World of Wonders: the Aga Khan brings his treasure trove of Islamic artifacts to Toronto

World of Wonders: the Aga Khan brings his treasure trove of Islamic artifacts to Toronto

The Aga Khan Museum Click to see more of the museum. (Photograph courtesy of The Aga Khan Museum)

Anyone who drives in Toronto knows about the kink in the DVP—that bend below the Eglinton off-ramp where, however swiftly cars have been moving away from downtown, they inevitably slow to a crawl. It’s a pain if you have a pressing engagement north of the 401, but the spot affords a terrific view of the Aga Khan Museum, which hovers over the highway. Each day, thousands of captive drivers will turn their eyes to the gleaming white structure and think: hold on, when did Toronto get a castle from the future?

The museum, designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, is an imposing work of modernism, all chiselled angles and polished stone. It’s part of a new Islamic cultural campus on Wynford Drive—a $300-million gift to the city from the Aga Khan, spiritual leader to the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, who consider him a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. It’s also North America’s first museum dedicated to Islamic art, packed with 1,000 pieces from the Aga Khan’s personal collection of artifacts. The museum stands at the east end of the campus and faces an Ismaili community centre, its prayer hall capped by a torqued crystalline dome that points toward Mecca. Several acres of greenery surround and connect the buildings, including a formal garden with tidy rows of trees and five black granite reflecting pools. To say the sprawling site looks like nothing else in Toronto is an absurd understatement.

And its price tag is pocket change for Prince Karim Al Husseini Aga Khan IV (“His Highness” to most; “K” to his friends). The Geneva-born septuagenarian inherited the title in 1957 when his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, skipped over his own son—Prince Aly Khan, a famous playboy known for his marriage to Rita ­Hayworth—and selected Karim instead. Sixty years later, the Aga Khan’s personal fortune is estimated to be as high as $13 billion. He lives in a château near Paris, just a short drive from the historic Chantilly racetrack he restored, where he trains a hundred thorough­bred horses. He has a private island in the Bahamas, a $360-million superyacht and two ­Bombardier jets. And he oversees the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, a massive business empire of hotels, power plants, telecommunication companies and airlines, with annual revenues in the neighbourhood of $2.3 billion. The surplus—plus annual tithes from his followers, who are expected to hand over a portion of their income—is channelled into medical, educational and sanitation projects, and cultural conservation work spread around the world.

He originally intended to build his palatial art museum in London, England, but the plan fell through in 2002, when doctors at St. Thomas’s Hospital and King’s College medical school threatened to resign if the land went to the Aga Khan instead of the National Health Service. He quickly turned his attention to Canada, a country whose relationship with the Ismaili people spans four decades. When Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972, the Aga Khan phoned his friend Pierre Trudeau to ask for the safe passage of 5,000 Ismailis. That group has since grown to roughly 100,000, with about half of the population living in Ontario, most of them in Toronto.

The Aga Khan Museum Four highlights from the Aga Khan’s priceless collection (1: Dish) A 16th-century plate from Iznik, Turkey, hand-painted with tulips, carnations and roses. The bright, floral style is an Ottoman Empire trademark—it was replicated on textiles, tiles and carpets. (2: Horn) This ivory tusk was carved in 12th-century Sicily with depictions of animals derived from the Fatimid court in Egypt. Five centuries later, a British lord slapped on the garish silver mount and silver detailing as part of his daughter’s wedding present. (3: Astrolabe) The 14th-century astrolabe was engraved in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew, so just about everyone could navigate by the stars. (4: Folio) A leaf from the 16th century Iranian manuscript The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. The manuscript was broken up in the 1970s and dispersed among museums and collectors; now, UNESCO conventions exist to keep artifacts intact. (Photographs courtesy of The Aga Khan Museum)

Since the project was announced, the Aga Khan has linked his museum’s mandate to Toronto’s multi-ethnicity, underscored by the location in Don Mills. The neighbourhood has one of the largest Muslim populations in Canada and is home to a sizable South Asian community. The plot of land on Wynford Drive also offered the Aga Khan a rare luxury in Toronto: seven hectares of uninterrupted space.

And Fumihiko Maki has taken full advantage of the site. Directed by the Aga Khan to design a building around the concept of light, Maki positioned the museum at 45 degrees to true north, so sun bounces off each surface throughout the day. Approximately 300 items will be exhibited in the museum at any given time, with the selection rotating every few months. Much of the collection comes from his uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who began focusing on Islamic ceramics in the 1950s. The entire family were avid art buyers: the Aga Khan’s great-­grandmother collected ­illustrated manuscripts of Persian poetry, his father had a weakness for French Impressionists, and the current Aga Khan went through a Breugel phase. Some of the items came by boat, some by plane, some were brought from Geneva by Henry Kim, the museum’s director. “You’d be amazed what you can put in the overhead compartment,” he says.

By the entrance you’ll find copper-coloured leaves from ancient Qurans—one luminous page from a ninth-century north African manuscript, its warm gold script rolling over midnight-blue paint, is particularly dazzling. Further in, there’s a piece of 10th-century Iranian pottery with the inscription, “Beware of the imbecile: do not socialize with him,” which remains good advice. An ultramarine 16th-century Turkish dish is hand-painted with red, wind-tossed tulips, native to the Ottoman Empire. In the 1550s, the flowers caught the eye of an ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire, who introduced them to western Europe with a shipment of bulbs sent to a friend in Vienna.

One of the oldest surviving copies of the Canon of Medicine is displayed, though you won’t see its descriptions of cures and remedies—the fragile pages are hidden behind an overlay covered in Arabic script. The Persian physician and philosopher ­Avicenna completed the book in 1025, drawing from Chinese, Greek and Islamic scholarship. For more than 700 years, it ranked among the world’s most influential medical texts. Nearby, there is a Spanish planispheric astrolabe from the 14th century, an age of feverish scientific co-operation between Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars; its bronze face is inscribed with constellation names in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. These are lovely works of Islamic art, but they don’t exist in isolation: they’ve been chosen for the connections they reveal between cultures, showing how craft and ideas ripple back and forth.

It’s difficult to read the script on the pocket-sized astrolabe, but the ­museum’s discreet glass cases encourage patrons to get close. You can practically press your nose against a 600-year-old illustrated folio, its details painted with a single squirrel hair. It’s all very intimate, which makes stepping back outside the Aga Khan Museum a little ­jarring: it takes a moment to readjust to the vast campus and the building’s imposing size. But then you’re struck instead by the sheer calm of the sweeping modernist space. That kind of serenity is hard to come by in the world; it’s hard to come by in downtown Toronto. Finding it seems worth the hike to Don Mills.