Commemorating Oleg Grabar (1929-2011)

Urban Crossroads #113



Oleg Grabar. (Photo is courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.)

On January 8, 2011, Oleg Grabar passed away. With that, the field of Islamic art and architecture lost one of its most important figures. He had been involved in the field as a researcher, author, and teacher for almost six decades. His contribution to shaping our understanding of the Islamic world’s pre-modern visual heritage, whether works of art, architecture, or urbanism, is immeasurable.

Oleg Grabar was born in France, but lived much of his life in the United States. He studied at the University of Paris, Harvard University, and Princeton University. He was a faculty member at a number of prestigious academic institutions. He started his career at the University of Michigan. He then moved to Harvard University, where he became the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture. In 1990, he retired from Harvard and accepted a faculty position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where faculty members had included luminaries such as Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, and George Kennan.

The scope of Oleg Grabar’s accomplishments is remarkable. He was a teacher who taught and mentored many students from different generations and different parts of the world. He was an archeologist who spent numerous seasons excavating early Muslim sites in the deserts of Syria. And of course, he was an author who wrote about a vast variety of buildings from different parts of the Islamic world, and about a variety of themes including the communicative role of decoration, the symbolism of built form, and the relation between architecture and power. He considered himself a cultural historian rather than a more narrowly-defined historian of art and architecture. He therefore examined the various social, cultural, economic, and political forces that define a given society and the visual forms it creates.

When considering major works of the Islamic world’s architectural heritage such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque of Isfahan, or the Alhambra in Granada, Grabar’s work proves critical to understanding them. He devoted a book to each of the Great Mosque of Isfahan and the Alhambra, and a number of books to the Dome of the Rock and to Jerusalem. In these books, he takes us through fascinating historical and intellectual journeys that bring together the visual arts, literature, people, events, and trends.

Grabar had written more than thirty books and a hundred and twenty articles. Over eighty of his articles have been collected in a four-volume work entitled Constructing the Study of Islamic Art (which may be read online through the web site of the ArchNet project, His well-known book The Formation of Islamic Art remains a masterpiece on the subject. It insightfully explores the various forces that defined the remarkable artistic and architectural traditions that emerged under the new religion of Islam beginning in the seventh century. His Mediation of Ornament examines the communicative value of decoration in Islamic art and architecture on the formal, aesthetic, and cultural levels.

He had a particular interest in the inscriptions that adorn buildings in the Islamic world. Few architectural traditions used inscriptions in buildings as extensively as the architectural traditions of Islam. Grabar carried out careful and insightful readings of numerous architectural inscriptions. He looked at them as more than decorative motifs or as documentation that provides dates and identifies patrons. He deciphered the political and cultural messages that buildings put forward through their inscriptions.

His intellectual curiosity led him beyond the boundaries of historical works and into the modern world. He made important contributions to establishing the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1979. Towards the end of his career, he became increasingly interested in examining the evolution of the modern academic discipline of Islamic art and architecture. He looked at its origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as one defined by Orientalists, and examined its transformation over the past few decades as one influenced by scholars coming from both the West and from the Islamic world. He in fact gave a very thoughtful presentation about this issue during a visit to Amman in 2004.

He always has been particularly interested in the study of the other and the study of the self. This is not surprising considering that he devoted a career to studying cultures that are not his own, but he nonetheless played a major role in educating generations of architects, planners, and historians from the Islamic world. Many of his students have made important contributions to the development and study of that world’s built environment as teachers, scholars, and administrators.

Recently, in November 2010, Oleg Grabar received the coveted Chairman’s Award of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The Award’s citation mentioned that he “has done more to define the field of Islamic art and architecture than almost anyone alive. The questions he has asked, the hypotheses he has proposed and the theories he has developed … have shaped and defined the way we understand the Islamic world’s rich architectural heritage.”

Whatever activity he engaged in, he approached with curiosity, intelligence, and an open mind. 

I was very fortunate to have been a student of Oleg Grabar and to have closely known him for over a quarter of a century. I am one of many who will greatly miss him.

Mohammad al-Asad

February 03, 2011