How do we talk about architecture and poetry in a time of misinformation and war?
Every year, I take the students from my Islamic architecture course to visit the Islamic art collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York so they can see the cultural artifacts we’ve discussed in class. In 2013, we stopped to look at an aerial photograph of the 9th-century Great Mosque of Samarra, taken by the British Royal Air Force 100 years ago. The black-and-white image shows the vast scale of the mosque, renowned for having one of the tallest minarets in the world, at approximately 170 feet.
Someone remarked, “Wasn’t this the minaret that was installed with American snipers fighting Iraqi rebels in 2005, and blown up later?” Silence dropped over the group, and we moved on.
Teaching Islamic art and architecture can feel like walking through a minefield. Long before “war on terror” was a common phrase, the sites I lecture on were contentious, the evisceration of cultural heritage already underway. In my first class, on Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba in Mecca, I couldn’t avoid showing images of the sacred monument overshadowed by towering hotels. Old photographs and verbal descriptions have to stand in for the hundreds of Ottoman and early Islamic sites destroyed by the Saudi government to make way for ambitious commercial ventures. The hardest segment is on Iraq; some years I skip the Abbasids, as I am unable to talk about the historic city of Baghdad or the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala, popular pilgrimage sites that have been targeted in sectarian wars, without tears in my eyes.
Now, with devastating images of human suffering from Mosul and Aleppo filling the news, ancient sites reduced to rubble, and rampant misinformation and anxiety about Islam, it’s more difficult than ever to tell the stories of places as old as civilization itself.