A personal recollection of a Man for All Seasons


Oleg Grabar – 1929 – 2011

Oleg Grabar, the eminent historian of Islamic art and architecture, transformed
the fields of Islamic art, architecture and archaeology through his myriad
scholarly works, general textbooks, and through training and inspiring several
generations of undergraduate and graduate students. He died at his home in
Princeton, N.J. at the age of 81.

At the Award’s Ceremony in Doha, November 2010
L to R: Glen Lowry, Renata Holod, Oleg Grabar,
Gulru Necipoglu, Mohammad Al-Asad (photo: H.U. Khan)

Working alone, or in collaboration with students and colleagues, he directed excavations, developed exhibitions, inaugurated professional associations,
administered academic departments and research institutions. His impact has been felt worldwide, from the level of the undergraduate classroom to circles dealing with cultural policy and politics.

Oleg Grabar was born in November 1929, in Strasbourg, France, where his father taught art history at the University of Strasbourg. He attended lycées in Paris before studying ancient history at the University of Paris. In 1948, when his father received an appointment to Dumbarton Oaks, the center for Byzantine studies in Washington, he moved to the United States. After earning a bachelor’s degree in medieval history from Harvard and diplomas in medieval and modern history from the University of Paris in 1950, he earned a master’s (1953) and a doctorate (1955) in Oriental languages and literatures from Princeton, where he wrote a dissertation on the ceremonial art of the Umayyad court. Professor Grabar taught at the University
of Michigan and Harvard, where he was named the first Aga Khan Professor of Islamic art and architecture in 1980, before accepting a position at the school of historical studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1990, where he lived until his death. He led excavations at Qasr al-Hayr from 1964 to 1971, where he unearthed a palace

“Professor Grabar prepared generations of art historians and museum directors who followed his lead to create new disciplines within the field of Islamic studies, expanding its scope far beyond the rather narrow limits he encountered when he entered the field”.

complex in the desert northeast of Palmyra in Syria whose outer walls enclosed an area nearly three miles square with a fortified residence, courtyards and a mosque. He later directed excavations in Israel and Jordan. He was the noted author of more than 50 books and innumerable articles. Among
his best known works are Formation of Islamic Art, Illustrations of the Maqamat, The Alhambra, Great Mosque of Isfahan, Mediation of Ornament, Mostly Miniatures, Shape of the Holy, Dome of the Rock, Penser l’art islamique, and Masterpieces of Islamic Art: The Decorated Page from the 8th to the 17th century, Islamic Art and Architecture 650 – 1250 (with Richard Ettinghausen). In 1982 he founded Muqarnas, a periodical for the study of Islamic art and architecture, which he edited for the next decade. More than 80 of his essays were collected in the four-volume Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, published in 2005 and 2006. In his many publications, he posed broad questions about the nature of Islamic art, seeking to discover the impulses that generated its specific forms and dynamics of growth, and to explore the interconnections between faith and socio-historical circumstances in its development. At the same time he wrote focused, detailed studies on the meaning of forms peculiar to Islamic art and architecture,
and, in later studies, examined the relationship between traditional and modern Islamic art. His former student, Professor Renata Holod, recently wrote: “Professor Grabar prepared generations of art historians and museum directors who followed his lead to create new disciplines within the field of Islamic studies, expanding its scope far beyond the rather narrow limits he encountered when he entered the field”.

I first met Oleg Grabar at the Secretariat of H.H. the Aga Khan just outside Paris in January 1977. He had been asked to help set up the Aga Khan Award for Architecture along with a small group of people and was a founding member of the award’s Steering Committee. Renata Holod, had been appointed Convenor (Director) of the award and I was hired as her assistant. The early days of the award’s formation were filled with meetings and interesting conversations as the award program began to take shape. Renata and I travelled all over the Islamic world contacting people, feeding the Steering Committee with news of the state of architecture and concerns of architects, builders, clients, etc. A small first seminar was held at the Secretariat in April 1978 to discuss the subject of Architecture of Islam and the merits of an Award. A year later, at a meeting in Philadelphia, after a review of contemporary architecture in Muslim societies, there was the realisation that we were onto something important. Oleg’s enthusiasm and
comments helped make the award a reality. He remained a member of the Steering Committee for its early decades and was a wise counsel. He
always conducted himself with great civility and patience as the Award was developed and with wit and humour that endeared all of us to him.
Oleg Grabar, then at Harvard, and Bill Porter, the Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and also a member of the Award Steering Committee, had made a proposal to H.H. the Aga Khan to set up new programs at their universities to deal with Islamic architecture. The idea was to further legitimize
the scholarship of Islamic architecture. Soon thereafter, I became the Convenor of the Award and worked for the Aga Khan, I was asked to work on establishing the Aga Khan Program at Harvard and MIT and I attended meetings and allowed-up with the two universities on behalf of the Aga Khan.

The Programs were established with a large endowment and library collections. Students from all over the globe came to study there and continue to do so to this day. Over the years I was fortunate to travel around the Islamic world at seminars and other site visits with Oleg and others. We had some marvelous trips; to China in the early 1980s, to Fez in Morocco, and later to Senegal and Yemen amongst many other places. Steering Committee meetings were also often held in exotic and interesting places. In Zanzibar we held meetings on a barge in the middle of the water so as not to be disturbed, and on several occasions we met in Sardinia, and of course at the Secretariat in France. Those were exciting days for all of us. There were many personal memorable moments – both significant and trivial. I remember sitting under a tree in Xian talking about nothing much in particular with Oleg when the Aga Khan joined us: “What are you thinking?” he asked expecting some bon mot from the distinguished professor. “Oh nothing much, your Highness” replied Oleg, “Just pleasantly wasting time!” On another occasion Oleg was visiting his father in Paris, who was zealous of the time Oleg spent with him. He would come to dinner at our apartment but would leave by 9 pm. as his father would be waiting up for him! On one such trip, the Aga Khan telephoned Grabar in his father’s flat in Paris only to get Grabar senior on the line. “My son is here to see me” said Oleg’s father “and cannot come to the phone!” Later, when Oleg heard this he was mortified and had to nip out to a phone booth (as this was before the days of cell phones) to call back His Highness and apologise! “Ah well, that’s the ways fathers are” remarked the Aga Khan. There are myriad such stories that those of us who spent time with Oleg will remember – perhaps one day they will be written down. Oleg Grabar remained a member of the Award Steering Committee until the mid- 1980s and also served as a member of its Master Jury in 1989. He moved to Princeton in 1990 and remained connected with the Aga Khan network over the years. As he once said to me, “I am going into semi-retirement and will do the things that I have put off for so long.” He divested himself of his large collection of books and articles that he had collected over the years – they now form part of the Getty Foundation collection – but continued to write and lecture. He had always wanted to write a detective novel but he never did. I visited him and his wife, Terry, in Princeton about once a year. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated over the years and he began to travel much less and bemoan his physical condition. “The most important thing is one’s health” he would say. “There are times I wish I was younger”. We would talk about “old times” and a couple of years ago we talked about writing an informal history of the Aga Khan Award. “You should coordinate this before it’s too late as you experienced the first decades of the endeavour,” he said. “Many of us are getting old and some, like Hassan Fathy and High Casson amongst others are no longer with us. You should collect the stories about all the wonderful experiences we had together. It would be the real story of what happened (including gossip!) and would give an insight into that great enterprise!” I was enthusiastic but, alas, never began to do so. I last saw Oleg Grabar in Doha in November 2010 at the Aga Khan for Architecture prize-giving ceremony. The award has been established for some 35 years and all the former directors of the award (four of us) had been invited in this instance. It was also the occasion when Oleg Grabar was given the Chairman’s Award – the Chairman being the Aga Khan – a rare and singular honour that has been bestowed only five times during the Awards’ history. It was the first time that it has been given to a non-architect. Oleg gave a keynote address which was followed by a panel discussion about him with four of his former PhD students, Glen Lowry now Director of the Museum of Modern Art in NY, Renata Holod, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Gulru Necipoğlu, the Aga Khan Professor at Harvard, and Mohammad Al-Asad who runs an architectural ‘think tank’.

(There were also other former students of his in the audience.) Oleg was frail and we could see that he was in poor health but it was a grand occasion and a worthy recognition of his many roles. I was travelling to Pakistan when news of his demise reached me. It made me realise that an important part of my formation had passed, and it made me recall with great fondness the man; his warmth and his wisdom. He will be remembered by many as a mentor, a fine scholar, and someone who gave impetus to the field of Islamic art and architecture. I will, as many others, miss him and preserve his memory – he was truly a Renaissance man – A Man for All Seasons. Hasan-Uddin Khan is an architect and writer who has worked and lived all over the globe. In Europe, he coordinated His Highness the Aga Khan’s architectural activities between 1984 and 1994. He has been a Visiting Professor at MIT and at Berkeley; and is currently Distinguished Professor of Architecture and Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University. He lectures widely, and is editor/author of nine books and has over sixty published articles.

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