Islamic Art in the Mediterranean

The aim of the unusual projects launched by the initiative Museum without Borders is to create a whole new way of experiencing art. One such project is the publication of books on Islamic art in the Mediterranean. Petra Tabeling reports on a borderless cultural dialogue

​​This rich cultural heritage has been shaped by many religious and cultural identities whose paths crossed and whose regional development benefited from their encounters. Nevertheless, this heritage has until recently been largely ignored.

The Museum without Borders initiative has to date done outstanding work on drawing attention to monuments and archaeological sites in the Mediterranean that have been ignored by conventional tourism.

Initiated by co-ordinator Eva Schubert and established ten years ago by experts from the worlds of culture, publishing, and public relations, the Museum without Borders initiative has done much to promote multilateral and cultural co-operation between Europe and the states of the southern and eastern Mediterranean.

Focus on little-known objects of art

One such project is a series of art books entitled "Islamic Art in the Mediterranean". The volumes in this series highlight so-called "exhibition routes" in the various countries. The idea behind the exhibition routes is to allow visitors to follow signposted routes through these countries and discover cultural treasures in their natural environment rather than viewing works of art in a static museum setting.

Three books in the series have been published in German thus far: one on Arabic-Norman art in Sicily, one on the art and architecture of Tunisia, and one on Islamic art in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Linked by a common cultural heritage

What makes these art catalogues so special is that they are written by local academics who really know the regions in question and can relate the history and cultural heritage of these countries and regions from the viewpoint of the locals. Regions that are today divided by social and political conflicts often find common ground in culture.

The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are perfect examples of this: thanks to the Museum without Borders initiative, Palestinian specialist writers and experts in Islamic studies have for the first time ever been able to concentrate on the Islamic cultural heritage of these regions.

According to the initiative’s co-ordinator, Eva Schubert, Museum without Borders, which is financed by the Cultural Fund of the European Union, would like to offer a platform on which all involved countries can for the first time relate their history from their own point of view.

"In this way, this cultural co-operation will be used in a highly targeted manner to open up a dialogue between countries; a dialogue that is the basis for all political understanding."

Cultural basis for understanding and tolerance

The EU-funded initiative also hopes that the books on Islamic art in the Mediterranean will create a new awareness of tourism and show bordering countries new opportunities for restoring and maintaining their treasures. To date, institutes from 20 countries in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East have taken part in the Museum without Borders initiative.

The richly illustrated, highly compact, and unusual art guides have to date been translated into the following languages: English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish.

The books are already proving popular in the Mediterranean countries involved, such as Tunisia. The book about Islamic art in the Gaza Strip is available in Gaza City and will soon be published in Arabic.

The Jordan-based Palestinian publisher Al-Faris is responsible for all the Arabic translations, of which there will be more in the future while the German publisher for the series is Wasmuth Verlag in Tübingen.

Petra Tabeling

© 2005

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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