God is beautiful and He loves beauty

Article written about the Exhibition Creswell’s Cairo: Then and Now  in Al-Ahram Weekly on the 18th of December 2003

Creswell's Cairo 

Destined to live surrounded by beauty, saturated as it were by beauty, there are perhaps those who remain unmoved by detached, precise academic appreciations of their surroundings. Certainly it seemed so for me, living at peace in the old walled city of Jerusalem from the summer of 1965, living in the Tinkaziya, a Mamluke jewel that was effectively the gatehouse for the Bab Al- Silsila entryway within the wall of the Haram Al- Sharif, a listed monument of sturdy exquiteness which looked out upon the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives. 

I had stumbled upon K A C Creswell's Early Muslim Architecture and would periodically attempt to follow Creswell's meticulous descriptions and precise architectural histories but at the time my mind responded only to the overwhelming medieval Islamic urbanscape in which I lived and slept and walked, at times almost in a daze. I was so overwhelmed by poetic metaphor -- by this tangible Jerusalem, the metaphor if not the reflection of The Celestial City -- that I had little patience to appreciate either Creswell's text and extraordinary scale drawings, much less the man himself. 

What did remain with me, however, was Creswell's observation that Jerusalem -- the old walled city -- was indeed the most perfectly preserved Muslim medieval city in the world. My travels, before and after the Jerusalem interlude, to wonderful cities like Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, Damascus, Istanbul and Cairo (I would not think to even mention Beirut or Amman -- my journalistic base of operations when I left Jerusalem one year after the Israeli occupation) convinced me of the truth of that particular observation. 

So it was, in a sense, as one who had been exiled from a centre of celestial beauty that I eventually relocated to Cairo in 1974 to revive the NBC News bureau here. But out of nostalgia for that earlier state, and already a devotee of Mamluke art -- apart from the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque and a few other structures, including the Ottoman walls, the walled city of Jerusalem is overwhelmingly an Ayyubi and Mamluke creation -- I would spend considerable amounts of whatever spare time I had wandering around what we today call Islamic Cairo. 

Inevitably I became a visitor-disciple at the late afternoon teas hosted by Hassan Fathy in his amazing quarters adjacent to the Sultan Hassan Madrasa-Mosque and the Rifai Mosque, and made much use of the AUC Press edition of A Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments by Richard Parker and Robin Sabin, since 1985 continuously revised by Caroline Williams and now published as Islamic Monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide. It was nostalgic in the sense that Islamic monuments in Cairo are frequently to be found in devastated surroundings of urban decay and new building that is at best insensitive or ambivalent in relation to the ambience of a traditional Muslim city and at worst -- and this is an increasing danger over recent decades -- in flagrant and often vulgar violation of that spirit. But there are still blocks to be walked that sustain the medieval urbanscape and correctly site individual buildings while those buildings themselves, whether correctly sited or not, remain marvels. The Practical Guide, as old-time users still refer to it, remains the work I unfailingly recommend to any newcomer to Cairo who wants to walk through the experience as much as read about it. 

But when one read Caroline Williams' acknowledgements or consulted her bibliography for further readings it became gradually apparent to someone like myself, with no familiarity with the scholarly literature, that K A C Creswell is the starting point for all guides to and research on the Islamic monuments of Cairo. Creswell's vast collection of more than 10,000 photographs and negatives, many accompanied by his own careful research notes, not to mention 5,000 rare books and his own pioneering writing in this field, is in Cairo, at the American University's (AUC's) Rare Books and Special Collections Library. As Philip Croom, director of the library, says in his notes to the catalogue of the exhibition "Creswell's Cairo: Then and Now", Creswell based his meticulous reseach "on clearly verifiable facts, exact measurements, chronological accuracy, extensive photographic documentation and a thorough study of the history of buildings and their builders. At the same time he acquired every book of merit on the subject that he could find. The result is an exceptional collection of first editions and rare tomes, journals and maps in addition to his own scale drawings and reams of descriptive and photographic documentation." 

But the most telling experience of my first year in Cairo was to stumble -- in the company of a friend fluent in Arabic and a devoted book collector -- upon the original but seemingly vanished two volume edition of The Mosques of Egypt, prepared by a general committee formed in 1943 of high ranking officials and scholars, overwhelmingly Egyptian save for Creswell and the former director of Reproduction Offices of the Survey of Egypt. It was a committee on which Sir Archibald obviously played the leading role. This massive two volume work was superbly bound and printed by the Survey of Egypt, Giza in 1949 and in its own way is a monument to the quality of work once attainable in Egypt and that will hopefully be attained again. 

It was not on display at the little bookstore not far from Al-Azhar where we stumbled upon it since the volumes, which could be viewed as some sort of testimony to the cultural product of pre-revolutionary Egypt, had been removed from the market. But not before the original Preface and Introduction, which I have not seen, was removed from volume one and replaced with a new one dated June 1954. 

The new introduction was signed by the revolutionary government's first minister of Waqf, the Azhari Sheikh Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakouri, but even this substitution was deemed an insufficient dilution of the obvious pre- revolutionary origins of the magnificent work which was eventually withdrawn from the market and stored away in a government warehouse where, as so often happens, discreet "private initiatives" by those with access to the warehouse guaranteed a clandestine supply of the books. Years later new, and presumably pirated, editions published in Beirut and London, if I recall correctly, appeared on the market and became available though the binding of these new editions cannot approach the original work, even if the overall reproduction is of good quality. In one of those ironies that can happen in Cairo, the far superior, original black market edition was far less costly than the pirated one produced abroad. Each volume is 17 inches high by 13 inches wide (33 cm by 44.5 cm) and contains large scale photogravure plates, arranged in chronological order, so that the reader, by turning them over, can, to quote Creswell "review the growth and evolution of Muslim architecture in Egypt". Each plate is accompanied by a descriptive text, sufficient to give the essential facts concerning each mosque while the second volume contains magnificent detailed photographic sequences organised by catagory -- minarets, domes, lamps, chandeliers, types of capitals and columns (which are drawn), door knockers, and stucco window grills. 

By the time this massive work was published Creswell's reputation -- based upon a career that had begun during World War I and its immediate aftermath when he served as a surveyor of monuments in Palestine and Syria -- as the founding father of the modern scholarly discipline we know as the History of Islamic Art and Architecture, had been established. As George Scanlon, professor of Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo, notes, "his interest in Muslim architecture was quickened and upon his return to Egypt in 1920 he commenced his life long dedicated endeavour" that ended with his death in 1974. 

The Preface to the Mosques of Egypt, written by Creswell (who became Sir Archibald when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1970), says it all: 

"Cairo possesses a most remarkable series of Muslim monuments, running unbroken from the ninth to the nineteenth century. In the latter respect it is unique; other cities, such as Damascus possess a large number of monuments but some centuries are not represented at all." 

Now 40 of Creswells's black and white photographs of Islamic monuments in Cairo will be exhibited alongside recently taken colour photographs of the same monuments from approximately identical perspectives, in a joint exhibit at the AUC Sony Gallery and the Rare Books Library, to be opened on Monday, 22 December, by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Among the guests joining Dr Hawass are His Excellency the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Dr Ali Joum'a, and His Excellency Sir Derick Plumbly, British ambassador to Egypt. 

The Creswell photographs come from the Creswell Collection. The contemporary color photographs which match pictures taken by Creswell anywhere from 50 to 70 years ago, were taken by a Venezuelan team commissioned by the Islamic Art Network, and the show, including the modest catalogue that will be made available to visitors, is the result of close collaboration between the Rare Books Library, the Islamic Art Network and the Sony Gallery for Photography. 

The Islamic Art Network was established by the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation two years ago to serve researchers in the field and to acquaint those who are interested in the subject with Islamic art and architecture. Its website www.islamic-art.org provides a digitial library with two sections, the Comité de Consérvation des Monuments del'Art Arab bulletins and a photo archive of Islamic buildings in Cairo, including a virtual reproduction of the AUC--IAN exhibition that opens on Monday. The Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation is a non- profit organisation established to advance, support and promote the protection, preservation, study and dissemination of Islamic intellectual, cultural and artistic patrimony. For more information about the foundation see www.thesaurus.islamicus.li (currently www.thesaurus-islamicus.org) 

Much help in putting the exhibit together was provided by the Islamic art historian Christel Kessler who worked as Sir Archibald's assistant. The exhibition, according to Dr. Kessler, is a "most interestingly conceived exhibition honouring the memory of Professor Creswell and an often under-rated part of his historic documentation". Kessler, who lives in Cambridge, will be attending the opening ceremonies. 

Dr. S. Abdallah Schleifer
Director of the Sony Gallery and the Adham Center for Television Journalism at AUC and the Academic Liaison Officer of the Islamic Art Network.