Beyond the Palace Walls

for many people this exhibition will serve not merely as a distraction, but as a rigorous cultural education

Feature by Lucy Faringold | 13 Sep 2006

Living in a cultural nexus such as Edinburgh, it's easy to get blasé about the wealth of resources which are available on one's doorstep. The Royal Museum on Chambers Street is one such goldmine that I myself have been guilty of neglecting in recent years, but the pull of its new exhibition, a huge showcase of rarely seen Islamic art, has proven to be irresistible.

Ostensibly a collection of disparate pieces on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg, the curators have orchestrated these works of art to paint a vivid picture of Islamic cultural and political life over the course of ten centuries - a series of intimate snapshots which bring to life a story which spans the globe. Opening at a time when Islam is under heavier scrutiny than ever before, for many people this exhibition will serve not merely as a distraction, but as a rigorous cultural education.

Fittingly, the exhibition begins by setting out the Five Pillars of Islam – the core practices that are central to the faith. Items such as a prayer rug and an ablution basin highlight the importance of praying and the ritual purity that must be attained through washing. A beautiful 19th century beggar's bowl – paradoxically forged using steel and gold – underlines the great importance of charity and community to the Islamic faith.

The next part of the exhibition, an overview of early Islamic art, stresses just how much these works of art reflect the period and place in which they were made. In the centuries following the death of Muhammad in the year 632, Muslim rule expanded rapidly, and various regional styles exerted their influence on the production of Islamic art. One point of interest raised by the curators regards the import of Chinese pottery to the near east in the 9th century. The famous cobalt blue patterns that we now associate with traditional Chinese porcelain were in fact an Islamic innovation that was added to the designs and eventually managed to filter back to China around the 13th century – a fascinating and often overlooked fact of cultural cross-pollination.

Elsewhere we find an ornate spoon from Syria decorated incongruously with an elephant and a unicorn – the next room explains all however, by retelling a bizarre and pointless tale in which Sinbad the Sailor manages to avoid confrontation with a bloodthirsty unicorn who kills elephants for fun. Storytelling is a hugely important part of Islamic life, but I feel that something may have been lost in translation in this case.

It is the visual artefacts that tell the most intriguing tale though, and some of the most interesting and unusual in this exhibition originate from remote Kubachi village in the Caucasian region of Daghestan. In the late part of the 19th century a series of unique, centuries-old tombstones and reliefs were discovered in the village - it is thought that the inhabitants may have been converted to Islam by preachers in the early 14th century. These pieces, which depict men, birds and unicorns (again!), are devastatingly beautiful in their simplicity and elegance of execution - the mystery behind their creation only adds to their allure.

From the late 17th century onward a distinct western influence is to be seen in Islamic art, as countless trade links inevitably led to a natural exchange of ideas, following two centuries of conflict and distrust between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The Ottoman Dynasty itself is well represented – the centrepiece of the exhibition being a fabulously opulent military tent. Perhaps the most imposing pieces on show are relics of the diplomacy and warfare between Russia and the Ottoman empire between the 17th and 19th centuries. As well as many ornate sabres and daggers, in one cabinet we find a flintlock gun which has been adorned with velvet and silver, and inscribed with poetry. It is a striking and beautiful machine; a highly decorated instrument of warfare which also serves as testament to man's inclination to romanticise conflict and death.

Beyond the Palace Walls is a dazzling exhibition which allows the viewer a privileged glimpse into an often misunderstood faith. The beauty and diversity of these pieces transcend any cultural differences and should fire the imagination of anyone who sees them. Make sure you don't miss out.

Royal Museum, Edinburgh until November 5. £6 (£5) £4 for under-16s.