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Arts, Artifacts and, Iconography

Session X-18, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • One of the major achievements during the late Ayyubid period (1169-1260) and, especially, Mamluk period (1250-1517) in Syria and Egypt was that of gilded and enamelled glass productions. These objects were highly priced and in great demand by sultans and emirs alike. This type of glass enjoyed great popularity not just within Islamic lands but also in Europe where it inspired Venetian artisans and was exported in high numbers to European noble families, as well as church treasuries. Among the most complex and religiously most significant objects were hanging glass lamps which were used to light the interior of mosques, shrines and Qur’anic schools in Cairo and Damascus. Using traditional iconographic analysis, these mosque lamps are often described as precious objects endowed by sultans and emirs as pious gestures and status symbols. They had their names and emblems copied on the lamps so that they would shine as long as the lamps were hung and lit. Vibrant colors and ornamental decoration are the main source to extract meaning of these Islamic glass productions. However, it is rarely remarked that these systems of interpretation were initially developed for understanding Western, typically European, visual culture. This approach to Islamic art is also employed by museums which reduce these art objects for a purely aesthetic experience, restricting their presentation to an exploration of style and technique, thereby emphasizing the material visibility of the object. This museum vision is at odds with Islamic visuality which, contrary to Western visuality, is sutured by worldly and otherworldly invisibility—al-ghayb. In order to reveal the meaning—the Islamic visuality—of these objects, it is inevitable to consider the inscription of the “Light Verse” on the objects themselves by consulting the contemporary sources of the lamps, the exegesis of Ibn Kathir. Investigating these objects through their Islamic visuality, it becomes apparent that these mosque lamps are the material translation of the godly 'Nūr' (Light) that surrounds the believer in places of worship while leaving the outside world to darkness. The Light-Over-Darkness, the main theme of these lamps, recalls the strong Islamic belief of knowledge over ignorance. Therefore, these mosque lamps invite, remind, and direct the believer––seemingly being a product 'finito'––through the process 'non finito' of seeking knowledge. The museum and academic scholarship has to establish the conditions for communicating Islamic visuality, especially at times when de-orientalizing, decoloniality, deconstructing is high on agenda.
  • In 1929, Bey Halil Ethem, the director of the Topkapi Palace, found a map in a bundle of disregarded materials. After passing through several hands, the map landed with German Orientalist Paul Kahle, who identified it as a partial 1513 portolan chart of the world by Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis. Though not the first map of the Americas, it gained notoriety for its supposed accuracy of the South American coastline; a claim contested by several authors. A superlative more pressing for this study is that this map is the earliest illustrated map of the Americas. Piri Reis painted mythological creatures, monkeys, snakes, and mountains on the South American continent, hinting at the early approaches to an unknown land. Through these images and the accompanying inscriptions, Piri Reis’ portrayal of the Americas personified was consistent with that of historical boundary regions. Piri Reis appropriated images commonly associated with sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Asia to South America, all of which are considered the “outer boundary” of the world in Europe’s eyes. Violence and material wealth were emphasized on behalf of the residents of the Americas, and mythological creatures seen residing in the New World arrived from Africa, Scandinavia, or China. If someone were to regard descriptions of the Americas as factual, they would infer that those living there existed at a time in the past, removed from “society” as defined by Europe. Piri Reis’ approach here parallels that of Orientalist painters in the mid-nineteenth century, tending to associate the outside “other” with material wealth, naivety, and residing in a past. In this paper, I argue that Piri Reis displayed the Americas both in and beyond the degree of Orientalism, combining both the tradition of how China, Sub-Saharan Africa, and India were depicted in antiquity with that of Asia Minor, North Africa, and Greece during the modern era. He portrayed a society as viewed by the majority in which the humans that are in the “outside” are “lesser,” or the semi-human “other.” I further posit that this approach to depicting the “outside” is consistent with trends by other Ottoman cartographers.
  • During the first fifty years of French colonial rule in Algeria, French scholars, military Orientalists of the Arab Bureaux, and Catholic priests established the region’s earliest archaeological museums. Seeking to protect artifacts from looting and destruction, these actors curated small museological collections largely without funding or oversight from the colonial administration in Algiers or the Ministre de l’Instruction Publique et Beaux-Arts in Paris. But they did rely heavily upon the support of Arabo-Berber residents of Algeria. Arabic and Berber individuals can be found in the early histories of the museums published by the French Ministre de l’Instruction Publique et Beaux Arts, as well as journals published by the Société historique algérienne. They conducted private archaeological excavations, donated objects to museum collections, provided buildings to house nascent institutions, and translated and transcribed Arabic inscriptions in museum collections. This paper seeks to bring those contributions to light, highlighting the means by which indigenous Algerians contributed to Algeria’s nineteenth-century museum culture. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, colonial administrators and metropolitan bureaucrats sought to consolidate Algerian archaeological artifacts from communal and regional museums into one flagship historical museum in Algiers, which would become the Musée national des antiquités algèriennes. In addition to physically moving artifacts to an institution miles away from their original locations, this act also reinforced social and cultural barriers that prevented Arabo-Berber Algerians from accessing their cultural property. While the language of cultural restitution often assumes that artifacts have been physically removed and taken to Europe, I argue that even those artifacts that remained within the borders of the colony were subject to colonial looting. Although indigenous actors actively supported the creation of local museological institutions, which generally did not impede their ability to view and study artifacts and artworks, the French-style Musée national des antiquités algèriennes was plagued by imperial strictures restricting indigenous access to cultural property. This paper hopes to prove through the example of nineteenth-century Algeria that the current scholarly and popular concept of cultural restitution must expand beyond a simple discussion of returning objects from one country to another. Rather, we must critically reexamine individual institutions – particularly those in the former colonies - to understand and effectively dismantle their colonial legacies for the future.
  • Manuscripts and manuscript notes have recently garnered a great deal of attention from scholars in helping us better understand the scholarly practices of the pre-modern Islamic world. Some of the manuscripts which we have access to today previously were the personal textbooks of scholars. As such, these manuscripts are full of side notes and comments written by these medieval scholars and reflect what they themselves understood of their subject of study, what they found most interesting in their studies, and how they went about learning them. Scholarship on the history of science used to perceive commentaries and super-commentaries as a sign of decadence and decline of a civilization’s scientific output. Fortunately, however, scholars of Islamic science and philosophy have recently dedicated some long overdue attention to these commentaries. At the same time, Digital humanities as a field has witnessed an efflorescence in the past few years, from which Islamic Studies has benefitted as well. Bringing these two trends together, in this paper I will analyze the marginalia of two manuscripts of Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Urmawī’s (d. 1294 CE) al-Risālah al-Sharafīyah, a treatise on the science of music. For my analysis of the marginalia of the manuscripts I will utilize Digital Humanities tools and distant reading techniques such as word frequency modules, topic modelling, and semantic network analysis, that organize and visualize the data in a way that is markedly different from the more traditional close reading exercises. The aim of my presentation is to showcase some of the advantages that these techniques introduce to the field of Islamic Studies and lay the groundwork for future large-scale projects of studying manuscript marginalia using Digital Humanities tools.
  • This paper examines some of the ways designers, calligraphers or craftsmen (the distinction is not always clear) planned inscriptions that, either on a vertical or horizontal plane, were broken through differing orientations. The use of Arabic script, even in non-Arabic speaking countries, provides a measure of unity to the subject. Examples from the Maghrib to Iran are studied, from the beginning of Islam until the sixteenth century CE. In early Quranic manuscripts words were freely divided between lines. This is also a feature of early inscription panels and remained extremely common in subsequent centuries. One of the most common placings for inscriptions is on the four sides of the base of the zone of transition of a domed bay, necessitating four right-angled turns. Here too there was an initial tendency to spread words over the turns (seen first at the Zaytuna mosque in Tunis (864 CE). Another area where this was a problem was on mihrabs and portals, since the introduction of inscriptions on these areas from the 10th century onwards. With framing inscriptions epigraphers had to deal with the question of how to negotiate the corner turns, posing layout problems different to that of an inscription on the four sides of a square where ligatures could be extended horizontally around a corner. From the late Ayyubid period onwards religious architecture in Cairo is distinguished by elaborate fenestration often set within stepped recesses; placing an inscription on the succession of narrow right-angled turns entailed more challenges for designers. The paper examines how the continuing conflicts between ease of design (or perhaps in the case of craftsmen, ease of application) and legibility were gradually resolved. One reason was the necessity for foundation inscriptions to be actually read, given their legal status as conveying ownership of the building. Another is an increased reliance on calligraphers who drew up the inscriptions more accurately beforehand, in turn helped by the more readily availability and reduction in the cost of the paper used to plan them. With inscriptions where a calligrapher is unlikely to have been involved, such as epitaphs, the increasing literacy of the craftsmen may have been a factor. What is surprising is how long it took for the custom of spreading words over turns to disappear; it was not until the sixteenth century that the practice almost completely died out.