St. Andrew’s In Tangier: A Church With Muslim Art

Tangier
Being in Morocco, Tangier is a mostly Muslim city. Being a port, it’s also a mixed city with a long history of Christian and Jewish influence. That interesting blend comes out in the language, music, art and cooking. You can see Tangier’s mix of cultures everywhere.

Even in the churches.

The Church of St. Andrew is an Anglican congregation close to the Place du Grand Socco. The first thing you’ll notice is the church tower shaped like the square, Moorish-style minarets so common in the mosques here. The only difference is the English flag flying from the top and the lack of a loudspeaker to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer.

Entering the churchyard, you’ll find a shady oasis of trees, shrubs and a well-manicured garden. Cats lounge amid the headstones, which include several for the fallen from various Allied armies during World War II. This part of the property looks like a regular English churchyard except for the palm trees and lack of moss on the headstones. Go inside, however, and you’ll see something quite different.

The interior has several Islamic touches. The doors have rounded arches and elaborate carvings. The carved and painted wood ceiling looks like something from a Moorish palace. The arch just before the altar is the most elaborate and looks like it came from a Muslim palace. Arabic calligraphy spells out the words “bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm” (In the name of God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful), which is the first line of each Surah (chapter) of the Koran.

%Gallery-175720%So how did a verse from the Koran end up decorating an Anglican church in a Muslim country? The story starts in 1880, when the Sultan, Hassan I, gave land to the British expat community in Tangier so they could build a church. One was built but soon proved too small for the growing Christian community and so the present church was built in 1894. It was consecrated in 1905.

The design includes Islamic styles as a way of recognizing the friendly relations between the UK and Morocco and to honor the memory of the Sultan’s donation. The work was done by Moroccan craftsmen.

St. Andrew’s is by no means unique. During the height of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages, European art and architecture borrowed frequently from Muslim styles. European artists copied Islamic styles and even included Arabic calligraphy in Christian works of art. Check out the gallery for a couple of surprising examples.

Don’t miss our other posts on Tangier! Coming up next: The Anatomy Of A Perfect Hotel!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

10 Minutes Of Terror On Vacation In Iraq

Iraq, Samarra

I’m in Samarra, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, the birthplace of the insurgency and a hotspot for sectarian tension in war-torn Iraq. My heart is racing and my mouth is dry. This is the most frightened I’ve been in months.

But I’m not scared of the Sunnis, I’m scared of plummeting to my death.

I’m climbing one of the famous spiral minarets of Samarra, a pair of towers with a narrow staircase snaking up the exterior. They were built in the ninth century. The taller one is 52 meters (171 feet) and the shorter one is 34 meters (112 feet). I’m on the shorter one. It doesn’t feel short to me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a fear of heights, a phobia that years of rock climbing never cured. That doesn’t stop me from going up one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture, though. I’m a sucker for medieval buildings.

Up I go, step by step. They’re steep, a bit uneven, and they relentlessly narrow as they rise higher. You can see just how little room there was between me and the abyss in the above photo. That’s my foot at the lower right, and beyond the step you can see our bus, which comfortably seats 20 people.

The stairs are wide enough, I tell myself. I’ve climbed narrow spiral staircases hundreds of times and have never fallen off.

But there was no risk of death on those, a little voice tells me.

“Shut up,” I reply, and keep climbing.

%Gallery-170252%They tell me the muezzin who ascended this minaret five times a day to give to call to prayer was blind. He’d keep one hand on the wall and climb without seeing how high up he was. I can’t decide if that’s a good hiring decision or a bad one.

I keep both my hands gripped on the aging, crumbly brick. I’ve been climbing for what seems like hours. Surely I must almost be there?

“Go back!” someone shouts from below.

You’re kidding me, right?

“Go back, there’s no room!”

From around the corner comes another member of our group, a Norwegian sailor who has no fear of heights. When he sees me he stops.

“Go back,” I say.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pass you,” he replies.

“That’s a really bad idea. Go back.”

He comes close. I flatten myself on the wall as he reaches around me, grabs the edge of the brick, and eases past. You can see his brave/foolish move in the photo gallery, as well as the beautiful panorama that awaited me when, a few steps later, I reached the top.

It was worth the climb. Even more rewarding was that sharp-edged feeling I had the entire time going up and the adrenaline rush of the even more hazardous trip down. Colors and sounds were vivid, every step a crucial moment – every moment a lifetime of excitement.

Want to get high? Skip the drugs and grab your fear by the balls.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Sneak Peak At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum of Iraq!”

[Both photos by Sean McLachlan]

Iraq, Samarra

Louvre Opens New Department Of Islamic Art

Islamic art
The Louvre in Paris is opening a new Department of Islamic Art that will have one of the best such collections in the world.

One treasure is this ivory pyxis of Prince Al-Mugẖīra, shown here in a photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons. It was made in 968 at Medina Azahara near Cordoba, Spain. Note that there are human figures on it. While many Islamic traditions forbid the depiction of people and animals, others such as the Moors of Spain, the Moghuls of India, the Persians of Iran, and the Ottomans of Turkey all had a long tradition of human portraiture.

This is just one of the many insights visitors will gain now that a refurbished and expanded wing of the museum has opened its doors with more than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space. The Department of Islamic Art will exhibit nearly 3,000 works, whose origins range from Spain to India and date from the 8th to the 19th century. The total collection numbers some 18,000 works from the Louvre’s collections and some on long-term loan from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

The recent furor over the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in an anti-Islamic movie has overlooked the fact that some Islamic traditions do create portraits of Mohammed, as this page from the University of Bergen makes clear. Of course these are positive portrayals, but they show that the Islamic world is not monolithic in its ideas of what can and cannot be shown. The Louvre did not state whether they have any such images on display.

2012 is shaping up to be a big year for Islamic art

Islamic art, LouvreThis year, several major exhibitions and new galleries are focusing on Islamic art.

The biggest news comes from Paris, where the Louvre is building a new wing dedicated to Islamic art. This is the biggest expansion to the museum since the famous glass pyramid. The new wing will have room to display more than 2500 artifacts from the Louvre’s permanent collection as well as notable loans. It will open at an as-yet undetermined date this summer.

In London, the British Museum is hosting two Islamic-related exhibits–one on the Hajj and one on Arabian horses. In Provo, Utah, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art is running Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston opened two new galleries last December that include displays of Islamic art from Asia, and the Met in New York City also opened a new gallery late last year dedicated to the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

Islamic art is also facing some challenges this year. Looting and selling national treasures on the international art market always happens in times of political unrest. It happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and now it’s happening in Libya, where the death of Qaddafi did little to stabilize the situation. Syria is another country to watch. Sadly, unscrupulous “collectors” take advantage of civil wars and poverty to grab historic treasures for cheap.

Photo of eleventh century crystal ewer with birds in the Louvre collection courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Medieval Islamic manuscripts on display at the Morgan, NYC

medieval
The Middle Ages produced some amazing works of art. Some of the best are the illuminated manuscripts from the Islamic world.

The above image, courtesy Graham S. Haber and the Morgan Library & Museum shows a woman relaxing after her bath. It was painted in Herat, Afghanistan. In many parts of the medieval Islamic world it was forbidden to create images of living things, but in other regions it was common.

The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City has an extensive collection of these works of art and now they’re on display in an exhibition called Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan. The earliest manuscript in the exhibition is a late-thirteenth century treatise on animals and their uses considered by some experts as one of the most important medieval Islamic manuscripts. There’s also a biography of the poet Rumi, several richly decorated Korans, and illustrations from the story of Majnun and Laila, the Islamic Romeo and Juliet.

There’s even a treatise on demonology, but sadly not a copy of the Necronomicon.

Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan runs from 21 October 2011 to 29 January 2012.