When Cultural Identity Is Denied

By Souren Melikian, The New York Times

When the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia were inaugurated at the Metropolitan Museum in November, few visitors were ungracious enough to ask why the book published on the occasion is titled “Masterpieces From the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

The department, of course, has not changed its name. The longer denomination echoes the preference that art historians like the head of the Islamic department Sheila Canby have for historically accurate characterizations. Ms. Canby, who has devoted a lifetime of research to Iranian studies, said, “This has crystallized a real issue in the field that we have been calling ‘Islamic art.”’ 

A glazed tile from the 13th- and 14th-century Koranic frieze in Natanz that was  taken off the walls and sold as single pieces to Western museums.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

The denial of cultural identity in such a meaningless phrase is deeply resented in those Islamic lands, which have ancient cultures that are considerably longer than any West European nation. Most Western scholars appear to be unaware of it. 

Yet, the phrase spread in the later 19th century, largely because of the French. The notion of an “Art Musulman” received significant museum credentials at an exhibition held in 1878 at the Paris Trocadéro and was set in concrete following the first important art show of works of art from the “Arab lands, Turkey, Iran,” etc..., at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1903. 

This was the age of European colonial occupation, which continued to expand after World War I as France and Britain shared the spoils of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The “Islamic art” myth conveniently matched the Western perception of all these non-European people with funny names written in the same Arabic alphabet. 

 A painted page from the royal 14th-century Shah-Nameh  that  was ripped apart by the French dealer  Georges Demotte in the early 20th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

The very concept of “Islamic art” is alien to the cultures that adhered to Islam, but that apparently has never troubled the scholars who hold forth on the subject in their books as in their university lectures. 

This phrase was never used in Islamic lands until cultural institutions in Middle East started copying the West and adopted its way of displaying and describing artifacts. The European construct clashes with the very tenets of Islam. In Arabic, the term Islam literally means “surrendering/committing oneself to God,” and only humans can be Muslims, not objects. 

The Western rewriting of cultural and artistic reality extends far beyond simple rebranding. 

During a long period that goes back to the Middle Ages, works of art from the Middle East were treasured in Europe. In the 17th century, collections of Arab and Persian manuscripts were formed. The books, valued for their texts, were preserved in their integrity. 

A change to this approach took place around the 1870s. Volumes began to be broken up and painted pages cut out to be framed as “miniatures.” Thousands of manuscripts from Iran, Moghul Hindustan and Turkey were butchered through much of the 20th century, for commerce. Dealers made more money by selling pages one by one. 

A royal 14th-century Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings) was ripped apart by the French dealer Georges Demotte in the early 20th century. In 1980, two scholars, Oleg Grabar and Sheila Blair, painstakingly endeavored to reconstruct the Iranian manuscript, cautiously concluding on the basis of various inferences that it had been commissioned by Abu Said Bahadur Khan (1317-1335), the last Mongol emperor of Iran. The text is lost.

Pages with paintings are scattered around America and Europe. One of the finest, in the Met, relates to the 6th century A.D. Sasanian emperor Khosrow Anushirvan. 

The museum book on “Masterpieces From the Islamic Art Department” reproduces pages from the Met’s collection that were torn away from highly important volumes in the Golestan Library in Tehran. These include the Khavaran-Nameh, an exceptionally beautiful manuscript of the late 15th century. 

Another page comes from the magnificent Chingiz-Nameh, an abridgement of an early 14th-century Iranian chronicle, which was commissioned in the late 16th century by Akbar, the Moghul emperor of Hindustan.

Other major imperial manuscripts from Hindustan were destroyed, leaving only painted pages to establish their existence. The Met acquired two folios of a manuscript of the “Five Romances” (Khamsa, literally “Quintet”) written in Persian around 1300 A.D. by Amir Khosrow of Dehli. A librarian’s attribution to the painter Basavan on one, and to Manuhar on the other are referred to as “signatures” — which is not the same. 

One might have thought that manuscript destruction would stop at Korans. It did not, and it continues to this day. Hundreds of early volumes have been ripped apart in order to sell their pages piecemeal. 

The very first of the “Masterpieces” in the department’s collective volume comes from a 9th-century Koran in the library of an early religious school in Tashkent, in present-day Uzbekistan. The label loosely states “Syria or North Africa.” A regional provenance is equally plausible — the current classification rests on inferences and hypotheses that might change one day. 

Will the recent fury unleashed in Afghanistan by the burning of Korans prove to be a wake-up call in academe and the art market? Unlikely. It does not take a university doctorate to surmise that tearing up a Koran is sacrilegious. At least the burning by U.S. forces was declared to be “an inadvertent mistake.” 

There is nothing inadvertent about the tearing up of Korans for commercial recycling. Nor is the mutilation of monumental Koranic verses in mosques and mausoleums for similar purposes unintentional. 

This repeatedly happened in Iran, where 13th- and 14th-century friezes of glazed tiles were systematically targeted, beginning in the 1870s. The tiles carrying the verses from the “Surat al-Insan” (The Chapter of Humans, Kor. LXXVI) running along the walls of a mausoleum in Natanz were then taken off the walls and sold as single pieces to Western museums. A tile with the year date (and the last letter of one of three possible months, although only one is considered in the museum book) corresponding to 1307 or 1308 is in the Met.

Theft was never held to be an objection to later acquisition. A famous mihrab or simulated arched structure indicating the direction of Mecca, signed and dated February 1226 A.D., stood in the Masjed-e Meydan-e Emadi in Kashan. It was wrenched off the wall and eventually acquired by John Preece, the English consul in Isfahan. The mihrab was later bought by the Berlin Museum for Islamic art where allied bombing severely damaged it in 1945. Other Koranic tiles from 13th-century mihrabs are in the Met. 

In his 1975 three-volume study on the monuments of Yazd, written in Persian, Iraj Afshar reproduced funerary steles taken off rock burial places and a marble slab hacked away from a mihrab, which are now in New York, Boston, Washington and Seattle. Such insults to faith and art have yet to be put right. 

Similar assaults have been carried out on the heritage of Turkey and of the Central Asian states. 

Anger mixed with contempt simmers silently in Iran, Syria or Turkey. It is rarely vented in the international arena, if only because internal political problems make it impossible. In some cases, corruption and the lack of individual freedom needed to expose outrage publicly facilitate the wrecking of monuments. It would take a very courageous man to stand up in Uzbekistan and shout that artifacts, including glazed tile revetments, are dispatched to Western auctions. 

Collectors, public and private, who acquire such works under the cover of legality given by recorded purchase at auction or from a legitimate art gallery, would do well to think long term — half a century elapsed after World War II before the theft of art from Jews by the Nazi authorities, often carried out in the guise of “legal” albeit enforced sales, came to be recognized as an intolerable scandal. They should further note that the recent restitutions do not even concern, in most cases, items sacred to Jewish believers, but “only” pictures and objets d’art. 

The court of world opinion may decide one day that a 13th-century bronze knocker wrenched off the Great Mosque in Cizre (historic Jazirat ibn ‘Umar) in south-eastern Turkey, has its rightful place next to its match rather than in Copenhagen. Do not bet on the missing Kashan tiles from 13th-and 14th-century Iranian mihrabs now in Tehran still being in New York in 50 or 60 years. 

The political scene changes as time goes by. Enmities fade away, new alliances are struck. Just carefully check provenance next time you go after “Islamic art.” 

It is high time for museums of the Met’s caliber to consider installing rooms of Arab, Hindustani, Iranian and Turkish art. Visitors would at least know where they stand. 

Thanks for reading When Cultural Identity Is Denied

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