“Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads” – Visit the Aga Khan Museum’s Marquee Exhibition Before it Closes on Sunday, February 27, 2022


The Aga Khan Museum will be open between February 18 and February 27, 2022 as follows:

OPEN: February 18, 19, 20 as well as Monday 21 (Family Day) from 10 am–5:30 pm;
CLOSED: February 22, and 23 ; and
OPEN: February 24, 25, 26 and 27th from 10 am-5:30pm

Torontonians as well as visitors to the city have their last opportunity to visit the Aga Khan Museum to see a very informative exhibition entitled “Hidden Stories: Books along the Silk Roads” before its final day, Sunday, February 27. The exhibition opened on October 9, 2021 but Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the province forced the museum’s closure for the month of January 2022. The museum has reopened once again. During one of its opening windows, I made it a point to spend some time to see and learn about the Silk Road, with a view to putting together a review of the exhibition for Simerg. I was lucky with my timing, as the co-curator, Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip, accompanied me to see the exhibition. She kindly provided me with links to materials which gave me interesting insights into specific objects.

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The Aga Khan Museum Exhibition Hidden Stories – Books Along the Silk Roads concludes its Toronto run on Sunday, February 27, 2022. Photo: Simerg

I would urge members of the Islamic community as well as all other communities living in and around Toronto to visit this all inclusive marquee exhibition which is housed on the 2nd floor of the Aga Khan Museum. Children and youth will gain rich perspectives about the Silk Roads, a 6,400 km path that has for thousands of years covered a vast area that comprised the Old World of Europe, North and East and West Africa and the Middle East into Persia, Central Asia and the Indian sub- continent and China.

The term Silk Road was coined by a German geographer and traveler Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 C.E. It has been explained by the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative as “not simply a network of transportation routes. It is not only a geographical space. It is also a concept that illustrates the way that commodities, empires, religions, and even music, have traveled throughout Eurasia for thousands of years. The Silk Road is the idea that there is not a divide between “West” and “East” but an ongoing historical exchange of human experience.”

This vision of the Silk Road is clearly illustrated in the exhibition through the richness and diversity of the objects that are on display representing different cultures, faith and communities. The curators — Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip (in-house curator) and Dr. Suzanne Conklin Akbari — have achieved a remarkable balance in this regard by treating and honouring different traditions and cultures respectfully and in a dignified manner.

A visitor to the exhibition will see on display an excellent collection of the various texts and books, prepared by the cultures that highlight the “Hidden Stories” along the Silk Roads. These works are handwritten in the many languages and scripts of the Far East, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and Europe that evolved along the Silk Roads. The scribes of the different religions and cultures along the Silk Roads also used various writing instruments and inks that were displayed to write their various “Hidden Stories”. To illustrate the power of these scribes, there is an interesting 1492 quote by Jami displayed in the exhibition: “The Pen is a key that opens the Door to the necessities of Life” below which is a glass case containing a few of the writing materials.

As one enters the exhibition, the first text on display is an Islamic Prayer Book (Dala’il al – Khayrat) originating from India, probably Kashmir, around 1818 CE. Co-curator Dr. Çakır Phillip notes: “This is the first object you see in the exhibition. With its fusion of Iranian and Indian influences, the prayer book embodies the powerfully creative cultural connections that formed across the Silk Roads over the centuries. Its patterned textile-inspired cover celebrates the intersection of textiles and text, two of the most important commodities to be transported across the Silk Roads network.”

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Prayer Book (Dala’il al – Khayrat). Photo: © Aga Khan Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.5 CA.

Other faiths are also well represented in the exhibition. A Burmese book of Buddhist scriptures (Kamawa-sa) includes selections written in Pali from the Tipitaka (literally, ‘three baskets’) of Therevada, the most ancient form of Buddhism. Costly and ornate Kamawa-sa were written on cloth or palm leaves in chunky, square tamarind seed script, and offered as gifts to a monastery to commemorate the taking of religious vows. Reflects co-curator Dr. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, “I’m struck by the individual human experience and the materials that would have been on the human body, passing through time, actually becoming part of the book. Another aspect I’m charmed by is the beautiful script it’s written in. I point this out because Hidden Stories features a wide range of scripts but also many different script formats. This one is a striking example of a graphic format that contrasts with others you see in the exhibition.”

An example of a devotional anthology, featuring carbon black ink and pigments on paper with a textile covering, includes the Song of the Lord (Bhagavad Gita) and other works, produced in Kashmir in the 17th–19th century CE. The contents (Sanskrit text and Hindu iconography), materials (Islamic burnished paper and Indian textiles), and format (Islamic-style binding) of this manuscript containing the Hindu, Bhagavad Gita, all illuminate the fecund encounter of Persian and South Asian cultures in the valley of Kashmir. This manuscript also tells a complex story of book technology and cultural entanglement. Micro-CT (Computed Tomography) analysis confirms that its exquisite Indian mashru fabric, imported from Gujarat, extends around the whole cover, beneath the plain overlayer. The book has an Islamic-style pentagonal flap binding, but because Sanskrit is read in the opposite direction from Arabic and Persian, the flap wraps around on the right rather than the left. “Like so many of the objects in Hidden Stories, this beautiful volume takes us back to a particular time and place — in this case, to Kashmir in Mughal India, where we have whole range of traditions bumping up against each other. In this book format, we see Muslim and Hindu devotional practices and Sanskrit and Persian languages interacting with each other in a highly creative way,” noted Dr. Akbari.

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Islamic prayer mat Aga Khan Museum Silk Road, Simerg
Islamic prayer rug from the M. M. Wolf Collection. Photo: Aga Khan Museum.

Among the rare manuscripts on display, is a Prayer Sheet (Avalokiteśvara) from Dunhuang, China, dated August 4, 947 CE. This is a woodblock print on paper. This Buddhist prayer sheet was produced to celebrate the annual Ghost Festival and is a rare survivor among hundreds of identical prints featuring Avalokiteśvara, a form of the Boddhisatva of compassion. In the early 11thh century, this print was enclosed behind a wall along with over 60,000 books and documents from the 5th to the 11th centuries in the Mogao Caves, in the western Chinese city of Dunhuang. The so-called ‘library cave,’ containing manuscripts and printed works in languages ranging from Judeo-Persian to Sanskrit to Tibetan, was rediscovered only in 1900. “This sheet is remarkable because, along with the pages of the Mishnah Torah it will be displayed alongside, it is one of the oldest objects in the exhibition. It’s beautiful how they function together in the sense that, while they’re from very different places and very different confessional traditions, they both date from so long ago. Because an exact date is printed on the sheet, it connects us through time to the people who printed it, as well as the people who saw it and who celebrated the festival,” writes Dr. Akbari.

Among the Christian works, is a Choir Book of ink and paint on parchment, wood cover with metal from Spain, 16th century CE. This choir book or ‘antiphoner’ includes chants for the Christian Holy Week of Easter. It is so heavy that it must be moved by two people. The enormous book would have been displayed open so that its monumental notation could be seen by all singers. This copy, animated in the micro-CT display in the exhibition, features wheel-shaped bosses on its cover, protecting against damage and perhaps evoking the emblematic wheel of St. Catherine. “The choir book is such an enchanting object to see in person because it’s incredibly large,” says Dr. Akbari. She further states that “unlike a small prayer book, a large volume like this one wasn’t intended for an individual’s private contemplation. The reason why it’s so big is precisely so multiple people could read and sing the notes at the same time. So when we think about the book, the book is a private space, but it’s also a shared space. And the choir book emphasizes that shared quality very effectively.”

Another unique item is a marriage contract (Hebrew, Ketubah) of David ben Shabettov and Serula bat Samuel, who were married in 1797 in Greece when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. This Jewish marriage contract details the groom’s financial obligations to the bride in the event of divorce or widowhood, and was designed to be displayed in the couple’s home. “This object represents so many cultures and traditions in a harmonious way. It is a Jewish marriage contract, it originates in Greece, and it showcases a luxurious Ottoman style. It is also very interesting because it speaks to relationships between men and women, and in particular, the roles and rights of women in the society,” noted Dr. Çakır Phillip.

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Robe from Central Asia. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection. Photo: Simerg

The exhibition also includes a display of the textiles that also travelled along the Silk Road. The curators selected a wool, woven, felted, and embroidered Robe from Central Asia. The luxurious robe tells four different stories. It shows the court of wise King Solomon, illustrating his marvellous ability to understand the languages of all creatures, followed by that of the Abbasid caliph Haroun al-Rashid, offering a 9th century model for exemplary rule. “With this piece, we wanted to emphasize the oral tradition and how knowledge and stories that were recorded in books were also implemented in other media such as paintings, mosaics, and embroidery. This piece is also fascinating because it consists of four stories from four different geographies and time periods, demonstrating wonderful connections between cultures and artistic traditions,” explains Dr. Çakır Phillip.

The Silk Road was also a major source of Eastern carpets. These were in great demand in other parts of the Middle East and Europe. The curators selected a wool, pile woven carpet from Azerbaijan, dated to the 19th century CE. The carpet illustrates the “inner workings” of the Silk Road. The lustrous wool carpet design seen in the exhibition is called shadda, a very ancient form with many different styles keyed to function, whether celebrating a holiday or wedding, or simply defining household space. Here, 22 Bactrian camels appear at the carpet’s centre, while 33 more run around its border. Almost 100 small animals — Siberian tigers, deer, dogs — draw the viewer’s eye from left to right in this striking design, creating a sense of energetic movement. “When we began talking about books and the Silk Roads network, my immediate question was about how trade happened over the centuries. On the Silk Roads, luxury goods, books, and other materials were most often carried on camelback. So I was fascinated to find this beautiful 19th century carpet from the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Collection. It is very rich and it manifests the importance of the camel to this entire vast geography,” noted co-curator Dr. Çakır Phillip.

The Silk Road was also a major source of valuable personal items. An example is the Ethiopian Amulet Scroll. This item was used for protection against illness, difficult childbirth, and the evil eye.  This Ethiopian amulet scroll (Amharic, kitab; Arabic for ‘book’) was created by an ordained minister (Amharic, debtara) from pieces of parchment tailored to the height of the owner’s body. Inscribed with healing prayers, talismans, and images of armed angels, amulet scrolls like this one might be placed in a leather case to be worn or hung on a wall, and could also be wrapped around the body of the deceased as a form of prayer.

As co-curator Dr. Akbari explains, “An amulet scroll in this tradition brings out the way that books can be extremely personal. It was meant to bring health and wellbeing to the person who owned it. Their name appears on the scroll along with individually selected prayers and invocations, and the scroll would often be made to the length of the owner’s body as a way of creating a stronger correspondence between the sacred object and the person it was designed for. It’s a fascinating example of the book both as text and as an object imbued with a very particular kind of power.”

Jewellery was another important item traded along the Silk Road. The exhibition displays a silver, fire-gilded and cased, with niello inlay, decorative wire, and table-cut carnelians, cordiform (heartshaped) pendant, from Turkmenistan, Teke, mid-to-late 19th century CE.  Inner Asia is famous for the jewelry of its more than 30 Turkmen tribes, produced in silver, decorated with talismanic inscriptions, and adorned with carnelian or turquoise. Each element — metal, writing, and precious stones — is carefully chosen to offer protection and healing. Writes Dr. Çakır Phillip, “When we think of books, we think of reading in libraries or offices or while we are sitting on the subway. This piece, however, speaks to the practice of carrying a text on your body for protection from evil and misfortune. The cordiform’s tubes would have contained scrolls with verses from the Qur’an or other holy texts. I was fascinated by the fact that it would have been carried not on a person’s chest but on their back, where they are more vulnerable.”

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An informative and educational timeline of the Silk Road spread out on a wall at the Aga Khan Museum’s “Hidden Stories: Books along the Silk Road.” Photo: Clip from Aga Khan Museum’s virtual gallery exhibition.

There are also other educational items of interest for benefit of visitors. For the Book and the Body theme, there is displayed a green wrapping shawl, titled “the Quran in the Cloth” dated 1718 CE, originating from Mughal India. Similarly there are examples of Amulet holders from Central Asia where written inscriptions of verses on paper parchment from various Holy Scriptures can be inserted for protection and healing purposes.

As one departs the exhibition, there is a video display entitled Seeing Ghosts: Computed Tomography (CT) and the Study of Historical Books. This section represents an interesting aspect at the exhibition as it underscores the utilization and interaction of new modern 21st Century X-ray scanning technology to read and analyse the collection of books and manuscripts that were written or printed along the Silk Road over 1000 or more years ago. In this section, the visitor is familiarized as to how Micro-CT, a technology similar to the X-ray scans, used for looking at the internal structures of the human body, is used to examine the structures and pages of centuries old manuscripts and texts. Among the texts reviewed using this technology were the Canon Grandels’s Prayer Book, the Choir Book, the Bhagavad Gita as well as a manuscript of Rumi.

In conclusion, I wish to make a few personal observations. The founder of the museum himself, Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, has visited many places along the Silk Road. The first important visit was in 1981 when he attended a seminar on the Changing Rural Habitat in Beijing, China, organized by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. During this visit he also visited the Silk Road cities of Xian, Urumchi and Kashgar where he was warmly greeted by the local communities. In subsequent years, the 49th Ismaili Imam has made numerous visits to the regions of the Silk Road including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Indeed in 2000, His Highness founded the University of Central Asia through an International Treaty signed by him and the Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan. It was ratified by their respective parliaments and registered with the United Nations.

And in 2002, for the first time in its 36 year history, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC had a single and remarkably ambitious theme: The Silk Road. The festival was in large part supported by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and turned the National Mall into a mammoth visual representation of the Silk Road.

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Aga Khan in China at Great Mosque of Xian.
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, at the Great Mosque of Xian with the Imam of the Mosque Mr. Mohamed Yunis during his visit to China in October 1981. Xian was an ancient imperial capital and an eastern departure point of the Silk Road. Formerly Chang’an, Xian has long been an important crossroads for people from throughout China, Central Asia, and the Middle East, and thus a hub of diverse ethnic identities and religious beliefs. Photo: Alnoor Magazine, December 1981, published by the Aga Khan Ismaili Council and Association for Portugal.
Large crowds at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival held along the National Mall in Washington DC during the summer of 2002. The festival was dedicated to the The Silk Road and was inaugurated in the presence of His Highness the Aga Khan. Photo: The Smithsonian Institution.
Aga Khan discusses Nasir Khusraw's work by Alice Hunsberger's with Tajikistan's President Rahmon
Tajikistan’s President Rahmon and Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, pause in the library of the new Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe during its opening on October 12, 2009. They engage over Alice Hunsberger’s book “Nasir Khusraw: The Ruby of Badakhshan.” Nasir Khusraw lived over a thousand years ago in the region that is modern Tajikistan.

More than a 1000 years ago during the reign of the Aga Khan’s ancestors, the Fatimids in Egypt, a Persian Ismaili traveller, Nasir Khushraw, made a voyage to Cairo between 1046 and 1052 AC. He documented his journey in a book called Safarnama which was first translated into English in the mid 1980’s by Wheeler Thackston under the title “Naser-e Khosraw’s Book of Travels.” A multi-part series of Nasir Khusraw’s travels focusing on his Hajj to Mecca by Michael Wolfe was also published on this website. Being fascinated with the translated works of Nasir Khushraw by Thackston, Wolfe and Alice Hunsberger over the past several decades, I had hoped that I would be able to view a manuscript of one of his works at the Aga Khan Museum’s exhibition.

I came out of “Hidden Stories” richly informed about the diverse and pluralistic nature of the Silk Road by seeing the display of books/texts, textiles, carpets, ornaments, clothing, writing material and many other objects. They provide a unique glimpse of the knowledge and technological contributions of the many peoples, cultures and religions that comprised the Silk Roads.

I highly recommend that you to visit this extraordinary exhibition. I would also suggest that during your visit to the Museum, you step out and walk through the Aga Khan Park to see the large sized photographic panels by a British photographer’s 2019 journey from Venice to Beijing.

Date posted: February 17, 2022.
Last updated: February 18, 2022 (see corrections below).

CORRECTIONS: The original version of this piece contained (1) typo errors, (2) incorrect dates on the closure and re-opening of museum; and (3) the map of the Silk Roads that was shown depicted the journey of the British photographer whose works are displayed at the Aga Khan Park. Simerg apologizes for these errors.


Zahir Dharsee

About the author: Zahir Dharsee came to Toronto, Ontario, Canada from East Africa in 1974. Zahir is a retiree from the Federal Public Service. He is currently pursing a Masters of Arts degree in History, at York University in Toronto. His area of specialization is researching the British Empire and its Colonization and Immigration policies and objectives. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario.

Before leaving this website please take a moment to visit Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also, visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Malik, the publisher/editor of the 3 websites may be contacted at mmerchant@barakah.com.

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