Like the other great traditions of world art, Islamic art is both instantly recognisable and extremely diverse in its forms. Broadly defined, Islamic art is art produced under the aegis of Islamic culture. Some of its manifestations, such as mosques and illuminated Qur’ans, are specifically religious, but many other examples of ‘Islamic’ art, from 8th-century Syrian wall paintings to 18th-century Moroccan pottery, are secular and reflect the taste and lives of the people for whom they were made.
Following the 7th-century Muslim conquest of the lands of the southern and eastern Mediterranean rim, barriers to trade and to the exchange of ideas crumbled, and the ground was prepared for the development of new artistic styles. The building blocks and unifying elements of Islamic art – Arabic script, geometric designs and the type of decorative scroll called the arabesque – were incorporated in the ornament of architecture, the book arts and metalwork, ceramics and textiles. Throughout the history of Islamic art the central importance of the word, geometry and the natural world has not diminished.
Because of the vast landscape of the Islamic world, very few people can hope to experience all of the magnificent buildings and museums that exemplify or contain Islamic art. For this reason modern electronic media offer an exciting new opportunity for the inquisitive to explore Islamic art. Beyond simply presenting monuments and exemplary works of art, the Internet can make connections across continents and seas between the arts of different regions and periods of Islamic history.
At the invitation of the Museum With No Frontiers, 14 countries from around the Mediterranean and the European Union have agreed to collaborate on producing a virtual museum on the Internet that explores Islamic art and material culture in the Mediterranean region. This collaboration brings together a representative selection of Islamic objects, monuments and historical sites from Portugal, Spain and Italy on the northern shores of the Mediterranean; Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt on the southern shores; and Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Turkey on the eastern coast. Relevant Islamic collections from museums in Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom complete the virtual museum’s collections. All these artefacts, monuments and sites cover the various Islamic dynasties and cultures of the Mediterranean region spanning some 1,280 years from 634 when the Muslim Arab armies first entered the Levant, to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Although the Islamic world and its artistic traditions stretch from Kashghar in China to Dakar in Senegal, this project is focusing on the countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin to tell the story of Islamic art. Two practical factors determine this choice. The first is a financial one: that being the generosity of the European Union, which is funding this project through its Euromed Heritage programme. The second factor is historical: that being the position of the Mediterranean at the centre stage of Islamic history, and the interdependence of its shores economically and culturally throughout this history. The consortium’s objectives are to bring together these inter-related collections, monuments and sites, exploiting the wealth of scholarship within the participating institutions. The exploration of the history and art of Islam in the Mediterranean aims to create a more complete knowledge of the historical relationship between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and to make this information accessible to the general public in the countries represented in the consortium and beyond. The consortium’s aim is to promote deeper understanding between the peoples of Europe and their Muslim communities and the Islamic world on their doorsteps, and ultimately to celebrate the contribution of Islamic civilisation to world culture and art.