This journal's acknowledgment of Edward Said's impact on our discipline on the fortieth anniversary of Orientalism marks a significant turn. No other scholar and no other single book outside the field have been given this kind of attention. Despite the fact that the cover of Orientalism, which featured Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting The Snake Charmer as a shorthand to the book's contents, triggered loaded questions about the power of visual representation, Said himself did not engage with architecture and did so only marginally with art (Figure 1). Architectural and urban historians, and not only those working on “non-Western” topics, nevertheless found a fertile field of inspiration in Said's work.
The book appeared just as architectural historians were becoming increasingly fascinated with critical theory and philosophy. The subsequent haste to construct scholarly bridges between built forms and “higher” intellectual realms has created some curious outcomes, such as a series of short books that is perhaps sarcastically titled Thinkers for Architects. These books summarize the work of theorists from Immanuel Kant to Luce Irigaray, but only as their thinking pertains to and serves architecture.1 For better or for worse, Said and his work have not (yet) been included in this group, and thus the place dedicated to Orientalism here, in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, is especially meaningful (Figure 2).
In this essay, I do not seek to provide a comprehensive and neutral map of the past four decades of architectural history; rather, I will filter some of the developments that have arisen in the aftermath of Orientalism's publication through my subjective lens as a scholar, a critic, and a teacher. I have been taking notes on the reception of Orientalism by different disciplines in the shifting political and academic climates of the United States, as well as of other parts of the world with which I have close ties. The anti-Saidian discourses seem to outnumber the pro-Saidian ones, the former keen to erase Said's arguments and the latter eager to expand and nuance them—all pulling the arguments in different political directions. I will not elaborate on this vast literature here. Neither will I be able to unpack in sufficient detail the various issues that I raise. Rather, I will present an outline that necessarily begs for further elucidation, but that will in any event serve to foster reflection and discussion.2
There is no question that the discipline of architectural history has expanded across new horizons since the early 1980s. In becoming increasingly more interdisciplinary, it has situated built forms in international and regional politics, in cross-cultural relationships, in power structures, and in economics. It has also paid unprecedented attention to ordinary places and people, everyday life, and gender. Provoked by postcolonial studies, colonial architecture and urbanism, and boundless geographies beyond Western Europe and North America, architectural history has generated new subjects of research. Nevertheless, these new exposures and the lively debates that have followed them have given rise to their own set of problems: obstinate patterns of thought have continued in subtle ways, reiterating familiar paradigms while purporting to negate them. Most recently, some key questions that Said raised have resurfaced in critical approaches to globalism—among them, “Who has the authority to speak for the world?” and “Are there formulas for a representative work?”3
Architectural history had its own early, implicit glimpses of Orientalist criticism in Oleg Grabar's classic book The Formation of Islamic Art (1973), in which the author offered his “interpretations” centered on the term “Islamic” (both words were set in quotation marks in the original text). Grabar addressed epistemological and historiographical dilemmas, including periodization, geographic ranges, sociopolitical contexts, and changes in meanings and forms, to complicate the ways this art's uniqueness might be understood during the first centuries of Islam.4 Responding to European literature, a group of scholars raised parallel questions about urban history, albeit rather tentatively, in the edited volume The Islamic City (1970); they called attention to “differences in time and place,” change, dynamism, and the existence of various urban types.5 Nevertheless, the most scathing criticism of the frozen “Islamic city model” came with Janet Abu-Lughod's “The Islamic City—Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance” (1987), one of the most frequently cited articles published to date in the International Journal of Middle East Studies. True to Saidian thinking, and identifying an isnad (chain) of repetitive formulas that had passed from one French scholar to another, Abu-Lughod deconstructed for good the Orientalist discourse “purporting to describe the essence of the Islamic city.”6 A few years earlier, Abu-Lughod had published an unapologetic monograph about French colonial urbanism titled Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco (1980). Memorable for its scrutinization of the protectoral policies of Louis-Hubert Lyautey, the book went beyond historic analysis and ventured “to explain the present and to pose a moral problem for the future.”7
As emphatically conveyed by the book's title, Abu-Lughod's arguments were not restrained by the colonial “dual city” model, which implied “side-by-side and apart” settlements. Echoing the message of Orientalism, Abu-Lughod maintained instead that a French system was built above the Moroccan system.8 The wave of monographs on colonial cities and architecture that followed questioned the rigidity of her black-and-white stance, however, and suggested that there existed a gray zone in which encounters between the colonizer and the colonized took place in unpredictable ways. Here, these monographs argued, the colonized gained a voice, participated in the modernization process, and spoke back. Among the large literature on British colonial urbanism, three books published between 2005 and 2008 illustrated this perspective vigorously and attempted to give voices to the colonized, as if answering Gayatri Spivak's famous question “Can the subaltern speak?”9 Jyoti Hosagrahar maintained that Delhi's colonial transformation resulted in a “hybridity” and an “indigenous modernity,” as colonized subjects did not remain “passive recipients.” Expanding on Said's proposal in Culture and Imperialism, Swati Chattopadhyay presented colonial modernity in Calcutta not as a colonizer's modernity but rather as one that was shaped by associations between the Indians and the British and that kept being refigured and realigned.10 In the case of Lahore, William J. Glover attributed an important role to locals, whose collaboration with British planners and architects was essential to the process of making Lahore modern.11 All of these books offered valuable contributions to colonial urban history, and, despite their similar starting points, all testified to the absence of a single, set model. Even within the British imperial system, each colonial city had its own specific, unique characteristics, stemming from its particular historic context and social structures. Nevertheless, all were shaped according to the colonizer's political agendas.
Orientalism as a specifically architectural expression emerged in concert with nineteenth-century Orientalist intellectual discourse and visual culture. Not considering this stylistic movement worthy of serious study, however, architectural historians did not turn their attention to it until the 1980s. They then produced a considerable literature that centered on single buildings and clusters, in some instances situating their case studies within particular political frameworks or in relation to other architectural contexts.12 Altogether, they documented an impressive catalogue and linked disparate geographies to each other. They also introduced new terms, which now call for reevaluation. Consider briefly, for example, hybridity, which was intended as a counterargument to bipolar thinking but could also easily slip into rescuing earlier paradigms in the humanities and social sciences about the “positive” aspects of colonialism.
Meanwhile, endeavors to situate architecture in the midst of dynamic webs of interaction helped to rejuvenate the field further. Gülru Necipoğlu's analysis of a late fifteenth- or sixteenth-century scroll from Iran (in the archives of the Topkapı Palace) revealed rich topics that revised the field from multiple angles, including architectural practice, links between science and art, geometric patterning, conceptualization of architectural design, and its recording and dissemination. Necipoğlu asserted that the background of the kind of geometric patterning (girih) found in the scroll was named “arabesque” in nineteenth-century Orientalist texts—an essentialist and ahistorical assumption that had generated a major literature of its own that still continues to grow. For Necipoğlu, deconstructing this discourse became a mandatory first step before she could delve into the (actual) historical development of the girih mode, identify its associations, and ultimately establish its links to theories of aesthetics and psychology of vision as gleaned from Islamic texts.13 Necipoğlu hence took a proactive role in disentangling “Islamic” art from Orientalist secondary literature in order to study one document within its own relevant contexts.
Cross-cultural networks also materialized as a productive field of scholarship. For example, Barry Finbarr Flood and the team of Jerrilynn Dodds, María Rosa Menocal, and Abigail Krasner Balbale investigated the phenomena during the premodern era in two very different books. Addressing an exclusively scholarly audience, Flood examined the encounters between the “Hindus” and the “Muslims” in Khurasan from the early eighth to the early thirteenth centuries within the framework of a “civilizational history.” Working against traditional assumptions that this region and this time were considered “undifferentiated monoliths,” and zooming into a range of objects from coins to manuscripts to architecture, he demonstrated the circulation and communication patterns that existed among culturally, ethnically, and linguistically different societies from different geographies.14 Dodds, Menocal, and Balbale's The Arts of Intimacy, written for “as broad a range of readers as possible,” studied the creation of shared cultures among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Spain but also reached to places further afield. These authors’ stories of the “alternating voussoirs” (arches formed by marble pieces of two different colors) and the messages attached to them between the eighth and twelfth centuries summarized lucidly the intricate trajectory of one architectural element. The arch with “alternating voussoirs” traveled from early Umayyad monuments in the Middle East (such as the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock) to Muslim Spain (famously, the Great Mosque of Cordoba) to churches in Spain and France while taking on additional symbolism during the Crusades to Jerusalem.15
These two books charted patterns of communication beyond predictable axes. While cross-cultural engagements and confrontations enjoyed a corresponding stature in scholarship, however, the vectors that defined them remained limited. The ever-growing literature on late Ottoman and Turkish Republican modernity in architecture and urban history followed only the West–East axis, with the winds blowing most strongly from Europe. In studies of Turkish Republican architecture, the obsession with Europe restricted the possibility of more provocative interpretations and even resulted in nineteenth-century Ottoman modernity being overlooked. Similarly, work on Italian colonial cities attributed the origins of modernity in Tripoli, for example, to construction activity post-1911, whereas Ottoman documents trace it to the 1860s. Accepting rigid chronological boundaries and artificial ruptures (such as the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923 or the Italian occupation of Libya in 1911) as clean beginnings for new eras runs the risk of putting scholarly arguments into artificial boxes.16
Scholarship on colonialism likewise remained blindfolded between the metropole and the colony. While this division may be the most logical and the most manageable starting point, its limitations locked debates within dubious boundaries that were, for all intents and purposes, established by Orientalist discourse. My work on Algiers may serve as a case study to make the argument. In Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations (1997), I focused on French occupation and the transformation of the city. Capitalizing entirely on the richness of French sources, I thereby stuck to a North–South axis. Regretfully, I now realize that I failed to pay attention to documents in the Ottoman archives that would have cast an entirely different light on the ruthless demolitions and transformations in the city, particularly during the early years of the French occupation.17 More recently, I tried to broaden the single-axis paradigm by introducing more complex routes through which ideas traveled—for example, from Istanbul to Paris, from Paris to Algiers, from Algiers to Damascus via Istanbul.18 Admittedly, cross-cultural and comparative analyses open thorny methodological challenges. Expanding the boundaries is one. Another is the challenge of resisting the drive to establish equal and corresponding concepts from each side, which may lead to artificial balances and forced conclusions. Allowing for some flexibility in response to contextual differences, as well as the idiosyncrasies of archival traditions, promises to open innovative visions.
Periodization, fixed by European scholarship, continues to be at the core of the way that history is conceptualized. In his masterful study The Theft of History (2006), Jack Goody argued that “Europe had stolen the history of the East by imposing its own versions of time (largely Christian) and of space on the rest of the Eurasian world.” The division of the past into antiquity, feudalism, the Renaissance, and capitalism in a neat linearity translated into a “theft of history” that intertwined with the agenda for world domination.19 Yet there are other periodizations in other historiographic traditions, such as in Ottoman historiography, that have enjoyed some scholarly attention.20 There have also been recent attempts to “reform the parochial Western historical scheme” of “ancient, medieval, modern periods revolving around Western Europe” by establishing “a global Islamic explanation of world history” based on the writings of Muslim historians.21 Substituting one pattern of dividing time for another is a futile exercise, however, and it appears that the Eurocentric model is here to stay. Nevertheless, it is useful to remember and explain that model's origins historically, critically, and with versatility in order to cast some light on hegemonic concepts such as “the long nineteenth century” and “world wars.”
Historiography invites some further contemplation. Discussion of “other” historiographies—that is, the use of secondary literature in non-European languages but in dialogue with European discourses—is gradually being integrated into architectural scholarship. A special issue of Muqarnas, edited by Sibel Bozdoğan and Gülru Necipoğlu, is a distinguished publication in English that examines entwined Orientalist and nationalist historiographies of “Islamic” architecture in the ethnically diverse “lands of Rum” (Anatolia and the Balkans). Aside from surveying this modern literature, the editors and many of the authors included in the volume chart its extent and complexity.22 Their contribution marks the presence of non-European voices in history writing and underlines the importance of those voices in the study of the art and architecture that constitute the subject of their debates. After all, is it possible to achieve a consequential grasp on, say, 1930s modernist architecture in Ankara only by reference to European modernism and with no knowledge of the local intellectual climate? The inclusion of hitherto ignored historiographic trends complicates and disrupts the authority of Eurocentric positions and ultimately enriches them exactly at this moment when we seem to be aiming to make worldwide connections.
Reading absences is another theme encountered in recent work in architectural history. Historians Carlo Ginsburg and Natalie Zemon Davis have addressed eloquently the “silence” of ordinary people in historical documents.23 Said's reading of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park likewise made visible what was only indirectly represented in the novel: the colonialism that sustained from overseas the mansion within its large gardens. This insight adds compelling substance to the English country house, pinning it onto the “imperial map of the world.”24 Architectural historians can now devise a “thematic” tour of the genteel mansions in beautiful settings that are scattered throughout Britain, linking each to the imperial project and drawing a macro picture of colonial exploitation. The slaves on Antigua's sugar plantations in the case of Mansfield Park join other groups that are beginning to raise their voices in architectural history. Indeed, architectural historians are adding more and more weight to the role played by ordinary people in shaping their environments by pursuing methodologically unorthodox venues. Workers on the construction sites of baroque Rome, residents of antebellum cities such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, and Bedouins on the archaeological digs in Mesopotamia now enter the stage as historical players.25
Making connections and triangulating architectural and urban history from several perspectives serves teaching well by bringing it new breadth, right down to survey courses that have been burdened by standard formats and the lineage of canons. I would argue that in-depth analyses of canons in their multiple contexts generate longer-lasting pedagogical effects than do superficial introductions to buildings from “other” geographies. Discussions of ancient Egyptian architecture gain new connotations and insights (and indeed value) when references to Napoleon's occupation of Egypt and Description de l’Égypte link the past to the identity of a modern empire and intrigue the students so that they think about museology. Similarly, the Parthenon acquires urgent relevance when its presentation includes the story of the Elgin Marbles and Hellenic antiquity is connected to nineteenth-century imperial culture and its absorption by national identities, whether British or Greek. The long struggle to appropriate antiquities (physically and metaphorically) is packed with contemporary implications, and reframing the past in a manner that problematizes cultural relations, domination, and civilizational hierarchies simultaneously recasts the present.26
Orientalism elicited many questions beyond the discussions found within its pages. I am grateful to Said for sharpening my understanding of cultural constructions and, along the way, helping me to detect critical tendencies of this nature in the late Ottoman intellectual discourse. Worldly, cosmopolitan, and engaged in projects of modernity, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectuals in Istanbul did not remain passive to representations of the “Orient.” Many countervoices attempted to “correct” the images that had been, and continued to be, drawn by Europeans. Imbued with their own ideological agendas, they may have turned and twisted cultural debates to serve their own ends, but their opinions coalesced into a nonsubmissive ensemble, albeit one heard only locally. What they had to say over the span of more than a century fills some gaps in the historiography and recontextualizes Orientalism. Two early twentieth-century examples, one from architectural theory, the other from literature, will, I hope, serve to convey this message.
Long before Necipoğlu was compelled to deconstruct the Orientalist literature on “Islamic” art and architecture, art historian Celal Esad found himself in much the same place in the first years of the twentieth century. In order to retrieve the legacy of Ottoman architecture and make it relevant to contemporary practice, he first needed to deal with the essentializing approach shared by European art historians that made no distinctions among Persian art, Arabic art, and Ottoman art.27 In several articles published in Istanbul in 1906 in the periodical İkdam, he laid out the distinctions among them.28 He criticized, for example, European assumptions about the derivative nature of Arab art as an imitation of Syrian Byzantine and Coptic forms. He attributed this shortcoming to a general misunderstanding of all artistic formations, because, he maintained, the arts of all peoples had developed in response to one another, revealing “profound and continuous influences.” In the course of this development, the character of each culture manifested itself through its own unique syntheses. Even a quick comparison of Arab and Ottoman buildings, for example, unveiled significant differences in the forms of the columns, arches, capitals, and domes, as well as the ensemble of compositions: the “severe simplicity” of Ottoman architecture was a great deal more “somber” than Arab architecture.29 Celal Esad thus problematized the binary oppositions and hierarchies of European Orientalism, but his “revisions” ended up constructing new ones, now between the various “Islamic” traditions. Such dilemmas are common in attempts to “speak back” to Orientalism (and merit longer discussions than are possible here).
Ömer Seyfeddin's short story “Gizli Mabed” (Hidden sanctuary), first published in 1919, is a sarcastic exposé of European obsessions with the “real” Orient in Istanbul. To accommodate the desperate wishes of a young Frenchman who is disappointed with the modernity that he finds in Istanbul, his Turkish friend, the story's narrator, takes him to spend the night at the “authentic” house of his old wet nurse in a remote neighborhood. Titillated by the wooden latticework on the windows at first sight, the Frenchman goes native, insists on eating his dinner while sitting on the floor, and admires the old books on the shelves without showing any curiosity about their contents. At night, when everybody else is asleep, he enters an empty room and discovers “a hidden family sanctuary.” He writes in his journal:
White curtains allow a pale light in. Walnut sepulchers, held together by iron rings, are placed in the corners. Without any doubt, they contain the mummies of their beloved ancestors. Ropes at different heights crisscross the room (their meanings escaped me). Above them, relics are hanging, surely belonging to the deceased. On the floor, urns of different sizes contain sacred waters from Mecca, Medina, and other mysterious places. I tasted them and my heart began to beat hard. I sneaked out like an abuser, a traitor, an unbeliever, who had entered a hidden sanctuary. I felt as though the sepulchers would open and old Turks in turbans who had been buried for centuries would attack me with their swords. I felt the profound echoes of a dark and obscure dome in an inexplicable thrill.
To his friend's great amusement, the “hidden sanctuary” is in fact the old lady's storage room. He corrects the Frenchman's discoveries:
We don't use cupboards like you do in our houses. Instead, we use storage trunks. What you mistook as sepulchers are in reality our linen chests. … The ropes are simply to dry the laundry. The relics are old garments, no longer worn. As to the sacred waters collected in urns, they are no other than rainwater leaking from the roof.
“Do not laugh,” the Frenchman responds, “even your storage rooms are mysterious, incomprehensible, and religious. … You are blind. You do not see these meanings.”30
Ömer Seyfeddin's amusing dissection of the Frenchman's misconceptions and his refusal to give them up teases the Orientalist trope. Nevertheless, this was only one trend among many in the late Ottoman discourse. “Ottoman Orientalism” emerged hand in hand with visions of imperial modernity, and the two were intricately entangled to such a degree that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish their respective impacts on all kinds of intellectual and artistic productions. The history of self-Orientalization is thus another of those knotty topics that brings an additional level of complexity to the debates opened by Orientalism and that invites further analysis.31 Edward Said's book has had profound, multidimensional, provocative, and enduring impacts on architectural history—a discipline that remained outside his own foci.