Andrew Graham-Dixon explores the British Museum’s new Albukhary Foundation Gallery — opening on 18 October, and presenting a fresh look at the institution’s astonishing Islamic collection and the diversity of cultures behind it.
The British Museum is a treasure trove of Islamic art and artefacts. Its collections of Moghul, Mamluk and Safavid metalwork are unparalleled; and its many early manuscript pages from the Qur’an include some of the most wrenchingly vivid sheets of calligraphy to have survived the centuries that first witnessed the rise of a powerful new faith preached by the followers of a man called Prophet Mohammed.
One of these pages in particular has fascinated me ever since I first saw it some 30 or 40 years ago, even though I lack the language to read it. Inscribed in Kufic by a Syrian scribe in the ninth or 10th century, it vibrates with spiritual conviction: the characters are ranked in a phalanx of forms, each holy word resembling (to my eye at least) an inkblack chariot of war on a parchment field of battle.
The museum also houses a number of astonishingly intricate examples of Iznik ceramic ware, including a mosque lamp from the mid-16th century refurbishment of the Dome of the Rock, bequeathed by former trustee Charles Drury Edward Fortnum (1820-99). That object is itself a fine complement to the matchless group of some 600 pieces of Islamic pottery that once formed part of the collection of Frederick Du Cane Godman (1834-1919), a connoisseur and ornithologist persuaded onto the board of the British Museum by the tireless Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97).