About this Blog Series

From time to time, our museums in Singapore host special exhibitions for a limited time period. After the ‘expiry date’, the exhibitions are no more, and will not be repeated. This is my attempt to recreate some of these past exhibitions so that even if the physical exhibition is gone, the cyber exhibition can continue. As my knowledge is limited, this will only be a highlights tour, so not all the artefacts will be showcased. In spite of this, I hope you can still gain something.

Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum

In 2012, the Asian Civilisations Museum had hosted a special exhibition called “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Architecture in Islamic Arts”. This exhibition was held on 19 July 2012 to 28 Oct 2012.


Figure 1.1: Exhibition Title
Asian Civilisations Museum

A brief introduction on Aga Khan: Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (Muslim spiritual leader) of the Shiite Ismaili Muslims. The Ismaili community is the second largest Shia Muslim community, and the people live in many parts of the world. This exhibition was sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and affords a unique opportunity for the public in Singapore to view some of the treasures in the major collection of Islamic art created by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV.

The Aga Khan Museum is a new institution with a mission to collect, research and exhibit the visual arts of Islamic civilisations. This is a model of the Aga Khan Museum, which will be completed in 2014 in Toronto, Canada:


Figure 1.2: Model of the Aga Khan Museum
Asian Civilisations Museum

This building is designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. Once it is completed, it will house more than 1,000 Islamic arts artefacts in Aga Khan’s collection.

The Founding of Islam

Some background information first before we visit the exhibits:


Figure 1.3: Map and Dynasties of the Islamic World
Asian Civilisations Museum

This map shows the extent of Islamic civilisations, which has more than 1,400 years of intellectual and artistic history. The regions include West Asia (a.k.a. Middle East), North Africa, North India and Central Asia.

The religion Islam was founded by an Arab called Muhammad. At age 40, Muhammad claimed to have received divine revelation from God, called Allah in Arabic, in a cave in Mecca. These revelations continued on for more than 20 years until his death. Followers of Islam are known as Muslims. What separates Islam from other religions, including other monotheistic religions, is the Muslims’ declaration of faith called the shahada: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.”.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam began to spread from Saudi Arabia to West Asia, North Africa, Central Asia, and North India.

The Islamic World

The first Islamic regime was the Rashidun, which lasted with only 4 rulers. All the rulers were the close Companions of the Prophet Muhammad. The 4th and last ruler of the Rashidun was Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. During his rule, a group of Arabs called the Umayyads opposed him and began invading his territories.

The Muslims were then divided into two camps—the Sunnis and the Shiites. The Shiites were followers of Ali, and the Sunnis supported the Umayyads. Later, the Shiites became known as the group who believe that the Imam, the true Islamic spiritual leader, must be the descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunnis, on the other hand, follow the Imam who is appointed by the consensus of the Muslim community.

The Umayyad managed to ‘overthrow’ the Rashiduns, and set up their capital at Damascus in Syria. The Umayyads were later overthrown by another group of Arabs who set up a new regime called Abbasid. The Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad in Iraq and ruled over West Asia and North Africa.

Some of the Umayyads escaped the Abbasids and fled to Spain and set up the Spanish Umayyad kingdom there. After the Spanish Umayyads, Spain was ruled by a few Islamic dynasties until the fall of the last dynasty Nasrid to the Christians. The Spanish Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity became known as Mudejars.

As the Mudejars were very skilled craftsmen, especially in the area of building and architecture, they were retained by their Christian rulers and wealthy Jewish patrons to build new constructions and other types of craftswork.

North Africa, Syria, Palestine and Arabia were later ruled by the Fatimids, followed by the Ayyubids, followed by the Mamluks, and eventually by the Ottoman empire.

Central Asia, Iran and Iraq were later ruled by the Mongol dynasties of Ilkhanid and Timurid.

Iraq was later ruled by the Ottoman empire based in Turkey.

Iran, previously known as Persia, was ruled by the Safavid empire, and later the Qajars.

A descendent of the Timurids founded the Mughal empire in North India.

Of all the Islamic regimes, only 3 can be considered superpowers—they are Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Persia, and Mughal India.

As this exhibition focuses on Islamic architecture, you will find the artefacts organised into various architectural themes:

  1. The Fortress and the City
  2. Sacred Topographies
  3. Religious and Funerary Architecture
  4. The Palace
  5. Gardens, Pavilions and Tents

Let’s proceed to the Fortress and the City. Stay tuned!


  1. Text panels and captions from the exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum