Introduced by MALIK MERCHANT
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When Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art announced that Gülru Necipoğlu, Harvard’s Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture, would be one of two recipients of Freer’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement Medal, I sought further information about the medal. I learnt that Professor Oleg Grabar, who was the first person to hold Harvard’s Aga Khan Professor position, was a recipient of the Freer Medal in 2001.
Oleg Grabar passed away exactly 12 years ago today (this post is dated and published January 8, 2023) on January 8, 2011. He was recognized by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Doha, Qatar, on November 24, 2010, when he was bestowed with the Chairman’s Award by His Highness the Aga Khan.
Professor Azim Nanji, a former director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London, in a memoriam to Professor Grabar published on the IIS website, wrote: “In addition to his writings, many of which are classics in the field, his most lasting legacy was the training and development of a generation of scholars. Each of them, as archaeologists, architects, museum directors and creators of new academic programmes in Muslim Arts, built on his teaching and scholarship to make the field what it is today.”
Nanji went on to add that it is because of Grabar that “the Arts and Architecture of the Muslim World are now part of the larger study of human civilisations and a lens that allows us to see Muslim cultures beyond a narrowly defined, theological and textually-centred field of study.”
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In seeking to find out more about Grabar’s contribution to the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, I came across numerous articles as well as a three-part video series posted on YouTube featuring his life and works entitled “Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Conversation with Professor Grabar.” (the link provided is to Part I, which is inspiring and a must watch).
My further inquiry into Grabar yielded three very special photographs connecting him with the Aga Khan and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that I had not seen before.
Taken by Christopher Little, the Aga Khan’s official photographer in the early 1980’s, the photographs were donated by Professor Grabar’s wife, Terry Grabar, to the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center of Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton, NJ, USA, in 2012. I am indebted to Christopher Little for permission to publish the photographs in Barakah in fond memory of Oleg Grabar. I also express my deep gratitude to IAS’s Archives Center for getting me quickly connected with Little.
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As we remember the distinguished scholar Oleg Grabar on the 12th anniversary of his passing, we conclude the post with the citation which honoured him at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on November 24, 2010.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture: Chairman’s Citation Honouring Oleg Grabar
In 1981, Grabar was instrumental in establishing, with His Highness the Aga Khan and William Porter, the joint programme in Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard University and MIT, and was one of the founding members of the Steering Committee of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1976. He has also served on the jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and written extensively for the Award’s many publications — Chairman’s Award Citation, Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, November 24, 2010.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture’s fourth Chairman’s Award is given to Oleg Grabar, distinguished scholar and teacher, in acknowledgment of the valuable contributions he has made to studying the Islamic world’s architectural evolution, from the early Islamic period to the present. Through his teaching, writings and lectures, Oleg Grabar has greatly widened and enriched our understanding of the Islamic world’s architectural production, emphasising its geographic and chronological diversity, as well as positioning it within its wider political, social, cultural and economic contexts.
Oleg Grabar has done more to define the field of Islamic art and architecture than almost anyone else alive. The questions he has asked, the hypotheses he has proposed and the theories he has developed, over a career that now spans more than six decades, have shaped and defined the way we understand the Islamic world’s rich architectural heritage. Grabar’s work is as broad as it is incisive. He has written seminal studies about Islam’s earliest monuments as well as some of its most recent ones, his interests ranging from North Africa and Spain to Iran and India.
His work on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque of Isfahan and the Allhambra in Granada, to name but three of his more than thirty books, are standards in the field and reveal his ability to work across cultures and time. His 1973 publication, The Formation of Islamic Art, remains one of the most lucid and insightful investigations of the emerging culture of the new faith ever written.
Oleg Grabar has done more to define the field of Islamic art and architecture than almost anyone else alive. The questions he has asked, the hypotheses he has proposed and the theories he has developed, over a career that now spans more than six decades, have shaped and defined the way we understand the Islamic world’s rich architectural heritage. Grabar’s work is as broad as it is incisive — Chairman’s Award Citation, Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, November 24, 2010.
Although trained as an art historian, Grabar is above all a cultural historian. From the outset his work crossed disciplines using architectural history, anthropology, archaeology, literary criticism, linguistics, semiotics and philology, among others, to enrich and illuminate our understanding of the art and architecture of the Islamic world. His goal throughout has been the same: to bring to life the buildings and objects that so interest him, and through them to explore the social, political and cultural context of the people who made and used them. He has approached this task with an extraordinary generosity of spirit, an endless curiosity and a consistent interest in the latest issues and questions.
Grabar has often stated that he is less interested in answers than he is in raising questions. As a result his work, while often definitive, is first and foremost an invitation to join him on a journey of intellectual discovery as he speculates on a wide range of issues, from early 307 Aga Khan Award for Architecture Umayyad architecture to the latest buildings in the United Arab Emirates, from how the Ottomans and Safavids used the built environment to articulate their political agendas, to how contemporary societies define themselves through architecture.
In 1981, Grabar was instrumental in establishing, with His Highness the Aga Khan and William Porter, the joint programme in Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard University and MIT, and was one of the founding members of the Steering Committee of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1976. He has also served on the jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and written extensively for the Award’s many publications. For all of Grabar’s renown as a scholar and advocate for the importance of Islamic art and architecture, his greatest legacy may be as an educator who has taught hundreds if not thousands of students, first at the University of Michigan and then at Harvard University. Many of these students have gone on to become respected scholars, educators, curators, architects and public officials, and they are a living testimony to Grabar’s fascination with the art and architecture of the Islamic world. Scholar, teacher, intellectual and historian, Oleg Grabar has devoted his life to trying to understand and explain the complex forces that gave rise to an artistic tradition that now spans fourteen centuries. No one has done so with more aplomb and insight.
Date posted: January 8, 2023.
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Official Photographer to His Highness the Aga Khan (1980-1983), Christopher Little traveled nearly a quarter of a million miles with the Aga Khan — trips which included the following countries: China, Yemen, Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Pakistan, India, The Seychelles, Indonesia, Ireland, England, Italy, Switzerland, and France. Several of Christopher Little’s photographs of His Highness appear in Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens, edited by Gary Otte and published in 2022. For Little’s detailed profile, please visit his website Christopher Little.
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Thanks for this article, Malik. It is very informative.