The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s glorious new Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia have an encyclopedic name, and they make the greatest encyclopedic museum on Earth even greater. That this magnificently redesigned and generously expanded swath of space, closed since 2003, is being unveiled when so many other museums create architectural disasters and antiseptic atriums makes the Met’s accomplishment almost miraculous. There must have been political concerns, too: Volatile politics, religious fanaticism, and “Sharia law is taking over America” nonsense could have cowed the curators and left us with visual-intellectual pap. Instead, we have extraordinary art, presented unabashedly.
There are no sweeping staircases where architects show off; no party spaces, no whiz-bang technology, no extra gift shop. Muted neutral colors predominate. Quiet, tight, carefully ordered, maybe a little too circumspect, these stately rooms are unspecial to look at, but they make looking at art special. The clear message here is that the Met has once and forever broken free of its terrible 1966 Roche-Dinkeloo master plan—the monstrosity that gave us, among other spatial miseries, the uselessly angular André Meyer nineteenth-century galleries, which had to be redone; the horrible Lila Acheson Wallace twentieth-century galleries, which may soon be redone; and the football-field-size glass that turns the Egyptian Temple of Dendur into the trustees’ temple of dinner. (If I ever hit the lottery, I promise to pay for razing and replacing the Lehman Wing.) Following the excellent renovations of its Oceanic, Byzantine, and Greek and Roman exhibits, the Met has found its groove. The rule is so obvious that it’s shocking how few museums have followed it: Art first. All else will follow.
In these new spaces, the Met treats us like eager adults with hungry eyes—albeit eyes capable of enormous degrees of optical multitasking, able to take in and process an art of almost unparalleled abstract fecundity, rhythmic intricacy, kaleidoscopic color, stylistic abundance, and cosmic intensity. The 19,000 square feet here cover the years from 622 C.E. (a decade before the prophet Muhammad’s death) to 1923, the end of the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire. (Elsewhere in the museum is the rich earlier history of the region, including the awe-inspiring reliefs from the Mesopotamian era, 883–859 B.C.E.) Nearly 1,200 objects, from the museum’s holdings of almost 12,000, give us the birth and condensed rise of one of the world’s great civilizations. The old “Art of Islam” department, all corridors and cul-de-sacs, is gone, philosophically as well as physically. It never made sense anyway: There is no one art of Islam, any more than there is an art of Christianity. We constantly see Roman, Chinese, Byzantine, Christian, and Mediterranean influences here, as well as work of shocking originality.
The British Museum director Neil MacGregor once noted that Islam in a few decades spread as far as Christianity and Buddhism did over centuries. In the few years after Muhammad’s death, the clock of history was placed on fast-forward. What caused such a blossoming must have been Islam’s third-way-ness, its combination and elaboration of the Old and New Testaments, the simultaneous focus on the immutable word of God and the temporal world of man, and the concurrent collapse of the rule of Rome.
Because of the preponderance of geometric decoration—often divine icing on a visual-celestial cake—many imagine that there is a prohibition against the human form in Islamic art, because representations of Muhammad are banned. In fact, the figure is here in beguilingly stylized, symbolic, schematized, and naturalistic guises. So too is the natural world. In an ambrosial 1486 Iranian miniature, Assembly of the Birds, a gaggle of fowl gather in an arboreal setting for a mystic pilgrimage.
I could name many objects that gave me palpitations, but let’s start with a Syrian watercolor from 1315. A bedecked elephant striding forward becomes a figure in the music of the spheres. Atop the elephant is a whistling bird whose song makes a turbaned man in a tall tower roll stones down the back of a coiling red dragon. The stones drop into a bucket that alerts a halo’d man who prods the pachyderm forward. On one piece of paper you have science, myth, notions of rhythmic and perpetual time, beauty that goes off the charts, and imagination that goes almost off the rails.
This thrill of vision, spirit, and thought embedded into material courses through a two-foot-long gold-and-blue arabesque that looks like a map or an abstract drawing. It is, in fact, the signature of Süleyman the Magnificent, sultan of Turkey. The curves create concentric abstract gardens of tiny flowers that all morph into a mirage of a barge with billowing sails. If you got an official decree with a signature like this, you’d follow it: You’d know that this represents a force greater than you, and a social, political, and religious system that includes you. Or can kill you.