Nestled in Austria’s Salzkammergut Lake Region – between the edge of Hallstätter See and the towering Dachstein mountains – is the town of Hallstatt one of Austria’s oldest and most likely most photographed village in the region. Its 16th-century Alpine houses cast shimmering reflections onto the calm waters of the lake with towering mountains on all sides. Accessible only by boat or mountain trail, the lakeside town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also home to almost 800 residents. Towards the west, a trail leads hikers to the Echern Valley famous for its glacial potholes and Waldbackstrub Waterfall.
For centuries, the village has benefitted from a very sought-after commodity below the surface of the earth: salt. The Hallstatt mines – Salzwelten – is possibly the world’s oldest salt mines with a subterranean salt lake. Connected via a funicular railway, it is said to have been discovered as early as the 15th century and was used until modern times as the most important location for mining in the region. A particular feature here is the “Man in Salt”, a corpse that was discovered in 1734, perfectly preserved with his tools.
At an elevation of 1,677 ft above sea level, the Lake Hallstatt is about 125 meters deep and connects three other small towns. People come to admire the lake from the top, swim in its clear water, or take a boat ride as part of discovering the history of Hallstatt and the Salzkammergut surroundings.
The Dachstein Skywalk, located at an altitude of about 2,700 meters, allows visitors to see over Austria to Slovenia and the Czech Republic on a good day. Voted as one of the highest suspension bridge in Austria, this viewing platform is completely made of glass.
A short cable car ride, plus a 20 minutes walk brings you to the entrance to the Dachstein ice cave. An organised tour of the cave lasting one hour shows you the natural wonders of the ice forms and the man-made ice sculptors including the Grais Castle, Parsifal Cathedral, and the Tristian Cathedral. Annually, more than 150,000 people visit this natural wonder of the alps.
When we think of Austria, instantly visions of classical music, the alps and good coffee come to mind. But in order to introduce the Malaysian public to a lesser-known part of Austrian cultural history, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) and the Austrian Embassy in Malaysia, alongside the IRPA (Hochschulstudiengang für das Lehramt für Islamische Religion an Pflichtschulen) and Al Hamra Publication presented a unique exhibition entitled ‘OstarrichIslam: Islam in Austria.’
The exhibition is a historical documentary inspired by the distinctive yet controversial history of Islam in Austria. Its storyline is based on the book Ostarrichislam: Fragmente Achthundertjähriger Gemeinsamer Geschichte (Ostarrichislam: Fragments of 800 Years of Shared History), published by Al Hamra and edited by Amena Shakir, Gernot Galib Stanfel and Martin M. Weinberger of IRPA.
First tracing the arrival of the Pechenegs (a semi-nomadic Turkic people from Central Asia) in Austria in 996 AD, who resided in the Hungarian plain, the exhibition then follows the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars. Finally, it addresses the ruling of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the immigration of Muslims from other countries, especially from the Balkans.
The Habsburg Empire, which was nominally Catholic, dealt with several religions during its rule. Since 1867, respective religious groups had the right to join public religious practice, as well as the independent administration of relevant internal affairs. However, they were all subject to state law. In order for the different religious groups to maintain equilibrium, without discriminating Islam, the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph introduced the Islamgesetz (Islamic Law), which guaranteed the equal treatment of Muslims and Islam within an “Austrian System”.It succeeded in dividing the Islamic Dschemat (Islamic Society) into different administrative units (Dschamija), which presided over a total of eight muftiates and the chief scholar (Reis-ul-Ulema). The law also enabled the foundation of the Islamic Religious Community in 1979. Thus, the legal model of a modern European society was created, which gives Islam its place, recognises its value and is aware of its contributions.
Stanfel expressed his delight for this exhibition, saying, “Austria is primarily seen as a country that has no connection with Islam other than the history of the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans. Moreover, the connection between Islam and Austria is less known to the general public including those in Austria. Hence, we hope this will educate people on the story of Islam in Austria. We also would like to show how much Islam has influenced the Austrian culture, the fact that this history is not really known in Austria too.”
The harmonious after-effect of clashes between Islam and Austria has significantly infused Islamic tradition into Austrian culture. Therefore, influences of Islamic art and aesthetics can be seen through the architecture, with the use of domes and geometric designs.
There are 805 out of 1233 graves at Lebring in Styria, belongs to the Bosnian Muslims soldier who fought for Austria during the First World War.
Stanfel explains, “Something that starts as unfamiliar has become something close to home and become part of our own. The Islamic element in Austrian culture does not happen in one way, but various ways such as immigration, trade, cultural contacts and also violent ways like war.”
Through the exhibition, Stanfel wishes to show how a religion influences a culture even though both are not connected – a fact that is very important in this globalised world, where cultures and religions constantly come together in many ways and are not fixed to geographic locations.
The exhibition, OsterrichIslam: Islam in Austria, was displayed at the IAMM from 13 October to 31 December 2016.