Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Report on the Ernst Herzfeld Gesellschaft in Hamburg

ISLAMIC ARCHAEOLOGY, MATERIAL CULTURE, AND ART HISTORY INTERSECTIONS AND RESEARCH AIMS. 10th Colloquium of the Ernst Herzfeld-Gesellschaft in Cooperation with the Asien-Afrika-Institut at Universität Hamburg, 3-6 July 2014 

Unlike the previous meeting held in Berlin 2011, which concentrated on Samarra and other early Abbasid sites, this colloquium was more broadly based (click here to see the full programme)Following a Graduate Student conference in the afternoon, it began with a Keynote Lecture given by Lorenz Korn of the Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg, entitled 'On the Interdependence of Archaeology, Art History, and Written Sources'. He illustrated the numerous possible pitfalls in using archaeology to understand history, and how nothing must be taken too literally in either discipline. It is all a question of common sense, balance, a thorough analysis of the translations made of the written sources, and perhaps a reevalution of some of these. After a lively discussion we were free to taste the delights of Hamburg's open air restaurants and catch up with friends and colleagues.

Day 2: (from left to right) Stefan Heidemann, Vincenza Garofalo, Markus Ritter
The following day we received a warm welcome from the organiser, Stefan Heidemann, who outlined Hamburg's connections with Islamic archaeology and the link with Carl Heindrich Becker, who in 1908 was appointed Professor of History and Culture of the Orient at the newly founded Kolonialinstitut and Director of the Seminar for History and Culture of the Orient. He was a supporter of Ernst Herzfeld's and through his foundation of the journal, Der Islamprovided him with vehicle to publish his and Sarre's early studies on Samarra. 

We then progressed through recent research on various aspects of the conference theme's broad spectrum, flowing chronologically and thematically. Barbara Finster highlighted the importance of Southern Arabia and its influences on Islamic architecture, a topic totally ignored by Creswell, and one which Herzfeld confessed to knowing nothing about, but sensibly indicated that it might prove to be a possible source when it was studied in depth at some later date. 

As you will see from the programme, the two Samarra papers were included in this first session, with Arie Kai-Browne and Simone Struth giving a fascinating outline of Berlin's 3D visualisation project. The carved plaster panels take on a totally different form with this enhancement and you can immediately see how they would have resembled marble revetments in their original pristine state. With the crude mudbrick walls hidden by these you can easily appreciate how this vast palace city sprung to life so quickly and so impressively, achieving the Abbasid caliphs' desire to create an aura of wonderment and admiration. My paper was a brief overview of the V&A's 278-piece Samarra collection, outlining how different departments within the museum have been able to assist in conserving some of these fragments, analysing the materials employed, and how experts at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew have been able to confirm that two wood fragments are indeed teak, as stated in the written sources. (We eagerly anticipate a blog posting here on this analysis!)

Thereafter we travelled far and wide within the Islamic world and it was fascinating to learn of the diversity of current research. The day ended with a reception and a chance to catch up with more colleagues who had trickled in during the course of the day. I am sure that the highlight of the day for many of the participants were the two football World Cup quarter finals!

Ilsa Sturkenboom and Alexandra Plesa in foreground, Lorenz Korn, Claus-Peter Haase and others in background
Sadly the split programming on the Saturday morning meant that one had to choose between architecture and the art of the book and paintings, and I opted for the former. This entailed ongoing projects at Middle Islamic to pre-Modern sites, right up to the early 20th century. Ralph Bodenstein's contribution on 19th/20th-century industrial archaeology in Egypt was a very interesting account of the interrelation of strong leadership, economic unity, the ability to develop state-of-the-art factories and a viable infrastructure, and how his project has been fighting hard to preserve some trace of these. His project website can be found here.

The colloquium closed with an unprogrammed account by Julia Gonnella of the state of Aleppo and northern Syria's historical sites, and the horrific damage exacted by both the military and the rebels. The power of the internet means that so much more information is available, but there are certainly times when it is hard to face up to the reality of what is happening and this brave paper accentuated the ongoing horrors being perpetrated.

To end on a happier note, if you are on Facebook please turn to Stefan Heidemann's recent posting for many more images. Unfortunately I could not stay for the last day and missed the visit to the Museum für Künst Gewerbe led by curator Nora von Achenbach, although I did manage to take a brief look at the exhibits before the colloquium began.

Rosalind Wade Haddon

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