speaks French ]

Interpreter: One of the ways that eastern Islamic objects

came into European collections was through church treasuries.


Narrator: On display at The Louvre,

this ewer from the Royal Abbey of Saint Denis, Paris,

was carved from a single piece of very pure, very fine crystal.

[ Juvin speaks French ]

Interpreter: It's a ewer that arrived in that abbey

in the 12th century,

and, therefore, it is one of the oldest objects

in our European collection.

Narrator: But it was created in Egypt

during the reign of the Fatimids,

a Shia family who claimed the absolute right to rule

as descendants of Muhammad's daughter, Fatima.

Canby: There are seven of these in the world.

A scholar calls them The Magnificent Seven.

Narrator: Under the Fatimids,

Cairo became the cultural capital of the Islamic world.

That world included the Holy Land.

For 200 years,

crusaders from Europe

fought to take control of Jerusalem

until they were repelled once and for all

by the Mamluks.

Then the Mongols came calling.

Canby: So, this beautiful glass bottle

with an enameled scene around it

shows fighters dressed as Mamluks.

So, Egyptians and Syrians on the one hand

and Mongols on the other.

And it's being made by the Mamluk glassmaker,

so, of course, there's an edge there

in favor of the Mamluks.

Narrator: In Islamic Egypt,

the Mamluks elevated the ancient craft of glassmaking

to a fine art.

Their gilded and enameled mosque lamps were coveted

well beyond the borders of Islam and exported far and wide.

[ Juvin speaks French ]

Interpreter: We find these objects in China,

and others will travel to Europe

and will influence the famous Venetian glassmakers,

the glassmakers of Murano,

who will eventually supersede Islamic glassmakers.

Narrator: In fact, Italy's close ties

to advanced Islamic civilizations

enriched the Italian Renaissance.

This ivory box at The Metropolitan,

carved in southern Italy,

is a prime example of those interconnections.

Canby: There are figures

standing on the corners that have turbans.

This is a fantastic mixture of the Romanesque style

of carving and sculpture and images

that really are related to the Islamic world.

Narrator: In Islamic Spain, finely carved ivory objects,

such as this one at The Louvre,

were bestowed as gifts upon members

of the royal family.

Made from a single ivory tusk,

its sheer size is exceptional,

but the carving makes it a masterpiece.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella ousted the Muslims,

completing the 700-year Reconquista of Spain,

and then launched Christopher Columbus

on his first voyage west to a whole new world.

To the east, the Islamic Empire reached the borders of China.



[ Martinez speaks French ]

Interpreter: One of the ideas at the heart of the presentation

is not to isolate the cultures of Islam,

but to show that they were like other cultures --


Narrator: At the Louvre, this 13th-century dish

shows the influence of Chinese ceramics

on Islamic pottery.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: So first, what is the most Chinese,

I would say, in this dish

is its color -- this turquoise color.

It was made in Iran,

by imitating the technique of celadon glaze.

The Chinese ceramics with a single monochrome color,

usually green or blue colors,

began very early in the 10th century

and were supposed to imitate jade.

Narrator: The fish and the lotus leaves

are Chinese motifs,

but the concentric circles of geometric patterns

and elegantly stylized calligraphy ground

this masterpiece

in the Islamic artistic tradition.

[ Martinez speaks French ]

Interpreter: Oftentimes, pieces like these

reflect a technique that was born, for example, in China,

which was mastered in the Islamic lands,

and which was then passed on to the West,

so you can see the continuity.


Narrator: As early as the 9th century,

Chinese pottery was being exported in huge quantities,

traveling along the Silk Road.


Eventually, pottery centers in Iran, like Nishapur,

were producing some of the most experimental

and beautiful pieces in the Islamic world.

Here, dripping in browns, greens, and yellows,

is the Nishapur version

of the popular Chinese splashware.

And this radiant white bowl, 18 inches in diameter,

is the Nishapur potters' answer to Chinese porcelain.

A thin coating of white fluid clay

covers a red earthenware body.

The black abstract design is

actually Arabic calligraphy, which reads,

"Deliberation before action

protects you from regret."

At the dawn of the 13th century, when this pierced jug was made,

the proficiency of Iranian potters

had reached a pinnacle.

Canby: Technically speaking, the jug is remarkable

because it has two layers.

It has an outer pierced layer of vegetation

inhabited by fantastic animals,

such as harpies or sphinxes.

So, human-headed lions,

human-headed birds,

but this profusion of fantastic beasts was there

to protect the owner.

Narrator: These star-shaped tiles

contain astrological images of the Zodiac.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: Here is the image of the astrological sign of Leo,

with its associated planet, the sun, in the back.

And these tiles here were certainly made

in the city of Kashan.

Narrator: The potters of Kashan

were famous for delicate tiles

in the shape of crosses

and the skillful execution

of the metallic luster technique.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: The design is painted on an opaque glaze,

usually white, using metal particles,

mixing copper and silver.

And then a fairly complex firing

results in this shimmering reflection,

a metallic hue that sometimes resembles gold.

Narrator: Ceramics of this quality and complexity

required technicians and artists.

Interpreter: And there were also calligraphers who collaborated

with the ceramic workshops to achieve this type

of extremely precise inscription.

Here we have a Qur'anic inscription.


And here exactly in this area is the imprint of a finger,

probably of the ceramist who created this decoration.

Maybe when he put it in the oven,

he imprinted the mark of his finger.

It's a little accident during the production,

which leaves us a very touching trace

from the artist who created that work.

Narrator: Kashan's pottery industry

somehow survived the Mongol invasion

of the 13th century.

But traces are all that remain of medieval Nishapur,

which was destroyed along with

other Iranian cultural centers.

Genghis Khan placed all of Eurasia

under Mongol rule.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: So, here we have a representation

of Iranian society just before the arrival of the Mongols.

Narrator: This stucco portrait,

a fragment from a life-sized sculpture,

decorated an Iranian palace near the city of Rayy

before it was razed by Mongol armies.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: I think it is interesting

when we talk about Islamic art,

we think it is a religious art

and that the Qur'an forbids human representation.

Narrator: In truth, figures are only forbidden

in religious art and architecture.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: The human figure is quite present everywhere

and all the time in Islamic art.

Narrator: In time, Khan's successors,

the Ilkhans, or lesser Khans,

created a new world order

and placed themselves at the very center.

This painting of Jonah and the Whale

is based on the "Compendium of Chronicles,"

written by Rashid-al-din,

a Jewish official in the Ilkhanate court.

It is considered the first attempt

at a true world history.

Part of the motivations were in order

to actually put the new conquerors of Iran

into the story of Iran.

So, they were kind of writing themselves

into world history.

Narrator: Jonah and the angel are shown with Mongol features,

and the angel is dressed in traditional Mongol clothing.

Ultimately, key Mongol rulers accepted the Muslim faith.

This is one of the largest Qur'ans ever made.

Narrator: Each line of script is over 3 feet long,

and each page was originally over 7 feet tall.

It was made for the brutal conqueror

of Central Asia, Tamerlane,

who saw himself as the rightful successor

to Genghis Khan,

as well as the "Sword of Islam."

The calligrapher who copied these lines, Umar Aqta,

actually was a master calligrapher

who first came to Tamerlane and presented to him

the tiniest Qur'an you could imagine --

tiny, tiny writing.

Well, he presented this virtuoso Qur'an

to his patron, to Tamerlane,

who was not impressed at all.

So, this could be really a big problem in those days.

If Tamerlane wasn't pleased with you,

that could mean the end of your career,

the end of your life, and many bad things.

So Umar Aqta decided that he would do the opposite,

and he would make the biggest Qur'an ever made.

It had to be brought to the palace on a cart

because it was so big and so heavy.

When he presented it to Tamerlane,

the Sultan was very happy.


Narrator: In the thousand years

since Muhammad received his first revelations,

the Islamic world had grown, divided, conquered,

and finally settled into three empires --

the Ottomans in Turkey,

the Mughals in India,

the Safavids in Iran.

The Safavid capital, Isfahan,

was a dazzling modern city.

Much of it was newly built in the 17th century,

although it was a very old city,

and this tile panel has a typical scene

of what would have gone on there.

The tile panel depicts a woman

in a rather provocative pose

handing a glass of wine

to a European suitor.

Now, whether this woman was a proper lady

or not a proper lady

is up for discussion.

But the basic idea is that La Dolce Vita

was alive and well in Isfahan

in the 17th century.

Narrator: At The Louvre,

a similar panel shows a young prince

and his poetry teacher

engaged in a poetic joust.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: The prince, who is educated in the art of war,

is also educated to write in calligraphy,

to compose, first of all, poetry,

and then to recite his work to his poetry master.

Narrator: In Persia, poetry and literature were

centuries-old traditions

that eventually gave rise to a new genre of painting --

the art of the illustrated book.

Under the Safavids, so in Iran

in the 16th and 17th century,

the art of the illustrated book

achieved new heights.

Narrator: These folios are from the most famous

illustrated manuscript of the 16th century in Iran --

the Shahnameh, or "Book of Kings,"

made for the Safavid Shah Tahmasp.

Canby: It is luxurious in every way.

The absolute peak of perfection

in Persian painting.

Narrator: Real gold and silver were used in the paintings,

and other colors were made from grinding up gems

and turning them into paint.

Canby: There are many, many battle scenes.

There are love scenes.

There are encounters with witches,

demons, dragons,

all kinds of wonderful monsters, actually.

Haidar: It had over 250 illustrated pages,

and one of the opening folios is this one,

which shows the invention of fire.

Narrator: The paintings are based on the epic poem

by the Persian poet Ferdowsi,

written over 500 years earlier,

around the year 1000.

50,000 rhyming couplets tell the tales

of the ancient kings of Persia,

from mythical beginnings

until Persia was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century.

Some say Ferdowsi was driven by nostalgia

for Persia's lost cultural identity.

Haidar: This manuscript represents a high point

of painting in Iran.

It idealized the world

to the point where terrible battles

and dramatic events

turned into a kind of vision of loveliness, almost.

And this kind of painting deeply influenced the Ottomans

and the Indians on both sides of Persia.

Narrator: In southern India,

the kingdom of Bijapur closely identified

with Safavid Iran.

This painting shows an imaginary gathering

of Bijapur's past and present rulers

seated on an exquisite

Persian carpet.

And then you have great sweeping mountains,

these pink mountains in the background

with trees and vistas.

The central figure sitting enthroned

in the middle of the painting

with one foot resting on the globe

is the founder of the dynasty, Yusuf.

And all around him on that fabulous carpet

are his descendants.

In fact, this covers a period of 200 years.

But it also gives you a sense of how grand their vision

of themselves was.

Narrator: In reality, Bijapur would soon fall

to the relentless aggressions

of the Mughal Empire to the north.

Magnificent bejeweled daggers, like these,

were part of the Mughals' courtly costume,

symbols of their military might

and limitless wealth.

Haidar: They ushered in, possibly, one of the most

opulent eras of world art ever.

Ruler after ruler brought new facets

to the idea of opulence,

of creativity, of accomplishment.

Narrator: One of the most famous Mughal rulers is Shah Jahan,

who built the Taj Mahal.

This is his portrait.


Haidar: He's in a very regal position.

He is straight-backed on a horse.

He is haloed.

He has all these martial attributes.

He also has opulent patterning, opulent daggers,

opulent textiles all around him to signify his great taste

and the great opulent court from which he comes,

and the opulence for which he stands,

because he, of course, is the builder

of the world's most opulent building.


Narrator: The ivory white Taj Mahal is made of marble,

inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones,

a perfect harmony of arches, domes, and minarets.

In the central chamber lie

the graves of Shah Jahan and his queen.

The surrounding jali screens

filter soft light,

bathing them in a play of shadows and patterns.

Haidar: "Jali" means sort of a pierced screen.

And to manipulate hard stone into lacy, porous filigree

is an incredible technical achievement

of the great stone-cutting traditions of India,

which, of course, go back before the Muslim period, as well.

Narrator: This jali is designed as a pattern within a pattern.

The main part of the jali

consists of two overlapping trellises,

one which is made of bolder lines

and that is octagon-based.

And then within that on a kind of inner level,

which is actually inside the bigger trellis,

is a smaller pattern, a star-based pattern.

And at the heart of every star,

you find a small meander pattern --

this little element here.

This and that.

This together is a meander.

So it takes a lot of figuring out.

And then, of course, you execute it.


Narrator: Islamic Art would reach a zenith

during the final empire of Islam

as the Ottomans drew creative inspiration

from throughout their expansive realm.


Narrator: This is the official insignia, or "tughra"

of Suleiman the Magnificent,

the greatest ruler of the Ottomans,

Islam's final empire.

Ribbons of ink reveal the Sultan's name and title,

amid watercolor fields of flowers and real gold.

In the 16th century, under Suleiman's rule,

the Ottoman state became a multinational,

multilingual superpower.

Haidar: The Ottoman empire was a huge empire,

and huge parts of the world were brought together

not just by military conquest, political ties,

all the routine ways in which an empire is held together,

but also through the language of artistic expression.

And you found this great unified artistic style

that spread across the Mediterranean

that is distinctively and uniquely Ottoman.

Narrator: Royal workshops

produced luxury items for the court

while commercial factories in provincial centers

turned out products for patrons of all types.

The city of Ushak was, and still is,

known for the production of carpets.

Ushak carpets are particularly famous

for this great medallion style that you see.

You see that the central medallion is complete,

but on the edges, each of the medallions

has actually been cut off in half.

And there's a reason for that.

You create the illusion

of infinite repetition.

And the idea of infinity really alludes to the divine.

And so there's a very high ideal woven into the fabric,

in one sense, of these carpets.

Narrator: The factories in Iznik produced refined ceramics

with splendid designs, like this plate with a peacock

surrounded by feather-like saz leaves.


[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: "Saz" is a Turkish word

that has a meaning close to "enchanted forest,"

so we're really in the world of magic,

of the imagination, with a peacock

who is flying and walking in a forest

of large serrated leaves, slightly elongated,

a little swirling, which gives a swirling pattern

to the entire surface of the plate.

Narrator: Saz leaves surround a dragon in this dynamic drawing

by the celebrated artist Shah Quli.

Haidar: Now, he was obviously trained

in the art of calligraphy,

because if you look at the way the line goes

on the back of the dragon, it's thick and thin.

It moves like a calligraphic pen.

But the dragon has real life. He has great teeth.

He has real vigor in the way he moves.

And all around him are these delightful leaves.

Narrator: Saz leaves are found on colorful Iznik tiles,

like these, which still today

enliven the walls of mosques and palaces

throughout Istanbul.

Iznik potters also catered to the pilgrimage trade,

creating souvenir tiles of holy sites

for travelers to set into their walls back home.

This tile shows the Kaaba,

that holds the black stone,

in the Holy City of Mecca.

A similar tile shows the Holy City of Medina,

not a required stop for pilgrims,

but a part of the Muslim way of life.

Canby: One way for people to understand how people lived

is to actually look at a room where they did live.

Narrator: This is an actual room,

from an 18th-century nobleman's home

in Damascus, Syria,

a prosperous commercial center

and a main gathering place

for the hajj caravans to Mecca.

Haidar: The Damascus Room is one of the great,

beloved treasures of our collection.

It took us almost eight years to put this room together.

Narrator: In those eight years, The Metropolitan did

extensive research and conservation

on the smallest of details

to the massive ceiling installed 20 feet above.

Haidar: The room has tulip designs, for example,

that are very much from a period in Ottoman history,

when there was a great tulip rage going on.

So you have these sort of delightful tulips all over.

And then you also have a strong imprint of Mamluk design

where you had very powerful geometric forms

and banding of a certain type

and medallion-based decoration.

And you see that in the ceiling.

You see that in some of the wall panels, as well.

Canby: There is Arabic poetry

around the cornice

and the poetry praises the house,

praises the owner of the house,

and praises the Prophet Muhammad.

In the meantime, some of the imagery

on the panels on the walls

is really borrowed from European sources.

Narrator: The Damascus Room

reflects a cosmopolitan climate firmly

rooted in tradition.

The Ottomans were enduring, but not eternal.

After World War I,

their empire was divided up by the Allies.

A new term emerged -- the Middle East.

Syria became a French mandate.

In 1929,

a team of French experts working with local artisans

to restore the Great Mosque of Damascus

made an important artistic discovery.

[ Speaks French ]

Interpreter: Among the treasures of the Department of Islamic Art

at the Louvre is a set of nine mosaic reproductions

from the Great Mosque of Damascus.

Narrator: The long-lost mosaics

dated to the original construction of the mosque

in the 8th century.

For a thousand years,

the mosaics were celebrated

throughout the known world

until they were completely covered with plaster

in Ottoman times.

This not only hid them,

but preserved their original colors.

Photography in those days was black and white,

so the team set out to make paper reproductions in color.


[ Juvin speaks French ]

Interpreter: And here we have a photograph that shows

the artists executing these reproductions

on small pieces of paper

that were then assembled together.

And, if we come closer, we can see that each

tessera tile of this mosaic was made one-to-one,

so this is a beautiful reproduction.

Narrator: Rediscovery and discovery

of a shared cultural heritage

inspire the scholars who research, conserve,

and curate Islamic art at The Louvre,

The Metropolitan,

and other great museums.

[ Lintz speaks French ]

Interpreter: I am deeply convinced that personal growth

comes from understanding of others.

I choose to gain that insight through art

because art is what brings us closer

to the depths of a civilization's personality.


Canby: I believe --

I really believe now that these galleries

are the antidote

to Islamophobia.

And even people who are set against the ideas

behind these things

cannot avoid being taken in,

pulled in,

by the beauty of the objects.

Narrator: Art, whether it was made centuries ago or yesterday,

can be a catalyst for cultural understanding.

[ Martinez speaks French ]

Interpreter: So, yes, this responsibility is enormous

but it is also a wonderful opportunity,

almost like a utopia to change the world.

Museums can change the world.

Haidar: I know that's asking for a lot,

but, in fact, I believe it's very simple,

because you just have to take that first step

on the path of something that's beautiful and positive

and you find yourself going that direction

without too much difficulty.






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