Key contributions

Having a broad spectrum of interests and themes, from Islam’s earliest architectural representations to contemporary Islamic buildings, Grabar was unique among art historians. He devised an accurate cultural survey of modern Islamic art and architecture and how it had evolved in various Islamised regions such as North Africa, Egypt, Spain, Iran, the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, and India (The Telegraph, 2011). Grabar significantly impacted the field of Islamic art and architecture in various ways. For example, he was a dynamic public speaker at public and specialised lectures, a gifted and inspiring educator, and a charismatic personality (Hillenbrand, 2012a). During his years as a professor at several major universities, he mentored and trained hundreds of students, supervising more than sixty doctoral theses. However, his most lasting legacy is his numerous publications; Grabar authored more than thirty books and 120 articles in French and English. Some of his most well-known publications include The Coinage of the Tulunids, Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, The Great Mosque of Isfahan, Alhambra in Granada, The Formation of Islamic Art, The Illustrations of the Maqamat, The Mediation of Ornament, The Shape of the Holy, Islamic Art and Architecture, 650-1250, and Masterpieces of Islamic Art: The Decorated Page from the 8th to the 17th Century.

Grabar’s first book, The Coinage of the Tulunids (1957), focused on 9th- century Islamic Egypt (IIS, 2018). His most acclaimed book and his magnum opus, however, is The Formation of Islamic Art (1973), which is one of the most lucid and insightful investigations into the emerging culture of the new faith of Islam (Archnet, 2018). Paying more attention to culture than to art history, its rich discussions and clear language has made the work a classic reference source in the field (Necipoglu and Leal, 2011). Using his 1969 lectures as a starting point, his “Earliest Islamic Commemorative Monuments” article expounded the origins of Islamic art. Another notable work, Islamic Art and Architecture, 650-1250 (1987), was written in collaboration with Richard Ettinghausen, with whom Grabar cooperated for approximately thirty years. This book is also considered to be a classic reference for subjects relating to Islamic art and architecture (IIS, 2018; The Telegraph, 2011). Grabar spent over twenty years examining and researching the illustrations, morphology, and texts of a medieval Arabic masterpiece, The Maqamat al-Hariri, a compendium of Arabic tales. In 1984, he published the results of his long study in medieval manuscript illumination under the title The Illustrations of the Maqamat (Grabar, 1984). Grabar also produced 120 articles, eighty-three of which are compiled in a four- volume publication - Constructing the Study of Islamic Art: Islamic Art and Beyond. Grabar himself identified this publication as his most representative and significant work (Hillenbrand, 2012a).

Grabar’s impact

The work of Grabar as a scholar and writer of Islamic art and architecture is internationally recognised. His greatest impact, however, was his role as an educator for almost five decades. During his years of teaching at Ivy League universities, he inspired many students who themselves have become respected authors, scholars, public officials, or educators (Archnet, 2018); these include such luminaries as Glenn D. Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); Renata Holod, Professor at the Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania; Giilru Necipoglu, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art, Harvard University; Mohammad al-Asad, Founder and Chairman of the Centre for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE) in Amman, and Khaled Asfour, Professor of Architecture at Misr International University in Cairo, to name a few. Moreover, even after his retirement, Grabar’s inspiration and intellectual productivity continued at a tireless pace. He contributed to transforming attitudes and approaches to Islamic art and its sister disciplines by insisting historians should acknowledge the importance of the present and how visual characteristics can be a paradigm for expressing identity in the contemporary world.

Out of immense affection for and indebtedness to their mentor, Grabar’s current and former students dedicated two special volumes to him, as the founding editor of Muqarnas. The first, Volume 10, published in 1993, was entitled Essays in Honour of Oleg Grabar. This volume paid tribute to legacy after his retirement from Harvard University. The second, Volume 25, Frontiers of Islamic Art and Architecture: Essays in Celebration of Oleg Grabar’s Eightieth Birthday, was published in 2008 in honour of his prolific post-retirement academic activity. Grabar always remained responsive and open to new ideas, new ways of interpreting, and kept abreast of new scholarly developments and research. In his last talk, some weeks before his demise in January 2011, he noted, “I see that my own views on the Dome of the Rock are being challenged ... it is time for new generations to take over the field” [in volume 27 of Muqarnas] (Necipoglu and Leal, 2011).

Many tributes were made on the occasion of Grabar’s passing; his death was described as “the end of an era” (Hillenbrand, 2012b). To the historian Hil- lenbrand, the death of Grabar represented the end of an era because Grabar alone amongst his contemporaries and predecessors, such as Creswell (who focused on Iraqi-Iranian architecture), and Marqais (focused on Maghrib architecture), was the only one who managed to broaden his academic spectrum and expand Islamic art and architecture into new disciplines and areas of study.

Thanks to innovative and visionary people like Oleg Grabar and Hassan Fathy, the field of Islamic art and architecture has evolved into a more developed and more lucid area for scholarly research, critique, and inquiry. Their contributions showcased how architecture and its elements were formed in different periods of history and in different locations. Oleg Grabar was and will continue to be indubitably one of the most influential scholars in the field of Islamic architecture and art; his work, books, and publications have become a valuable resource for all scholars and researchers in the field. His brilliance, genius, expansive personality, generosity of spirit, collegial- ity, conviviality, and humour (Necipoglu and Leal, 2011) all contributed to making him an extraordinary educator and researcher. After his death, his library, probably the richest private collection of Islamic art in the world, was donated to the Getty Research Institute (Hillenbrand, 2012b).

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