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Oleg Grabar (1929–2011)

Scholar, teacher, historian, and intellectual, Oleg Grabar was the son of Andre Grabar, an eminent historian of Byzantine art who had emigrated from Russia to France in 1922, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. Andre Grabar was a professor of art history at the University of Strasbourg, and his wife, Julie Ivanova, was a physician. Grabar was born in 1929 in Strasbourg, France (Necipoglu and Leal, 2011). Oleg Grabar was bilingual, a native speaker of both French and Russian; he later became fully proficient in English. Throughout his childhood, it was common for his family to switch languages during his family dinners (Hillenbrand, 2012a). Grabar was raised in a vibrant intellectual multilingual and cultural household. As an adult, Grabar had an impressive academic career. After finishing his secondary education in Paris at Lycee Claude Bernard and Lycee Louis-le- Grand, he completed three undergraduate degrees at the University of Paris: he read ancient history (1948), medieval history, and modern history and received his certificats de licence. (1950). He moved with his father to the United States in 1948 and attended Harvard University where he received an AB magna cum laude in medieval history (1950). Grabar continued his postgraduate education obtaining an MA (1953) and PhD in Oriental languages and literature and history of art from Princeton University (1955). He also spent an academic year (1953-1954) as a fellow at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (Mostafavi, 2011).

In 1954, Grabar began his teaching career at the University of Michigan (IIS, 2018); he taught in the Department of the History of Art and became a full professor there in 1965. After being offered a post at Harvard University, he taught there as a professor of fine arts until 1980. In 1976, Grabar and William Porter, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, and Garr Campbell, a landscape architect based in Boston, met together with His Highness the Aga Khan to discuss past and contemporary Islamic architecture (al-Asad, 2011). The proceedings of this eventful meeting culminated in the creation of the chair for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Also, with William Porter, in 1981, a joint programme of Islamic art and architecture was established between Harvard University and MIT In 1981, Grabar was named the first Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture (Archnet, 2018). He was also the founding editor of the journal Muqarnas (1979-1990), a publication dedicated to promoting an understanding of the importance of Islamic art and archaeology (Grabar, 1983). Furthermore, he was named as a member of the steering committee (1978-1988) and the master jury (1989) of the AKAA, thus becoming a valuable contributor to the formation and decision-making aspects of the organisation.

The fourth Chairman’s Award of the AKAA was given to Grabar in Doha on the 23rd of November 2010 for his contribution to the study of the evolution of Islamic art and architecture from the beginning to contemporary times (Necipoglu and Leal, 2011). Grabar was the first non-architect or non-planner to receive this award after architects Hassan Fathy, Rifat Chadirji, and Sir Geoffrey Bawa. He was nominated because of his extraordinary qualities as a scholar and teacher who had dedicated his entire career to educating others on the richness, value, and importance of Islamic art and architecture (Grabar, 2011). Thanks to his research and publications, Grabar was able to inculcate in scholars, historians, and architects a deeper understanding and appreciation of the geographic and chronological diversity of the Islamic styles. He continually and coherently shared his knowledge, expertise, and love of Islamic architecture with others, making it relevant and accessible by describing it in its wider international political, social-cultural, and economic context (Archnet, 2018). For Grabar, the Aga Khan Award was an opportunity to bring together brilliant minds from around the world, as well as art historians and those who focused mainly on the past, to enable them to connect with the real world and contextualise the significance of historical forms with the contemporary. As a member of the steering committee of the Aga Khan Award, Grabar affirmed that the main purpose of the organisation was to ensure that the quality and uniqueness of Islamic architecture was maintained and recognised (Grabar, 2011).

Due to his dedication to Islamic art and architecture and in recognition of his lifetime of scholarly and academic achievements, Grabar received numerous awards and prizes.9 He was affiliated with a number of international organisations; for example, he was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Medieval Academy of America, and an honorary member of the Austrian Academy, as well as a corresponding member of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres of the Institut de France and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy. Apart from his full-time position as a university professor, Grabar also lectured at numerous institutions (Mostafavi, 2011): Columbia University, Oberlin College, New York University, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Institut du Monde Arabe, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the College de France, Florida State University, Indiana University, and Bogazici Universitesi, Turkey. In 1990, after he left Harvard as a professor emeritus, he began teaching at the school of historical studies at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. Eight years later, in 1998, he retired from Princeton as professor emeritus (IIS, 2018). After a long and eminent career as an educator and historian of Islamic art and architecture, Oleg Grabar passed away on the 8th of January 2011 at the age of eighty-one, leaving behind a distinguished legacy of valuable contributions to furthering a better understanding of the invaluable heritage of Islamic art and architecture, thus helping to transform the study of Islamic cultures in the West. Grabar trained and “prepared generations of art historians and museum directors who followed his lead to create new disciplines within the field of Islamic studies, expanding its scope far beyond the rather narrow limits he encountered when he entered the field” (Grimes, 2011).

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