14 May 2016
Scene from the manuscript of the poem, the
Romance of Varqa and Gulshah, paintings by Khuwayyi. c 1250AD Konya, Turkey
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has just opened a magnificent exhibition
of Islamic art of the Seljuqid period. That sentence would or should probably
cause a double-take for right at the artistic and intellectual heartland of
this beleaguered empire, Americans are celebrating one of the highest summits
of Islamic civilization at a time when US Muslims are subject to one of the
ugliest phases of Islamophobia in their recent history.
and Cosmos: The
Great Age of the Seljuqs (April 27 to July 24, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Iris
and B Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall) is curated with admirable care,
competence, and grace. Along with the exhibition, scholars affiliated with the
Met have published a beautifully edited volume under the same title, with
insightful essays by the leading social and art historians.
270 objects," as the curators of this rare exhibition explain,
"including ceramics, glass, stucco, works on paper, woodwork, textiles,
and metalwork - from American, European, and Middle Eastern public and private
collections are shown."
gracefully lit and curated exhibition galleries and the chapters of the
accompanying volume address such aspects of the Seljuqid culture and
civilization as the vast range of the their empire, their courtly lives, the state
of science, medicine, technology, and other sciences, as well as their state of
literary and religious scholarship, and finally their funerary arts.
as Cultural Haven
It is hard
to believe that you step out of the busy streets of Manhattan, now heavily
overshadowed by the fearsome xenophobic rhetoric of the Republican candidates,
and especially that of their now presumptive nominee Donald Trump, and walk
into a succession of adjacent galleries so carefully and competently devoted to
celebrating a crucial period in Islamic civilization.
But lo and
behold! The Empire may go around the world and wreak havoc on it, but at its
republican heart it needs to stage the relics of the vanquished.
of this once magnificent, now all but forgotten, empire exhibited at the heart
of this empire are uncanny.
unsettling is when we look at a number of stucco figures, sitting gracefully or
else standing with towering power and authority, that we can only imagine them
in a similar museum in Iraq or Syrian destroyed on camera by the barbarian
cannibals of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, plundering
the priceless heritage of nations and selling them on black market to finance
their malignant maladies.
What is it
that you see when you enter this exhibition at one of the finest cultural
institutions in the US?
statues of emperors and other royal dignities of the Seljuqid Empire
(1037-1194) as they went about conquering and ruling over more than half of the
civilized world, from the Mediterranean Sea to China.
utterly exquisite manuscripts of books on history, astronomy, medicine, you see
decorative ceramics and chinaware, you see remnants and relics of magnificent
palaces and mosques and citadels. You go through these calm, quiet, and
delightfully lit galleries and you wonder.
paradox of celebrating a bygone Islamic civilization at the height of
Islamophobia stands another paradox: Ruins as the site and citation of memorial
century Persian poet Khaqani (1121-1190) has an iconic Qasideh that he composed
after he visited the ruins of Taq-i Kisra (Iwan-e Mada'in), a
derelict ruin of the ancient city of Ctesiphon, and the capital of the
Sassanian Empire (224–651), before their collapse following the Arab conquest
of the 7th Century.
uses this visit to warn and admonish the kings and princes of his own time,
asking them to ponder the lesson that these ruins of once a mighty empire
that can still learnest:
what thou seest -
looking into a pensive mirror
continues to look at Euphrates as if a river of tears had flowed from the
calamity that happened to that once magnificent city. All the palaces of
tyrants one day will come to ruins, he assures his patrons and readers, just
like these remnants of the Ctesiphon. Will they behold and learn?
then goes through the whole gamut of kings and conquerors one dynasty after
another passing through such palaces and yet now dead and forgotten. He asks
the current rulers of the world to dismount their horses and elephants and
prostrate on those ruins and learn the lesson of history.
has swallowed so many tyrants and yet it is still insatiable and will devour
even more world conquerors.
poor man may ask the Sultan for some help -
tomorrow the same Sultan may ask a poor man for help!
and centuries have passed since the time Khaqani visited Taq-e Kisra and
composed his unforgettable poem. Today those ruins are either viciously
destroyed as the ISIL did in Palmyra or else carefully or competently curated
in museums like this one at the Met. But the lesson they contain is not much
different from those offered by Khaqani.
horses might now have been traded for Humvees, and those marching armies for
drones and submarines. But the wisdom of Khaqani persists.
When in the
company of a friend I visited the exhibition on the morning of May 5, scarce a
single other soul was there in these serene and soulful galleries. We wondered
from one room to another, a few hapless guards looking at us unsuspectedly.
at one manuscript here and stood in front of a statue there. Outside these
galleries, the rest of the museum was abuzz with guided tours, schoolchildren
and their teachers, and haphazard New Yorkers and tourists.
museum the heavy shadow of a new presidential election dominated the sense of
the city and the mood of the country at large. We walked out of the celebrated
ruins of an old empire and stepped into the self-forgetful hussle-bussle of