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UMMA’s Monumental Islamic Cenotaph Visits the Botanical Gardens

Cenotaph

Cenotaph
Syria
12th century
stone
UMMA, Gift of Thomas Curtis, 1960/2.2

The Verse of the Throne—Chapter 2, Verse 255 from the Holy Qur’an—is also known as the “Grand Verse.” Stately and poetic, it concisely outlines Islam’s fundamental monotheism by describing Allah as the supreme being whose power extends over the heavens and the earth. In 1960 UMMA was gifted a magnificent 12th-century limestone cenotaph, or funerary marker, from Syria with Arabic calligraphy excerpts from the Verse of the Throne, among others. Owing to its size and weight (more than three tons), the cenotaph remained in storage for many years before it was moved in 1992 to the grounds of UM’s elegant, yet still relatively inaccessible, Inglis House estate.

On the occasion of its recent cleaning and restoration, this historic monument to the dead will be reinstalled at the University’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens, where visitors will enjoy a rare chance to view it from April 2 through June 29, 2007. The 15 pieces that make up the work will reside in the Conservatory’s temperate greenhouse, with temperatures and humidity resembling Syria’s, near many plants from the Near East, including oleander, laurel, olive, and papyrus. A conceptual project designed by several UM graduate students in the Museum Studies Program studied how to meaningfully display and interpret the cenotaph relative to its position among the Gardens’ Mediterranean plant collections and in relation to Mecca.

Probably designed as a memorial to an important person, UMMA’s cenotaph deserves further study; in particular, deciphering the top script, which is somewhat deteriorated, may unlock the identities of the dead. The Verse of the Throne inscription girding the lower stones of the piece, though written in kufic script—the oldest form of Arabic calligraphy—incorporating complex floral motifs, was readily translated.