The Limits of 'Universal' Heritage: Islam and the Preservation of the Past

Thursday, November 10, 2016
5:00 - 6:30pm
Founder's Room (Lovett Hall, Entrance B, 2nd Floor)

Stephennie Mulder, Associate Professor of Islamic Art, University of Texas at Austin

For centuries before the emergence of ISIS and other so-called Islamist iconoclasts – indeed, almost as early as the rise of Islam itself – Muslims valued Islamic and pre-Islamic antiquity and its localities in myriad ways: as sites of memory, spaces of healing, or places imbued with didactic, historical, and moral power. Ancient statuary were deployed as talismans, paintings were interpreted to foretell and reify the coming of Islam, and temples of ancient gods and churches devoted to holy saints were venerated, inhabited, or converted into mosques in ways that preserved their original meaning and, sometimes, even their architectural ornament and fabric.

Often, such localities were esteemed simply as places that elicited a sense of awe and wonder, or of reflection on the present relevance of history and the greatness of past empires – a theme so prevalent it created distinct genres of Arabic and Persian literature. Sites like Ctesiphon, the ancient capital of the Zoroastrian Sasanians, or the Temple Mount, where the Jewish temple had stood, were embraced by early companions of the Prophet Muhammad and incorporated into Islamic notions of the self. Various Islamic interpretive communities as well as Jews and Christians often shared holy places and had similar ritual and devotional relationships to such sites. However, although these locally-grounded relationships to sites of heritage were precisely the means of their preservation into modern times, the interjection of colonial rule imposed a new paradigm of “universal” heritage that denied and erased established local practices of heritage preservation.

This talk will challenge current “universal” archaeological and heritage models now prevalent by exploring some of the numerous historical examples of local preservation of heritage sites, and in doing so, will reveal the ways that throughout Islamic history Muslims, Christians, and Jews preserved and revered the past.

Stephennie Mulder is Associate Professor of Islamic Art at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a specialist in Islamic art, architecture, and archaeology in the medieval era, and she worked for over a decade as an archaeologist at the Islamic site of Balis in Syria. Dr. Mulder is the author of articles on Islamic art, archaeology, and architectural history, and is the recipient of the Hamilton Book Award, the Syrian Studies Association Award, and Iran’s World Prize for Book of the Year for her book The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’s and the Architecture of Coexistence. The book was also selected as one of Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Titles. She is on the board of several cultural heritage organizations and is the founder of UT Antiquities Action, a group that aims to raise awareness of cultural heritage loss and destruction around the world.