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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