Islamic Architecture as a Field of Historical Enquiry

By Rabbat, Nasser | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Islamic Architecture as a Field of Historical Enquiry


Rabbat, Nasser, Journal of Art Historiography


For many years, Islamic architecture, as a field of historical enquiry, was hampered by Its Orientalist roots. Architectural forms were classified by types and styles, and perceived as sedate, static and unevolvlng. Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture at mit, demonstrates a dynamic way forward for the discipline.

Islamic architecture, long labelled with Inaccurate and controversial qualifiers such as 'Saracenic', 'Moorish' or 'Mohammedan' was, until recently, among the least theoretically developed areas of enquiry In the field of architecture.1 Few studies existed that moved beyond the taxonomlc, typological or stylistic framework on the one hand, or the religiously or culturally essentlallst or environmentally deterministic on the other. These approaches reflected the enduring Influence of the two major and Interdependent scholarly traditions that dominated the development of the study of the history of Islamic architecture since Its Inception until the late 20th century. The first stemmed from the peculiar historiography of the study of Islam In the West that came to be called Orientalism, and Its various peregrinations both In the West and In the Islamic world. The second was the authoritative historiography of art and architectural history which, until the 1980s, routinely portrayed the history of Western architecture as history of architecture par excellence, while casting the architecture of other cultures In anthropological and a historical categories.3

The pioneering students of Islamic architecture were almost all European architects, artists and draftspeople who, from as early as the 1820s, travelled to the 'Orient' In the wake of the first European military Interventions in search of adventure, employment and the fantasy associated with this long mysterious land. Some worked for individual patrons who sponsored expeditions and study tours either as an aristocratic recreation or for profit. Others worked for local or colonial authorities, which were concurrently spreading their dominion in the various regions of the Islamic world and needed the services of all classes of specialists to establish and maintain a new order in their territorial possessions. And still others worked for universities or learned societies in the West that were interested in the architecture of specific areas or periods for scholarly or religious reasons.

Like Orientalists in various other fields of enquiry, the early students of Islamic architecture became engaged in the vast enterprise of collecting, processing and interpreting data on all aspects of culture and society in the Orient. They visited Oriental cities and sites (primarily in Spain, Western Turkey, the Holy Land and Egypt], measured and recorded buildings and ruins, and illustrated these using all sorts of techniques from freehand sketches to exact camera lucida projections. They also ferreted through the limited available written sources to verify the historical details about the structures: date, provenance, patron, cost and the like. They then produced impressive catalogues of series of buildings, singular monuments, and architectural and ornamental details that began to introduce to Europe, and to the dominant classes in the Orient itself, the rich Islamic architectural heritage that was hitherto almost totally unknown.3

The trailblazers were followed by several generations of architects, draftspeople and, ultimately, archaeologists, who expanded the scope of the survey to Anatolia, Persia, India, Morocco and Arabia, and eventually penetrated the faraway reaches of the Islamic world, such as Central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Although most of the surveyors were still European, natives of the Islamic world began to participate in the process from as early as the first decade of the 20th century. Before the middle of the century, the terrain had been mostly mapped out, and with the nagging exception of Southeast Asia, most major buildings in the Islamic world had been measured, recorded and classified into types and styles following a rather rigid dynastic periodisation, which is still with us today. …

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