Born in 1929 in Strasbourg, France, Oleg Grabar received his secondary education in Paris and completed his undergraduate work in history at the University of Paris and at Harvard University. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in Oriental Languages and Literatures and History of Art from Princeton University in 1955. Professor Grabar taught at the University of Michigan before moving to Harvard University where he was a Professor of Fine Arts and then the first Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture. In 1990, he retired from Harvard to become a professor at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Professor Grabar was the author of more than thirty books and over 100 articles. He held lectureships at several universities and institutions and received many awards including the Charles L. Freer Medal for the Study of Asian Art (2001); the College Art Association’s Annual Award for Excellence (2004); and an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of Michigan. During his academic tenure, he took on many additional responsibilities. He was the Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem; a member of the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the founding editor of the journal Muqarnas; and a member of both the Steering Committee (1978-1988) and the Master Jury (1989) of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture’s fourth Chairman’s Award is given to Oleg Grabar, distinguished scholar and teacher, in acknowledgement of the valuable contributions he has made to the study of the Islamic world’s architectural evolution, from the early Islamic period up to the present. Through his teaching, writings, and lectures, Oleg Grabar has greatly widened and enriched our understanding of the Islamic world’s architectural production, emphasizing its geographic and chronological diversity, as well as positioning it within the wider political, social, cultural and economic contexts.
Oleg Grabar has done more to define the field of Islamic art and architecture, than almost anyone else alive. The questions he has asked, the hypotheses he has proposed, and the theories he has developed over a career that now spans more than six decades, have shaped and defined the way we understand the Islamic world’s rich architectural heritage.
Grabar’s work is as broad as it is incisive. He has written seminal studies about Islam’s earliest monuments as well as some of its most recent ones, his interests ranging from North Africa and Spain to Iran and India. His work on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, The Great Mosque of Isfahan, and the Alhambra in Granada, to name but three of his more than thirty books, are standards in the field, and reveal his ability to work across cultures and time. And his 1973 publication, The Formation of Islamic Art, remains one of the most lucid and insightful investigations into the emerging culture of the new faith.
Grabar has often stated that he is less interested in answers than he is in raising questions. As a result, his work, while often definitive, is first and foremost an invitation to join him on a journey of intellectual discovery as he speculates on a wide range of issues from early Umayyad architecture to the latest buildings in the United Arab Emirates, from how the Ottomans and Safavids used the built environment to articulate their political agendas, to how contemporary societies define themselves through architecture.
In 1976, Grabar was one of the founding members of the Steering Committee of the Aga Khan Award in Architecture, and in 1981, he was instrumental in establishing - with His Highness the Aga Khan and William Porter - the joint program in Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard University and MIT. He has also served on the Master Jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and written extensively for the Award’s publications.
For all of Grabar’s renown as a scholar and advocate for the importance of Islamic art and architecture, his greatest legacy may be as an educator, first at the University of Michigan and then at Harvard University and the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Many of these students have gone on to become well respected scholars, educators, curators, architects and public officials, and they are a living testimony to Grabar’s fascination with the art and architecture of the Islamic world.
“Scholar, teacher, intellectual, and historian, Oleg Grabar has devoted his life to trying to understand and explain the complex forces that gave rise to an artistic tradition that now spans fourteen centuries. No one has done so with more aplomb and insight.
Grabar, Oleg. "Upon Reading al-Azraqi." In Early Islamic Art, 650-1100, volume I, Constructing the Study of Islamic Art. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005. First published in Muqarnas, 3 (1986), pp. 1-7.
Early Islamic Art, 650-1100 Part One: Origins and Context Chapter III: Upon Reading al-Azraqi