Pioneering Cameleers – The Islamic Arts Museum

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Opened in 1998, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) has the region’s largest and finest collection of Islamic art and heritage. Located near the greenbelt of Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Garden opposite the National Mosque, the museum’s collection contains over 7,000 artifacts as well as an excellent Islamic arts library. Displays range from intricate jewellery to scale models of famous mosques throughout the world including the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. There is an emphasis upon Asia, India, China and South East Asia in the collection but the 12 galleries here are set up according to themes rather than geographical location. The museum, launched in 1998, is a modern building with Islamic architectural detail and four striking turquoise domes on the top of the building. These Persian Safavid-styled domes were designed and the ornate tiles cut by Isfahan artisans. These domes were inspired by the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan and the inverted dome on the inside of the museum is another significant feature.

Special attention has also been given to the western parts of China which are mostly Islamic. Among the displays in the museum are a 17th century Ching Dynasty Quran, ceramics with Arabic calligraphy as well as some unique Chinese scrolls.

Permanent galleries are based upon the following themes – Ceramics and Glassware, Arms and Armour, Textiles, Jewellery, Metalwork and Woodwork.

The Museum Restaurant is one of the city’s best kept culinary experiences where Middle Eastern cuisine is served for lunch. A museum shop sells an excellent range of souvenirs and books and there is a children’s library where special readings are conducted.

In addition to Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia’s permanent collection, several visiting exhibitions are staged every year with the next one being that of Australian Muslim cameleers. The vast and sparely-populated Australian outback has long been known for its mineral wealth, extraordinary animals and it’s endless, lunar-like landscape. Its history is just as interesting, but considerably less well known. Over 150 years ago, Australian explorers and pastoralists began opening up the interior and imported camels soon followed to assist in the transportation of goods across the semi-barren landscape that they began to settle and establish cattle stations. Skilled Muslim handlers from Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent accompanied the beasts. Even though the then Australian cameleers were known for their skills, it was their overseas counterparts who were acknowledged as being superior handlers of the beasts of the desert.

In 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills led their first expedition to explore the vast Australian interior. Accompanied by 24 camels and three cameleers they began a new chapter in the history of the continent’s arid and barren interior. Playing a significant role in opening the outback, the cameleers created vital lines for the supply of goods as well as communications between the remote settlements, mines and mission stations in the outback. With camel trains of cargo that included wool, cattle and minerals, these individuals were the real pioneers of the inland for over seven decades.

Many of the successful expeditions during the late 19th century included Afghan cameleers. In 1870 they proved their worth as the main suppliers for the trans-Australian railway and the Overland Telegraph Line construction teams. These enabled Australia to be connected to the rest of the world. Inland Australia continued to rely heavily on the cameleers’ services until increased motorisation made them virtually redundant during the 1920s and 1930s.

The development of outback Australia includes many untold stories of triumph over much great adversity. Many Afghan cameleers returned home after their contracts were complete but some stayed and married women of different ethnic origins while raising their children in the Islamic faith. They created small Muslim communities within the outback towns from Bourke to Broome and Cloncurry to Coolgardie. These highly skilled cameleers didn’t only bring their well-trained camels but also contributed to multiculturalism in a country that includes indigenous Aborigines and a migrant representation from many parts of the world. The first mosque built in Australia was constructed by these Afghan cameleers; now there are many mosques throughout the land.

This exhibition, curated by the South Australia Museum, is a tribute to some of the hardiest individuals in Australia’s often pioneering history. The artifacts on display portray the difficulties experienced in their lives in surviving in the harsh and inhospitable climate. They also highlight the complexity of their relationships and the importance of their faith. The IAMM is the first museum outside Australia to host the fascinating exhibition. This exhibition offers a rare insight into the intriguing but largely unknown story of human endeavour in the Australian outback and the important contribution the camaleers made to Australian multiculturalism.

The exhibition will be launched on the 20th October 2011 and will be open to the public from then until 20th January 2012. The museum’s opening hours are from 10am – 6pm, Mondays to Sundays, including public holidays.


Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia, Jalan Lembah Perdana, Kuala Lumpur.
Tel: +603.2274 2020


Source: The Expat October 2011 Issue

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