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US Exhibition Celebrates Beauty of Quran Manuscripts

  • June Soh

"The Art of the Qur’an", the first major exhibition of its type in the United States that opened Oct. 22 in Washington, features more than 60 of the most important manuscripts of and about the Quran, created over more than 1,000 years across the Islamic world - from North Africa to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

The large manuscript created in ink, color and gold on paper, greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery. The exhibit is a collaboration with the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul.

"It’s certainly one of the biggest and certainly the heaviest," Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler’s chief curator and curator of Islamic art, said of the piece. "It weighs some 60 kilos and it is quite remarkable in its size and in its sort of power of display. Many of these manuscripts were created primarily for display. They were given as gifts to mosques and mausolea.”

The majority of the 66 manuscripts on view are from Istanbul's Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, and some are from the Smithsonian’s permanent collections. The works' origins range from 7th century Damascus, Syria, to 17th century Istanbul.

Some were transferred to the museum from the tombs of Ottoman sultans whose power once extended from southeast Europe to northern Africa and the Middle East.

“They were created for some of the most powerful sultans, rulers in these regions. And eventually, after many years, they were acquired by the Ottoman royal family," Farhad said.

She explained that although each manuscript contains an identical text, they are in different formats and styles. The mastery and skill of the artists have transformed each manuscript into a unique work of art.

“For instance, there is a manuscript by the calligrapher Yaqut, who is probably one of the greatest calligraphers ever to work in the Islamic world, from the late 12th to early 13th century," Farhad said..

The exhibition showcases the beauty of the calligraphy and the intricacy of the illuminated decoration by early Quran scribes. It also tells the individual stories of some of the manuscripts, their makers and original owners.

”We hope that visitors, whatever their interest is, will come and take away some of these stories, said Farhad. "Some may be interested in the calligraphy, some may be interested in particular calligraphers, or in the art of Illumination and the way that the exhibition is organized. We hope that we have something for all of the visitors.”

The Quran exhibition continues through February 20, 2017, and also offers additional resources on a website available both on-site and online.

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