Saturday, 21 December 2013

Cairo conference December 2013

Main hall to Cairo University


The First International Conference of Islamic Archaeology in the East, 8-11 December 2013, Faculty of Archaeology, Cairo University, Cairo 


The current situation in Egypt made this event a little less 'international' than intended, which was a great shame for the organisers, Professor Ahmed Rageb Ali, Conference Coordinator, Professor Mohamed Hamza Ismail al-Haddad, President of the Conference, and Dr Rehab Ibrahim Ahmed el-Siedy, Lecturer in Islamic Archaeology - all from the Faculty of Archaeology. These security concerns were totally unfounded and the few of us who did attend enjoyed three days of papers and discussion followed by two days of sightseeing. I must confess that I passed on a visit to the pyramids (having lived in Cairo the past know only too well how cold it can be out there in December) in favour of a visit to the Museum of Islamic Art to meet the Director, Mr Mostafa Khaled and the Curator of Textiles, Mr Mohamed Abdelsalam, in search of the Herzfeld Samarra typeset that should have been received sometime after the 1922 division meeting at the British Museum - more on that below.

Dr Abdelrahman Salem and Professor Bernard O'Kane chairing a session

The conference languages were Arabic and English, which called for extreme concentration on the part of the few non-Arab attendees! Although the title specified Islamic archaeology to the east of Cairo, some topics covered the Maghreb, Andalusia and the Eastern Mediterranean (click here for the full programme). There were some interesting papers on Uzbek sites, and several on Syrian ones, including a distressing assessment of the recent damage in Aleppo by Dr Walid Ahkrass of the Syrian Antiquities Department. Undoubtedly the highlight for me was Dr Stéphane Pradines' assessment of Abbasid fortifications in Egypt and his tracing the continued practice of construction in red burnt brick walls with rounded towers at intervals through Raqqa, northern Arabia, Sinai, the Delta sites, the island of Rawdah, Cairo and finally Qala'at al-Kabsh, the Tulunid barracks immediately south of Ahmad ibn Tulun's mosque in Cairo. The latter two sites will be his next project to survey and plan, if at all possible. Ms Yui Kanda, currently an MPhil student at Wolfson College, Oxford, presented a thought-provoking study of the 15th-century Cairene potters' workshops, based on comparing the quality of signed bowl fragments and tiles, demonstrating that there were many versions of a signature such as Ghaybi's.

An example of one of Ghaybi's fragmentary bowl bases in the collection of the Cairo University Museum

Dr Manu Sobti, School of Architecture & Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, gave an interesting account of Eric Schmidt's achievement in aerial archaeology in 1930s Iran, outlining the importance of his work and how useful it is today for studying the hinterland of the Iranian sites.

I presented our Samarra Finds Project at the V&A, spreading the word that it will shortly be accessible to researchers and anyone interested, via the Museum's website. 

Bab al-Nasr from outside the walls

The conference days were highly concentrated, and to fit in a site-visit to Dr Pradines' current excavations inside the Fatimid and Ayyubid walls of Cairo near the north-eastern gate of the Bab al-Nasr entailed an early meeting and a race back to the university. Happily Dr Rehab el-Siedy, who has been working at the site too, was equally keen that we should go, and kindly facilitated this. It was a chance for me to meet their ceramologist, Dr Julie Monchamp, who wrote her extremely useful PhD dissertation on the pottery excavated from the north-eastern areas of the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk levels associated with the city walls. For obvious reasons photography was not permitted, so all I can include is a view of Bab al-Nasr - but if you follow Dr Pradines on you can access all his reports, which come out regularly.

From left: Ahmed Ali (Museum Curator), Mohammed Darwish (Museum Director), Maha Mohammed (Curator), Yui Kanda, yours truly, and Tarek Gallal (Head of PR for the Faculty of Archaeology)

Another visit made during the conference was to the University Museum. This covers both Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman and Islamic periods, and I was amazed to find four excellent examples of South Arabian votive stelae with Sabaean inscriptions. Not, I should add, found in Egypt, but donated by the Yemeni government to a former head of faculty and Chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Professor Abd al-Halim Nureddin, a colleague from the early 1980s when we were both working in Sana'a. The Islamic section is largely made up of Fustat finds from Dr Suad Maher's excavations and loans from the Museum of Islamic Art. The highlight for me was an almost complete cobalt blue flask, very similar to the fragmentary examples from Samarra we posted on this blog in August. This was apparently found in Fustat, so like the burnt brick fortifications, similar Abbasid containers, in addition to the well-known lustrewares, travelled or influenced local glass production too.

Cobalt blue glass phial similar to the 170 found by Herzfeld in the Dar al-Khilafah, Samarra

As mentioned above, I visited the Museum of Islamic Art in search of the typeset supposed to have been sent to Cairo after Herzfeld's division was made in 1922. Sadly there is no trace of such a gift and I would welcome any suggestions for where to find records or documentation about why it never reached its destination. I will start with the India Office and Colonial Office records, as both were involved in the finds being shipped from Basra to London. The museum does, however, hold 25 carved stucco panels, ten of which are on display with the remainder in storage. These were sent directly from Baghdad by the Iraqi government and must be from the Iraqi excavations between 1936 and 1939. It is now impossible to photograph anything on display without the express permission of the Minister of Antiquities, so unfortunately I am not able to include any images of these panels here.

View of the Muhammad Ali mosque and the green dome of Sultan Nasir Muhammad's mosque on the citadel

The following day we visited the Citadel and were taken to areas that I had never been able to visit before, including Qasr Ablaq, the area excavated in the 1990s where some late 13th century mosaics were found (these were described by Iman Abdulfattah and Mamdouh Mohamed Sakr at the 2009 ‘Arts of the Mamluks’ conference at SOAS, since published in the volume The Arts of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria - Evolution and Impact, ed. Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Bonn University, 2012). We also explored the south-eastern fortifications, as well as the mosque of Sultan Nasir Muhammad and Muhammad Ali's Ottoman landmark, before descending to Sultan Hasan's masterpiece on the square below.

The group inside the south-east fortifications on the citadel

The Madrasa of Sultan Hasan (left) and the Rifai mosque (right), at the base of the citadel

In the evening I gave an extended version of my BISI conference paper on Gertrude Bell's influence on Islamic archaeology to the Netherlands Flemish Institute, as part of their regular Thursday evening lecture series. This provided a great opportunity to discuss the topic with a former teacher from the American University in Cairo, Professor Bernard O'Kane, and other friends involved in the Islamic archaeological world.

I was extremely glad that I was able to attend this first in a new conference series (by the way, next year's will encompass the eastern Mediterranean world). It was a great opportunity to make contact with Egyptian colleagues and to hear about their current research. 

The Samarra finds project is now signing off for the Christmas break, but we wish you all the best for the festive season, and look forward to continuing our project in the New Year!

Rosalind Wade Haddon

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