Friday, November 18, 2005

An online exhibition of Islamic architecture of Cairo

Photo of Bab Zuwayla (Cairo, built in 1092 AD) taken by K. A. C. Creswell: old photographs of architectural monuments are often more informative than new photos since they provide an earlier state of a deteriorating monument

One of the amaizing photographic sources of Islamic monuments in Cairo through time is available online to public view. These are made in the first half of the 20th century by a major specialist, K. A. C. Creswell, in Islamic art and architecture but they are also a good source for introduciung the average viewers to Islamic architecture. Moreover since the photos are from the beginning of the 20th century they allow us to see many monuments in an earlier, then, better state, which makes their analysis more fruitful. In other words old photos in such cases are far more useful than new ones even with the advancements made by new photographic technologies. Obviously if this reflects something it is certainly the dramatic changes in the urban fabrics in Islamic cities in the second half of the 20th century especially those that have an old "medina" as their original focal point.

Something has to be said about Creswell: K. A. C. Creswell (1879-1974) is one of the pioneers of the study of Islamic architecture during the early 20th century, and, therefore, he bears with him the characteristics of that earliest generation: "aventuriers" mostly of military/colonialist backgrounds who sahred a widespread orientalist belief that stigmatized the "Arab" into something bedwin and romantic. For instance Creswell spent some of his life in the British military in India and Egypt and that's how he got interested in Islamic architecture. Still he was very interested in categorizing and, therefore, taking seriously Islamic architecture in a way that made it a field very similar to other European fields in the historiography of architrecture.
His major contribution is a 1932-40 huge publication (two huge volumes with lots of photos) "Early Islamic Architecture", which was later published in a smaller form "A Short Account of Early Islamic Architecture" (1969). Creswell's photographically-staffed publications, somehow, made Islamic architecture VISIBLE. His consistent and miticulous use of the photographic medium left us a huge archival source. This legacy still shines as this online exhbition shows.

A note about the "early Islamic" period (7th to 10th centuries AD): this was for this early generation a major topic since it provided them with the matrial that would enable them to answer their major and, mostly, only question: the "origins" of Islamic architecture. At that time the major task was the very need to "demonstrate" that Muslims had their "own type of architecture" but it was also seen as something that merely combined (without great innovation for many scholars of this generation) pre-Islamic traditions.
For a small biography on creswell see:

So here is the link to the online exhibition...


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