Architecture of Identity

Paint it Habsburg yellow

Posted by dianamuir on March 05, 2013
Architecture of Identity / Comments Off on Paint it Habsburg yellow

Interesting book review on pan-Habsburg architecture.

Jewish Identity and Egyptian Revival Architecture

Posted by dianamuir on February 25, 2013
Architecture of Identity / Comments Off on Jewish Identity and Egyptian Revival Architecture

Synagogues built in the Egyptian style, my article.

Salafis against historic preservation

Posted by dianamuir on July 04, 2012
Architecture of Identity / 2 Comments

There are universal values, but there are many fewer of them than you probably think.

I write this as I watch the  destruction of venerable mosques and tombs in Timbuktu with horror.   Iconic, historic buildings – gone.


Djinguereber Mosque

All that is left of some are photos.

But whether this is a crime or an act of piety is a matter of opinion.   In my opinion and probably in yours it is an appalling act of wanton destruction.   But in the eyes of the men (I use a sexist noun deliberately; I don’t think this particular group lets its women handle sledgehammers in public) these are acts of piety.

These vandals are pious Muslims and they are destroying venerable buildings lest someone venerate them.

Belief that historic buildings can become objects of veneration detracting from an understanding of the oneness of God is widespread in Islam, and is increasing with the rising popularity of Salafism.   While the world press is comparing this to the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan, the closet comparison is actually to the destruction of historic and religious sites in Mecca, on a scale that boggles a Western mind, and many Muslim minds, but not the Salafi mind.

Muslims do not have an exclusive on iconoclasm.  Some of the nicest peoples we know have gone in for this sort of thing, there was a Dutch iconoclasm, an English iconoclasm, a Byzantine iconoclasm – all were motivated by piety and the objects they destroyed were as irreplaceable as the mosques of Timbuktu.

Yes, I am appalled, just as I would be appalled if they were burning books.   There is, by the by, a small, glass rondel from a church window at the Cloisters in Manhattan.  It shows Europeans throwing books into a bonfire and it was created as part of a series illustrating praiseworthy acts.  Cultures can change.  They do it all the time.  But rarely because they are scolded by UNESCO, which does have great photos of the buildings now being destroyed.

Back to my assertion that there are very few universal values.  Take incest, for example, marriage betwwen a brother and a sister.   Prohibition of sibling marriage is often taken to be a universal value.   Yet it was a normative practice in Roman Egypt. (Full Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt: Another Look quick viewSeymour ParkerCultural Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Aug., 1996), pp. 362-376)  The culture valued the preservation of family assets and the ability to pass them on to grandchildren.    Genetic diseases were not well understood.

Values are not part of human being, they are part of human culture.  They vary between one human group and another.  Some of these variations are minor.  Others are yawning chasms, like the cultural gap that separates the men from destroying the mosques in Timbuktu from the columnists writing about them.

The destruction in Timbuktu is not “an attack on our humanity“, nor is it “totally unjustified“, as Ban Ki-moon has asserted.   These iconoclasts are not hooligans in blue robes.  These men have ideological motivation for tearing down venerable mosques and tombs.   Their ideology horrifies me, but it is not irrational.

Ideas  have consequences, and one consequence of Salafism is an imperative to annihilate the venerable.





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Abu Darweesh Mosque; a Circassian identity statement in Amman, Jordan

Posted by dianamuir on May 29, 2012
Architecture of Identity, Uncategorized / 1 Comment

File:Abu Darweesh Mosque.jpg

This is a great looking building.  A head-turner. It was meant to be.   It was built by  Circassians, the original settlers of Amman Jordan.

The Circassians arrived in 1878 as refugees from the Russian conquest of their homeland.  The site where they settled, now the city of Amman, was empty, a landscape of goats grazing among the abandoned ruins of vanished empires.

This mosque was built in 1961 as an identity statement by the small but wealthy and powerful Circassian community.  The  black and white patterning of the stonework evoke several of the great mosques built in Cairo by the Circassian Mamluk rulers of Egypt, like the one below, built by  Sultan al-Muayyad Shaykh in the early fifteenth century.   The allusion was apt, since the Circassians of Jordan have been a key part of the officer corps of the the Jordanian army and the  administration of the Hashemite dynasty that rules Jordan, and largely excludes the Palestinian majority from the government.


Here is Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s description of the site of modern Amman as it appeared in 1812,  from his book “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land”:

“We entered a broad valley, which brought us in half an hour to the ruins of Amman, which lies about nineteen English miles to Salt. The town lies along the banks of a river called Moiet Amman, which has its source in a pond, at a few hundred paces from the south-western end of the town; the river of Amman runs in a valley bordered on both sides by barren hills of flint, which advance on the south side close to the edge of the stream.”

“The edifices which still remain to attest the former splendour of Amman are the following: a spacious church, built with large stones, and having a steeple of the shape of those which I saw in several ruined towns in the Houran. A high arched bridge over the river; this appears to have been the only bridge in the town, although the river is not fordable in the winter. The banks of the river, as well as its bed, are paved, but the pavement has been in most places carried away by the violence of the winter torrent. The stream is full of small fish. On the south side of the river is a fine theatre, the largest that I have seen in Syria. On both wings of the theatre are vaults. In front was a colonnade, of which eight Corinthian columns yet remain.”

“Nearly opposite the theatre, to the northward of the river, are the remains of a temple, the posterior wall of which only remains, having an entablature, and several niches highly adorned with sculpture. Before this building stand the shafts of several columns three feet in diameter. Its date appears to be anterior to that of all the other buildings of Amman, and its style of architecture is much superior. At some distance farther down the Wady, stand a few small columns, probably the remains of a temple. The plain between the river and the northern hills is covered with ruins of private buildings, extending from the church down to the columns; but nothing of them remains, except the foundations and some of the door posts.”

“On the top of the highest of the northern hills stands the castle of Amman, a very extensive building; it was an oblong square, filled with buildings. The castle walls are thick, and denote a remote antiquity: large blocks of stone are piled up without cement, and still hold together as well as if they had been recently placed. Within the castle are several deep cisterns and a square building, in complete preservation, constructed in the same manner as the castle wall; it is without ornaments, and the only opening into it is a low door, over which was an inscription now defaced. Near this building are the traces of a large temple; several of its broken columns are lying on the ground; they are the largest I saw at Amman, some of them being three feet and a half in diameter; their capitals are of the Corinthian order.”


Here is a photograph of Amman taken in 1918 by  Col. D.G. Croll who donated his wartime photographs to the Australian War Memorial.



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