Toronto Life | World of Wonders: the Aga Khan brings his treasure trove of Islamic artifacts to Toronto

Each day, thousands of captive drivers will turn their eyes to the gleaming white structure and think: hold on, when did Toronto get a castle from the future?

The museum, designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, is an imposing work of modernism, all chiselled angles and polished stone. It’s part of a new Islamic cultural campus on Wynford Drive—a $300-million gift to the city from the Aga Khan, spiritual leader to the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, who consider him a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad.

by Danielle Groen for Toronto Life published December 1, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Anyone who drives in Toronto knows about the kink in the DVP—that bend below the Eglinton off-ramp where, however swiftly cars have been moving away from downtown, they inevitably slow to a crawl. It’s a pain if you have a pressing engagement north of the 401, but the spot affords a terrific view of the Aga Khan Museum, which hovers over the highway. Each day, thousands of captive drivers will turn their eyes to the gleaming white structure and think: hold on, when did Toronto get a castle from the future?

The museum, designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, is an imposing work of modernism, all chiselled angles and polished stone. It’s part of a new Islamic cultural campus on Wynford Drive—a $300-million gift to the city from the Aga Khan, spiritual leader to the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, who consider him a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. It’s also North America’s first museum dedicated to Islamic art, packed with 1,000 pieces from the Aga Khan’s personal collection of artifacts. The museum stands at the east end of the campus and faces an Ismaili community centre, its prayer hall capped by a torqued crystalline dome that points toward Mecca. Several acres of greenery surround and connect the buildings, including a formal garden with tidy rows of trees and five black granite reflecting pools. To say the sprawling site looks like nothing else in Toronto is an absurd understatement.

AKM - 4 artifacts - Tortonto Life 2014-12-01… He originally intended to build his palatial art museum in London, England, but the plan fell through in 2002, when doctors at St. Thomas’s Hospital and King’s College medical school threatened to resign if the land went to the Aga Khan instead of the National Health Service. He quickly turned his attention to Canada, a country whose relationship with the Ismaili people spans four decades.

By the entrance you’ll find copper-coloured leaves from ancient Qurans—one luminous page from a ninth-century north African manuscript, its warm gold script rolling over midnight-blue paint, is particularly dazzling.

Further in, there’s a piece of 10th-century Iranian pottery with the inscription, “Beware of the imbecile: do not socialize with him,” which remains good advice.

An ultramarine 16th-century Turkish dish is hand-painted with red, wind-tossed tulips, native to the Ottoman Empire. In the 1550s, the flowers caught the eye of an ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire, who introduced them to western Europe with a shipment of bulbs sent to a friend in Vienna.

One of the oldest surviving copies of the Canon of Medicine is displayed, though you won’t see its descriptions of cures and remedies—the fragile pages are hidden behind an overlay covered in Arabic script. The Persian physician and philosopher ­Avicenna completed the book in 1025, drawing from Chinese, Greek and Islamic scholarship. For more than 700 years, it ranked among the world’s most influential medical texts.

Nearby, there is a Spanish planispheric astrolabe from the 14th century, an age of feverish scientific co-operation between Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars; its bronze face is inscribed with constellation names in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew.

These are lovely works of Islamic art, but they don’t exist in isolation: they’ve been chosen for the connections they reveal between cultures, showing how craft and ideas ripple back and forth.

Discover, Explore and Learn more at Toronto Life | Culture: World of Wonders: the Aga Khan brings his treasure trove of Islamic artifacts to Toronto


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