Landmark World of the Fatimids exhibition opens at Aga Khan Museum

A landmark exhibition exploring the World of the Fatimids opened Saturday at the Aga Khan Museum.

Renowned cultural historian Dr. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani curated the exhibition

Renowned cultural historian Dr. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani points to marble slabs which date back to the 12th century. The slabs, which have never been displayed publicly before, are part of a landmark exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum. (CBC News)

A landmark exhibition exploring the World of the Fatimids opened Saturday at the Aga Khan Museum.

Curated by renowned cultural historian Dr. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, the exhibition is North America's first to feature a carefully selected collection of masterpieces from the Fatimid dynasty.

Among the objects are monumental marble reliefs from the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, luxury objects ranging from rock crystal and ivory to ceramic lusterware — a technique mastered during Fatimid times — and early metal masterpieces.

Drone and 360-degree virtual reality videos bring to life Cairo, the Fatimids' flourishing capital, and offer insight into what the city was like a millennium ago.

Melikian-Chirvani, a London-based curator who brought some of the objects on display to Toronto, says he expects people will leave the exhibition in awe.

"A sense of diversity, a sense of very strong juxtapose identities which are juxtapose within the same culture," he told CBC Toronto. "A sense of surprise and pleasure at seeing objects and designs, motifs, which are completely different from anything which they have seen elsewhere."

Curator Dr. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani says he expects people will leave the exhibition in awe of the objects on display. (Aga Khan Museum)

The Fatimids established one of the most powerful economic, political and cultural metropolis in the Islamic World (Cairo) during the 10th to 12th centuries, in direct competition with Constantinople, which is now known as Istanbul, and Baghdad — yet little is known of them in the western world. 

Exhibition organizers say the Fatimid empire's success was due to its liberal and progressive attitudes, which included free commercial/arts trade, allowing Christians, Jewish and Muslim government officials and being home to one of the first public libraries.

Exhibition includes dozens of pieces

There are about 87 pieces in the exhibition, many on loan from international collections including the Musée du Louvre in Paris, Benaki Museum in Athens, Victoria and Albert Museum in London and collections from Italy, Germany and Denmark to name a few. 

Assuming that even if the public knows anything about the art from the 10th to 12th centuries, Melikian-Chirvani says they will be discovering objects that have never been seen before.

Included in the exhibition are five marble slabs dating back to the 12th century A.D., 1171, which have never been displayed publicly before, not even in Egypt.

"These panels were left unfinished, in my opinion, because the construction or the renovation of the Fatimid Palace was interrupted by the invasion of 1171," Melikian-Chirvani told CBC Toronto.

"We do not have unfinished works of this kind in any other monument or any other context in Egypt or indeed in any other Islamic culture or period or even in any culture from Western Europe. It is extremely rare to find unfinished works, works in progress."

The Fatimid exhibit continues for the next several weeks through July.

With files from Alison Chiasson