The Penn Museum's Islamic Near East Gallery features art and objects from the Islamic world of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt. Collected in the early 20th century, the architectural elements featured in this gallery contain intricate geometric designs.
Islamic Civilization counts its beginnings from 620 CE with the first year of the hijra or the migration of the prophet Muhammad and his small band of followers from Mecca to Medina. From there, the third of the great monotheistic Abrahamic faiths of the Old World grew into an empire through conquest and conversion to take over the southern provinces of the old Roman empire and entire Persian empire. So, by 750 CE, the new polity centered on Baghdad stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus River.
In subsequent waves of conquest and conversion, the Islamic religion and civilization, if not the original single continuous state, has expanded to stretch from South and South-East Asia into Sub-Saharan Africa and southeastern Europe. It has still a dynamic force of a religious ideology, although it is no longer a single polity or country.
What is presented in this gallery, however, is a much narrower range, coming from the central lands of the Islamic world: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Egypt. These are the very regions where the more ancient cultures of Sumer and Assyria, of Pharaonic Egypt, of Neolithic and Bronze Age Iran, and of Asia Minor were discovered. The active engagement of the researchers and archaeologists from the Penn Museum over the last hundred years did not focus for the most part on the sites and material culture of the Islamic medieval periods. Driven by the excitement of the discovery of even more ancient cultures, they were often happy to ignore this intervening civilization that overlay the earlier ones. Thus, its archaeological expeditions as well as its collections have ventured only occasionally into the medieval periods after 700 CE.
The Islamic Gallery itself a reference to the times when the expeditions from the Penn Museum would land in late 19th and 20th century Cairo and Istanbul to begin their trips to sites of more ancient origin. As a parallel activity, some of these researchers, or more likely their friends and supporters, would collect what was available in antique shops in these capitals. What is built into the floor and walls of this room represents the architectural salvage of old palaces, monuments and houses. For example, the two marble fountains, the great door and the stained glass windows would have been part of a great hall and was very much part of gracious living quarters of the Cairene urban elite of the 14th through 18th centuries.
One intrepid researcher, Erich Schmidt, however, was different. When initiating archaeological research in Iran in the 1930’s he took on the archaeological investigation of sites of all epochs. Barnstorming from site to important site in his wife’s airplane, called the “Spirit of Iran” he managed to work on the following sites, all in the same years: pre-historic Cheshme Ali and Tepe Hissar, the famous site of Achaemenid Persepolis that was destroyed by Alexander, Parthian and Sassanid Hecatompolis that lay across the Silk Road, and two major urban centers of the medieval Islamic world, Rayy and Damghan that were destroyed by the Mongol invasions of the 1220’s.