Dr. Stephennie Mulder is Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. A specialist in Islamic art, architectural history, and archaeology, she has worked for over ten years as the head ceramicist at Balis, a medieval Islamic city in Syria. Dr. Mulder has conducted archaeological and art historical fieldwork throughout Syria, Egypt, Turkey. She also writes on the contemporary aesthetics of the art of resistance in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Dr. Mulder also works on the conservation of antiquities and cultural heritage sites endangered by war and illegal trafficking.
Photo credit: Mashid Alvandi
We talk to Dr. Mulder about including education on Islamic history more widely, democratizing history and heritage through social media and digital platforms, and how understanding the past impacts our future.
You teach the history of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, what led you to pursue a career in this area?
I had a bit of a circuitous path to the field Islamic art and architecture. I grew up in Utah, in a big Mormon family and an environment in which faith and religious practice infused daily life perhaps a bit more than many other places in the U.S. While I’m now a pretty secular person, I think that background made me curious about, and deeply respectful of, the intersection of faith and history and material culture. When I finished high school, I enrolled at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I had always loved the arts, in fact I was a violinist and started university as a music performance major. But about a year and a half in, realized I didn’t want to be a professional musician. So I took some time off from school and spent a year reading, and I kept coming back to books about history, travel, and archaeology. When I came back I knew I wanted to study archaeology, which in U.S. universities is pursued largely through anthropology departments, so I majored in Anthropology.
Along the way, by chance, I took a class on the Crusades with a medieval historian, Peter von Sivers, and then a class on history and culture of the Middle East, and then one on Sufism. All these classes, products of the University of Utah’s strong Middle Eastern Studies program, absolutely captivated me because they opened up histories that I had not previously encountered in my education. My desire to learn more made me decide to add a minor in Middle Eastern Studies. I started studying Arabic, and went to work on my first archaeological excavation in the Middle East. A few years later, I applied to do my MA in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, and I began to participate every summer in the excavation of a medieval Islamic site in Syria called Balis. From there, it was straight on to a PhD in Islamic art at the University of Pennsylvania. I find the history of this region to be endlessly rich and fascinating, and I honestly just really want people to know about it.
Magnificent 12th century shrine, Mashad al-Husayn, in Aleppo surrounded by modern buildings. The red-roofed structure in the shrine’s courtyard was built to provide shade for today’s pilgrims.
What are your areas of research?
I’m primarily an archaeologist specialized in ceramics analysis but I’m also an architectural historian, so I work with both objects and buildings. I’ve mostly done fieldwork in Syria, Egypt, and Turkey. My first publications were on medieval Islamic shrines or ziyarat, namely the Mausoleum of the Imam al-Shafi’i in Cairo and the shrines of the ‘Alids (the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) in Syria. But I’ve also published on Islamic ceramics, the iconography of mosque architecture, and even on the art of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Recently, in the aftermath of the terrible decade of war in Syria, I’ve turned to questions related to cultural heritage, the looting of archaeological sites, and the trade in antiquities.
Do you think there needs to be more access and inclusion of Islamic history in mainstream education as well as heritage, collecting and archival institutions? What are the benefits?
When I was first taking classes on the Islamic world/MENA region as an undergraduate, what struck me was that not only had my prior education not exposed me to the history of this region, but there was this tremendous disconnect between how absolutely central the history of the Islamic world is in global history, and the complete void in my education with respect to that history. This gap was so stark that I felt genuinely upset about it: I felt like I had been cheated out of learning about an incredibly vibrant and fascinating world that had played a pivotal role in world history. I mean, it’s difficult to argue that the Islamic world has ever been marginal: both geographically and in terms of its historical role, it’s always sat literally at the center of things. And yet, it’s perpetually marginalized in western academic and pedagogical practices. And the realization of that disconnect also made me curious about why this history had been — so to speak — “written out” of my education. I mean, I had learned that China and India and other regions of the world had rich pasts, but somehow when I had thought of the MENA/Islamic world I could only conjure up the stock series of bad stereotypes that circulate in the media.
Twenty years later, I still think the rich, heterogeneous complexity of the history of the Islamic world, which includes the histories of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other peoples, faiths, ethnicities, and cultural traditions, and whose geographic boundaries stretch across every continent, continues to be poorly and reductively portrayed in textbooks and popular media. I’ve never stopped being annoyed about that, as a historian, because it’s such a huge misrepresentation, and as a humanist, because there’s just so much to learn. A lot of my work as a researcher and an educator is motivated by a sense of both the absurdity and the injustice of that reality, one that is unfortunately still very much with us. The benefits of serious engagement with the history of this region are tremendous. From a historian’s standpoint, the fact that the region is understudied means there are tremendous opportunities to shape new narratives about the past. From the standpoint of social justice in an age of rising Islamophobia and Antisemitism, it’s never been more crucial to emphasize the pluralistic, diverse histories that have always characterized the MENA region. And as an art historian, the objects and buildings are both incredibly beautiful from an aesthetic perspective but also full of stories about the past that often differ from those we find in our textual sources.
You have been on many excavations, what is the most enjoyable part of being on an archaeological site?
I love being an archaeologist, so there are too many things to list, but certainly at the top of the list is the thrill of discovery, that wondrous feeling of pulling something out of the earth that hasn’t been seen by human eyes or held by human hands for hundreds or even thousands of years. I think all the time about how objects tell stories, and archaeological objects whose context has been preserved (in other words, from sites that have not been looted or otherwise disturbed) can tell stories as rich as any archive or textual source. I also love how archaeology enables academic researchers to form rich and lasting relationships with local people, who often work alongside us and who become highly skilled archaeologists in their own right. It’s their heritage we are studying, and it’s a privilege to be able to work alongside them and learn how and in what ways the past is meaningful for them.
Ancient Citadel, Aleppo (Memorino via Wikipedia)
Can you tell us more about your book The Shrines of the ‘Alids and why did you write it?
The book explores a group of shrines sacred to the family of the Prophet Muhammad in Syria that were created anew or rediscovered in the 11th-13th centuries. My research showed that although these shrines had always been thought of as being significant primarily for the Shi’i branch of Islam, in fact, they had largely been built and maintained by Sunni sovereigns over many centuries, and visited and revered by people from a variety of backgrounds. In essence, all Muslims revere the Prophet’s family, and in the aftermath of the Crusades, these sites came to be used to bring Islamic communities together. This enabled me to explore these spaces as shared sites that were marked by intersectarian devotional practices.
Portal of al-Zahir, Mashad al-Husayn
You are known on social media for your Islam centric cat themed twitter threads. Do you think social media can make history and heritage fun, relevant accessible, giving more people access?
I love social media, and I think of Twitter as an extension of my classroom: a space to teach, have open dialogue, and engage the public in the exciting and enriching enterprise of exploring the past. I see no reason why that past should not be fun, engaging and accessible, and social media allows the space for that to happen.
For anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Islamic Art and Architecture, what advice can you share? The field has grown so much in recent years that it’s difficult to know where to begin! But in addition to the ever-growing number of books in my field, there are now some wonderful resources online, including Archnet for Islamic art and architecture and the new Khamseen project.
What is your favourite period of Islamic art history and why?
The 10th-15th centuries are a period of incredible dynamism. There are varied and contested Islamic traditions, the Shi’i Fatimids arrive and found Cairo while the Sunni Abbasid Caliph still rules in Baghdad under the tutelage of Turkic Seljuk sultans. A century or so later, the European Franks arrive in the eastern Mediterranean and capture Jerusalem in the first Crusade. They famously refuse to go home, and their presence provokes an exchange of ideas and culture that will leave its mark on the Islamic world as well as on Europe.
Meanwhile in Iberia, Iran, and Egypt, there are flourishing Islamic, Jewish and Christian communities who all leave their mark on history, theology, the sciences, and the arts. And a bit after that, the Mamluk sultans create a complex and ever-shifting system of rule by formerly-enslaved military emirs that would mark a high point of art, architecture, and culture, while the Mongols sweep in from the east, and set in motion a revival of Persianate art and culture that would resonate down through many centuries afterwards. What could be better than this? I’m never bored.
Which is your favourite museum collection, exhibition or gallery of Islamic art?
This is really challenging, because there are so many outstanding collections. We’re fortunate to have the third-largest museum collection of Islamic art in the U.S. here in Texas at the Dallas Museum of Art, and it’s filled with spectacular objects. We’ve also got a growing collection in Houston. Both of these are a wonderful resources for my students for both museum visits, object-based research, as well as professional training like internships. There are wonderful collections of manuscripts and arts of the book like the British Library in London and Chester Beatty in Dublin. There are new, purpose-built museums like the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia, and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. At the top of my list, though, is the new Islamic Gallery in the British Museum, which has been reinstalled in the past few years and which I think has one of the most thoughtful and insightful curatorial approaches. It’s notable for the variety of objects on display and for being sensitive to the diversity of the Islamic world and its varied communities, traditions, and histories. It’s also an installation that is also sensitive to issues surrounding provenance, collection practices, and object histories.
How can understanding the past impact the development of the future of Islamic art and culture? I think it was the American novelist William Faulkner who said "The past is never dead. It's not even past.” I love this quote because it captures a simple truth about how the past is always present, it’s always with us. We all think of ourselves as living in the present, yet we’re all made up of this past, these histories flow through us in our families, our political relationships, and our understandings of ourself and others. Being able to tell more varied, diverse, complex stories about the past allows us to make room for equally complex stories in the present, and, I hope, in the future as well.
For more information, follow Dr. Stephennie Mulder on Twitter https://twitter.com/stephenniem
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