New Exhibition: Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (January 26 2019 – July 21 2019)

An exciting new exhibition organized by The Block Museum of Art and dedicated to the history and art of medieval Africa, has just opened in Chicago. The following is the description from its webpage:

Travel with the Block Museum along routes crossing the Sahara Desert to a time when West African gold fueled expansive trade and drove the movement of people, culture, and religious beliefs.

Caravans of Gold is the first major exhibition addressing the scope of Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to sixteenth centuries. Weaving stories about interconnected histories, the exhibition showcases the objects and ideas that connected at the crossroads of the medieval Sahara and celebrates West Africa’s historic and underrecognized global significance.

Caravans of Gold draws on recent archaeological discoveries, including rare fragments from major medieval African trading centers like Sijilmasa, Gao, and Tadmekka. These “fragments in time” are seen alongside works of art that invite us to imagine them as they once were. They are the starting point for a new understanding of the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light.

Presenting more than 250 artworks spanning five centuries and a vast geographic expanse, the exhibition features unprecedented loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, many of which will be seen in North America for the first time.

The Block Museum exhibition will travel to The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Sept. 21, 2019 – Feb. 23, 2020) and then to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute (April 8 – Nov. 29, 2020)

It’s wonderful to see the history and culture of such an important region of the medieval world finally receiving more public attention. For those unable to attend, the exhibition’s catalog, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (ed, Kathleen Bickford Berzock) can be purchased here.

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The Iconography of Royal Power in 12th-c. Norman Sicily

The reign of Roger II (r. 1130-1154), who had began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130, has long fascinated everyone interested in Mediterranean history. It marks a particularly significant period for the consolidation of Norman rule in both Sicily and southern Italy. Roger II instituted a strong royal administration, overcame various challenges to his authority (in the form of rebellions) and inaugurated an expansionist foreign policy that resulted in the incorporation of substantial territories in North Africa into his realm (discussed further here).

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(Image source: http://almostforgotten.squarespace.com/podcast/2018/3/13/episode-35-norman-in-italy-part-2-roger-ii)

In addition to overseeing the transformation of the Norman kingdom into a Mediterranean power that controlled Sicily, southern Italy and parts of modern-day Tunisia and Libya, Roger II’s reign is also distinguished by his patronage of a courtly culture colored as much by Arab-Islamic and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) influences as by Latin Christian culture. This is unsurprising, given the rich Islamic and Eastern Roman history of Sicily in the preceding centuries. Indeed, the island’s large population of Christians, Muslims and Jews was predominantly Greek and Arabic speaking during the early 12th century.  This variety of cultural influences and convergence of diverse communities is indicated by the distinctive culture of the Norman kingdom, perhaps best embodied by the wonderful architecture patronized and constructed by Roger II and his successors during the 12th century.

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(Muqarnas in the Palatine Chapel/Cappella Palatina in Palermo, constructed between 1132 and 1180. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bautisterias/24595747119/)

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Qur’an of Marinid Sultan Abū Ya’qūb Yūsuf (r. 1286-1307)

The following is an illuminated North African manuscript of the Qur’an from the royal library of Marinid sovereign Abū Ya’qūb Yūsuf (r. 1286-1307). It was transcribed in Rajab 705/February 1306. According to the cataloger of the manuscript:

The text is written in Maghribi script on parchment, with only seven lines to a page. The well-proportioned balancing of the text area with the wide margins gives the Qurʼan its monumental character. Colorful signs indicate the vocalization and golden circles mark the verses. The surah headings are written in golden Kufic, some of which are additionally set into decorated panels surrounded by strap-work or palmette frames. The medallions of the surah headings in the margins are executed with very delicate arabesque ornaments. Several elegant double-page illuminations open and close the manuscript. Experts rate this manuscript as among the most outstanding copies of the Qurʼan. The dominant feature of the original binding is a star pattern with gilded lines. Experts rate this manuscript as among the most outstanding copies of the Qurʼan in existence.

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Real Alcazar (Sevilla) in the late 19th/early 20th c.

The Alcazar (from the Arabic al-Qasr meaning palace) is the royal residence of the kings of Spain. The Alcazar is considered a World Heritage Site, like many other extraordinary pieces of architecture in Spain, and is magnificent to behold. It is one of Spain’s lesser known sites, since most visitors often consider the Alhambra in Granada or the Mezquita-Catedral in Cordoba to be more significant. However, the Alcazar is not only an amazing piece of work in its own right, but even rivals the Alhambra as a palace. The palace is built almost entirely in Hispano-Muslim style and, in many ways, resembles the Alhambra. Thus, there is a natural tendency to assume that this was a palace built by and for Muslims. This is both right and wrong. Yes, the palace was initially constructed in the taifa period and served as the royal residence of the Banu ‘Abbad dynasty, whose most famous son was al-Mu’tamid (the poet-prince). However, in its current form, the building was commissioned by a Christian king, Pedro I of Castile, in the late fourteenth century. Pedro (or Peter) hired a number of Muslim artisans and architects from among his own population in the kingdom of Castile, but also some from the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, to work on the palace. Interestingly, some of the very same artisans who worked on constructing and beautifying the Alhambra were also those who worked on the Alcazar, hence the similarities. Also worth noting is that Pedro I was a close friend and ally of Muhammad V, the Nasrid sultan who commissioned the major parts of the Alhambra palaces(Patio de los Leones, etc.) which have become the hallmarks of the structure. The building itself also integrates northern Spanish influence. As such, the building itself–in addition to underscoring the power and legitimacy of Pedro I–is also a demonstration of the medieval Spanish cultural co-production in which various medieval Iberian Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures interacted with one another and formed different parts of a unique whole.

 

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The Royal Edict of Expulsion (1609) and the Last Andalusi Muslims (“Moriscos”) of Spain

Historical Background

Following the forcible conversion of the Andalusī Muslims of Granada in 1501 (which I have described elsewhere https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/castilian-reconquista-ottoman-expansion-and-the-christianization-of-al-andalus/ ), similar edicts of conversion were promulgated that forced the Muslims populations of Castile (1502), Navarre (1515) and the Crown of Aragón (1526) to convert to Christianity, thereby criminalizing Islam as a public religion in the Iberian peninsula for the first time in 800 years. The new population of New Christians, as they were called, were referred to (derogatorily) as Moriscos. The Spanish government as well as the Church and Inquisition threatened any who continued to adhere to Islam—in any shape or form—with the death penalty, which usually meant being burned at the stake.

Image(Panels showing the Conversion of the Muslims of Granada in 1501, Altar, Royal Chapel, Granada) Continue reading

A Sixteenth-Century Fresco Painting of the Battle of La Higueruela (1431) in El Escorial

One of the most significant battles in fifteenth-century Iberia was undoubtedly the Battle of La Higueruela, fought in July 1431 between the forces of Juan II of Castile (r. 1406-1454), whose army was led by the Constable of Castile Álvaro de Luna (d. 1453), and the Nasrids, led by Sultan Muhammad IX (d. 1454). The battle was fought in the valley around Granada, known as the Vega, and ended in a victory for Castile, although without any territorial gains. One of the main consequences of the battle was the overthrow of Muhammad IX and the brief enthronement of Yusuf IV (d. 1432) who agreed to resume tribute payments to Castile.

https://i0.wp.com/www.jdiezarnal.com/monasteriodelescorialsaladelasbatallashigueruelas01.jpg Continue reading

Subhat al-Akhbar: Art and Genealogy in the Service of Ottoman Imperial Legitimacy

One of the most beautiful historical treasures of the 17th-century Ottoman empire is a work known as the Subḥat al-Akhbār. It is a work in Ottoman Turkish delineating the genealogy of the Ottoman Sultans, from Adam, the first human being and prophet, to Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648–1687). As Professor Shahzad Bashir has noted: “genealogy was a major component of political ideology among Islamic dynasties, and this text comes in a long line of similar works produced throughout the medieval period.” It is a particularly interesting historical document for two reasons: 1) it provides significant insight into Ottoman political legitimation and self-representation; and 2) it demonstrates the importance of figural representation in Ottoman art well into the late seventeenth century.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/IV_Mehmet.jpg(Ottoman sultan Mehmed IV) Continue reading