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FOCUS ON ISLAM I What is ‘Islamic’ archaeology?

Andrew Petersen∗
The flight of Muhammad and his companions from Mecca to Medina in AD 622 (the hijra) initiated one of the world’s great intellectual and cultural movements, which in a few centuries was to extend from China to the Atlantic. As western archaeologists, we have probably accorded relative neglect to the study of the material culture arising from Islam, although it clearly has much to offer for the understanding of all societies. To help redress the balance, Antiquity has invited a number of scholars active in the archaeology of Islamic culture to give us a taste of work in progress. This special series, which will feature in each issue in 2005, is introduced by its convenor, Andrew Petersen. Keywords: Islam, Ummayad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Mamluk, Ottoman Given the popularity of archaeology today and the prominence of the Muslim faith in contemporary world affairs, it is perhaps surprising that these two factors have not resulted in a flourishing discipline of Islamic archaeology. The reasons for this situation are diverse and complicated, and yet the material culture of such a great intellectual movement undoubtedly has much to tell us about its own and the other societies with which it has interacted over many centuries. For the purposes of our special series, ‘Islamic archaeology’ will be taken to describe the investigation of the material culture of Muslim peoples from the origins of Islam (c. AD 630) to the recent past. We shall show examples of fieldwork and interpretation in progress and hope to reveal something of the potential for new approaches and broader understanding that the subject undoubtedly contains. The origins of Islamic archaeology have been investigated in some detail by Vernoit (1997) who has shown how it began with the collection of medieval Middle Eastern antiquities in the nineteenth century, later extending to the learned appreciation of Islamic architecture. The focus on Islamic Art (cf. Grabar 1987) and architecture (e.g., Creswell 1989) has meant that Islamic archaeology has, in the past, often appeared to be more concerned with the aesthetics of the buildings and objects than the societies which produced them (see also Rogers 1976). This brings us to the problem of how to best define ‘Muslim society’ for purposes of archaeological study. One approach, most recently exercised by Tim Insoll (1999), is to define the society by its religion, so that Islamic archaeology (such as ‘Christian Archaeology’, Frend 1996) is structured primarily as the archaeology of a religion. Others have interpreted ‘islamic’ more broadly to apply to a society where Islam is the religion of the ruling class, but may not be professed by a majority of the population. This appears to have been the case in Syria during the Umayyad period (AD 661-750) where the majority of the population were non-Muslim at least up to the end of the seventh century (see, for example,

Department of History and Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, UAE University, P.O. Box 17771, al-Ain, UAE (Email: and

antiquity 79 (2005): 100–106


European and North American archaeologists because it lies outside their cultural sphere. who in the fourteenth century AD travelled from West Africa to China staying predominantly within Muslim communities (Defr´mery & Sanguinetti ed. It could be argued that. Within this special series it will be apparent that both approaches have been followed. This can be seen from the writings of Ibn Battuta. Islamic archaeology has been the subject of special sessions at various conferences such as BANEA (British Association of Near Eastern Archaeologists) held in Edinburgh in 1990 and at sessions of ICNEA (International Conference of Near Eastern Archaeologists) in Copenhagen in 2001 and in Paris in 2002. covering a huge area from Kazan in the north (on the same latitude as Moscow) to southern Indonesia (on the same latitude as northern Australia). The reason for this focus on the pre-Islamic periods may appear to be promoted by famous and spectacular 101 Research . and in some cases combined. the Muslim world is of limited interest to British. the question of why the archaeology of Islam is not better known outside the few specialists in the field initially appears even more puzzling. these two approaches have focused on different themes. despite its size. the first journal devoted to Islamic archaeology was published in Paris under the title Arch´ologie Islamique. There have been several previous attempts to bring Islamic archaeology to a wider public starting with the publication of an issue of World Archaeology devoted to the subject in 1983. Even Assyriology (the study of the cultures of ancient Iraq) and Levantine/Biblical archaeology have had more popular coverage and considerably more academic resources than the archaeology of Islam whose heartland lies in the same areas (it is interesting to note that the Egypt Exploration Society specifically excludes the Islamic period from its area of interest). but unfortunately problems of distribution have e meant that the journal has not achieved a wide readership outside France. producing a rich band of interpretation. The medieval Islamic world was more than twice the size of medieval Christendom (Figure 1). In 1990. However. subject in its own right both on a popular and academic level. A majority of these initiatives has understandably concentrated on the archaeology of western Asia (the Middle East) and north Africa. the Indian sub-continent and southeast Asia were fully integrated into the medieval Muslim world. Whilst not mutually exclusive in practice. In addition to these publishing ventures. Map showing the extent of Islam in the fifteenth century AD. More recently. But sub-Saharan Africa. Given its vast geographical scope. e 1853-8). the publication of Tim Insoll’s book The Archaeology of Islam (1999) has provided a focus for debate on the scope and purpose of Islamic archaeology.Andrew Petersen Schick 1995). the one concerned with defining and understanding Muslim thinking and the other looking at structures of power in Muslim states. this has not prevented Egyptology from becoming a Figure 1.

Unlike many of the foreign cultures studied by western archaeologists. the invention of algebra). noting that the orange. provided the lands of the Maghreb and al-Andalus with an affluent industrial base not seen since the Romans. Islam is a living project that is still developing. Other causes must be found for its relative neglect. It is equally significant that. In the modern academic world. The answer of course. the 52m high minaret of Jam in Afghanistan or the ninth century town of Samarra in Iraq. Said (1978) drew a contrast between the cultures of Islam and the more ancient cultures of western Asia which had occupied the same areas. Islam has been a literate culture from its inception and consequently most academic inquiry has focused on written texts. spinach and other foodstuffs were Arabic words. cruel and corrupt. nor great intellectual achievements (for example. as with medieval archaeology in general. there are areas and periods for which there is little or no written documentation. but equally subjected to source criticism (Carver 2002). as in other areas of historical archaeology. Islamic civilisation is not short of great monuments. A fine example of such research is given by Watson’s (1983) thesis which. studied their provenance and incidence in literature and on the ground. A more serious obstacle to the archaeological study of Islam may be connected to the problem of western academic and popular attitudes. conversion to Islam in the early Islamic period (AD 630-750). there need be no necessary acceptance of the primacy of scientific scrutiny – as though the ineffable could be reduced to the simplistic explanations 102 . One explanation may be connected with the relative status of archaeology and history. the Ziggurats of Iraq or the walls of Jericho) or on the contributions said to have been made by these societies to world civilisation. However. and so belonging to the ‘Western’ heritage. is to create a forum of study in which both written and material evidence are equally respected. this attitude easily provokes a high sensitivity among Islamic thinkers.g. the lemon. making use of the qanat (invented in Persia) to provide irrigation in desert lands. and defining it by the term orientalism. the documents of the Cairo Geniza published by Goitein (1967-83)). Western historians and archaeologists adopted the more ancient peoples as ancestors of their own. currently recognised as the world’s largest archaeological site. and the cultivation of the cotton plant.What is ‘Islamic’ archaeology? monuments (e. Areas of particular significance for which archaeology may be able to provide answers include the origins of Islam in Arabia. the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza. for example. trade in the Indian Ocean and the origins and development of cities. changeless. the information provided by written texts does not necessarily provide the answers to the questions in which we are interested. Muslim civilisation has been regarded as a recent development. as among those of many other non-western cultures. On the one hand. in the matter of investigatory science. for example. By contrast. Analysing an area of suspicion between west and east. But whilst the documents provide a wealth of information on many areas of life (see. This. He showed how the deeply rooted love of poetry and gardens amongst the early Caliphs allowed fruits such as the orange to migrate as gifts from caliph to caliph from their point of discovery in the vegetation of Burma to the groves of Seville. a later overlay by communities having no connection (neither cultural nor genetic) with the ancient civilisation. Western orientalism is a negative attitude which characterises Islamic civilisation as backward.

indicating a significant number of ongoing projects. The diversity of the Islamic world is reflected in the wide geographical range of the articles. but the dangers of failing to reflect on the views of modern ‘descendant communities’. On the other hand. the manner of its study. south-east Asia and Israel. and the weakness inherent in our own potential lack of understanding of their values and perceptions (Hodder 1992. tombs and artefacts. modern archaeological theory has already taken several steps towards softening and broadening. The September issue offers a sample of current research widely spread in time and space. For example. Smith 2004). they should reflect the diversity of the Islamic world and they should employ a variety of approaches. The guiding ambitions in selecting articles for this special series were that they should be based on recent fieldwork. All of the articles fulfil the first criterion: the majority are based on fieldwork carried out since 2000. That future agenda undoubtedly promises some exciting and important topics: the conversion to Islam. a topical survey of Samarra and the large-scale excavations of the early glass industry in Syria. which reflects the continuing rapid economic development of this area in the wake of the mid-twentieth century oil boom (see Potts et al. too often over-simplified in terms of conquest. and perhaps in particular the history of the medieval West. substituting for its previous hunger for exotic artefacts an equally domineering belief in its epistemological powers. Within this wide array of sites there are certain areas which stand out. we focus on origins with recent work in the Umayyad period in Jordan and Syria. and thus enhancing. The consequences of this situation have been that access to Islamic archaeology at an undergraduate level has been restricted to those few universities which have Oriental Studies Departments and that there has been very little theoretical cross-fertilisation with mainstream archaeology. the Gulf. up to now. often strongly held in the case of Islam. the growth of the Islamic world trading system or the construction and development of the Islamic town. But whilst this may be true on the institutional level (there are very few university posts in Islamic archaeology). western Islamic archaeology has. and that Islamic archaeology has a great deal to contribute to the understanding of world history. 2003). we believe that scientific archaeology. We begin with three papers which well reflect the spirit of the new inquiry: an investigation of the Gulf states in the pre-Islamic period. Fortunately. has much to contribute to the understanding of Islamic communities. Approaches to interpretation now invite us to appreciate not only the intelligence expressed by the makers of buildings. properly and respectfully positioned. It is this new location in the mainstream of archaeological research that we hope the articles in our special series will demonstrate. In June.Andrew Petersen of the western enlightenment. over the past few decades the western archaeological project has been especially militant. Through its oriental ancestry. At the same time. it is less true when we look at the actual research and fieldwork carried out. been confined in the field of Oriental Studies thus separating it from mainstream archaeological theory and practice. Such studies 103 Research . from Morocco to southeast Asia. and our envoi in December provides thoughtful overviews on current and future work in the Iberian peninsula. For all that. it is noticeable that three of the articles relate to eastern Arabia. it acts as a corrective to Creswell’s famous dismissal of the Arabian peninsula as a source for Islamic architecture (for a discussion of this see King (1991)).

Theory and practice in archaeology. (after the hijra) so that 1 A.). 1999. Watson. Creswell’s appreciation of Arabian architecture. 1967-83. Leiden: E. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. and ed. Paris. M. 1996. Goitein. London: Ashgate. 2002. The spread of Islam. at the same time.A. & S. Defr´ mery. 1987. Spelling: Transliteration of names and places follows the usage in Freeman-Grenville and Munro-Hay (2002). Nabooda & P. S. The rise of Islamic archaeology.C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Insoll. 4 vols. in J. Ibn Battuta. Yale: Yale University Press. Agricultural innovation in the early Islamic world: the diffusion of crops and farming techniques. Davies & C. 2003. Archaeological theory and the politics of cultural heritage. G. London: Routledge.). 178. Hakluyt Society 2nd series vols 110. we have used the BC/AD terminology simply to achieve consistency with the rest of the journal and no disrespect is intended. King. Oxford: ElsevierPhaidon. 1992. A. Voyages d’Ibn Battuta. = AD 623. M. AD 700-1100. E. 1853-8. e Voyages d’Ibn Battuta. Freeman-Grenville. Proceedings of the first international conference on the archaeology of the UAE.J. I. Historical atlas of Islam. The archaeology of Islam. Vernoit. Beckingham. Sanguinetti (ed. XIV: 1-10. A Mediterranean society: the Jewish communities of the Arab world as portrayed in the documents of the Cairo Geniza. (trans.. Potts. G. London: British Academy. H. in G¨ lru Necipoglu (ed. vol. 1991. 1853-8.A. C.A.). Grabar. W.H. The formation of Islamic art. Archaeology of the United Arab Emirates. Orientalism (Peregrine edition 1985). 2004. Muqarnas VIII: An annual on the visual culture of the Islamic World. Marriages of true minds: archaeology with texts. Grabar (ed. London: Fortress Press.H. New Islamic dynasties: a chronological and genealogical guide. New York & London: Continuum Publishing Group. Cunliffe. and perhaps. 4 vols. New York: Columbia University Press (paperback edition 2004)/Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1989. Hodder. References Carver.). make a small contribution to their further mutual understanding and appreciation of each other. Schick.D. Berkeley. London & New York: Routledge.H. The archaeology of Early Christianity. Frend. Said.).P. 104 . Oxford: Blackwell. 1996. 141.F. A short account of Islamic architecture. D. Renfrew (ed. Sanguinetti). 2002. Princeton (New Jersey): Darwin Press. Cresswell. Bosworth. 1976. & B. in O. 190. Reprint 2000 with translation by C. Rogers.H.R. O. Muqarnas: An annual on the u visual culture of the Islamic World. Allan (ed. K. R. Archaeology: the widening debate. London: Trident Press. Smith. in B. 5 vols. 1997. W. 1983. S. Brill. Munro-Hay. 117.C. M. 1995. Defr´mery & e B. L.A. 1978. Hellyer. In these papers.What is ‘Islamic’ archaeology? might advance understanding of early and modern societies in both east and west. Note Dates: Islamic scholars use the dating convention A. by C. C. CA: University of California Press.O. Middlesex: Penguin.D. The Christian communities of Palestine from Byzantine to Islamic Rule: an historical and archaeological study (Studies in Late Antiquity and Islam 2).S.E. T.M.C.

Mamluk rulers of Egypt and Syria. Sind (India) conquered. North Africa (the Maghreb) and Spain (al-Andalus) conquered. lodging for travellers and merchants dikka: raised platform in front of the mihrab Dome of the Rock: octagonal Muslim shrine in Jerusalem hammam: baths jami: the principal ‘Friday’ mosque in a city Ka’aba: the large cubical structure containing the Black Stone in the centre of the Great Mosque at Mecca Kufic script: Arabic decorative script originating in al-Kufa. Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Taught in Mecca. centred on Cairo. Glossary al-Aqsa: the great Mosque of al-Haram al-Sharif. Temple Mount. The Hijra. Ayyubid dynasty rulers of Syria. AD 615 (ascribed to 622). centred on Damascus. a Sunni Caliphate based in Iraq. Almoravid dynasty in North Africa and Spain. Fatimids: a Shi’ite dynasty active in North Africa. the Prophet. Resided in Medina 628-632. ‘Desert castles’ palatial. Almohad dynasty in North Africa and Spain. For more detailed information about dynasties and chronology. Egypt and Yemen. Samarra abandoned as imperial capital. Jerusalem burj: tower caliph: originally political and religious leaders of the Muslim world. Samarra founded as new Abbasid capital. Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al Sakhra) constructed. Taj Mahal constructed. Ottoman Turkish dynasty active. Abbasid dynasty. Iraq masjid: local mosque maydan: open square in front of a mosque or palace mamluks: slave soldiers of non-Muslim origin mihrab: niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca minbar: pulpit in a mosque musalla: the space for the congregation in a mosque 105 Research . Umayyad dynasty. khan: hostel. later this role was reduced to symbolic quasi-religious leadership caravanserai. Mughuls Muslim emperors of India. a Sunni Caliphate active in Syria and Jordan.Andrew Petersen Archaeological time frame c. see Bosworth (1996). caliph returns to Baghdad. AD 570-632 610-628 628-632 661-750 691 7-8th centuries 712 715 750 762 836 892 909-1171 1062-1147 1130-1269 1171-1250 1250-1517 1281-1924 1453 1526-1858 1631-48 Life of Muhammad. ruled eastern half of Islamic empire for nearly 200 years. Baghdad constructed as Abbasid capital. semi-fortified sites of the Umayyads constructed in Syria and Jordan. or migration of Muhammad and his Companions from Mecca to Medina took place c.

What is ‘Islamic’ archaeology? qal‘a. husn: citadel or fort qanat: underground aqueduct qiblah: direction of prayer for Muslims (towards Mecca) Qur’an: the sacred book of Islam ribat: fortified monastery Sunni: followers of Muhammad Shi’ite: followers of Muhammad’s son in law. Ali. For further architectural terms see 106 . qasba. murdered 661.