If you live in Toronto and are passionate about Middle Eastern culture, you should definitely visit the Aga Khan Museum. Located in the city’s east end, it houses some of the finest artifacts representing Islamic art. Such include manuscripts, architectural pieces, metalwork, glass work, and pottery from various regions, including North African and Middle Eastern countries, as well as India and China.
Despite the unifying conventions of Islamic art that usually favors geometric and floral forms over human representation, differences between different regions are still noticeable. Calligraphic works from China look very different from those of Spain and Arabic countries and are closer to local art. Indian rugs are very different from the Persian ones. Certain things are hard to describe and can only be experienced. Once inside the building, a visitor feels overbearing presence of harmony and orderliness in everything, from the building’s design to minuscule details in calligraphy that is a part of so many pieces displayed inside the galleries.
The museum’s history goes all the way back to 2002, when Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of non-denominational development agencies related to the Ismaili Islam, announced the establishment of the museum, the Ismaili Center, and a park in the area of Don Mills and Eglinton. However, it was not until 2010 that the cornerstone had been laid by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. After several years of hard work by multiple award-winning designers, the museum opened in September of 2014.
I had first visited the museum back in 2015 in hopes of getting my then ten-month-old interested in world cultures. Although my attempts weren’t terribly successful (as my little one was more interested in her rattle than anything else), we had fun as a family. I later came back on my own to spend more time exploring the artifacts in a greater detail (and to take advantage of the free Wednesdays). Someday, I’ll bring my kids to the museum again, when they’re a bit older.
The permanent gallery of the first level is organized geographically, according to various regions including North Africa, Near Eastern countries, India, Afghanistan, and Far East. At the very entrance to the gallery is a gigantic wall map depicting all the major Islamic regions and explaining historic periods, such early Islamic, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, and others. Across from the map are stands with illuminated Qur’ans, scientific manuscripts written by world-famous sages, including Ibn-Sina, manuscripts of Mathnavi and Rumi, and numerous manuscripts depicting daily life in the Islamic world through the ages (courts, bazaars, sailing expeditions, etc.). The most memorable architecture pieces include a beautiful fountain from Egypt, a few items from the Medieval Spain, and the Mihrab panel from Syria.
The upper floor houses temporary collections. The two most recent ones are dedicated to depictions of animals in Islam and to drawings and photographs of Alhambra by Álvaro Siza, a Portuguese architect. “Marvelous Creatures: Animals in Islamic Art” explores fables, myths, and legends involving real and mythical animals. Among such, one can find stories of aquatic monsters threatening sailors; heroes defeating dragons; and stories involving mighty creatures, such as horses, gazelles, foxes, and lions. The reconstruction of Al Buraq skeleton and anatomy of chimera, along with a few texts on and engravings of animals with malformations, conclude the “Marvelous Creatures” gallery.
“Álvaro Siza: Gateway to Alhambra” explores art and architecture of the World Heritage Site through sketches, models, and photographs. Although I haven’t visited this particular gallery yet, I’m looking forward it, as Alhambra is one of the places I’d visited in the past.
Prior to this exhibit, photos of Istanbul showing how the city has changed over the years used to occupy the space. Many of them depicted landmarks, including Haggia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Hyppodrome, the Byzantine walls, and the Galata tower. A few palace albums and portraits of historical figures were also included into the collection. The exhibit was concluded with modern photography and included a couple of colorful panoramic photos of modern Istanbul.
The upcoming exhibits will focus on Syria’s cultural legacy and works of Canadian-Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, “a pioneer of the Saqqakhaneh movement of the 1960s.”  Throughout the next few months, various sculpture works including Horizontal Lovers and Poet in Love will be on display. Starting on October 15, 2016, “Syria: A Living History “will bring together artwork and artifacts that will tell a story of “cultural diversity, historical continuity, resourcefulness, and resilience.”
Exploring artworks from the some of the world’s most troubled countries always conjures up a mixture of different emotions—awe and admiration for art in itself; relief that artifacts from places like Raqqa had made it safely (and legally) to the North American continent; and sadness over the current situation in the Middle Eastern region.
With so many conflicts and security threats being replayed by the media, it’s easy to develop negative stereotypes about the Islamic religion and its people. There is no better way to counter these not-so-positive associations than through art, architecture, and music. According to His Highness the Aga Khan, the museum was founded with a purpose to “act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance.” I think the gallery curators, together with visiting music bands and academics, are doing a great job at educating the public about the true face of the Islamic civilizations.