The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem is located in the Katamon neighborhood of the city and is committed to the collection, preservation and exhibition of art and archaeological fragments/historical objects that pertain to Islamic art through the ages, dating from conquests and governments spanning the 7th to the 19th century.
Opened in 1974, in its 47 years the museum has gained a worldwide reputation for its extraordinary collection of Islamic art - pieces that are both unique in Israel and prized by collectors across the globe. The museum boasts both a permanent collection and temporary exhibits, and aims to give the visitor an insight in to the extraodainry treasures of Muslim society, which at one point extended from Spain, all through Eygpt, Syria, Turkey, Afhanistan, Iraq, Iran and up to India.
Some of the exquisite pieces on display include metalwork, pottery, glass, pages of ancient Qur’an manuscripts, not to mention a range of luxury items: rugs, ornaments and jewelry. The marvellous collection is spread over six galleries on two floors. The art is not considered a national treasure, as most of its objects housed there come from across the globe i.e. were not found in Israel or Palestine. Nevertheless, it is considered to be one of the best collections of its kind in the world today.
History of the Museum
The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem was founded in the 1960s by Vera Bryce Salomons, who was born into an aristocratic British-Jewish family. Her great-uncle, Sir David Salomons was a great supporter of equal rights for minorities, including the Jews. He had the honour of becoming the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London as well as a Member of Parliament.
Vera Salomons herself was a woman ahead of her time, with great vision and a passion for art and culture. She also believed deeply in religious tolerance and was a strong advocate of tolerance and coexistence between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, not only did she wish to build a museum that showcased the beauty of Islamic art, but also as a means to educate the wider public on the rich history of Islam and wider Arab culture.
In order to make her dream a reality, Vera turned to her teacher and friend, Professor Leo Arie Mayer, who was a well-known academic, teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in the fields of archaeology and art of the Middle East. He believed in her vision and together they began planning the establishment of the institution. It also helped that Professor Mayer had a significant personal collection of Islamic archaeology and art and this became the nucleus around which the museum’s permanent collection came to be designed.
Vera remained a passionate art-lover for her entire life, publishing three books on 18th-century French illustrations. She spent the last years of her life in Switzerland and died in 1969, aged 81.
The museum was opened in 1974 and documents the rise and fall of Muslim rule in much of the Levant (spreading west to Spain and east to India). This rule began in the 7th century and lasted for 1,200 years, until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The conquerors did not celebrate victory by destroying their enemies and, with them, their homes and possessions. Instead, they drew on existing techniques and local traditions and let them become their muse. This is well reflected in the museum’s Permanent Collection.
In total, the museum has six galleries that cover centuries of art, beginning with the Umayyad period, through the regimes of the Abbasids, the Samanids, the Fatimids, the Seljuqs, the Mamluks, the Mongols, the Timurids, the Safavids, the Moghuls, and the Ottomans. Each era has its individual material culture, but there is a common narrative linking them all.
Local techniques and a unique style
Today, only a small percentage of the thousands of objects the museum owns are actually on display in the permanent collection, including prayer shawls, metal and glass objects, jewelry and pottery. One can see ancient pages of Quran books, with astonishing calligraphy as well as Mogul Art from India, including a wooden palace window, hailing from Gujarat.
The permanent collection also houses instruments(including an oud which dates back to 1738. The oud is a short-neck, pear-shaped stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings. It is Arab music’s most important instrument and the forefather of the modern guitar. Also look out for a wooden painted compass, which points in the direction of Mecca.
Local traditions were never ignored, but a new Muslim art developed, and with it a unique style. This is reflected in chess pieces, dominos, playing cards, carpets, helmets and even daggers on exhibit. Early Islamic art is also well showcased - beautiful ceramic pieces in dazzling blues and greens. The potters of their time, who lived in a region named Kasahm, developed a special technique which accounts for the colours - before they fired and glazed the vessels, they covered them in a mix of clay, earth and pigments. Look out for some of the pottery that is decorated with calligraphy (usually with the name of Allah or a Muslim blessing).
The David Salomons Clock Collection
Arguably the jewel in the crown of the Islamic Museum of Art is the rare clock and watch collection that once belonged to David Salomons. The 200 clocks on display, many owned by princes and dukes, centuries ago, are quite extraordinary and sophisticated. Some are mechanical - simple, chiming clocks, and others have automatic winding mechanisms (which back then were considered quite ‘futuristic’).
You can see grandfather clocks, pendulum clocks, measuring instruments and music boxes there. Additionally, on display are compasses, barometers and other scientific instruments, as well as sundials and telescopes from the 17th-19th centuries. Salomons’ favourite designer was the famed Parisian watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet and in the collection are 55 of his pieces. His claim to fame was the development of the self-winding watch, giving new meaning to the concept “exactly on time.”
His watches and clocks were a design of beautiful design, extreme practicality and immense reliability, which gave him a reputation as Europe’s leading clockmaker in Europe. One of his customers was Marie Antoinette, and in the collection is a clock bearing her name. (Our tip: look out for the toy music boxes, made of gold and diamonds, operated by a small mechanism that automatically opens doors - in one, a songbird actually pops up and begins singing!)
The Great Clock Robbery
In 1983, 106 rare clocks, worth tens of millions of dollars, including the Marie Antoinette clock, were stolen in a daring robbery. The police had no leads and in the 20 years that followed, the trail went cold. Only in the summer of 2006 was the mystery uncovered - a skilled burglar by the name of Naaman Diller carried out the heist. Before he died, he confessed his crime to his wife and bequeathed them to her. When she tried to sell one, secretly, the appraiser spotted its value and quickly called the police. Eventually, 39 of them were returned to the museum!
Over the years, the museum has hosted a number of popular exhibits, including ‘Contemporary Arabesque’ (examining how local Palestinian and Israeli artists adopt various motifs associated with the Muslim decorative element known as arabesque). ‘Modern Times’ (charting pieces constructed by the artist Itay Noy as a reflection of the classical watches collection), ‘The Landscapes of Israel’ (showcasing colorful paintings and depictions of landscapes of the Land of Israel (Palestine), painted by David Roberts in the 19th century) and ‘Hamsa’ (exhibiting 555 different examples of this traditional Muslim/Jewish which is now an iconic symbol).
A Vision of Cultural Collaboration
Besides the extraordinary treasures housed there, the Museum for Islamic Art aspires to become a dynamic cultural center for a variety of communities, and a landmark in the local cultural arena. In collaboration with partners in Israel and abroad, the museum hosts innovative educational initiatives, develops cultural programs, and produces popular cultural events. Tens of thousands of visitors pass through its doors every year, Arabs and Jews, students, schoolchildren, and families enjoying a wealth of cultural and educational activities.
The Museum for Islamic Art strives to realize the dream of Vera Salomons and honor her family legacy by being a bridge between Arab and Jewish cultures. It sees cultivation of cultural dialogue as its primary goal and this is reflected in many of the past exhibits (where all sections of the population of the land - Israelis, Palestinians, Druze, Bedouin) collaborate in artistic endeavours.
Design and Independence
Vera Bryce Salomons never wavered in her decision that the museum should keep its financial independence and not be a beneficiary of public funding. She personally endowed the building fund and took a personal role in the day-to-day decision making, including discussions as to acquisitions and expenses. The building was designed by the prominent architect, Dr. Alexander Friedman, and construction of what would eventually be a modernist stone structure began in the late 1960’s.
Educational Activities for Children
The museum is happy to be able to offer early childhood education for children, from preschool and first grade right up until high school. These include experiential sessions of activities, drama, active tours and/or theatrical tours of Islamic culture and art. Children can also attend creative art workshops inspired by the theme of the guided tour and the activities.
Family Friendly Activities
The Islamic Museum of Art prides itself on being a family-friendly institution and offers a wide range of activities both for adults and children, either in groups or private tours. Children can dabble in art workshops, try their hand at calligraphy, tile painting, paper folding and pottery painting. There’s even an activity that involves decorating musical instruments such as drums, tambourines and bamboo flutes. These activities are not just fun and creative but extremely educational and an excellent way for children to learn more about history, culture and design.
Additionally, the museum offers children the opportunity to have their birthday party at the space. For those aged 5-8, two themes are on offer: ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ and ‘Sinbad the Sailor’. For those aged 8 to 14, the museum offers an ‘Escape Room’ based around a true-life mystery - the Great Clock Heist. As recounted above, in the 1980s, a robber broke into the museum and stole some priceless clocks and watches. It’s up to the children to find out how it happened and to catch the culprit!
Lectures and Musicals
The museum regularly hosts lectures and musical events, including ‘Armenian Ceramic’, ‘Collective Trauma and Personal Memory’, the very popular “Songs of Ofra Haza’ (a much-loved Israeli singer) and evenings of Sufi-inspired dancing. Moreover, in 2017, the museum held its first ‘Open House’ where visitors could go behind the scenes and explore the collection storage area, as well as attend the ‘In the Footsteps of Time’ tour, going inside the enormous safe in which the prized clock collection is stored. The event was such a great success that additional ‘Open Houses’ are envisaged.
Tel: 02-566-1291. Opening Hours: Tuesday to Thursday:10 am to 3 pm. Friday and Saturday: 10 am to 2 pm. Sunday and Monday: Closed.
Directions and Parking: Bus: Lines 13 and 15 from the Central Bus Station. Alight at the intersection of Hazaz Boulevard/Herzog and walk for approximately 11 minutes.
By car: street parking where the curb is either gray (free) or painted blue and white (paid), on Hapalmach St., Hagedud Ha’ivri St. and Chopin St. On Shabbat (Saturday), the museum’s parking lot is open to visitors free of charge, on a first-come, first-served basis.