Spectators at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1611 thrilled to the scenic realism of the Tempest. In the opening scene, a ship founders to the cries and alarms of her drowning sailors. But among those spectators some would nevertheless invest their private fortunes in the first ships to be sent by a newly chartered trading company to the farthest known seas. They were the initial investors in the East India Company and their ships were destined to reach Japan.
The geometric patterning in Islamic tiles, carpets and textiles bespeak the Chief Architect, and how He brings forth the beauty of the physical world through eternal shapes. Implicit in these designs are dualities, heaven and earth, light and shadow, and of course male and female. The curating tradition of museums focuses on the male element in Islamic art. From the great monarchs like Iran’s Shah Abbas, Turkey’s Suleyman the Magnificent and India’s Shah Jahan, museums display their silk ceremonial gowns, jade-handled swords and brocaded riding boots. Objects made by or for women rarely figure in the exhibit cases.
The names given to early museums provide a clue to their original function: Peter the Great had his Wunderkammer, the Shah of Iran had his Ajayeb-khane, the Pasha of Egypt his Muthaf. All these words mean a home for marvels. The original museums did not contain paintings or sculpture. These were admired in palaces, homes or churches. The wonderful and rare, which had no place in the decoration of familiar spaces, required special locations, designated accordingly.
They gaze at you, the fashionably-attired youths of Esfahan, from a distance of 300 years. Swaying like cypress trees, their tresses floating in the air like clouds, their faces surrounded by peach fuzz, they smile like the Gioconda and with more mystery. Who are these young men and what do they say to the viewers? After the lucidity of the great 16th-century Persian and Mughal painters like Behzad and Sultan Mohammad, who painted kingly battles and hunts, the 17th century brings us the works of Reza Abbasi and Mohammad Qasem, and their ambivalent but sexually-charged portraits of young men and occasionally young women.
Tarab comes from an Arabic word to beat a rhythm. But it has come to denote the ability of the musician to unite his or her audience in a common experience of ecstasy. Some of the most moving moments in this show dedicated to the Divas of Egypt are not the films or stills of Um Kalthum or Warda, but the faces of the audience captured during their performances.
Year in year out Spain produces 1,500 kilos of that delicate spice, saffron, sold wholesale for US$700 per 100 grams. Gourmets were puzzled a few years back when 1900 kilos of Spanish saffron hit the market. Food inspectors soon discovered that the yellow powder contained traces of the flavorless plant root, or worse, animal droppings. The huge increase in volume came from the diversion of Iranian saffron, whose sale is stifled by the American embargo, to Spain’s packagers. Along the way crooks put their fingers on the scale by adding the impurities. Similar scams were practiced by spice dealers in 13th-century Damascus, involving precious products like myrobalan, agarwood, ginger, indigo, musk, ambergris. “Wise up to these things,” exhorts the Book of Charlatans, this newly translated compendium of tricks, cheats and phony spells.
In the 11th-century Persian classic Book of Alexander, the great world conqueror goes to the farthest reaches of the world, only to have a wiseman show him what he was looking for, in a mirror—self-awareness. But as Edmund Richardson shows here in his powerful retelling of the life of Charles Masson, we do not live only to know ourselves. We are social animals and we care very much what others think about us. Alexander’s quest led, if not to gnostic knowledge, then to undying fame. Masson’s quest for Alexander’s lost city in the Hindu Kush ended in poverty and obscurity. What did Masson lack that other great explorers and archaeologists had?