Islamic Culture Resplendence of the Caliphate

The great mosque of the Umayyad in Damascus: the Islamic World must shed the role of victim
The great mosque of the Umayyad in Damascus: the Islamic World must shed the role of victim | Photo: Stefan Weber

IS terrorists are laying to waste the great cities of early Islamic culture. An exhibition by the Museums of Berlin in the Emirate of Sharjah is of blazing topicality. It shows artefacts of a culture in great danger. By Rüdiger Schaper

Samarra was once a city of fabulously luxurious palaces that stretched for fifty kilometres along the banks of the Tigris, inspiring euphoric descriptions by Medieval European travellers. Samarra was founded by the Abbasids, who dominated the Islamic Empire – ranging from North Africa to Central Asia – from 750 to 1258 CE. Their centre was in Bagdad. They call it the “Golden Age” of the Islamic World. This applied not merely to military power, but also to science and the arts. Here, as in Classical Athens, in Hellenistic Alexandria and Renaissance Italy, the foundations of the civilized world were created or renewed: medicine and mathematics, astronomy and poetry. Today Ar-Raqqah, which was also part of Abbasid territory, is the headquarters of Islamist terrorism, the IS.

Almost nothing remains of the Bagdad of the caliphs who amassed art and knowledge. The famous spiral minaret, however, still stands in Samarra in modern Iraq. It reminds us of the ziggurat architecture of early Mesopotamia, the home of Abraham, the father of the scriptural religions. The German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld excavated in Samarra between 1911 and 1914.

The Museums of Berlin were always active in this ancient cultural land and continue to be to this day. In the emirate of Sharjah, the exhibition Early Capitals of Islamic Culture: The Artistic Legacy of Umayyad Damascus and Abbasid Baghdad (650-950) now opened, containing 100 artefacts from the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. At the opening, its director Stefan Weber warned, “All of these historic places are now in extreme danger. This is our mutual heritage.” This huge territory, parts of which the IS already has under its control, spans from Damascus to Bagdad.

Parallel worlds: You cannot banish the images of IS atrocities from your mind when landing in Dubai, a global economic centre, and travelling to nearby Sharjah. The third largest of the Arab Emirates has three times the area of Berlin, but only one-third as many inhabitants and a strict ban on alcohol and drugs. But Sharjah is strong in the arts. In November there is a book fair, in spring the art biennial, which has risen to gain international rank. There are sixteen (smaller) museums in Sharjah. They are run by Manal Ataya, a woman.

Unlike Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates that purchases glamour with branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, in its institutions, Sharjah promotes sustainable, locally oriented development. In 2014, the emirate bore the title “Islamic Culture Capital.” We are familiar with similar titles in Europe. Sharjah’s ruler, Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, has governed since 1973. The 73-year-old studied history and philosophy in England and has written history books. The art collector personally opened the exhibition of Early Capitals in a converted souk, a long, two-story building with a golden dome.

Reduced to rubble

In 2008, the Museum for Islamic Civilization was dedicated here at the same time as the grand Museum for Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei, was opened in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The Metropolitan Museum of New York and the Paris Louvre recently expanded and modernized their Islamic divisions, and a new museum in Toronto has presented the collection of the Aga Khan since September. It is crucial that the Islamic World shed the role of victim and counter the criminals who behead and stone in the name of Allah.

Berlin and Sharjah have entered a long-term collaboration in which the Goethe-Institut is also involved. It organizes and funds an exchange of museum staffers and an educational programme focused on questions of conservation of museum pieces, marketing and mediation strategies. The young museums need to attract an audience. The Museum for Islamic Civilisation has a German vice director, Ulrike Al-Khamis. The first exhibition held there, The Radiance of Islamic Art, also came from Berlin’s museum island. In international curator language, this is called “shared heritage.”

The dimensions of the exhibition in Sharjah are immense. These were world empires. In Damascus, on the foundations of a Christian basilica and a Roman temple of Jupiter, the great mosque of the Umayyad still stands. It is said that John the Baptist is buried there. The kilometre-long, roofed souk of Aleppo, where only a few years ago one could walk and gain a feeling for the history and shifting cultures, is now reduced to rubble.

The caliphs did not tarry with work of destruction

Museum director Stefan Weber, who has lived in Syria, is faced with the bitter realization that his historic show is of blazing topicality. With selected pieces, it shows how the caliphs, the successors of Mohammed, developed their power and grandeur. Hunting scenes on a silver plate and imaginative drinking vessels hint at a lavish lifestyle for which the décor was not merely ornamental, but also a chief element of the faith. In early examples of Islamic calligraphy we see how Arabic script evolved. Coins reveal how closely the young Islamic culture was oriented to the rich Byzantine plethora of forms. Among the Abbasids, who followed the Umayyads, we perceive, in turn, a strong Persian influence.

The magnificent façade of the desert castle of Mshatta (in modern Jordan) was taken to Berlin in 1903. It is one of the most impressive artefacts in the Museum for Islamic Art. Berlin’s exhibition architect Youssef El Khoury performed magic for Sharjah: merely a limestone rosette with a diameter of less than one metre travelled to the Golf. But using a clever mirror technique, we have the illusion of an elegant refuge in the desert. Mshatta was built in the middle of the 8th century and possesses sumptuous sculptures of animals, plants and even human figures. There is an overabundance of grape vines. The Islamic proscription of depictions of people and drinking of alcohol was not set in stone any more than the late introduction of celibacy in Catholicism, which was unthought-of during the time of the Umayyads.

Mshatta’s links to late Graeco-Roman antiquity leap to the eye. The Umayyad Caliphate, which can be read about in the accompanying book in English and Arabic (published by Hirmer), fostered the cultural heritage of the areas it conquered and expanded the trading routes. In other words, the caliphs of Damascus and later of Bagdad did not tarry with the senseless work of destruction. They recognized the binding force and the societal wealth of the subjugated ethnic groups. In the 9th century, Bagdad was a centre of research. They excavated, translated and reassessed ancient writers and reimported them to Europe. This part of our history is often forgotten.

There are no grounds to claim that the early caliphates were very peaceful. They conducted wars of conquest just as the Romans, the Persians, the Turks did. But they respected the culture, ensured scientific and civilizational progress and did not seek to annihilate people of different faiths. The historic facts go entirely ignored by the fascists of the IS in their perverse urge to relive ancient glories.

Courtesy of the Berlin Tagesspiegel, where this article appeared in the 24 October 2014 issue.