Islamic Art and Archaeology as a Subject of Enquiry

From the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to the Central Mosque in Cologne, from fragments of Qur’an manuscripts in Sanaa to bronze ewers from Uzbekistan and to paintings of conmtemporary Iranian artists – art and material culture of the Islamic World cover a wide range of modes and objects. Within a geographical framework extending from Morocco to Central Asia and Indonesia, and a chronological range between the 7th and the 21st centuries, a great variety of artefacts and artistic expressions can be subject of study and research: Buildings, objects of luxury, of devotion and of everyday use in more or less artistic forms, aesthetically challenging books, calligraphies, and images.

Islamic Art History

Islamic Art History attempts (just like Art History in general) to analyze objects on the basis of their formal and material properties as well as their cultural context. Works of art are placed in a context of stylistic history and artistic intent which, ideally, can be read from them. Interpreting the “form” and the “content” of a work of art, understanding it from the conditions under which it originated at a specific place and time, are major tasks that have to be tackled ever again for important pieces of art. Art history tries to come to overarching statements on formal developments and meaning of art. To this end, it has to explain the functional and cultural context(s) of works of art, in order to bridge the gap between the artist and the present beholder. Besides, the cultural conditioning of the art historian’s view has to be taken into account. For Islamic Art, this situation presents particular challenges. A special problem is the basic delineation of its field, according to what should be considered “Islamic”, and the wide-ranging question to what degree formal properties can be ascribed to a specific “Islamic” character of the cultures from which a given object originated.

Islamic Archaeology

Islamic Archaeology looks at historical processes, and at cultural change in particular, that happened in the Islamic World. This is done on the basis of material remnants, not necessarily of artistic character. With regard to past cultures of the Islamic World, specific topics that are discussed concern, for example, natural and historical circumstances, such as the relation between nomads, peasants, and city dwellers; the transition from late antiquity to the Islamic period; long-distance trade in the regions of the Indian Ocean, on the ‘Silk Road’, or in the Mediterranean. Methodologically, Islamic Archaeology ranges from the excavation of buildings and other structures to surface surveys and methods of scientific analysis as well as statistics. For the interpretation of archaeological finds, art historical methods continue to play an important part.