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Archive for the category “Islamic art”

Palmyra’s legacy to ISIS

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This carved block at Palmyra pre-dates the advent of Islam by four centuries, and is thought to show the world’s earliest representation of veiled women, top right. It is one of the countless examples of how practices we now consider Islamic were often traceable to pagan times.

The early Muslim armies captured Damascus in 636 just four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and went on to make it the capital of their Umayyad Caliphate. It was the first encounter Muslims had with cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, cultures which were themselves the products of rich intermingling of Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian influences and which had in turn been under Greek and Roman influence for centuries. Commerce, as ever the driver of human inter-action, was thriving as new trade routes evolved, while religious and cultural trends co-existed.

The Umayyad Caliphate, far from seeking to ban or wipe out this multicultural heritage of earlier empires and civilisations, simply took over the existing infrastructure from the previous Byzantine and Sassanian rulers, going on to develop its own unique contribution to the art and architecture of the region. The Umayyads absorbed and adopted the customs of the cities they conquered. With the fall of borders, they unified the region thereby encouraging additional cross-fertilisation of ideas and artistic traditions. The results can be seen in all their buildings, from Jerusalem’s famous Dome of the Rock to the lesser known desert palaces like Mushatta (see photos below) and Khirbat Mafjar now scattered all over the deserts of Jordan, the West Bank and Syria.

Mshatta facade 2mshatta facade

When it comes to the case of Palmyra, this rich cultural legacy is especially clear. The carved stone blocks carry motifs of flowers, including the famous Palmyrene Rose, ringed with acanthus and lotus leaves.

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The Palmyra drawings by English architects Wood and Dawkins went on to influence directly the classical revival of the 18th century, where Palmyrene roses are often to be seen on the ceilings of grand British country houses.

The Umayyad desert palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi which stands in the desert some 100km northeast of Palmyra, has a mosque which incorporates columns and capitals brought from the site of Palmyra. The architecture of its monumental gateway displays an eclectic mix of Byzantine, Mesopotamian and Persian styles, with many recycled Roman and Byzantine capitals. Its twin, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which lies in the desert  80km southwest of Palmyra, likewise boasted a monumental 8th century facade, now incorporated into the modern entrance of the Damascus National Museum.

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These fusions are clearly visible in the vine scrolls, the bunches of grapes symbolising wealth, fertility and prosperity in both the stone carvings of Palmyra and the decorative patterns of the Umayyad palaces, not to mention later Islamic tile patterns.

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Mythical creatures like griffins, together with birds like peacocks and eagles, animals like gazelles and lions are often found entwined in the Tree of Life, an ancient concept pre-dating Islam by centuries, yet all such motifs are still found on the borders of prayer rugs across the Muslim world. If ISIS claims that such things are idolatrous, it would also have to destroy most of the Islamic carpets and tiles of the Middle East.

And what of the many mosques across the Muslim world that were built on the foundations of earlier churches and temples, such as the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus?

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Would they too have to be destroyed, like these early Islamic mosaic visions of fantasised trees and palaces?

In the nihilistic vision of ISIS there is, it seems, no room for diversity. They have set their course on the total destruction of relics from earlier cultures, thereby denying the roots of the very Islamic civilisation to which they claim to be returning. By destroying Palmyra, they will be destroying their own roots, ensuring their own eventual downfall, since a caliphate devoid of culture cannot endure. What a perfect contradiction.

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Art

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

The Prophet Muhammad solving dispute over who should rebuild Kaaba and dedicate black stone - they do it collaboratively on cloth, so all together Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh Univ library

The Prophet Muhammad solving a dispute over who should rebuild the Kaaba and dedicate the sacred black stone – they do it collaboratively on the cloth, so all together, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris, 18th century Ottoman, Topkapi Palace Museum

Muhammad carried by Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi'rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad carried by the Angel Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by the Angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi’rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris in Paradise harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, 'virgins' promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, ‘virgins’ promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown their hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

Since the Charlie Hebdou cartoons controversy in January 2015, and now the cafe attacks in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015, more attention has been focused on the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that do exist in Islamic art. They are not widely known: even on my Islamic Art and Architecture MA course at SOAS in 2008-9, they were never mentioned. Today there is increasing speculation that such images, as found for example in early illustrated Korans, are being steadily bought up by wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, specifically in order to be destroyed.

It is striking that the early images originate overwhelmingly from either Sunni Ottoman lands or from Persian Shi’ite lands, with almost nothing similar coming out of the Arab heartlands. In subject matter and style the drawings are reminiscent of saints’ icons, especially in their depictions of heaven and hell, complete with angels and demons.

Islamic art Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing Muhammad' Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh

Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing the Prophet Muhammad’s Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh on horseback

Islamic art German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing Gabriel guiding Muhammad on flying horse to God

German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing the Angel Gabriel guiding the Prophet Muhammad on his flying horse to God

These two final images from the 1920s are testimony to the fact that such images were evidently not seen as blasphemous a hundred years ago. The German Bovril equivalent did not have its factories blown up.

As Paul Chevedden, author of A New History of the Crusades, recently put it: “The great strength of Islam historically has been its ability to adapt itself to local cultures. Syncretism was one of its strong suits. Just think of all the pagan Arabian practices incorporated into the faith, not to mention its debt to Judaism and Christianity. Now it is only scandalized by syncretisms, and what passes for Islamic creativity amounts to ridding the faith of the accumulated traditions going back many centuries. If the trend continues, we will see a Salafī-Wahhābī wasteland. A richness and diversity of Islamic cultures replaced by a desert.” Too true.

With thanks to Paul Chevedden for sharing his thoughts.

Also thanks to the following:

Copyright � 2009 The New Criterion | http://www.newcriterion.com http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Yale—the-Danish-cartoons-4180

http://tarekfatah.com/images-of-prophet-muhammad-from-islamic-art-and-history-before-the-clan-of-ibn-saud-took-islam-hostage/

http://www.newsweek.com/koran-does-not-forbid-images-prophet-298298

 

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