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'Ocean Explorers: From Sindbad to Marco Polo' at the Arab World Institute, Paris

Guided by the legendary Sindbad the Sailor, the geographer al-Idrīsī, the explorer Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, and many others, set sail—with the Arabs, the masters of the seas, and the great European sailors who sailed on their maritime routes—on a wonderful voyage of discovery extending from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. From the beginning of Islam to the dawn of the seventeenth century, it is a maritime adventure that visitors can see and experience in an exceptional immersive itinerary that combines sound effects, images, and optical devices.

'Ocean Explorers: From Sindbad to Marco Polo' at the Arab World Institute, Paris
Kitab-i Bahriye (Book of the Sea) by Piri Reis, c. 1670, Ottoman Turkey 
[Credit: Nour Foundation]
Extraordinary travel diaries have related the fruitful maritime exchanges that flourished in the seas of the Old World. Visitors will be able to view these wonderful accounts—the common thread of the exhibition—in the most famous travel diaries. These accounts will take the exhibition’s visitors on a journey at the crossroads of African gold and Western silver, Greek coins and Golconda diamonds, glassware from Alexandria, Venice, and Bohemia, and porcelains, silks, and spices from China and the Moluccas.

Set sail with Sindbad, the sailor in The Arabian Nights, on a voyage to discover the strange and terrifying world of the sea, over which flies the formidable roc (legendary bird). It is inhabited by sea monsters, represented in the wonderful miniatures from the ’Aja’ib (the Wonders of Creation), by the Persian scholar al-Qazwīnī. Statuettes, paintings, ex-votos, and Latin and Arab miniatures will be presented to highlight the mystical dimension, in religious traditions, of the dangers of the sea. Maritime travel was a divine—and very real—undertaking. This is attested by the accounts of the Arab geographer and traveller from Andalusia, Ibn Jubayr (1145–1217), who describes the terrible sinking of a vessel, against a backdrop of images of storms.

Sailors had to learn to master the sea before setting sail. In a relaxed atmosphere, under the guidance of the sailor and cartographer Ibn Majid (1432–1500), visitors will learn about the art of sailing, see wonderful navigation instruments, and discover the development of vessels, in a journey of discovery complemented by many models. Thanks to the development of cartography, sailors were able to better master the seas, as attested by the author of a famous map of the world: the geographer al-Idrīsī (circa 1100–1165), against a backdrop of medieval Latin and Arab cosmographies, maps and portolanos, world maps, and other astronomical treatises, and beneath a didactic and interactive sky.

Our guides on this journey are Marco Polo (1254–1324), the famous Italian merchant, and Ibn Baṭṭūṭah (1304–1377), one of the greatest explorers in the Middle Ages; the latter’s adventures on the seas will be related to visitors in a shadow theatre. These three figures will enable us to appreciate the extraordinary history of maritime exchanges, from the time of the caliphs to the dominance of the trading cities. From the outset of Islam, the Arabs took control of the maritime routes, from the Arabian-Persian Gulf to China. Items found in the Belitung shipwreck, the exceptional remains of an Arab vessel discovered in Indonesia, ceramics, objets d’art, manuscripts, and various coins will illustrate this chapter in history. This was followed by a period of European expansion and the beginning of globalisation, which is evoked by the last guides on our journey, the Chinese navigator and diplomat Zheng He (1371–1433) and the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (c.1460–1524). Major maritime trading companies then emerged. This is where our journey draws to an end …

Exhibition opening at the Arab World Institute (1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 75005 Paris) on 15 November 2016 and will run until to 26 February 2017

Source: Arab World Institute [October 10, 2016]

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