Islam’s historic treasures on display in Sharjah

An incredible range of historic treasures from across the Islamic world is on display in Sharjah. The objects are on loan from the Vatican in Rome, and the exhibition offers Muslims and Christians a chance to meet and talk to better understand each other, writes Rym Ghazal

A ladies’ jacket from Palestine is part of the exhibits on loan to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization from the Vatican. Lee Hoagland/The National
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Sometimes through the most common objects, a greater story can be told.

Qabqab, a 19th century pair of bathhouse sandals, may be an example of the world’s tallest heels, at about 31cm high. Made of wood, mother of pearl and fabric, with silver wire and leather, their name, Qabqab, is onomatopoeic, named after the sound they make when the wearer is walking.

Although original museum records say the clogs were intended for young Turkish brides, they were commonly worn across the Ottoman Empire.

Attached to the feet with ribbons or leather strips, ladies would wear them mainly in the bathhouse, the hamam, where the high support made sure their feet stayed clean and dry and away from the slippery floors.

The sandals, part of a Vatican collection, are on display at Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Also on display are an elaborate water pipe (known as a hookah or Nargileh), prayer beads, different shapes and sizes of amulets and Qurans, including Quran lockets, helmets, clothes and many other items.

The exhibition marks the first time in the collection’s 300-year history that the objects have been on display in the Muslim world.

The 70 objects have been selected, researched and curated jointly by Sharjah and Vatican curators, drawing from the Vatican Ethnological Museum’s vast collection of more than 100,000 artefacts.

The exhibition was developed under the patronage of Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, in line with the emirate’s celebrations as Capital of Islamic Culture for 2014.

Titled So That you Might Know Each Other, named after a verse from the Al Hujarat Chapter in the Quran, it invites visitors to learn more about other religions and cultures.

Manal Attaya, director general of the Sharjah Museums Department (SMD), says it took a year for staff from his department and the Vatican museum to choose, research and restore the objects for the exhibition. None of them had previously been displayed in the Middle East.

“Most range from the late-13th and early-14th Islamic centuries AH, or late-19th and early-20th centuries AD in date, with some pieces even older,” Ms Attaya said.

“All the objects represent the diverse traditional lifestyles of Muslims, from North Africa to China, before the onset of modernity and globalisation.”

A fusion of the religions, east and west, is captured on a porcelain vase dating back to the Qing dynasty in China, that is decorated with Islamic inscriptions and Buddhist symbols. The cursive blue inscriptions are taken from the Quran, while the Buddhist symbols – a colourful pearl decorated with ribbons, the swastika and the ribboned hat – refer to longevity, justice and perfection.

“Each and every one of the pieces on display is important in its own right, because it tells a unique and fascinating story about the heritage and culture of traditional Muslim communities from around the world,” said Ms Attaya.

“When you see this collection, you will indeed say Subhan Allah, because diversity in unity and unity in diversity are the two underlying themes of this exhibition, evident in each and every artefact.

“For example, the intricate hand-embroidery on costumes and clothes tells us also about the women who made them, their preparations for their wedding dowries, their pride in their identity, their beliefs and hopes for a happy, prosperous life.

“Pieces of jewellery talk about the confluence of cultures and artistic aesthetics, with influences from Arabia, India, South East Asia and China locked up in a single item.

“Musical instruments evoke happy or reflective community occasions, family celebrations or religious festivals.”

A special delegation from the Vatican attended the opening of the exhibition this month.

Father Nicola Mapelli, director of the Vatican Ethnological Museum, curated and worked on the exhibition with Dr Ulrike Al Khamis, a senior strategic adviser at the SMD, who assembled the detailed catalogue, which includes articles on Islamic art and artefacts, and the various Vatican collections.

“We worked together to pick out what would best represent the Islamic world and their people, and show range and diversity of Islamic civilisation,” said Father Mapelli.

“Through this exhibition you get to see how the ordinary Muslim lived, and how beautiful and creative Islamic craft and art has been. Through the objects you see the similarities between all of us, and this helps strengthen the relationship between us, the Vatican, the Catholic world and the Muslim world.”

Many of the objects were sent as gifts to Pope Pius XI on the occasion of a major exhibition, the Universal Exposition, which was held at the Vatican in 1925. The Pope wanted to demonstrate the attention, respect and openness of the Catholicism towards the art, culture and religions of the people of the world.

More than 100,000 items from every corner of the world were donated to the Pope for the event and exhibited in 26 halls at the Vatican.

There were two further major donations of Islamic art, from Salvatore La Farina from Palermo, a collector, and Count Antonio Gauttieri.

“These 70 objects are just a sample of what the Vatican museum has,” said Father Mapelli. “It has a wealth of artefacts and art that are worth a visit for anyone seeking further knowledge.

“We have rare books and many rare manuscripts and items. People from different religions should sit and talk and get to know each other, and a museum is one of the best ways to start dialogue and share cultures and understanding.”

Accompanied by carefully drawn maps along the walls and a great wealth of additional information, visitors get to experience a journey through Islamic civilisation, laid out meticulously in the halls of the exhibition.

“Many of the objects revealed very unexpected stories,” said Dr Al Khamis, who is also an expert on Islamic and Middle Eastern art.

“For example, the exhibition includes a miniature Quran that was collected in Indonesia in the 1920s, but was originally printed in Glasgow, Scotland, at the other end of the world.

“Distributed to Muslim soldiers fighting for the Allies in WWI, the object subsequently somehow reached South-east Asia.

“From the beginning, Vatican and Sharjah colleagues approached the project in a spirit of friendship and trust, and throughout the process, the professional and personal ties between all strengthened to a degree that we are already looking at future possibilities to collaborate.”

Besides the exhibition, a series of related workshops have been organised, including the Al Majlis, on April 26, May 24 and June 7 (for ladies only) from 5.30pm. Over a serving of traditional Arabic coffee, attendees can discuss their impressions of the exhibition.

The exhibition is at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, on the Sharjah Corniche Road, until June 14. Entrance costs Dh5 for adults and is free for children.

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