For almost 3 000 years, merchants, artists, mystics and philosophers travelled along the Silk Road – a network linking Asia with the Mediterranean world, including Europe and North Africa. They traded in goods, shared cultural traditions and exchanged ideas and knowledge along the way.
After the 7th century, Silk Road trade routes were increasingly frequented by Muslims who were eager to expand their intellectual horizons and build on the knowledge of other civilisations. Interactions among Muslim and non-Muslim societies thrived, resulting in some of the most magnificent intellectual and artistic expressions ever conceived. Centuries of engagement had an impact, and plurality became an undeniable feature of these societies.
Showcasing the diversity of the Muslim world
“The 1 428 years of the ummah (Muslim community) embrace many civilisations, and are therefore characterised by an astonishing pluralism,” said Mawlana Hazar Imam in an address at the Louvre Museum in October 2007. Speaking about the forthcoming Aga Khan Museum, and its Collection, Hazar Imam added: “This geographic, ethnic, linguistic and religious pluralism has manifested itself at the most defining moments in the history of the ummah, hence the objective of the Aga Khan [Museum] Collection, which is to highlight objects drawn from every region and every period, and created from every kind of material in the Muslim world.”
Some 1 000 pieces make up the Aga Khan Museum Collection – a portion of which was assembled by Mawlana Hazar Imam's late uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and his wife, Princess Catherine Aga Khan, with much of the rest acquired by Hazar Imam himself over a period of two decades. The Collection has been travelling across Europe since 2007, carrying with it – not unlike the Silk Road travellers of centuries past – knowledge and ideas about different peoples, cultures and faith traditions. A succession of exhibitions have appeared at renowned museums and exhibition spaces in Parma, London, Paris, Lisbon, Toledo, Madrid and Barcelona. Currently, pieces of the Collection are on display at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau, and the exhibition is set to travel to Istanbul, Turkey, where it will be on display from October 2010 to January 2011.
The artefacts tell a story of Islam's many accomplishments, from art and faith to science and literature. “Each object is not only a pretty thing, but usually has many layers of meaning from a historical point of view,” explained Benoît Junod, Director of Museums and Exhibitions at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Their geographical origins vary, and include the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean, and reach as far as China. Cast in wood, stone, metals, ivory, ceramics, parchment and textiles, each piece testifies to the cross-cultural influences of Islam as it mingled with societies around the world.
A conduit for understanding and dialogue
In the catalogue of the Collection's Spirit and Life exhibition held in London in 2007, Luis Monreal, General Manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture notes: “The developing political crises of the last few years, and the large numbers of Muslims emigrating to the West, have revealed – often dramatically – the considerable lack of knowledge of the Muslim world and development of Muslim artistic traditions.”
The Muslim world of the Middle Ages served as a conduit for knowledge between the era of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the European Renaissance. Classical texts were translated to Arabic and Persian, their ideas were integrated into Muslim modes of thinking, and the knowledge they proffered was augmented by Muslim scientists and philosophers.
An Arabic translation of De Materia Medica, a pharmacological compendium by Greek physician Dioscorides, speaks to the continuity of knowledge across civilisations. Visitors to the Collection exhibitions can also view rare historical works such as Ibn Sina's (Avicena) Canon of Medicine, a formative medical text that was used in Europe for over 500 years, and is the basis of modern medicine. Together with other artefacts like a Ming Dynasty ablutions bowl from China, the Collection recounts a history based on cultural evidence that brings together communities, which at first glance, would have seemed unlikely to be linked.
At its highest level of interpretation, art conveys not only the physical manifestation at hand, but also the tradition from which it emerges. It offers the possibility of shaping relationships between peoples. On accepting the Royal Toledo Foundation Award in 2006, Mawlana Hazar Imam expressed the importance of art for the collective history of humankind. He noted that conservation of our cultural heritage “can play a central role in helping different civilisations understand each other, to appreciate how mutually enriching their historic interactions have been, and contributions of each to the common heritage of humanity.”
A new home in Toronto
The Collection will ultimately find its permanent home at the Aga Khan Museum being established in Toronto. The first museum of its kind in North America, it has specifically been designed to showcase the art of the Muslim world. Its foundation ceremony is expected to take place at the end of May.
At the opening of The Path of Princes exhibition at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon on 13 March 2008, Prince Amyn expressed his aspirations for the Museum: “The Aga Khan Museum will help visitors to look on other human beings in other parts of the world with more comprehension. Ideally, a museum should allow those who view its collections to increase their knowledge. Every increase in knowledge increases one's understanding.”
Toronto – and indeed North America – has become home to a growing Muslim community, whose diversity is reflective of the broad plurality of traditions, interpretations and cultures that constitute the ummah. The cosmopolitan ethic of Toronto and Canada's pluralist values provide a suitable backdrop for the new Museum and its Collection.
Like the caravans that criss-crossed the Silk Road centuries ago, museums and their collections have become crucibles of cross-cultural dialogue that can create greater understanding among peoples. In showcasing the artefacts of the Muslim world, the Aga Khan Museum will foster a greater appreciation of our collective human heritage and shared history.