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Broad frontiers


Islamic Art in the Mediterranean: Early Ottoman Art - The Legacy of the Emirates By Gönul Öney et al.Museum With No Frontiers, 2002. 244pp. £14.95. Distributed by Art Books International

'Travellers should only read after dark, ' says Robert Harbison in Eccentric Spaces, suggesting guidebooks can be as much of an impediment to perception as an aid, distorting personal responses to a building or site.

Come nightfall, however, it is volumes like this, the latest in a series from the Museum With No Frontiers (MWNF), that fit the bill.

Early Ottoman Art, devoted to the Turkey of the 14th and 15th centuries, is the companion to previous books on Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Portugal and Tunisia, all focusing on those countries' Islamic legacy. The Portuguese volume is subtitled 'In the Lands of the Enchanted Moorish Maiden', which sounds like something from Reader's Digest, but that is misleading. These guides aren't condescending; they are accessible but still quite scholarly.

The MWNF, established in 1995 and funded by the European Union, intends to make Europe, North Africa and the Middle East into 'a unique transnational museum where each country presents its history and cultural heritage from its own perspective'. The 'museum', then, is totally dispersed, its exhibits all left in situ. Each volume identifies key sites and links them in suggested itineraries.

Interspersed among the itineraries are stand-alone sections on such subjects as tiles and ceramics, burial traditions and architectural ornament. These are just the thing for 'after dark', but one must concede the books' daytime usefulness as well. There is enough information on each building to orient you, but - aside from the selection of sites in the first place - they are not prescriptive, valueladen catalogues in the manner of a Blue Guide. There are no coercive 'stars'; you are left to use your eyes. Plans are often but not always given, colour photographs are small but numerous and well-reproduced.

Also interpolated are italicised paragraphs with some practical information on transport, access, accommodation etc. 'Be especially careful driving on the road that stretches along the Söke Plain. There are tractors on the road loaded with cotton bales, many of which are poorly lit and marked, ' this Turkish volume warns. But such information remains rather sketchy; if you were travelling, you would also want a guide that was more devoted to practicalities, and that looked at other features of these places, outside the MWNF parameters.

Having said this, it is true that the cultural reach of these guides is often much broader than their stated agenda implies, because - as in Portugal, for instance - a site may be founded in Roman times, then Islamicised, and afterwards made Christian.

The Islamic can just be traces in a complex amalgam, or a question of subsequent influence, which is also considered.

Volumes on Palestine, Israel and Algeria (among others) are promised, which for now may be principally for armchair reading, thanks to Mr Bush - but the books certainly lend themselves to that.

For details of them and other MWNF publications, visit www. mwnf. org

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