"The Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks" show at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum and the related "Art of the Mamluks" exhibit at the Freer Gallery of Art open Friday to the public. An incorrect date was given in Sunday's edition.
IN THE beginning, the Mamluks were slaves. In the end, they were caliphs, reigning for 250 years over Egypt, Palestine and Syria. They wrestled control from their masters, defeated the Mongols, drove out the Crusaders and became wealthy traders and farmers. They were trained as bodyguards, yet many died by treachery. They were fierce, tough people who, as a religious book not their own would have it, lived by the sword and died by the sword. They were not artists, but they brought to the world the renaissance of Islamic art.
Wednesday, two exhibits of objects from the 13th-century Mamluk caliphates will open at the Smithsonian's freer Gallery of Art and the Museum of Natural History. Both are organized by Dr. yesin Atil, the Freer's extraordinarily energetic Islam curator. Atil also wrote the magnificent book that accompanies the exhibit, "Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks," published by the Smithsonian Press; edited the recent "Turkish Art," and retold the forthcoming "Kalila wa Dimna: Fables from a Fourteenth-Century Arabic Manuscript." The Mamluk book and exhibit are the first comprehensive study of the subject.
The Feer exhibit is small, some 20 objects from the gallery's own collection. Because the Freer's charter requires it to "neither a borrower nor a lender be," the loan exhibit of 130 objects from the 18 most important Islamic collections will be shown at the Museum of Natural History. The Freer's show is up indefinitely, the Natural History's through July 19. Only someone as persuasive and erudite as Esin Atil could have convinced both the Egyptian and the Syrian governments and the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert to cooperate on an exhibit. The politics of such a project are as devious and difficult as Islamic art.
The root of the work Mamluk in Arabic means persons who were bought, captured or given. The first of their number were from the Turkish Central Asian tribes but later they came from other Western Asian tribes, according to Atil.
Atil, a great storyteller, relates the way the Mamluks formed their state: It reads, she writes, "like a medieval romance, full of violence and female intrigue."
The caliphs of Baghdad were the first to collect, as it were, Mamluks. In the mid 13th century, the al-Bahriyya al-Salihiyya corps of Mamluks, serving Sultan al-Salih Najam al-Din Ayyub, was stationed in Cairo on the Island of Roda overlooking the Nile.
When the sultan died in 1249, his widow, whose name translates as "Tree of Pearls" concealed his death until his son could return to claim the throne. Within two months, the son was murdered. "His death ended Ayyubid rule in Egypt," writes Atil "the Bahri Mamluks elected Shajar al-Durr [Pearls] as their new sultana and appointed an amir named Aybak as her commander-in-chief. Thus, the Mamluk state was borne in May 1250, with a woman on the throne."
Shajar al-Durr was forced to marry Aybak by the caliph of Baghdad. But when Aybak wanted to also marry the daughter of the ruler of Mosul in 1257, Shajar Al-Durr "lured him to her chambers and murdered him in his bath." Three days later she was killed by "Aybak's vengeful concubines, who beat the queen to death with their clogs and threw her body from the walls of the palace."
The lives of the Mamluks, though filled with dreams of danger by night and assassins by day, must have been voluptuous beyond our understanding. The exhibits are filled with objects from their magnificent palaces, objects, like their lives, covered with intricate, extravagant, secret, mysterious designs.
The works glitter and glow with richness. The treasures of the earth were excavated to please the caliphs. Artists/craftsmen whose talent was as rare as their materials made the objects of gold, silver, brass, ivory and exotic woods.Even the ink was made of brilliant powders (often precious metals).
The opulent objects are fashioned into: metalwork basins, pen boxes, rosewater sprinklers, candlesticks, keys, swords and helmets; glass beakers, bottles and vases; ceramic bowls, jars, vessels, hexagonal tiles and goblets; architectural woodwork, ivory and stone door panels, grilles, plaques, mihrabs and boxes; textile caps, mantles and rugs.
The works seem far too munificent for everyday. They would be more believable hidden in some dark cave, only to be revealed when the chosen one rubs the magic lamp.
The Mamluk objects seem all of a piece. You have the feeling that the person who inscribed the illuminated manuscript could also have forged the sword. Obviously, part of this feeling comes because so many of the artworks, from manuscripts to metalwork to rugs, are covered with script. As is true of most Islamic art, you have a glimpse of a magic world, waiting to capture you in its tentacles, to bear you away to a never-never land of soft cushions and hard steel. The effect is more than enticing; it is mesmerizing. c
Dr. Atil points out that not all the writing is Arabic. "The Mamluks were much more comfortable with the Turkish language, and in the end, went over to Turkish entirely."
The basin lent by the Louvre is a marvel of silver and gold inlay. The diameter is less than 20 inches and its height is just under nine inches. But its sides are a whole world. Forty-four four-legged animals chase each other around the flaring lip. The next band is guarded by what seem to be spear points. After that is a band of unicorns, leopards, lions, boars and griffins chasing elephants, deer, camels, sphinxes and hares -- the consumers and the consumed. The center circumference is peopled with amirs armed with swords and their minions presenting goblets. The men are turbaned, robed, armored and booted. Four medallions are centered in the middle panel, celebrating riders in the act of spearing dragons and bears. Around the base are more beasts, real and mythical, in hot pursuit.
The manuscripts, always a glory of Islam, are divided into illuminated and illustrated. In Islamic art, religious designs are always abstract. To depict living creatures would be to set up idols for worship, forbidden by the Koran. The secular manuscripts on the other hand are filled with genre illustrations, wonderful glimpses into the life of the Islamic renaissance.
The blue, red, gold and silver illuminations, calligraphy and bindings, Atil writes, are "unequalled in any other Islamic traditions of book-making." aThe Mamluks, "embracing Islam with the fervor of converts, endowed elaborate religious complexes and supplied each major foundation with its set of Korans." Atil explains that the bookcovers are made on a pasteboard core, covered with leather, stamped, blind-tooled, gilded and sometimes painted. The designs include a central medallion of geometric shapes, repeated in the corners, framed by braids and bands. The doublures (inner covers) are leather blocks stamped with floral and geometric designs. The filigree bindings are of leather cut to reveal a fine silk background.
The illustrated papers are unfortunately not in color in the otherwise lavishly colored book (perhaps that's where the grant from the United Technologies Corporation, sponsors of the publication, ran out). But in the exhibit you'll be able to appreciate the lush use of gold and colors. Atil says the most original are the epics, written in Turkish at the end of the 15th century.
The editions of the "Automata" by al-Jazari are fascinating, showing the construction of 50 mechanical and hydraulic devices: clocks, drinking vessels, basins and fountains.
It was impractical to import the marvelous domed mausoleums of Mamluk for the exhibit. This is very sad since the best Islamic art is its architecture. Instead, we have to content ourselves with only a soupcon of architectural elements. A panel of four arches filled with geometric cross and star designs are made of polished white, red, yellow and black marble and mother of pearl set into plaster. Atil says these are best seen in the complex of buildings by Sultan Qalawun of 1284-85 and the mausoleum of the khanqa of Barsbay, built in 1432 in a Cairo cemetery.
Of the glassworks, I prefer the fluted beaker and its companion bow made of purple glass with white trailing, though the enameled and gilded glass seems more a part of the tradition.
The ceramics, as you might expect, are sturdy and strong with usually black and blue geometric and calligraphic designs. The exceptions are two 15-inch jars decorated with animals and birds, vines and leaves.
The rugs are surprising, since the climate is too warm for any real need of such coverings. Atil says they appeared suddenly at the end of the 15th century "immaculately woven in shimmering wools with geometric designs." The textiles are mostly of silk, printed, embroidered (often with silver and gold thread) and appliqued on linen, silk and cotton.
The rug with a central star, lent by the Textile Museum here, is of incredible beauty, with the most wonderful red, green, blue and brown pile centered with a yellow that seems to be almost a gold.
The exhibits are grand introductions to a world and a time as hidden from our knowledge as the mysterious art of the Mamluk.