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Hurricane Xavier

Berlin had its own hurricane, christened Xavier, and with it all public transport temporarily ceased. The waters around Museum Island were hurled against the Bode Museum where I was attending a conference on the eighth century (appropriately I had just delivered a paper on “An Ice Age settled on the Roman Empire”), and cyclists were frog-marching bicycles in the vicious blasts of wind and rain. Meanwhile, as the wind howled at our conference inside the Bode Museum we were discussing the end of the Roman empire in Tunisia and the wonders of Umayadd art.

A high point of the ‘Eighth-Century conference’ was a guided tour through the Museum of Islamic Art. The museum, now part of the Pergamon Museum, is being overhauled. Berlin was the first city to have a museum dedicated to Islamic Art and with it, German archaeologists like Ernst Herzfeld (1874-1948) set off to excavate at extraordinary Abbasid palatial cities like Samarra. Thank god for these pioneers and their fascination with orientalism. Great places in the history of humanity like Raqqa and Samarra have become battlegrounds, suffering terribly in recent times.

Hurricanes apart this city is evolving and growing fast

The Mshatta gift from Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II to the Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1903 was the seed that set this museum in motion. This Umayadd desert palace was never completed in the mid 8th century.

For an hour we pause in front of it, examining how Graeco-Roman and Sassanian artistic traditions were melded into sculptured walls that resemble ivory carving at a distance. Our guide was captivating as she took us through the imagery of peace and juxtaposition of styles.

As the Pergamon Museum is transformed and modernized, so will the Museum of Islamic Art be as well. Gone will be any Orientalist approach or the dry emphasis upon a sequence of Umayadd, Abbasid and subsequent Caliphs. Instead the narrative will focus upon the significance of Islam for world history, an arbiter, as our conference determined, between antiquity and the Middle Ages, and between Chana during the Tang dynasty and the Christian/Nordic West. This new museology fits well with the thrust of our academic discussions as archaeologists turn the pioneering efforts of Herzfeld and his peers into a modern scientific story based upon well-dated excavations and finds. It also represents the new cosmopolitan Berlin. Hurricanes apart this city is evolving and growing fast and thoughtfully beyond its tortuous 20th-century history.

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