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Islamic Architecture; A Multi-Sensory Experience, Dr Patricia Blessing

Patricia Blessing is Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History in the Department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton University, where she received her PhD in 2012. Blessing’s current research examines the intersection between textiles, architecture, and objects in late medieval Islamic architecture with a particular focus on interiors. Her work has been supported by the British Academy, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the International Center of Medieval Art, the Society of Architectural Historians, the Barakat Trust, and the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

We talk to Patricia Blessing about the multi-sensory experiences of Islamic architecture, the significance of water and defining interior spaces.

How did you become a specialist in Islamic Art History and Archaeology?

I started out my undergraduate studies at the University of Geneva in my native Switzerland, studying Art History, Arabic, and Comparative Literature. I was fascinated by Arabic script and wanted to learn the language. Art History interested me probably because my mother (who doesn’t have a background in art history) had always taken me to museums from an early age, and we traveled for instance to Paris and Vienna to visit sites and museums while I was in high school. The art history curriculum in Geneva did not include Islamic art history at the time (back in 2001). After my first year of college, I traveled to Cairo for a language course and also took the opportunity to visit many monuments there. This trip, my very first to the Middle East and a Muslim-majority country, was transformative and I never looked back. Afterwards, I know that I wanted to study Islamic art history, and so I applied to a study abroad program at the University of Bamberg in Germany where this field is taught. I transferred to Bamberg and later got to work on the excavation in Balis, Syria, which was directed by Thomas Leisten of Princeton University who became my PhD adviser. Many years later, I was hired to fill the position he had left.

What is your favourite period of Islamic history?

The Saljuqs, which I have long worked on, but I also really have a soft spot for the Mamluks.

Your work and research is particularly focused on Islamic architecture. How is architecture and urban planning an indication of art, culture and heritage?

Architecture is crucial for art, culture and heritage because people live and work in it, at least ideally. Often, historical monuments become divorced from their original function, for instance when they are turned into museums. Of course, such a monument may be well protected in its new role, in that as a museum, it is carefully taken care of and restored in historically appropriate ways. So museumification is not necessarily negative. At the same time, it is also a joy to see historical monuments such as mosques still being used for the purposes for which they were created hundreds of years ago. Settings such as bazaars, which often have large historical components (for instance from the 15th century in the Kapalı Çarşı in Istanbul, or from the 19th century in the Bazaar of Tehran) are lively and lived-in settings that combine past and present, and can be sites in which traditional crafts are preserved alongside businesses that cater to more contemporary shopping needs.

Figure 1: Tehran bazaar. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

What defines an interior space and how does this shape our understanding of architectural heritage?

An interior space is any space that has a way of access, and is covered in some way. This could be a building, but also a mobile structure such as a tent. There is also the question of open courtyards: are these spaces part of the interior, or are they exterior spaces because they are not covered? They are interior because there is a way of access into them, such as a portal. That access might be restricted, for instance if the courtyard is part of a private house such as the Pirnia House in Nayin or the Abbasi and Tabatabaie Houses in Kashan, Iran. Mosque courtyards can be quite accessible, such as those of Ottoman mosques like the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, that are placed in front of the prayer hall and thus not part of the mosque space proper. In other cases, access to such courtyards might be restricted in the same way as access to the interior proper of the mosque, with rules for visitors’ clothing, for instance, and access may or may not be available for non-Muslims. In such cases, it is worth considering whether “interior” really always means “covered”. I will have to pursue this question in my new book project, which discusses interiors in Islamic architecture from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries primarily in present-day Turkey.

Figure 2: Pirnia House, Nayin, Iran. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

Figure 3: Abbasi House, Kashan, Iran. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

Figure 4: Selimiye Mosque, Edirne, Turkey. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

You are interested in the multi-sensory experience of spaces, how does this relate to Islamic architecture?

All architecture is experienced through multiple senses, even though within western epistemes that have developed since the 18th century, we tend to be conditioned to perceive architecture primarily through vision. I am interested in moving beyond vision-centric architectural history, and to bring in touch, sound, smell into our understanding of spaces. In Islamic architecture, there is a rich engagement with the multisensory, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. In the fourteenth-century of the Nasrids at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, for instance, poetry applied to the building addresses perception and aesthetics. Mosques are also spaces where multi-sensory experiences can take place, factoring the sound of prayers, but also historical uses such as that of censers, as for instance Nina Ergin has studied in the case of Ottoman mosques and mausolea. Carpets are part of the sensory experience too, in that one touches them with stockinged feet in mosques, and Muslims who pray also touch them with their hands, knees, and foreheads. Once we think of these spaces as having potential to evoke reactions at the level of all five senses, we can begin to understand their historical and present use in new ways.

You are interested in sound and water in pre-modern Islamic architecture. Why is water important to Islamic architecture specifically?

Water is crucial for Islamic architecture from the outset, in that it is required to achieve ritual purity for prayer (although exceptions can be made when water is not available, for instance when traveling in a desert). To facilitate access to water, mosques have various types of fountains, often located in their courtyards, or near the entrance. Water features in courtyards also provide soundscapes, and mirror images in the water can add to the aesthetic experience. Hammams (bathhouses) were built in cities across the Islamic world, often as double-baths with separate sections for men and women. These hammams also became important places for urban social life where people could meet and chat while attending to physical hygiene. Providing water for neighborhoods was also an important part of many waqfs, so that both freestanding fountains, and ones integrated into larger structures were built. Water is also central to garden architecture, and gardens generally are a central feature of palace architecture in the medieval and early modern Islamic world. Even in the nineteenth century, a significant number of fountains were built; I have seen monumental examples in Cairo, and small ones for instance in Manisa.

Figure 5: Small fountain in market area of Manisa, Turkey. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

Figure 6: Fountain of Ottoman sultan Mustafa III, Cairo, Egypt. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

The sound of water emerges as a major aspect in shaping the sensory experience of interior spaces too, what was the intention behind this in Islamic architecture?

The sound of water adds a placating, peaceful soundscape to architecture, be it indoors or outdoors. There is something inherently pleasant about hearing the sound of a fountain, and experiencing the chill of water, especially on a hot day. Yes, there is the functional element of having water readily available, it also adds a sensory dimension to the built environment.

Figure 7: Interior of fountain in courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

Figure 8: Bou Inaniya Madrasa, Fez, Morocco. Photograph © Patricia Blessing

Historically, how were mosques designed to create a sensory experience – what techniques and features impacted experiences?

Certainly, acoustics played an important role, for instance with the addition of domes that could create striking soundscapes; with the addition of furnishings that provided light, smells, and tactile experiences, but also with various building materials of different textures such as tiles, stone, wood. We should see these buildings as complete works, with their interior decoration and furnishings, so that we can fully grasp how multi-sensory experiences were prepared for the faithful.

Can you tell us more about architectural design and sensory experiences in historic Islamic mosques? What practices are still prevalent today?

This probably varies greatly across the present-day Islamic world, and I can only speak to the regions where I have traveled and been able to visit mosques. As a non-Muslim, I also make sure not to visit mosques during prayer times, so I can’t claim to have experienced these buildings in action. Certainly, carpets or other floor coverings are still present in prayer halls, although of course not the historical ones that need to be preserved in museums. In a seminar I am teaching at Princeton on sensory art history, we recently discussed how in Ottoman mosques in Turkey, smell emanating from censers is no longer part of the sensory experience of mosques. Censers were moved to museums in the early twentieth century, and it seems that over time, people forgot that they were once present. So today, entering a mosque in Turkey, one no longer expects a smell-scape featuring incense, and many might even think that this is a Christian practice that doesn’t belong in a mosque. But such contemporary changes may operate very differently in other locations.

Why is archiving the history of architectural and urban development necessary to facilitate our understanding of modern Islamic architectural heritage?

Without documenting and preserving historical buildings and urban planning, it is impossible to understand monuments and urban structures. Architecture is a central part of heritage, and preserving it can also contribute to cityscapes that are more pleasant to inhabit today, and that preserve the typical built environment of a region, especially when efforts are made to integrate historical forms into new designs. This is not just true for the Islamic world, but given its rich architectural heritage, there is so much to work with.

How is historic Islamic architecture shaping the identity of Islamic heritage and architecture for the future?

I think this differs very much from place to place – that could be country to country, region to region, city to city, or even neighborhood to neighborhood. How is historic Islamic architecture for instance referenced in contemporary designs? Are historical monuments living centers of a neighborhood, or are entire neighborhoods museumified and emptied of inhabitants? How are students of architecture taught to engage with historical architecture? These are all questions that are being contemplated in many parts of the Islamic world, and that will bring a wide range of results.

For more information follow Patricia Blessing on Twitter: @pdblessing

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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