In a memorable passage from his seminal 2003 essay “What Should One Know about Islamic Art?” the late Oleg Grabar reminds readers of “that true but rarely acknowledged fact that the Islamic world is the only cultural entity in the history of mankind to have borders or boundaries with almost all the cultural entities known before 1492.”1 The products of successive Islamic polities that circulated around the world from the seemingly provincial urban centers in the Hejaz have long been of interest to scholars and students of world history. Throughout the second half of the first millennium, Islamic cultures—increasingly varied, complex, and heterogeneous—were dominant in large geographic expanses from Spain to the Sindh. These hegemonies were at least partially predicated on Islam's ability to transform and be transformed by multiple cultural contacts within and beyond its ever-changing boundaries, simultaneously producing innovation, synthesis, and distinction. Significant among these transformations were the vital role performed by monumental architecture in the (re)production of statecraft and the central position of ornament in the creation of certain buildings as spectacular displays of power. In cities such as Medina, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad, Samarra, and Cairo, monumental architecture actively participated in the production and reproduction of the Islamic state, forged in the crucible of the Late Antique period, with its multiplicity of actors, technologies, and tastes.
The exhibition Pattern, Color, Light: Architectural Ornament in the Near East (500–1000) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was therefore, if nothing else, a welcome foray into the tangible material remains of this rich architectural history. The architectural fragments assembled for the exhibition were supplemented with informative captions, perspective drawings, and primarily historical photographs, many of which depicted monuments associable with displayed fragments. In this way, the curators boldly attempted to illustrate the persistence, development, and migration of certain building ideas, forms, and technologies in the Near East during the second half of the first millennium. The selected objects were also intended to show that architectural ornament was not merely the decorative treatment of a variety of surfaces; rather, it was an integral part of monumental building practices. The museum is to be congratulated for assembling such a wide variety of architectural fragments from that period originating from monuments and sites in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The exhibition also succeeded admirably in incorporating familiar material, such as beveled carvings and stucco from Samarra, with more rarely displayed material, such as a large Byzantine woolen textile from the Nile delta. Placed in the same gallery with contemporary vegetal ornament carved into stone and intertwining arabesques on wood and bone, this textile provided thought-provoking illustration of the possible consistencies of taste across media and material, and also highlighted the central yet often neglected role of textiles in the production of architectural space.
The exhibition was organized thematically into the three categories of “Pattern,” “Color,” and “Light,” with a seemingly deliberate overlap across these themes. This overlap was most evident in the display cabinet placed in the center of the gallery. The cabinet contained a fragile and colorful cornucopia of glass fragments ranging from single-colored tesserae smaller than a fingernail to palm-sized shards of fused and patterned glass in a variety of colors, displaying a wide range of textures and opacities found in Syria, Samarra, and a necropolis in the Libyan Desert. These fragments seemed to suggest a high degree of cultural contact among multiple Near Eastern courts even before the synthesizing arrival of the Islamic polities in the seventh century. While most architects and historians today tend to think of glass primarily as a glazing or window material, the survival of traces of plaster on many of these excavated glass fragments suggests that they were in fact embedded in stucco walls to produce dazzling effects meant to impress viewers. Evidence for this use of such fragments exists in contemporary textual representations of state monuments of the time.
Even at a museum as accomplished as the Met, with its dedicated staff and spectacular holdings, an exhibition dealing with such a large and geographically expansive subject was bound to have shortcomings. For a start, the gallery selected was far too small for the ambitiously large scope of the project. The color of paint selected for the walls and socles, a distinct chartreuse meets Saudi Arabian flag, was simultaneously memorable and unfortunate. Also, with a few exceptions, the architectural fragments were too small. Whether hung on walls, placed on socles, or situated within top-lit display cases, they seemed incapable of conveying the magnitude of ornament strategies that pervaded the monumental buildings of which they once were part. Despite all the supplementary material, the fragments appeared only as unique individual objects, abstracted from context, rather than as selected elements from larger overarching visual strategies that were once used across entire territories. The scenography of the material itself presented a clear challenge to the viewer, who was expected to perceive of these fragments as parts of monumental doors, walls, ceilings, and floors. The near absence of any figurative images, except in two medallion portraits in the Nile delta textile and an Egyptian limestone panel depicting four animals, contributed to the inaccurate yet popular perception that the arts of this period and geography were devoid of figurative representation.
Furthermore, the exhibition conceived of the Near East as being fundamentally contested between the two distinct cultural hegemonies of Byzantium and the Sasanians and their associated empires and belief systems, but presented from the perspective of the Muslim Hejaz. Such a presentation not only completely ignores the existing deep roots of the pre-Islamic heritage of the first Muslims but also denies these peoples their own agencies of choice, taste, and enthusiasm regarding their new monotheistic creed. Most regrettably, the exhibition made little effort to articulate how the multidirectional transfers of ornamental styles across the Near East may have occurred during those centuries, at what rhythms, and whether said transfers can or should be associated with a particular geography or moment during the hundreds of years present in the gallery. Such content would have helped visitors situate the material placed before them far more effectively, both historically and intellectually, and would have allowed for more enriching and critical interpretations of the fragments at hand. This would have shed valuable light on the role of seemingly excessive ornamental strategies not only in producing legitimacy and authoritative power in the Near East centuries ago but also in producing concentrations of sovereign power since that time.