January 6, 2017
Every year, I take the students from my
Islamic architecture course to visit the Islamic art collections at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York so they can see the cultural artifacts
we’ve discussed in class. In 2013, we stopped to look at an aerial photograph
of the 9th-century Great Mosque of Samarra, taken by the British Royal Air
Force 100 years ago. The black-and-white image shows the vast scale of the
mosque, renowned for having one of the tallest minarets in the world, at
approximately 170 feet.
Someone remarked, “Wasn’t this the minaret
that was installed with American snipers fighting Iraqi rebels in 2005, and
blown up later?” Silence dropped over the group, and we moved on.
Teaching Islamic art and architecture can
feel like walking through a minefield. Long before “war on terror” was a common
phrase, the sites I lecture on were contentious, the evisceration of cultural
heritage already underway. In my first class, on Islam’s holiest site, the
Kaaba in Mecca, I couldn’t avoid showing images of the sacred monument
overshadowed by towering hotels. Old photographs and verbal descriptions have
to stand in for the hundreds of Ottoman and early Islamic sites destroyed by
the Saudi government to make way for ambitious commercial ventures. The hardest
segment is on Iraq; some years I skip the Abbasids, as I am unable to talk
about the historic city of Baghdad or the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala,
popular pilgrimage sites that have been targeted in sectarian wars, without
tears in my eyes.
Now, with devastating images of human
suffering from Mosul and Aleppo filling the news, ancient sites reduced to
rubble, and rampant misinformation and anxiety about Islam, it’s more difficult
than ever to tell the stories of places as old as civilization itself.
The news we receive of Iraq and Syria
focuses on military incursions, bombings and the horrific loss of life. In my
class, we instead discuss the cultural flowering that took place in the great
universities of medieval Baghdad, known as the City of Peace, and the
incredible works of literature and science composed there. We are not just
surveying the form of buildings or noting their dates of construction; rather,
we discuss their political circumstances and the rituals that gave life to
them. I want my students to understand that while the Middle East today may be
defined by war and strife, not long ago, it comprised great cities, home to
poets, artists and craftsmen. And I want them to know that these places are
By the time my students arrive at the
Damascus Room at the Met, the group has already passed through almost 1,000
years of history, exemplified by ornate tiles, intricately painted manuscripts
and resplendent carpets. The room is serene, a “winter quarter” decorated in
carved and inlaid wood. Poetic verses are written along the walls, making the
room appropriate for entertaining or sitting alone reading a book. I’m
transported to Damascus, which I visited for the first and last time in 2010, a
few months before Syria’s civil war began. It had snowed that winter, and
everyone was out celebrating. The majestic villas in the old bazaar — built in
the 18th century by Jewish, Muslim and Christian elite — had been converted to
cafes, their courtyards graced with orange trees and jasmine. It is difficult
to re-create for my students the grandeur of Damascus, with its layers of
Roman, Umayyad and Ottoman architecture. The city is now divided into sectarian
zones and in a permanent state of emergency.
The loss of life in Syria and Iraq is
unimaginable; millions have been displaced and perhaps will never return home.
But what do we make of the thousands of stories that are erased every time a
neighborhood is razed to the ground, every time a historical monument is
riddled with sniper fire? We bear witness, we document, we try to educate.
Teaching the architectural history of Iraq
and Syria, thousands of miles away and under siege, I am often addressing
students who have no links to the Middle East but who bring their curiosity and
willingness to see beyond political rhetoric. Buildings can evoke universal
responses, and students imagine serene gardens on a hillside, the feel of cool
mosaic floors in an ancient palace, the smell of incense wafting through a
shrine. Studying the architecture and culture of a society allows us to
recognize the essential humanity in each other, even in those far removed by
time and geography.
My classes also include Muslim students who
sometimes know the tenets of their religion but not its history or complexity.
A few find themselves at first confused (“There are figurative images of the
prophet Muhammad!”) and then awe-struck. Their eyes light up when I talk of the
architectural achievements that tell the story of a diverse Muslim faith,
spanning from Cordoba to Delhi, from Samarkand to Ghana. They need to know this
history most of all, so that they do not succumb to the reactionary propaganda
of the Islamic State and others who aim to annihilate the past. They need to
know that there is power in building things and that history remembers those
who make objects of beauty, not those who destroy them.
The history of Islam, like that of any
religion, has never been an easy one. Yet its cultural legacy describes a faith
that spans at least three continents and almost two millennia. I speak about
the great automatons designed by medieval mathematicians and engineers; of the
vibrant literary and artistic culture of Mosul, where Christian and Muslim
artists created beautiful works of calligraphy and painting; of the fine-arts
academies in Damascus; and of the architectural commissions that lured Frank
Lloyd Wright to Baghdad. For the 50 minutes we spend together, my students and
I are transported to a world of possibilities. It is an important lesson, of
what one day these students will have to rebuild.
Rizvi teaches the history of Islamic art and architecture at Yale University.
She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Oped Project.