God is beautiful and He loves beauty

Creswell's Cairo: Then and Now

The recent photographs exhibited in Creswell's Cairo: Then and Now were commissioned by the Islamic Art Network of the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation as part of its attempt to record all the extant treasures of Islamic Cairo and to stress the urgent need for the conservation and preservation of the Islamic City.

The exhibition was conceived to honor one of the founders of the discipline of Islamic Art and Architecture History, Professor Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell, and to commemorate his efforts in documenting Islamic buildings not only in Cairo but all over the Muslim world. Professor Creswell's search for perfection is apparent in all his photographs, each of which is thoroughly thought through. According to Professor Christel Kessler, the renowned art historian who served as Professor Creswell's assistant, Sir Archibald invested considerable time in each photograph and used the best equipment. She has described the current show as "a most interestingly conceived exhibition honouring the memory of Professor (Sir Archibald) Creswell and an often underrated part of his historic documentation."

The Professor Creswell's library, now at the American University in Cairo, contains approximately 11,000 photographs, a product of his diligent fieldwork, which began in 1920 and continued up until the mid-1960s. As the Creswell Collection records the details of all the important Islamic monuments throughout the Muslim world, some of which are no longer in existence or have been drastically altered, it is indispensable to all students, scholars, and researchers of Islamic art and architecture. For obvious reasons, the photographs are also of fundamental importance for any work concerning the preservation and restoration of Islamic monuments. Most of the photographs, which are currently stored in fifty albums, have never been published before.

Islamic Art Network has selected a limited number of photographs from the Creswell Collection to be re-photographed.

Living the Exhibition

Undertaking a project to re-photograph locations taken anywhere from forty to eighty years ago was more difficult than initially envisaged. However, as we embarked on it we faced several problems, which in some cases prevented the re-photographing of some very interesting shots. The main problem was the existence of structures built since Creswell's time which blocked his original perspective, as well as the planting of trees which now impair his original view. This was the problem faced while shooting the dome of the zawiya of Zayn al-Din Yusuf No. 172 and the eastern façade of the mosque of Sultan Hasan No. 133. The second major problem was that heaps of rubbish have been thrown into monuments or in front of them, as at the hamam of Bishtak No. 244. Indeed some of the architectural jewels embellishing the crown of Cairo have become dumpsites. Solving this problem does not just involve cleaning up the sites, but probably would mean putting an end to the practice with an educational program directed at the neighborhoods as well as enforcing penalties for littering. The third problem is pollution, which has damaged the structures, eroding some of the finest details. Pollution is also responsible for an almost permanent smog which reduces the vividness of the color photographs. Last but not least was the chaotic development of some areas in Cairo. To the southeast of the celebrated Fatimid mausolea of al-Saba‘ Banat a late twentieth century slum has evolved that encroaches on the mausolea. Basically the Cairo that Creswell knew is very different from the Cairo we know now. Creswell's Cairo, needless to say, was far more beautiful.

While taking the photographs for the Exhibition the IAN team also took the opportunity to thoroughly document photographically each of the buildings visited, these photographs will be added to the Photo Archive on IAN's website at www.islamic-art.org

The Photographers

The Venezuelan couple Chemane Arias and Jenny Marquez studied Art History at the University of Los Andes in Merida. The beauty of Merida inspired their passion for photography and their training has mostly been in photographing historic buildings in Venezuela for the past two years. Their recently acquired interest in Islamic Art led to their being commissioned by the Islamic Art Network to stay in Cairo for a minimum of one year to document the Islamic City. This interest and appreciation has deepened since they have begun following in the footsteps of Professor Creswell.


The Network would like to thank Professor Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, for his great help and support, without which re-shooting the Creswell photographs would have been impossible.
We would also like to thank Professor Christel Kessler for her help with information about Professor Creswell and his Collection and Dr. Teresa Fitzherbert, archivist, Creswell Photographic Archive, Department of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University, for her help with acquiring Creswell's personal photographs.

Noha Abou-Khatwa
Director of the Islamic Art Network
Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation