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Achievements Tours

Every artwork deserves a closer look! When you focus in on the materials and techniques used in the making of an artifact, you uncover new connections between artworks and better appreciate the achievements of the artists who created them. Highlighting the contributions of Muslim civilizations to world cultural heritage, this audio guide will take you through a selection of artworks in our Museum Collection. You will hear fascinating stories about advancements in water technology, shiny ceramics, and exotic pigments and discover why Ibn Sina is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Medicine”.

Ibn Sina’s Canon Of Medicine, (Qanun [Fi’l-Tibb] Of Ibn Sina), Vol. 4

Iran or Iraq, 1073
Author (of original text): Ibn Sina, Persian, 980 – 1037
Opaque watercolour and ink on paper.

More About Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, (Qanun [Fi’l-Tibb] of Ibn Sina), Vol. 4

This manuscript is part of a text called the “Canon,” a handbook of medicine. It is the work of the Iranian scholar Ibn Sina (980–1037), known as Avicenna in the Western world. Often described as the “Father of Early Modern Medicine,” Ibn Sina was among the most famous and influential of the philosopher-scientists of the Islamic Golden Age. He wrote the Canon of Medicine in five volumes, including observations on wide-ranging topics: anatomy, temperament, disease, pathology, drugs, and pharmaceuticals. The Aga Khan Museum has volumes 4 and 5 of the Canon in its Collection. Separated by 22 years, these volumes are likely from two different copies of the manuscript. Nevertheless, both are most certainly among the earliest copies of the Canon, as they were produced only 15 to 36 years after Ibn Sina’s death.
Further Reading

Volume 4 of the Canon of Medicine focuses on medical conditions that affect the body, whether as a whole (such as fevers and poisoning), or in part (such as wounds and fractures). It concludes with a treatise on personal hygiene, emphasizing the importance of general cleanliness; of caring for the hair, skin, nails, body odor; and of maintaining a healthy body weight.

Ibn Sina wrote the Canon of Medicine during a sojourn in Gurgan,[1] in the North-East of Iran, south of the Caspian Sea. In his five-volume encyclopaedia, Ibn Sina brought together medical knowledge from the Greco-Roman, Chinese and Muslim worlds including insights from Hippocrates (d. 370 BC), Aristotle (d. 322 BC), and Galen (d. circa 216).[2] For scholars like Ibn Sina, it was common to study ancient texts on medicine, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and natural sciences. Scholars typically translated these texts into Arabic and added their own discoveries and insights.

In the second half of 12th century, under the patronage of a knowledge-thirsty ruler, Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin in Toledo, Spain.[3] As the most complete encyclopaedic corpus of mediaeval medical knowledge, the Canon became the standard source of all medieval references in Western medical schools and was considered the most influential medical encyclopaedia in Europe, where it was taught in universities well into the 18th century.[4]

– Filiz Çakır Phillip

1. Avicenna spent over a 12-year period between 1012 and 1024 completing the Canon of Medicine. See d’ Andiran, Gérald; Fondation Martin Bodmer (Cologny); et al., Early medicine, from the body to the stars, 212.

2. See John R. Hayes, The Genius of Arab civilization: source of Renaissance, 168¬–169; Musallam, B. “AVICENNA x. Medicine and Biology,” Encyclopædia Iranica, III/1, 94–99, (accessed on 30 December 2012).

3. Gerard of Cremona’s (d. 1187) Latin translations include Avicenna’s Canon and al-Zahrawi’s treatise on surgery and works by Razi. See Early medicine, from the body to the stars, 76.

4. See The Path of Princes, 194.


Egypt, Cairo, 16th century and later
Marble and sandstone mosaic

More About Fountain

Water has long played a significant role in Islamic architecture, inspiring fountains, pools, and channels in public and private spaces. There, it has served both practical and symbolic functions: as an essential source of life and coolness particularly valued in arid, hot climates; as an important part of worship; and as a reminder that, in the Qur’an, God promises his Chosen Ones a paradise replete with gushing fountains and flowing rivers.


Further Reading

Islamic fountains fall into one of three categories: ablution fountains found in the courtyards of mosques, where worshippers could wash before entering; public fountains for drinking and household tasks; and decorative fountains found in inner courtyards or outdoor gardens, valued both for their cooling effects and their aesthetic charms.

Fountains were part of domestic interiors in Egypt and Syria from the time of the Mamluks to the time of the Ottomans. This decorative fountain in the Aga Khan Museum Collection[1] may once have sat in the centre of the reception hall (qa’a) within a 16th-century Egyptian home, where it would have filled the house with the pleasant sound of trickling and bubbling water. It may also have served as a daily reminder of Sura 23 in the Qur’an:

Therewith for you We gave rise to gardens of palm-trees and vineyards
where for you are abundant fruits and of them you eat. (23: 18-19)

The fountain may have also formed part of a cooling system for the house: hot air could escape through an opening in the ceiling and be continually replaced with air cooled by the fountain. Such fountains were originally embedded in the floor, and were restored as needed. In some instances, new fountains were assembled using pieces of fountains from different periods.

The fountain of the Aga Khan Museum is made of marble and sandstone. The centre of the fountain is created in the shape of an eight-lobed pattern. The entire fountain is decorated using the inlay technique. Its tri-coloured stones suggest that it follows a Mamluk tradition from Cairo, as examples in situ tell us. One of the existing examples in Cairo is in the Bayt Zainab Khatun. Featuring a four-lobed shaped centre, it was built in 1468 with later additions in 1713. An Ottoman example in Cairo built in 1648 is the Bayt al-Suhaymi with later additions in 1796.[2] The latter clearly follows the tradition of an eight-lobed fountain situated to the left of the courtyard. Another fountain with a four-lobed centre faces northeast of the courtyard in Bay al-Suhaymi,[3] proving that both shapes were present during the same period.

— Filiz Çakır Phillip

[1] Fountain, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, AKM960.
[2] See
[3] See

Bowl With A Fantastical Elephant-Headed Creature

Iran, early 13th century
Fritware, lustre-painted
A round ceramic bowl with a brown and white glaze features an intricate design of an Elephant surrounded by swirling patterns. The elephant is centrally positioned within the bowl. The surrounding patterns include floral and abstract motifs, adding to the decorative nature of the piece. The bowl is displayed against a plain gray background from the Aga Khan Museum Collections.

More About Bowl with a fantastical elephant-headed creature

Sphinxes, harpies, and simurghs are among the fantastical beasts that appear on a special group of sparkling, lustre-glazed ceramics from Iran made between the 12th and 13th centuries. With their large central motifs, they evoke the lustre-glazed bowls made in Egypt during the Fatimid period (909–1171; see AKM684). The elephant-headed bird depicted here is a unique creature not found elsewhere. It must be the product of the potter’s vivid imagination—inspired, perhaps, by the mythical birds described in Persian poetry. On the exterior of the bowl are verses from Persian poetry, scrawled rather carelessly in contrast to the fine drawing of the interior of the bowl.

— Marika Sardar

Blue-And-White Dish Based On A Chinese Model

Iran, early 13th century
Fritware, lustre-painted

More About Blue-and-white dish based on a Chinese model

Chinese pottery had found its way into the Middle East before Islam, but its impact took on new importance shortly after the founding of the Abbasid Empire in 750 and the move of the capital from Syria to Iraq. Chinese shapes appeared in the 9th-century products of the kilns at Basra, Iraq, and potters emulated the white body by increasing the opacity of their glazes by adding tin. The impact of Chinese goods was especially felt during the Mongol period, when the Ilkhanids (1256–1353)—relatives of the Mongol rulers of China (Yuan dynasty 1279–1368)—ruled Iran. However, nothing compares with the overwhelming influence of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain imports on Persian pottery. From around 1600, a new boost to the porcelain trade came from the founding of the Dutch and English East Indies companies. Large quantities of porcelain, on its way to Europe from the Far East in their ships, were off-loaded in the ports of Iran. In response to this influx of Chinese porcelain, Persian potters made great efforts to simulate it.


Further Reading

This dish from the Aga Khan Museum Collection follows a Chinese model so closely that it might have passed for a Chinese original if the body had been translucent like porcelain. While the Persian potter had the skill to reproduce the Chinese designs, he did not have the clay—called kaolin—to make true porcelain. Instead, he created a brilliant white body from stonepaste, which is composed of finely ground quartz and a small amount of clay. This technique was invented by the potters of Egypt and Syria as early as the 12th century.

The Chinese model for this dish dates from the early Ming period (ca. 1410). The wide-based shape and bracketed rim were customary for Ming export porcelain. The lotus-bouquet of the central design, painted in cobalt blue with black outlining, is tied by a ribbon, the thin stems of the plant undulating as if in water. The Persian painter followed the model very closely, even simulating the “heaped-and-piled” brushwork—the use of dark and light variation in the cobalt pigment. The rim has the common Ming “cresting wave” border. The inner walls, as well as the exterior walls, are painted with a lotus scroll design, just as would have been done on the Chinese original. On the glazed base there is a black square with four small motifs inside it, resembling the Chinese reign marks (nianhao) often painted on the base by Ming potters.

The potter who made this dish worked in the city of Kerman, a major urban centre located in southeastern Iran, on one of the routes leading from the Persian Gulf toward the Safavid capital Isfahan. Kerman became a centre for the production of chinoiserie ceramics in the early 17th century. European travellers visiting at the time write of the finest wares originating here and at Mashhad, in northeastern Iran. Archaeological evidence has confirmed that Kerman did produce many types of fine Safavid ceramics. The Ming lotus-bouquet theme was a favourite among Kerman potters, though not all products were as successful a copy as this dish. The use of black lines and the square potter’s mark help us to date this dish ca. 1640, after which the Kerman potters abandoned the use of black outlines and traded the square potter’s mark for a blue tassel-like mark.

The fact that the dish uses a model already 200 years old and not a contemporary import raises the question of how this was possible. Potters could probably find early models in the antiquarian collections of the princes and aristocracy of Iran. Several large collections were assembled during the Safavid period, that of Shah Abbas (r. 1588–1629) at the shrine of Shaykh Safi (d. 1334) in Ardabil being the best known. Safi was a revered Sufi shaykh, the ancestor of the Safavids, after whom the dynasty took its name. His shrine with its porcelain collection was displayed in the splendid chini-khaneh (china pavilion) built by the Shah in 1604. Most likely several antique models caught the eye of the potter of this dish because he conflated different border designs, transforming the rocks of the “cresting wave” into a basket-weave pattern.

— Lisa Golombek

Crowe, Y. Persia and China: Safavid Blue and White Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum 1501–1738. London: La Borie, 2002. ISBN: 978-0953819614
L. Golombek, R.B. Mason, P. Proctor, and E. Reilly. Persian Pottery in the First Global Age: the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Leiden: Brill, 2014. ISBN: 978-9004260856