This article is specifically about teaching Islamic architecture, rather than Islamic art in general. It addresses the particular challenges presented by teaching Islamic architecture in contexts where visits to monuments are impossible. Some such observations are of course valid to teaching architectural history in general, while others are specific to the built environment of the Islamic world, and monuments relating to Muslim communities around the globe. One of the greatest challenges in teaching Islamic art history, as Kishwar Rizvi eloquently describes, is how to talk about the beauty and sophistication of historical monuments and objects in a time of war and violence.1 I strongly believe that it is impossible to teach Islamic art history without discussing present-day geopolitics. With current events in mind, students have questions about the historical background of specific regions. I see my role equally as a teacher of the historical art and architecture of the Islamic world, and as an intermediary who provides students with the tools to research and analyze cultural, historical, and religious issues. This is especially the case when discussing cultural heritage, while also addressing the overwhelming human suffering intertwined with the destruction of major historical cities such as Aleppo or Mosul.

A second challenge that presents itself is with the term “Islamic architecture.”2 First and foremost, the term implies religious monuments related to Islam—mosques, shrines, madrasas.3 Indeed, much of what has been preserved falls into these categories, often simply because these monuments survived through constant use and upkeep, while residential buildings disappeared as their inhabitants left. Commercial buildings such as caravanserais, khans, and bath-houses (hammams) are also at times still in use. The residential buildings that remain are often palaces—for instance, the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, or the Alhambra in Granada—while for other types of housing, we have to rely on archaeological evidence. Of course, none of this is specific to the Islamic world. In addition to monuments that are “Islamic” by virtue of their relationship to religious practice, however, there are buildings that in my view should be included: those belonging to non-Muslim communities living in Muslim-ruled regions.4 Synagogues, churches, and Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Hindu temples are among them, as are residential areas for Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Hindu communities within cities under Muslim rule.5 Yet “architecture of the Islamic world” does not work, either, since mosques built by Muslim communities across the globe become a topic of discussion, particularly as we move into the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries.6 Overall, a realistic goal for a course that covers a vast geography, and a wide chronological range (from c. 600 CE to the present), is to provide students with the tools to understand these various architectures, and to be able to conduct further research on their own if interest arises.

Teaching Architecture without Monuments: Resources

The challenge of teaching Islamic architecture without being able to take students to a set of buildings certainly applies in the Americas: at most, a modern mosque or Islamic center can be available for a visit, but certainly no medieval or early modern buildings. (Of course, that is also true for courses that cover medieval and early modern architecture in other regions of the world.) In much of northern and western Europe, the same limits apply, while university teachers in, for instance, Albania, Bosnia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey may have the possibility of accessing monuments right in the city where they teach. Even in those cases, of course, much of the instruction has to take place in the classroom in order to cover a wider range of buildings and regions. This is also true for Muslim-majority countries across the globe, at least for general courses on Islamic architecture that are not designed to focus on a specific region. Therefore, photographs and architectural drawings are crucial, and often not easy to track down. An excellent resource devoted to Islamic architecture is Archnet, an open-access platform sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries (AKDC@MIT). The site provides photographs of a wide range of buildings, with floor plans and other architectural drawings included in some cases. A timeline feature presents historical information on major Muslim dynasties along with related buildings. The “Pedagogy” tab provides access to syllabi on a wide range of topics related to Islamic art and architecture.

As there is no other central platform for teaching resources in Islamic art history, much of the material needs to be found on sites such as the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History and ArtStor. The platform smarthistory.org has also begun to expand its section on Islamic art, with more to come in the future. Especially useful to start with is its page on basic features of mosque architecture.7 Back on Archnet, a PowerPoint file on “The Language of Islamic Architecture” contains a particularly useful section explaining basic features of Islamic religious monuments, along with an explanation of the main types of architectural drawings: plans, sections, elevations, axonometric views. This brings me to a further challenge in teaching architecture in general: students often do not know how to read architectural drawings, and how to imagine a space by looking at them. (More on this in “Assignments.”)

YouTube and other platforms to share videos come with the advantage that nearly every space (yes, even the ones where cameras are supposedly banned) can be viewed. This is especially useful for monuments and sites such as Mecca that are central to teaching Islamic architecture, but not accessible to non-Muslims. The materials provided by those who are able to visit these monuments—whether scholars with specific research projects or Muslims going for pilgrimage and prayer—greatly enhance my teaching, and also give students insights into the contemporary life of historical monuments.8 Documentaries on wide-ranging topics such as the Umayyad palace city of Madinat al-Zahra near Cordoba (Spain) or the sixteenth-century Ottoman architect Sinan can be found.

With regard to cultural heritage, sites connected to research projects such as “Monuments of Mosul in Danger” provide access to reconstructions and 3D models, further resources for students to explore which open up possibilities for class assignments.9 3D-models of a few buildings are also available, for instance of Bab Zuwayla in Cairo, an eleventh-century city gate with fifteenth-century additions that was meticulously restored (as documented in the page created by the American Research Center in Egypt). A full list of resources cannot be displayed here, but the ones given above are a good place to start; a much more comprehensive list of resources that also includes museum collections, epigraphic databases, and historical photographic archives is the York Islamic Art and Architecture Database, prepared by Richard P. McClary, who continues to update it.10 Finally, a list of online teaching resources compiled by the International Center of Medieval Art during the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 also contains resources relevant to Islamic architecture.11 In July 2020, the Historians of Islamic Art Association (HIAA) hosted a recorded discussion on online resources with Christiane Gruber (University of Michigan), Ruba Kana'an (University of Toronto, Mississauga), and Michael Toler and Matt Saba (Archnet/MIT). A crowd-sourced project of gathering short pedagogical videos about objects, buildings, and themes, recorded by specialist of Islamic art history, resulted from this discussion to enhance online resources for teaching. Led by Professor Gruber as the president elect of HIAA, this project, “Khamseen: Islamic Art History Online,” was started with the aim of supporting online teaching during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and videos are continuously being posted on a designated website.12

A word on readings: of course, a number of textbooks or survey books on Islamic art history exist, although none of them focus exclusively on architecture.13 With the exception of one title, these books are out of print, and the cost of used copies varies greatly.14 None of these titles are available as e-books, an additional difficulty in the COVID-19 pandemic when most students are unable to access campus libraries.15 I should also note that these books were published between 1991 and 2000, and thus do not reflect the last 20 to 30 years of vibrant scholarship in the expanding field of Islamic art history. After trying out several books over the years, I have now abandoned a textbook in favor of individual articles or book chapters, some “classics” in the field, others brand-new publications by early-career scholars. Among these readings, I still assign chapters from the textbooks I used previously, and from other, similar works.16 For recent scholarship specifically on architecture, I have also used the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, which extends to architectural practice both in the Islamic world, and Islamic religious and cultural spaces elsewhere, as well as restoration projects.

Assignments

While introducing architecture in any class, an exercise I like to ask students to do is drawing a floor plan of a building they know well. This could for instance be their dorm, the home they grew up in, or any campus building. The crucial element is surprise: students do this assignment in class, with paper and pens that I provide, so that there is no time to look up things online and make the drawings look pretty. The idea is not to be exact and draw to scale (since I have not so far taught architecture students), but rather to represent the building in a way that corresponds to conventions of plans: walls have a thickness, doors and windows appear as gaps, etc. I ask students to do this after I briefly introduce architectural plans, something that generally elicits boredom, since “Oh of course I know what a plan is! Why is she going on and on about this? I am not learning anything here!” Having to draw a plan quickly breaks up these presumptions, and students realize how tricky it can be. To the point of effectiveness: I have to credit Leïla el-Wakil, who introduced this assignment in the very first class on architectural history that I took at the University of Geneva in 2001–02. The fact that this stuck with me until I began to teach my own classes more than a decade later speaks volumes as to the assignment’s success. And yes, I failed miserably at drawing a functional building.

In a recent iteration of my introductory class to Islamic art, I experimented with Wikipedia editing as a final assignment. I was inspired by the edit-a-thon to edit Wikipedia articles on Islamic art that Stephennie Mulder (University of Texas, Austin) and Alex Dika Seggerman (Rutgers University Newark) launched in fall 2018 in partnership with Leslee Michelsen at the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art.17 Mulder published a Twitter thread with details on the assignment in her class. While I cannot speak to the benefits of the final edit-a-thon that allows students to complete and upload their work collective, I did find the editing assignment productive. The resources provided by the Wikipedia Student Program allow for customizable class online class schedules with weekly assignments, and contain detailed tutorials on guidelines and technical aspects. In my class with 14 students, 6 articles were edited, since I opted for group-work; students added 12,000 words of text and 109 references. One of the articles on architecture that students edited is the entry on the fifteenth-century Green Mosque in Bursa, Turkey. Students were generally happy with the public-facing outcome of the class, and liked that their writing had become part of a world-wide community of knowledge gathering and seeking. This project works really well for a topic like Islamic architecture, where even some major monuments have very little information. One of the challenges of the project was to find open-access images that could be published on Wikipedia, according to the platform’s image guidelines.

In a spring 2020 class that focused on sensory perception in medieval and early modern art in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, I experimented with an assignment using the game-design software Unity. With the support of game designers Cameron Bollinger and Erica Holcomb of Explorasaurus Studios, students worked with a 3D recreation of several rooms in the Alhambra: the Hall of Comares, the Courtyard of Lions, and the Hall of Two Sisters.18 Students worked on furnishing the rooms with objects, imagining the building in use during different times of the day and in different seasons. To this end, students researched objects, life at the Nasrid court, and the Alhambra’s building history. Initially, the greatest challenge was that the first version of the Unity project did not run on Mac laptops, which is what most students used in this case. The final results are now available to download as an open-access desktop version for both Mac and PC.

An initial attempt to open the Courtyard of Lions model on my own Mac led to what a student aptly termed the “Barbie House Alhambra” with bright pink water (Figure 1). After struggling to find an available computer lab with more powerful machines, ideally running Windows, the solution was to create a version of the project with stripped-down graphics (Figure 2) that ran on Macs. This did not look as good as the first version, but students were finally able to work on their own laptops while completing their assignment. The final version still had a few bugs in rendering plants, but gives a good sense of the space (Figure 3). Students were able to successfully furnish the Hall of Comares as a dining hall (Figure 4) and the Hall of the Two Sisters as a bedroom (Figure 5). Students included furniture, ceramics, and textiles in the process. The ability to include captions for objects in Unity also allowed students to include further information: for instance, on a large curtain from the Nasrid period (Figure 6), one of a pair held in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. no. 1982.a-b).

Figure 1.

The Courtyard of Lions in Unity, with pink water.

Figure 1.

The Courtyard of Lions in Unity, with pink water.

Figure 2.

The Hall of Comares in the stripped-down version of the model in Unity.

Figure 2.

The Hall of Comares in the stripped-down version of the model in Unity.

Figure 3.

The Courtyard of Lions in the final version of the project.

Figure 3.

The Courtyard of Lions in the final version of the project.

Figure 4.

The Hall of Comares in the final version of the project.

Figure 4.

The Hall of Comares in the final version of the project.

Figure 5.

The Hall of Two Sisters in the final version of the project.

Figure 5.

The Hall of Two Sisters in the final version of the project.

Figure 6.

One of the “Alhambra curtains” in the project’s gallery space with caption.

Figure 6.

One of the “Alhambra curtains” in the project’s gallery space with caption.

Since instruction was moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic for the second half of the semester, the project did not continue quite as smoothly. Students generally struggled to adjust to following classes online while also trying to settle in back at home, or into temporary off-campus housing. For the digital component of the classes, challenges included the lack of access to high-speed internet and laptops with sufficient RAM, and difficulties in coordinating with group members in different time-zones. Overall, the main takeaway is that students were deeply engaged with complex scholarship on multisensory perception in medieval art and architecture, and able to deploy concepts they had read about in these text as they were working on their models. The deep reflection that went into these projects emerged in final papers that students were able to draft despite the changed circumstances of instruction. I will certainly use a similar approach in future semesters, hopefully back in the classroom with students.

Acknowledgement

First of all, I thank Geraldine Heng for suggesting that I write this essay. Thanks are due to Daniel Michon, who encouraged me to pursue Unity for a course and introduced me to Cameron Bollinger and Erica Holcomb, whose contribution in creating the model and working with students was invaluable. I also thank Leigh Lieberman for discussing ideas for the course with me, and for inviting me to present on the course in progress in the Digital Humanities Research Studio at the Claremont Colleges in February 2020. For bearing the brunt of the experiments with assignments described below, I thank all students in ARHI 120: Introduction to Islamic Art in spring 2019 and ARHI 122: Sensory Spaces, Tactile Objects: The Senses in Art and Architecture in spring 2020, both taught at Pomona College with students from all five Claremont Colleges. Going back to my undergraduate studies at the University of Geneva, I thank Leïla El-Wakil for teaching an inspiring course on architectural history that started what has become my scholarly career.

Notes

1.

Kishwar Rizvi, “It’s Harder than Ever to Teach Islamic Art —But Never More Important,” The Washington Post, 6 January 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/01/06/its-harder-than-ever-to-teach-islamic-art-but-never-more-important/, accessed 31 January 2020.

2.

I will not get into the discussion surrounding the term “Islamic art” here. For discussions of these questions, see Gülru Necipoğlu and Finbarr Barry Flood, “Frameworks of Islamic Art and Architecture: Concepts, Approaches and Historiographies,” in Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, ed. Finbarr Barry Flood and Gülru Necipoğlu (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), vol. 1, 2–56; Gülru Necipoğlu, “The Concept of Islamic Art: Inherited Discourses and New Approaches,” originally published in Islamic Art and the Museum, ed. Benoît Junod, Georges Khalil, Stefan Weber, and Gerhard Wolf (London: Saqi Books, 2012), reprinted in Journal of Art Historiography 6 (2012). Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field,” The Art Bulletin 85.1 (March, 2003): 152–184. More broadly on the meaning of “Islamic” and “Islam” in pre-modern Muslim-ruled societies, see Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016).

3.

For an overview of the development of these building types, as well as minarets, palaces, and caravanserais in chronological and geographical order, see Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

4.

I use the term “Muslim-ruled” rather than “Muslim-majority” because for instance the Ottoman Empire did not become “Muslim-majority” until Ottoman sultan Selim I conquered the Levant and Syria in 1517–16. A large proportion of the population of under Ottoman rule in the Balkans and Anatolia was Christian throughout the Empire’s reign (late 13th century to 1922).

5.

Jennifer A. Pruitt, “A Miracle at Muqattam: Moving a Mountain to Build a Church in the Early Fatimid Caliphate (969–995),” in Sacred Precincts: Non-Muslim Religious Sites in Islamic Territories, ed. Mohammad Gharipour (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2014), 277–90 (and further chapters in the same volume); Mohammad Gharipour, ed., Synagogues in the Islamic World: Architecture, Design, and Identity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

6.

Elisabeth Becker, “Reconstructing the Muslim Self in Diaspora: Socio-Spatial Practices in Urban European Mosques,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 8.2 (July, 2019): 389–414; Theodore van Loan and Eva-Maria Troelenberg, “The Rome Mosque and Islamic Centre: A Case of Diasporic Architecture in the Globalized Mediterranean,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 8.2 (July, 2019): 417–432.

7.

Kendra Weisbin, “Introduction to Mosque Architecture,” Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/introduction-to-mosque-architecture/ (accessed January 31, 2020).

8.

This YouTube video of a young Emirati couple performing the ‘umrah pilgrimage to Mecca is just one example of this religious experience being shared. https://youtu.be/lhktGdq1KLg (accessed 5 December 2020).

9.

See examples on Roman and Swahili architecture in Jeffrey Fleisher, “Building Medieval Worlds: A Classroom Experience in Digitally Reconstructing Ancient Buildings,” Journal of Medieval Words 1, no. 1 (2019): 107–116. Monuments of Mosul in Danger, http://www.monumentsofmosul.com/ (accessed 5 December 2020).

11.

https://www.medievalart.org/onlineteaching (accessed 5 December 2020).

12.

https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/khamseen/ (accessed 5 December 2020).

13.

Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture works well to look up specific monuments, but is difficult to use as a narrative text, since this is not how the book was composed.

14.

Only the following title is still in print: Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Art and Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999). Other books I have used are: Barbara Brend, Islamic Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); Robert Irwin, Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture and the Literary World (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1997); Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, ed., Islam – Art and Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 2000; paperback Rheinbreitbach: H.F. Ullmann, 2008); I have not yet used Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islamic Arts (London: Phaidon, 1997), another popular choice.

15.

The 18 students in my lecture course on Islamic art history at Princeton this semester live in time zones across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.

16.

Two volumes in the Pelican History of Art are Richard Ettinghausen, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina, Islamic Art and Architecture 650–1250 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001) and Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994). Both volumes are available online through the Art and Architecture ePortal, which requires an institutional subscription for access, at https://www.aaeportal.com/home. The recent two-volume Blackwell Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, edited by Gülru Necipoğlu and Finbarr Barry Flood, is not designed as a textbook, and at a publisher’s list price of $410 for the print edition, and $329 for the online edition, it is too pricey to require students to purchase it. The volumes should, however, find their way to the library since individual chapters provide up-to-date scholarship on a wide range of topics and regions that work well as assigned readings. For historical background intertwined with object histories, see Ladan Akbarnia et al., The Islamic World: A History in Objects (London: British Museum, 2018).

17.

A further edit-a-thon in fall 2019 also had Emily Neumeier’s students at Temple University join. Since my class at Pomona College had to be taught in spring 2019, I was not able to join this collaborative project.

18.

While there is a vast specialist literature on the Alhambra in Spanish and English, for a general introduction, see Oleg Grabar, The Alhambra (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), and Olga Bush, Reframing the Alhambra: Architecture, Poetry, Textiles and Court Ceremonial (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 1–16. For the the class project, see https://explorasaur.us/2020/05/virtual-alhambra/ (accessed 5 December 2020).