Moving the Earth

By Sylvia Smith

 

The title of the international conference might not be one to get the pulse racing. In fact Islamic Archaeology in Global Perspective could have been the cure for insomnia except for a clutch of excellent speakers. During four days in Bahrain they achieved what most academics aspire to – relating their research in a vital way to our current polarised view of Muslims and their world.

New information from the latest excavations seemed to have less impact on the non-academic members of the conference audience in the National Theatre in Bahrain than the revision of earlier landmark analysis – perhaps reflecting the new, superficial, post-truth mind and a predilection for summaries rather than detailed academic research.

 

001 Tunisia, The Great Mosque of Kairouan, c.Richard Duebel

 

Whether outlining the speed of the spread of Islam across North Africa, or the East African coast’s settlement through trade prior to the arrival of the Arabs, or the West’s rather self-interested focus on Biblical digs while ignoring Islamic remains, objective revisions gave pause for thought. It seems that the first really globalised conference looked at archaeology as a profession, rather than just their findings.

 

With British archaeologists outnumbering all others, early, European-sponsored private digs were robustly dissected. Corisande Fenwick, from London University College’s Archaeology of the Mediterranean opened eyes in part by looking at the fin de siecle French in the Maghreb: “If you go back before independence archaeology is all driven by colonial scholars attracted by the exotic nature of their finds.That reinforced the idea that the Islamic world was somehow different and needed to be controlled by colonial powers”.

 

002 Volubilis

 

She also presented interesting statistics about the disappearance of pork from the Maghreb diet indicating dates for Islam ousting the previous culture. Her talk was fully illustrated with pictures and lots of graphics and we learned that there is to be more work next year at Volubilis as well as other less well-known sites in Morocco.

 

003 Syria, Aleppo, The Umayyad Mosque Copyright Richard Duebel

 

Such information only added weight to the scholarly talk given by the almost-retired, Paris- based Professor Alastair Northedge who chose Iraq to illustrate his reassessment of the work done across greater Syria. His first point was that Muslims themselves compounded European archaeologists fixation on the Biblical by failing to appreciate the significance of the buildings of the great sanctuaries.


“It is not just Mecca and Medina, but also Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq” he says. “There seems to be a preference for building something new rather than conserving the old because the emphasis is on the spiritual nature of these places not their materiality.”

He went on to explain that
hostility between Islam and the West added to the lack of interest in Muslim remains, but that a new generation of moderate, educated Muslims were actively seeking their cultural roots during Islam’s peak period. “All that millennium and a half of great Islamic civilisation, the golden age discoveries in philosophy, science that can tell us so much.”

 

004 Syria, The Citadel of Aleppo, c.Richard Duebel

 

From the start the pace was brisk with each speaker being given a set time to cover their subject. Few strayed from the point. The erudite St. John Simpson from the British Museum provided compelling details of huge trade criss-crossing the Indian Ocean, which was interrupted suddenly and intriguingly by a “major event” somewhere along one of the sea routes.

He also stated that the moment for a revival of interest in Islamic archaeology is long overdue. “It’s part and parcel of a search for Muslim cultural identity.”

 

005 Excavation of the old city wall in Fatimid Cairo

 

Was the conference that historical moment when a page is turned and a clearer lens is focused on Islam’s past ? New Zealander, Alan Walmsley, Professor of Islamic Archaeology and Art at the University of Copenhagen certainly agrees as it furthers his desire to disseminate a fuller account of social, cultural and economic developments in Arab and Islamic history. “I interrogate faded and misinformed historical narratives,” he explains.

 

St John Simpson feels we can learn lessons from past mistakes. In particular he singled out the archaeologist’s (intellectually) poor relative the art historian as having distorted our view of some basic information about the daily lives of Muslims.

The dilemma began in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century because objects that were brought back had been excavated to order. Inevitably they were beautiful and decorative because of the requirements of the dealers who would sell them on to collectors.

The subjective nature of these early digs was further distorted by the art historians who reconstructed material culture on the basis of those objects. St. John Simpson believes that archaeologists do a far better job because they look at all objects in their original context. 

“This world of appreciation driven by beauty is the natural perspective of art historians who rate aesthetics over function. So metal ware, certain types of glass and glazed ceramics are elevated slightly disproportionately to their real functional value in the past and unfortunately that gives a rather skewed impression,” he says.

 

006 Zanzibar - old stone town, carved wooden door

 

A skewed impression was also pinpointed in the wide-ranging lecture given by the young Tom Fitton whose work on the East African coast has led him also into revisionist mode. He suggests that those who say Islam first settled the Muslim or Swahili Coast are misinformed. “The assumption by European archaeologists of the 1960s and 1970s that the coast was populated and first settled by Persian and Arabic settlers is to negate hundreds of years of settlement prior to the arrival of Islam.”

 

007 Tourists visiting the Nabatean rock tombs at Mada'n Saleh, c. Richard Duebel

 

Closer to home Saudi Arabian archaeologist Saad bin Abdulaziz Al Rashid says Islamic archaeology now ranges well beyond the scope of the two Holy Places taking in water sources vital for pilgrims of the past. “Dams, wells, springs, fortresses along pilgrim tourist routes are all key to the understanding of the spread of Islam,” he says.

 

008 Saudi Arabia, remains of old town of Al-`Ula c.Richard Duebel

 

“We are maintaining the Islamic cultural identity while ensuring their future sustainability,” he asserts. “These sites are significant not only to Muslims at large, but also to non-Muslim scholars and as part of the archaeological work we are supporting the transference and dissemination of the facts surrounding Islamic history.” The rich remains of the Nabataean cities of Al Ula and Mada’n Saleh, the furthest western outpost of the civilisation centred at Petra in Jordan are now open to the public.

 

009 Bahrain, Al Khamis mosque site c.Richard Duebel

 

The conference was held partly to celebrate the opening of the new Al Khamis Mosque Visitor Centre as the leading Islamic archaeological site museum in the Gulf region. First hand accounts from Bahraini archaeologist Salman Al Mahari confirmed the significance of the Mosque linking it with some newly unearthed tombstones also found in Persia. “These are the same type of stones found in Siraf, in Iran,” he confirms. “They reflect the cultural and economic exchange between these two places dating from the 11th centuries and perhaps even earlier.”

 

010 Islamic coins

He also drew attention to the elusive nature of Umayyad remains even though Bahrain is an early centre of Islam.

Early seems to be a buzz word among archaeologists exciting them to dig ever further back. Anne Haour deeply involved with Islamic archaeology of West Africa perhaps best sums up the conference. Acknowledging that the past is very important in terms of understanding the current world and where we might be heading, she says,”The world is very much dominated by the West and the geopolitics of the West.  And there can be very negative perceptions of Islam, of Africa.”

She went on to elucidate that those “early” experiences, where there is communication and collaboration between populations, signifies that they are making choices about adopting particular crafts or ways of living and rejecting others.  “There have never been passive relationships,” she concludes.

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