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.

Hillenbrand’s subject is a paradoxical one and at times his real subject seems, rather, to be un-Islamic architecture. ‘It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the mosque did not begin life as a primarily religious centre,’ he declares, and points out that the very first mosque, the Prophet’s house, was more of a political headquarters. It had no minaret and minarets were consequently denounced by some Muslims as an unacceptable innovation. More generally, ostentatious building was disapproved of by the pious and, according to a saying of the Prophet, the construction of large multi-storey buildings would be one of the signs of the Last Days. Religious literature recommended that the good Muslim’s grave should be level with the ground, but this was disregarded by rulers who built spectacularly magnificent mausolea for themselves. As for palaces, Oleg Grabar eloquently observed in The Formation of Islamic Art that ‘the world of the prince – secluded, rich and mysteriously complicated – was seen by the Muslim as an evil, and the just man, if called to it, never penetrated it without his own shroud.’ Time and again, Hillenbrand draws attention to the political aspects of an architecture that was ostensibly religious.

It is alarming how dependent students of Islamic architecture still are on Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) and his (incomplete) reports on excavations conducted in Iraq before the First World War, and on the monumental chronological surveys, Early Muslim Architecture and The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, published by Archibald Keppel Cameron Cresswell (1879-1974). On the back of its dust-jacket, Richard Bulliet, a leading American historian of medieval Islam, describes Hillenbrand’s work as ‘the first absolutely essential book on Islamic architecture since Cresswell’. This is no overstatement. Cumulatively, the selection of buildings discussed in Islamic Architecture offers a corrective to Cresswell’s over-emphasis on Egyptian and Syrian architecture. Hillenbrand brings African and Yemeni buildings into the argument and, perhaps more important, shifts the real centre of the subject to the buildings of Seljuk Iran and Anatolia. Even so, he might be criticised for a lingering Cresswellian obsession with ‘firsts’ – not just with the first mosques, minarets, mausolea and their earliest functions, but also with a building’s appearance and function at the time of its foundation. However, the present appearance of buildings like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo cannot be understood without realising the immense number of additions and restorations made by Muslim rulers in the centuries which followed. Because he tends to neglect later work done on buildings, Hillenbrand takes an unduly cynical view of the exercise of religious patronage by rulers. Thus, Egyptian sultans like Lajin and Qaitbay did not build primarily to glorify their own names. They spent too much time and money improving on the works of their predecessors for this to have been the leading motive.

Islamic Architecture is an awesome achievement. It could never be mistaken for a coffee-table book, but while it has only a couple of dozen colour plates, it has 300 photos and 1246 line-drawings, sections of composite drawings and ground plans. If the illustrations are often grey, the text glitters. Hillenbrand’s arguments are incisively presented in a prose which is never less than lucid, and which occasionally achieves an eloquence that mesmerises. We have been spared a dutiful tour of all the great but sometimes over-familiar monuments of Islam, for his strategy of scrapping chronology in favour of an examination of what the buildings were for has made it easier for him to break much new ground. The book’s conclusions depend on sober analysis based in large part on the evidence of his eyes.

Hillenbrand has also made occasional use of medieval literary sources to restore to us the authentic strangeness of a world which has perished almost without trace. Men travelled on donkeys through the subterranean tunnels which linked the great Abbasid palaces of Samarra. The tomb-tower of Gunbad-i Qabus was built to house a corpse which was suspended by chains from the roof. The Anatolian Seljuk Sultan, Kayqubad, commissioned the building of a glass palace. Egyptian Tulunid princes rested on inflated cushions in pools of quicksilver. Timurid princes built palaces of brick and stone, yet preferred to sleep and picnic in vast tent-villages which might take months to erect. (The Fatimid caliphs were also keen on tents and, though Hillenbrand does not discuss this, they possessed a vast tent known as the ‘Killer’ because one or two workmen were always killed when it was put up.)

Hillenbrand’s achievement becomes clearer when matched against another recent book which covers some of the same ground. Rather than make an extended comparison of the overlap between Islamic Architecture and Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, as a spot-check example one may contrast the two books’ treatment of the 14th-century palace of the Alhambra, outside Granada. Bloom and Blair’s prose is Baedekerish and, save for the occasional adjective of approbation, tends to shun value judgments in favour of a positivistic catalogue of what there is to be seen. Hillenbrand’s account not only describes what was there, but also suggests how it was intended to be seen. He draws our attention to the palace’s lack of symmetry, its striving for surprise effects, its inward-looking reclusiveness, the way in which the muqarnas dome is intended to invoke the revolving heavens and the crucial part gardens play in the architecture. He concludes: ‘In architecture and decoration alike, the Alhambra offers little that was not explicit or implicit in earlier Moorish and Maghribi art. To that extent its art is stagnant if not decadent. But in its poised and lyrical classicism, its consciously antiquarian quality with numerous Graeco-Roman reminiscences, it encapsulates the many centuries of Moorish art and brings that art to its final flowering. In that sense it is an extended elegy.’

This comparison between the books is not entirely fair, for Bloom and Blair labour under a multiple handicap. They have less space to devote to individual monuments than Hillenbrand (and have to cover art as well as architecture). At the same time, the chronological survey they are committed to rather constrains the choice of works to be discussed and what can be said about them. On occasion, when reading Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, one has the sense that art history is a matter of finding the shortest distance between one masterpiece and the next. Even so, Blair and Bloom are by no means blind to more general themes and trends and, at one point, they characterise the leading dynasties according to their works: the Mamluks were boastful, the Safavids playful and the Ottomans grave. The book is good on the distinctive qualities of the International Timurid style and its spread throughout much of the Islamic world. It is good also on such matters as the importance of the increasing use of paper, the problematic nature of architects’ plans, the number of lost Persian manuscripts, the role of migrant labour, the importance of the pre-Islamic monument of Ctesiphon as an object of Islamic emulation and many other matters. Not all Islamic art is absolutely wonderful in their eyes. They are properly critical of the conservative stylisation of illustrated Mamluk manuscripts and they note that the quality of the illustrations in the Demotte Shahnama varies widely. (The Demotte Shahnama is so named to commemorate the dealer who ripped the manuscript into separate pages so as to increase his profit. Blair and Bloom prefer to call it the Great Mongol Shahnama, but I am not sure that the case for Mongol imperial patronage is really proven.) Blair and Bloom’s book is indispensable to anyone seriously interested in the subject. It is up-to-date, well referenced, beautifully illustrated and generally accurate.

There is, however, one blunder in the book. The full page colour reproduction of a 14th-century Persian miniature, ‘Humay on the Day After His Wedding Has Gold Coins Poured Over Him as He Leaves Humayun’s Room’, has been reproduced back to front, so that the Persian calligraphy in the painting has to be read with the aid of a mirror. This was doubtless the publisher’s error, rather than the authors’, but confusion is worse confounded when, in a footnote discussing the painting, the sexes of the bride and groom are also transposed. The unfortunate inversion of the image does, however, have the merit of making one think about how one’s gaze is directed in Persian paintings and how those paintings should be read. One might have expected that Persian miniatures were read as the Persian script was, from right to left and down the page. In fact, this almost never seems to be the case. The paintings customarily have high horizon lines and in those cases where a sequence of actions is portrayed, the sequence proceeds up the page, with the climax, perhaps a single combat between two mighty heroes, in the upper half. In the case of ‘Humay on the Day After His Wedding’, the eye, after first encountering censers and braziers, is drawn up to contemplate first, Humay and then, higher up yet, Humayun being presented with gifts by her bridesmaids. Though the eye may travel yet higher, it is redirected back to the bridal couple, both by the gazes of servants looking down from an upstairs window and by a verse couplet which the painting purports to illustrate and which has been inserted in its architecture.

Furthermore, it does not seem to have been the rule that the sequence of actions must proceed from right to left. As often as not the contrary was the case. In a painting from the Demotte Shahnama of ‘Rustam Slaying Shaghad’, for example, the eye is drawn first to Rustam’s horse impaled in a pit on the far left, then to Rustam in the centre who has just loosed his arrow of vengeance, and finally to Shaghad pinned by the arrow to a tree trunk on the right of the painting. In the case of ‘Humay on the Day After His Wedding’, a static hieratic scene, there is no strong sense of laterality and, having been directed to the mid-to-upper field of the painting, the eye can wander about as it pleases. In a recent book on Mughal painting, Michael Rogers observed that ‘in many fine Islamic paintings, as indeed in the late Gothic manuscript painting of Northern Europe, it is left to the viewer to organise the space as he or she will, the eye roving from exquisite detail to exquisite detail without the necessity of arranging them in a single unifying visual order.’ The text of the poem celebrating the love of Humay and Humayun was overtly mystical and allegorical, but the exquisite paintings which illustrated the verses suggest a romance of fairyland, tricked out with detailed observations derived from genre painting.

The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 presents a consistent view of the subject’s leading themes. By contrast, The Mosque: History, Architectural Development and Regional Diversity is a curate’s egg. Parts of it are excellent. Wheeler Thackston’s chapter, ‘The Role of Calligraphy’, contains provocative ideas as well as some unfamiliar literary material. Antonio Fernández-Puertas on ‘Spain and North Africa’ and Bernard O’Kane on ‘Iran and Central Asia’ both show mastery of their subject. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout and many of the images of Chinese and sub Saharan mosques will be unfamiliar even to those working in the field of Islamic architecture. Elsewhere, however, coverage is idiosyncratic, with Syria and Iraq omitted from a discussion of the central Arab lands. There are flagrant errors of fact with, for example, the late medieval Mamluk Mosque of Barquq being assigned to the Abbasid period. There are what I regard as errors of interpretation, as when Gulru Necipoglu writes of one of the great Ottoman mosques: ‘In the Suleymaniyye regal and sacred layers of meaning were inextricably enmeshed to communicate the unification of the sultanate and the caliphate.’ This reading is unlikely to be correct, since the caliphate was suppressed by the Ottomans in 1517 and only revived by them in the 18th century. The account given in the opening chapter of the origins of Islam tells an exceedingly old-fashioned tale of young Muhammad the mystic giving way to an older Muhammad the social legislator – it made me think of Carlyle’s account in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.

Where the non-specialist reader is concerned, one of the most confusing aspects is the way the book argues with itself. In some chapters, the minaret is presented simply as a platform for the muezzin’s call to prayer, other chapters allow for its role as a monument (occasionally free-standing) commemorating dynastic or military triumph, as well as its functions as desert lighthouse and watch-tower. The latter view has certainly been influenced by Jonathan Bloom’s important monograph, Minaret: Symbol of Islam (1989). The editors may not have been conscious of it but an even wider debate rages through the pages of this book. In ‘The Metamorphosis of the Sacred’, Mohammed Arkoun laments the widening functions of the mosque in modern times and the desacralisation of its space. But, in ‘Islam and the Form of the Mosque’, Frishman suggests that any space can become a mosque for the duration of the prayer and that ‘the role of the mosque differs from that of a church in that there is no need for some activities to be classified as “secular” and excluded from the building.’ In ‘The Mosque in Islamic Society Today’, Oleg Grabar argues that since the mosque has been losing its educational function in modern times, its role in society has been narrowing. Let Hillenbrand’s book settle this argument, for Islamic Architecture shows how early medieval mosques were used as schools, court rooms, political debating halls, military citadels, dormitories, treasuries, and even as venues for second-hand book-dealers. So Mohammed Arkoun should stop worrying.

Nurhan Atasoy and Julian Raby’s book about Iznik pottery is more architectural in its concerns than someone unfamiliar with the history of Ottoman ceramics might have guessed, for the mass-production of the brilliantly designed and coloured fritware jugs and dishes is inconceivable without the parallel production of Iznik tiles for the interior decoration of the great imperial buildings in Istanbul. In 1648, the famous Turkish traveller Evliya Celebi visited Iznik. Raby remarks: ‘Its polychrome pottery, he said, defied description, a conventional phrase which saved him the effort.’ Raby and Atasoy have no use for the topos of indescribability and their careful classification of the successive types of Iznik ware, alias also Damascus, Rhodian, Kutahya and Golden Horn ware, has put the subject on a new and much sounder footing (though the authors pay proper tribute to the researches and insights of an earlier expert on ceramics, Arthur Lane). Iznik is a reissue of a much sought-after book, which was first published in 1989 and is rightly cited with respect by Bloom and Blair.