Ozymandias Syndrome

Robert Irwin

  • Islamic Architecture by Robert Hillenbrand
    Edinburgh, 645 pp, £49.50, November 1994, ISBN 0 7486 0479 0
  • The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom
    Yale, 348 pp, £45.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 300 05888 8
  • The Mosque: History, Architectural Development and Regional Diversity edited by Martin Frishman and Hassan-Uddin Khan
    Thames and Hudson, 288 pp, £36.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 500 34133 8
  • Iznik: The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey by Nurhan Atasoy and Julian Raby
    Alexandria Press/Laurence King, 384 pp, £60.00, July 1994, ISBN 1 85669 054 7

‘Je vous salue, ruines solitaires, tombeaux saints, murs silencieux!’ In 1782, Constantin-François Chassebeuf, alias Volney, travelled through Egypt and Syria. Everywhere he was struck by the contrast between the region’s present misery and the architectural evidence of its former wealth and grandeur. It was while meditating in the ghost city of Palmyra that he was inspired by the spirit of the place to write Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791), a treatise in which reflections on the moral causes of the downfall of ancient Oriental despotisms led on to a declaration of faith in progress and the principles of the French Revolution. Eastern palaces had been transformed into graveyards and, in Volney’s little book, ruins became teaching aids in a series of lectures on the sinfulness and transience of tyranny.

Robert Hillenbrand’s meditations on Eastern ruins may similarly lead his readers to thoughts of mortality and transience. Many of the buildings he studies in Islamic Architecture have an overt function – whether prayer, teaching, interment or pleasure – yet seem to have been built with other, covert aims, as patrons used their constructions to boast of empire and attempted to build against Time. Medieval Islamic society was much preoccupied by mortality. Writing of the Ayyubid and Mamluk architecture of late medieval Egypt, Hillenbrand observes: ‘Not since Pharaonic times had Egypt witnessed such an obsession with the architecture of death.’ Funerary monuments perpetuating the everlasting memory of princes and generals came to dominate the streets of Cairo, yet inscriptions over the doors proclaimed that God alone was eternal.

Any history of Islamic art or architecture must study the accidents of survival. Pitifully little remains to us. Not a single wall of the grand Fatimid mausolea still stands. Of the vast list of treasures recorded in the inventory of the Fatimid palace in 11th-century Egypt, not one object has survived to be identified. Indeed, whole categories of artefact described in that inventory have vanished off the face of the earth. Hillenbrand also draws attention to the large number of minarets which have survived while their adjacent mosques have been utterly destroyed. Madina al-Zahira, outside Cordoba, was one of the grandest palaces in the Western world, but not a trace of it remains, nor, for that matter, of the even grander palaces of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. Of the thousands of Islamic palaces we know of from literary sources only two late medieval ones, the Alhambra and the Topkapi, still stand more or less intact. Contrariwise, we know so little about the patrons and inhabitants of some of the remaining ruins, the palace at Ukhaidir, for example, that they might almost have been put up by visiting aliens.

Hillenbrand’s account of the remains of the Timurid White Palace at Shahr-i Sabz in particular provokes Volneyish thoughts about the ruin of empire: ‘Like some gigantic Ozymandias, a solitary iwan rears its vast and trunkless mass from out of the surrounding desolation. Indeed, one of its now vanished Persian inscriptions proclaimed “Let him who doubts our power and munificence look upon our buildings.” ’ The student of Islamic architecture is everywhere confronted with the phenomenon of text-laden buildings – of inhabitable books made of stone, brick and stucco. A literate courtier walking through the palace of the Alhambra would learn from one of its towers that ‘Nothing can match this work’, while the boast of the Fountain of the Court of the Lions is: ‘Incomparable is this basin. Allah, the exalted one desired that it should surpass everything in wonderful beauty.’ Gates and doors within the pavilions instruct their readers on their functions.

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