Just the painting of a giant fruit bat with devil ears would be worth a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pteropus giganteus was painted in the late 18th century for a British couple in Calcutta.

Tucked into a corner, the creature could easily be overlooked in the stunning display of Islamic Art that has just reopened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after eight years of painstaking preparation.

Much expanded and now called the "Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia," they fill copious rooms on the second floor.

We follow the armies of Allah as they fanned out after the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D. from the Arabian Peninsula to Spain, the Middle East, Persia, southern India and other parts of Asia.

BIG CAT

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Animals abound, stitched into textiles, brushed into gold-tipped manuscripts, cast into bronze -- like the giant incense burner shaped into an imperious pussycat that once welcomed visitors to a Persian house in the 12th century. The head is detachable. The inscribed message is for all ages: "Happiness, prosperity, well-being."

There are about 1,200 pieces on view, one tenth of the Met's collections. Look for the quirky little soapstone chess set from the 12th century, with the king or shah represented as a throne.

We go from tiny to imposing by turning a corner.

The refreshing sound of a fountain draws us toward a paneled reception room from an early 18th century house in Damascus that has been reassembled. A rare tiled mihrab, or prayer niche, conjures up the glories of the Persian city of Isfahan.

BOOK OF KINGS

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The Safavid shahs of Persia, ancient Iran, found great delight in miniature paintings as well as grand architecture. That appreciation is reflected in the stunning Book of Kings, commissioned by Shah Tahmasp.

Several little pictures are in the museum's collections, thanks to the depraved actions of Arthur Houghton, a collector (and Met chairman) who more than 50 years ago blithely tore the book apart to sell off many individual plates.

One diverting picture shows an assassination; another an army of drunks painted with fairy-tale charm.

WONDERS OF GLUE

Gratitude is owed to the museum's curators for giving us access to the infinite complexities of Islamic art. That so much of such fragile beauty -- think of the glass -- has survived from regions so drenched in blood is often thanks to the delicate ministrations of the Met's conservators. Their restorative feats are also wondrous to behold.

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Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia

 

WHERE The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street

INFO Museum admission $25, 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org