Allure of the Near East: Treasures From the Huntington Museum of Art, June 18 to August 21





Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will host a special traveling exhibition Allure of the Near East: Treasures from the Huntington Museum of Art featuring 45 exquisitely crafted items from a collection originally formed by Drs. Joseph and Omayma Touma. Glassware, ceramics, metalwork, weaponry and weaving illustrate the distinctive beauty of Near Eastern design through objects meant for daily life that are simultaneously beautiful and functional.

Allure of the Near East will bring a breathtaking selection of primarily Islamic decorative arts to Hagerstown—our first such exhibition since 1933,” said Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Executive Director Sarah Hall. “It also gives us an opportunity to showcase works in our collection that further illuminate the superb visual traditions of the Near East.”

The exhibition opens June 18 and runs through August 21. Museumgoers will see objects dating from the 7th century to the late 19th century. Many works are from what is now modern-day Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.

A special preview reception of Allure of the Near East: Treasures of the Huntington Museum of Art will be Thursday, June 16, from 6 to 8 p.m. Admission is $15 for museum members, $25 for non-members. A members-only and press event is set for Friday, June 17, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase tickets or to find out how to become a museum member, contact Donna Rastelli at or call 301-739-5727.  For more information about Allure of the Near East: Treasures of the Huntington Museum of Art go to

About the Exhibition

Huntington, West Virginia, residents Drs. Joseph and Omayma Touma had a passion for collecting objects that reminded them of their native Damascus, Syria, and the surrounding region. Over a span of 30 years, beautifully decorated and handmade items  —from brass globes, to arms and armor, rugs, jugs, vases, and objects associated with scholarship and learning— were added to their collection. Between 1991 and 2004, the Toumas donated 400 items from their collection to the Huntington Museum of Art so that, in a region of the country with few public collections of Islamic art, others would be able to enjoy the intricate and exquisite artistry of the region.

Although the exhibition features a diverse array of objects, there are some commonalities. In general these are items made for personal use, not large-scale and not created for display as art—but made to be both beautiful and useful—practical, but often superbly decorative. The works also illustrate some of the most prevalent aspects of Islamic design.

Islamic art is perhaps best known for the intricate, repetitive, decorative vining designs termed arabesques, which often cover large areas of vessels, tiles, manuscript pages, and other items. Because of the religion’s prohibition of idolatry (the worship of images or statues in human form)—a fabulous decorative tradition was born that prizes geometry, rhythm, order, and pattern—without concern for the representation of illusionary perspective and the depiction of “real” space. A vibrant turquoise, 13th century dish with an interior arabesque is a fine example of this visual tradition and also represents the ceramic tradition of the city of Kashan in Iran, where, in the 12th and 13th centuries, potters created both underglaze-painted wares , and fabulous luster wares. A calligraphic inscription around the rim consists of the word “glory,” which alludes to the patron’s self-identity and social status.

The use of ornamental calligraphy as decoration on some objects, such as this dish, showcases a variety of beautifully stylized Arabic scripts, and also points to the importance of literacy in a culture that prizes the word of Allah as recorded in the Qur’an. Scientific instruments in the exhibition, like a quadrant and astrolabe, also illustrate the importance of literacy and the cultural priority of education and scientific inquiry.

Although Islam forbids the use of iconography (human imagery) as part of its religious practices, images of people and animals are common in works made for secular purposes, as seen in the huqqa base discussed below and in other items on display, including ceramics featuring stylized birds and fish.

The exhibition includes several objects associated with religious ritual such as prayer carpets, including a stunning example from Tabriz, Iran, with imagery that alludes to both mosque architecture and the gardens of paradise. In this prayer rug, the dominant motif represents a mihrab, a prayer niche in a mosque. The warp, weft, and pile of this prayer carpet are made of silk. The mihrab depicted on this example has the rendering of a mosque lamp suspended in the blue field, referencing a verse from the Qur’an referring to the Divine Light of God.

The tradition of metal work is also well-represented in the exhibition, including the colorful and richly ornamented Huqqa Base illustrated above. The huqqa is a water-pipe used for smoking tobacco, long a custom in the Near East and India. This fabulously colored base imitates the shape of a Greek loutrophoros (ceremonial water vessel) in a stand. It is enameled with panels and cartouches containing flowers and female faces on blue and green reserves. Enameling, a technique in which powdered, colored glass is applied to a metal surface and fired, was introduced to Iran in the late 16th century, and it became quite popular to decorate objects with a broad palette of jewel-like colors.


The expression “Near East,” is likely not as generally familiar as the term Middle East, and in fact, like all such references (Near, Middle, and Far East) expresses a Eurocentric point of view, by describing the area’s geographic position relative to Europe. In the scope of this exhibition, Near East refers to lands wrapped around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, including the historic areas of Asia Minor, eastern Thrace, Palestine, Egypt, Transjordan, Mesopotamia, Iran, Transcaucasia, and Arabia.

The Near East’s long history unites a multitude of diverse peoples and civilizations, all of which have combined over the centuries into a rich mosaic of ethnicities and languages, religions and sects, economic systems, and living customs—as well as complex contrasts in geography, climate, arable land, and natural resources.

Allure of the Near East: Treasures of the Huntington Museum of Art is curated by Christopher Hatten, organized by the Huntington Museum of Art, and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. The Hagerstown presentation is made possible through the generous support of Robert & Marjorie Hobbs; Jim & Mindy Marsden; Paul & Lotta Mellott; and James and Mary Schurz Foundation, Inc.


Located In beautiful City Park, Hagerstown, Maryland, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1931, the legacy of Hagerstown native Anna Brugh Singer and her husband, Pittsburgh-born artist William Henry Singer, Jr. Featuring a collection of more than 6,000 objects, the Museum has important holdings of American painting, Old Masters, decorative arts, and sculpture. The museum schedules an ambitious program of exhibitions, lectures, concerts, tours, and talks featuring national and international artists, as well as a yearly showcase of the art of students in Washington County Public Schools. Its free youth art education programs have served four generations of local families.


Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is located at 401 Museum Drive, Hagerstown, Maryland. Free parking is available adjacent to the Museum. Hours are 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Tuesday – Friday; 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Saturday; 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Sunday; the museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.


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