Paris’s famed Louvre museum on Saturday opened to the public a new wing of Islamic art in a bid to improve knowledge of a religion often viewed with suspicion in the West.
Costing nearly 100 million euros ($131 million), it is funded by the French government and supported by handsome endowments from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan.
About 3,000 precious works from the seventh to the 19th centuries are spread across 3,000 square metres (33,000 square feet) over two levels of the former palace.
Inaugurated by President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, the new wing holds 18,000 treasures from an area stretching from Europe to India and includes the oldest love letter in the Islamic world.
Denise Spacensky, one of the first visitors Saturday, said the opening came at an opportune time “with everything that is happening in the world”, stressing that the exhibits show “Islam as a refined, peaceful civilisation”.
“I hope it will open Westerners’ minds to the passionate past of Islamic civilisation, but also to the complex of Muslims who believe they are not understood,” said the retired teacher of Chinese art.
France is home to at least four million Muslims and leaders of the community say incidents of Islamophobia are on the rise against a background of confrontation with the authorities and rising suspicion of Muslims.
The Louvre opening comes as demonstrations are sweeping Muslim countries to protest a crudely made Internet video shot in the United States mocking Islam, and French cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Sophie Makariou, the head of the department of Islamic arts at the Paris museum, said the aim of the new wing was to show “Islam with a capital I.”
“We must give back the word Islam its full glory… and not leave it to the jihadists to tarnish it,” she said at a press preview earlier this week.
Set in a courtyard of commissioned in the 18th century, the new wing is housed under a giant undulating gold-coloured aluminium canopy pierced with tiny holes to let daylight filter through and change the mood and the ambience with the sun’s rays.
The artefacts from the Louvre’s own collection and other private ones include Moghul-era carpets from India, miniature paintings from Iran showing depictions from the Thousand and One Nights and an astounding silver and gold inlaid basin from Egypt or Syria and dating between 1330 and 1340.
The basin was was used for the baptism of France’s King Louis XIII and bears the inscription “Work of Master Muhammed ibn al-Zayn.”
The collection brings together pieces from Spain, Egypt’s Mameluke “slave” dynasty, the Moghul empire in India, Persia and Central Asia.
It also recreates the grandeur of Baghdad, the founding of which in 762 was a major event in urban planning history, with a reproduction of two huge mosaics adorning the Grand Mosque there.
There is also a teak door from a palace in Samarra on the banks of the Tigris with an Art-Nouveau-style fan-shaped motif ending in a lobed leaf.
A myriad of calligraphic styles are also on display with stunning turquoise and white tiles from Central Asia, bejewelled ornaments and ivory objets d’art and enamelled glass objects — an art form conceived and perfected by Muslims.
It is the latest modernisation project after the glass pyramid in the Louvre’s main courtyard by Chinese-US architect I.M. Pei which was commissioned in 1984 and completed four years later.