Art Histories Seminar
Mi 10 Dez 2014 | 10:00–12:00

The Qur’an, Politics and Power: Ornament, Calligraphy and Religious Spaces in Mamluk Cairo

Peter Webb (Art Histories Fellow 2014/15)

Forum Transregionale Studien Wallotstraße 14, 14193 Berlin

Prayer hall (muṣallā) of the Sultan al-Ghūrī madrasa, Cairo (1503-1505)

Calligraphy is a familiar quintessence of artistic expression across Muslim cultures, and monumental inscriptions constituted a salient aspect of architectural decoration. What were the functions of calligraphy on buildings, and why did patrons and architects devote such attention to writing on the walls? Did people ‘read’ buildings when they visited them, and if so, what messages did the buildings pass to them?

My research seeks to decode the so ubiquitous calligraphy in architecture and ornament via a case study of the Mamluk era, exploring how we can better understand the artistic output of this vibrant Muslim civilisation by ‘reading’ its buildings. Treating buildings as texts to be interpreted enables us to examine how their inscriptions may have been read, and by exploring the semiotic nexus of text, image and space, we can contextualise architectural ornament within the wider bibliophilic culture of Mamluk Egypt, and so uncover the aesthetics that drove Mamluk artistic production and the universe of slogans and icons shared between buildings and other contemporary texts such as the Qur’an, poetry, Sufi and magical writings. In this seminar, I present my first findings from research on Mamluk religious spaces. Starting with enquiry into the aesthetics associated with reading and writing the Qur’an, I examine the ways in which the Qur’an was inscribed on the walls of the madrasa. The Qur’an was not the only text inscribed on madrasa walls, however, and the interplay between Qur’anic and other inscriptions calls for closer analysis. The same discourse inscribed on the madrasa is traceable in other ‘media’, notably poetry and historiography, and I shall propose that the arrangement and combination of texts in space was aimed at delivering powerful messages of seminal importance to the institution of the Sultan.

Peter Webb (PhD SOAS, University of London, 2014) has taught classical Arabic Literature and History at SOAS (2009-14) and at the American University of Paris (2013-14) and is Art Histories Fellow 2014/15. Webb has published a number of scholarly articles and book chapters on Arabic Literature and Muslim Narratives of pre-Islamic History, and with the Saudi Archaeologist, Saad al-Rashid, he co-authored Medieval Roads to Mecca, a history of the early Hajj.

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