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This month’s expert, Nikolaos Vryzidis, is postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of History and Archaeology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He received his PhD from SOAS, University of London with a thesis on the Greek Orthodox Church’s use of Ottoman textiles. His scholarly work primarily explores issues of identity in relation to material culture, and especially textiles and metalwork in the early modern Mediterranean. In 2016 he convened a conference on Mediterranean textiles, which resulted in an edited volume of essays, published by Brepols in 2020. He also pursues research in cross-cultural aspects of medieval Islamic art, part of which will be published in a forthcoming volume on the religious arts that he currently co-edits.

Ask him about cross cultural aspects of medieval Islamic art, Ottoman textiles, and Islamic art in the context of Greek churches.

Please submit your questions to: info@barakat.org

Part of Converging Paths, an initiative organised by The Barakat Trust in partnership with the Asia House exploring the arts and cultures of the Islamic World. Converging Paths is generously supported by the Altajir Trust and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Education Programme.


What are the most common objects from the Islamic world found in Greek Churches, and what do you think were considered the most valuable and why?

Different types of objects survive from different periods. If we look at the medieval period, metal and ceramic objects (from Egypt, the Golden Horde, etc.) are the most common. But this relates more to the specific materials’ durability than the objects’ actual popularity. From the Ottoman period the most common objects are textiles and ceramics. In general, for the clergy the most valuable objects are the ones associated with a prominent patron or an important event in the local or wider historical context. Besides this factor, Islamic objects found in Greek churches and sacristies are often distinguished by their refined craftsmanship and luxurious materials. 

How old are the oldest objects from the Islamic world you have found in your research, and what sort of objects are they?

My research is centered on the late medieval and early modern periods. So, my answer to this specific question will be based on the research of other scholars. To my knowledge, the oldest published Islamic objects (mostly ceramics and some rarer examples of metalwork) found in excavations in mainland Greece and Greek Orthodox monastic sacristies are associated with medieval Egypt, especially Fatimid. Besides objects and fragments, there are also archaeological sites in Crete which relate to the period that the island was an independent emirate (824/827–961).

With respect to the objects you have been studying in Greek monasteries,  is there evidence that monasteries were commissioning items, or where they buying ready made items, or receiving them as gifts? 

All three cases apply. As to the relevant evidence, it can be both archival (e.g., inventories) and archaeological (e.g., inscriptions). There is certainly more evidence of the Greek Orthodox Church’s commissioning of objects during the Ottoman period (e.g., special orders of Iznik ceramics or Ottoman silks with Christian patterns). But again, one cannot be certain that the artisan that produced these artefacts was a Muslim. Of course, this is a quite important aspect to consider, for it reveals the limits of the concept of Islamic art in certain multi-cultural/multi-confessional contexts. 

How common was the practice of using garments over a long periods – was there a tradition of using the same vestments from one generation to the next, or was the culture of the Greek Orthodox Church one that valued the new over the old?

In my view, it was not so much a matter of valuing the new over the old, or the opposite. A garment that had a liturgical use was considered to be a sacred object, which would continue to be used and even recycled until it or its fabrics became unusable. New garments were made whenever it was necessary (or whenever the monastic/local community’s finances allowed it). Many garments were also gifts. Their association with a prominent statesman, clergyman (e.g., a Patriarch) or even saint provided a supplementary layer of meaning. In that case the garment’s role in perpetuating memory was equally important. 

Did animals have a special significance in the textiles and other objects used by the Orthodox church, if so, which were the most prominent, and which were the most meaningful?

Yes, animals could and did convey meaning in a Greek Orthodox religious context. This is clearly evidenced by the many animal patterns we find in the religious arts since the early Byzantine period. Birds and feline animals were among the most common motifs. Peacocks were among the most meaningful, as they carried connotations related to immortality, paradise and the Church itself. 

Sami De Giosa is currently a visiting assistant professor at the College of Fine Arts and Design, University of Sharjah. 

He was previously a research fellow at SOAS University of London in the department of Cultures and Languages and also at the University of Oxford. He has curated exhibitions on Islamic art around the world including Hajj: memories of a Journey exhibition at the Sheikh Zayed grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi in 2017-2018 and worked on some of the most important museums in the Middle East. Sami finished his PhD in Art history at SOAS on the revival or architecture and arts in Cairo during the late 15th century. His subject specialisms are  the Holy City of Madinah,  the arts of the Mamluk Period,  Museums and Museography in the Arab World.


How did Madinah look like by the time Prophet Mohammed moved to it?

Prophet Muhammad was invited by the leaders of Yathrib, as Madinah was known at the time, to come to the city to be an adjudicator for the disputes that the tribes were having at the time. In total, there had been 120 years of turmoil in Yathrib before the arrival of the Muslims. He arrived to the city in 622AD with an entourage of circa 70. In a short time, the city’s disputes were abated, many people converted to Islam, pagan Arabs and local Jews, and the first Mosques Quba and the mosque/house of the Prophet were built.

The relationship between the Muslims and the local Jewish population was one which evolved through time. When at the helm of the city, Prophet Muhammad and the elders agreed on a treaty, the so-called Constitution of Madinah, where all the parties (including Jews) were guaranteed safety and cooperation under pre-defined criteria. Some Jewish sources also relate of a treaty that the Muslims had specifically with the Jewish population of Madinah.

Of course, it wasn’t all friendly and cheerful, as the aftermath of The Battle of the Trench includes a clash where Muslims fought and won against the Banu Qurayza who stood accused of plotting with Abu Sufyan against them. However, other Jewish clans, which maintained the pledges contained in the Constitution, kept on living in Madinah after this episode.


Ibn Ishaq Sirat Rasulallah

Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, 1956https://archive.org/details/muhammadatmedina029655mbp


Does the written evidence of the Quran match the archaological evidence of Madinah?

Largely, yes. Many of the locations mentioned in the Qur’an, Hadith and historical sources are found in the city. Amongst others, Masjed al-Nabawi, the Mosque which developed around the Prophet’s House which includes the remnants of Jannat al-Baqi, Masjid Quba the first Mosque, the site of the Battle of the Trench, the house with the waqf of Mariah the Copt and the site of Mount Uhud. Of course, the sites have changed due to the expansion of the city but we know the exact locations of many of the places mentioned in the sources. There are also plenty of new archaeological sites being excavated as we speak, within the city and in the surrounding areas.


What is briefly the history of this site?

At the time of Prophet Muhammad hijra to Madinah, the city was known as Yathrib after a name found in the Bible. After the battle of the Trench or غزوة الخندق the city came to be known as Taybah or Tabah or simply al-Madinah, as found in some Hadith literature

The city was populated by Arab tribes notably the Aws and the Khazraj and by a sizeable Jewish minority.

After the Rightly guided Caliphs, Madinah was in the hands of different Islamic dynasties such as the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and finally under the indigenous Arabian rule of the House of Saud. Today Madinah is a cosmopolitan city that retains its Hijazi, international flavor with many international residents and an increasingly developed cultural sector focused on the enhancement of historic sites.


Harry Munt, The Holy City of Medina: Sacred Space in Early Islamic Arabia, 2014








Dr Melanie Gibson is the Senior Editor of the Gingko Library Art Series and convenor for the Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art at SOAS, London University. Her research focuses on the ceramics and glass of the Islamic world and in the reception and use of Islamic pattern in 19th century British design. She is currently a Trustee of the Leighton House Museum, London, and is working on a book about the Arab Hall at this historic building.

1. How did you become interested in Islamic art, and how did you end up gravitating towards publishing and editorial?

I became interested in Islamic art when I was an undergraduate studying Arabic at Oxford University. Seeking a break from difficult medieval texts I found myself in the Islamic gallery of the Ashmolean Museum which was connected by a bridge to the Oriental Institute. Intrigued and delighted by the displays of ceramics and tiles, I found that two great scholars, Julian Raby and James Allan, were lecturing on Islamic art and architecture at the Institute and in my final year I was able to study early and medieval ceramics for my special subject. I have been very lucky with mentors and supporters: some years after studying Mughal art with Heather Elgood for my MA at SOAS she gave me my first job, lecturing on ceramics for the Islamic module of the Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art at SOAS; she eventually appointed me to run the module even before I had completed my PhD. After ten years I moved to the newly-founded New College of the Humanities to run the Art History Faculty. There I met Barbara Schwepcke, founder of Gingko, a multi-faceted charity that runs a range of public programmes with the aim of increasing understanding of the MENA region. Its activities include academic publishing in history, art history and inter faith-studies. After many years of teaching, I was ready for a new challenge and was happy to join the charity as an executive trustee and ultimately to become editor of the art history series. I launched my new publishing career with a volume of essays dedicated to my PhD supervisor, Professor Doris Behrens-Abouseif, entitled Art, Trade and Culture in the Islamic World and Beyond. From the Fatimids to the Mughals.

2. What are currently the biggest challenges for publishing houses?

Gingko is not an ordinary publishing house as it forms part of the charity ‒ the challenges we face are somewhat different from those of a mainstream publisher.  With the support of the Gingko founder Barbara Schwepcke, I started the Art History Series with the intention of publishing well-produced and beautiful academic books. We started slowly with four books on subjects ranging from the architecture of Yemen, trade and exchange in the 17th and 18th centuries and the controversy surrounding the use of images in Islamic and other religious cultures.  2021 has been a stellar year for our fledgling operation – we have published our first monograph on the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus and three more books will be out before the end of the year. More Gingko books are published in our History and Inter-Faith series’ and in collaboration with academic societies such as the Royal Asiatic Society and British Institute of Persian Studies in London.

At this moment, the greatest challenge is the supply chain and the cost of materials. Paper is harder to come by and more expensive, shipping times and the cost of transport have increased and, by most accounts, will continue to do so. This makes a material difference to a business with traditionally low margins. In the longer term, the challenge – and I am thinking here specifically of our Art History series – is how we handle the transition to digital publishing. Increasingly, libraries are opting for digital over print. A trend expedited by the pandemic. For an unillustrated monograph, where print-on-demand and short-runs have long been the norm, that’s more an opportunity than a threat. But art books are necessarily illustrated, usually in colour, so how we manage to continue to publish beautifully-illustrated and produced academic art books will be the real challenge of the coming years.


3. Dear Melanie, I wondered about your interest in ceramics. Why ceramics over any other medium? What can we learn from the social and cultural life of people through ceramics? Do you think ceramic work continues being a trend, or is it becoming a niche art?

While I was an undergraduate studying Arabic at Oxford University, I was given the chance to study the early and medieval ceramics of the Islamic world as a ‘special subject’ with Prof James Allan. Week by week he took me through pieces in the study collection of the Ashmolean, and taught me to understand them not by showing me images on a screen, but by handing me individual pieces so that I could feel their shape and weight and minutely examine the body and glaze, even before looking at the decoration. This extraordinary opportunity inspired in me an enduring passion for ceramics.

Ceramics survive in a way that most other materials do not – they cannot be melted down and do not perish or rot, so in many cases our knowledge of the artistic tastes of a region or period is dependent on its pottery. For my PhD thesis I chose to research a group of ceramics which gave me new insights into a fascinating period in which the Saljuq dynasty was pre-eminent. I looked at a group of glazed ceramic sculptures made in Kashan in central Iran and Raqqa in Syria from the mid-12th to mid-13th centuries. This was a period in which ceramic production achieved technical and aesthetic excellence with a wide output of shapes and designs. My interest was piqued by an entirely new type of object: three-dimensional figurines modelled in human, animal and bird forms. These included familiar courtly themes such as musicians and hunters but also a much more domestic and unfamiliar subject ‒ women feeding a child from a naked breast.

One of the remarkable features of ceramics of this period is the scale of production indicated by the number of surviving examples. The potters’ increased reliance on moulds allowed them to produce near identical objects in larger numbers. There are many instances of production runs of the same model; although finished with different glazes, the basic form and proportions are sufficiently close to suggest they were cast from the same mould. In their raw state, these objects could be produced for approximately the same cost, and it was the quality of the surface decoration that determined their eventual value. The main difference is often of scale, with the same subjects made in a range of sizes and glazes, and these qualitative variations suggest that the sculptures were intended to appeal to a cross-section of society with varying financial resources. Much of the subject matter of the figures reinforces this idea. Although the activities of the ruling elite were represented, so too were other more domestic and popular activities (such as breastfeeding a child), that were less closely linked with court life.

Although the study of ceramics was in the doldrums in the late 20th century, in the past decade there has been a steadily growing interest in the work of contemporary potters in in the Middle East and North Africa. The Victoria and Albert Museum curator Mariam Rosser Owen has been acquiring pieces and has brought a selection together in a brilliant exhibition which is currently showing at the museum: Contemporary Ceramic Art from the Middle East.  Some of these artists are reviving old techniques – for instance Abbas Akbari is working with lustre in Kashan and Elif Uras has reinterpreted some traditional Iznik designs. The lustre star tiles made by Akbari appear to copy Ilkhanid designs but incorporate modern machinery – cars, motorbikes, a train, a bull-dozer (V&A ME.43-2020)! The conference entitled Ceramics from Islamic Lands that was held at the same museum in July included a lot of new research on themes ranging from archaeological finds to contemporary practice. It attracted over a huge audience of over 1,000 participants which suggests that ceramic studies are once more on the ascendant.

4. What led to an interest in the designs of the Islamic world in the UK, how widespread was this interest, and what where the ways in which it manifested itself in everyday household items. How long did this interest last?

Visiting the Wallace Collection in London one day I was intrigued to find an alcove below the stairs which was lined with tiles in a classic Iznik trellis pattern with saz leaves and large blossoms. Although the design was familiar it was clear from its colours and the regularity that these were not 16th-century tiles. This led me into a research project looking at various 19th-century British tile manufacturers. I started with Minton, Hollis and Co who supplied the tiles for the smoking room of Hertford House, later the Wallace Collection, and of which only the alcove survives today. I then investigated a Manchester firm, the Pilkington Tile and Pottery Company, which produced Iznik-style tiles as well as lustre vessels inspired by medieval Kashan examples. One of their most famous commissions was for the hammam on the ill-fated Titanic. Incredibly, the tiles have survived and can be seen in a film taken by James Cameron (director of the film Titanic) from a submarine he travelled in to explore the sunken ship. Finally, I looked at the craftsman-designer William De Morgan whose design inspiration initially came from his work with the Syrian and Turkish tiles in the Arab hall at Leighton House.

Glazed wall tiles became very accessible in the second half of the 19th century when the process for their manufacture became industrialised. At the time there was an awareness of the widespread use of tiles in the architecture in the Middle East, so naturally manufacturers started looking for design inspiration in the art of the region. Not only tiles, but vases and other decorative pieces were made by Minton and other firms, often for display in the great commercial exhibitions that started taking place in London and Paris. In the London Exhibition of 1862 Minton showed a range of vessels, some of which were direct copies and others imaginative renditions of Islamic designs. Christopher Dresser who worked at Minton’s in the early 1860’s was deeply indebted to what he described as ‘Persian’ design – in a lecture of 1874 he declared: ‘Much, if not most, of the best surface ornament which the world has seen, can be traced back to a Persian source’.

The fashion for ‘Persian’ tiles, as Iznik-inspired patterns were always described in the 19th century was brief: it peaked in the 1890s, started to decline in the early years of the 20th century, and was over by 1930. The Minton ‘Persian’ tiles that had made the smoking room of Hertford House so fashionable were removed in 1937.


5. How is Leighton House engaging with the modern UK and international audience? What is the main objective and mission of the space, and what can we learn from the history of this place?

Leighton House was formerly the house of the British artist Frederic Leighton (1830–96). With his friend, the architect George Aitchison, he built a space in Holland Park that was his studio, his home and an expression of his aesthetic principles – his ‘private palace of art’. Every visitor to the house is transfixed by the Arab Hall: its gorgeous tiles, wooden lattices, fountain and soaring dome capture the imagination now just as they did in 1881 when the room was first revealed to the public. After Lord Leighton died in 1896 the house was inherited by his sisters who sold the contents but were unable to sell the house. Mrs Emilie Barrington, an enthusiastic friend of the artist, fought to have to have it preserved as the museum it eventually became in 1929.

A major restoration and conservation campaign was begun in 2007 to return the house to as close to its original state as possible; the third and final stage is almost complete, and the house will reopen in 2022. The objective of this most recent conservation phase is to further increase the public’s understanding and enjoyment of the house by adding new displays on the life and work of Leighton, and of some of his contemporaries, the so-called ‘Holland Park Circle’ who lived close by. A new Centre for Drawing has been built to store and display Leighton’s drawings and studies as well as the museum archives. A helical staircase has been constructed and this has given us the opportunity to commission the Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari to create the first contemporary artwork for permanent display at Leighton House. A dedicated learning centre is being created out of the basement which originally housed Leighton’s kitchen, butler’s pantry and larder. These evocative rooms were not previously accessible to the public and by opening them up we will be able to tell stories about the artist’s household.

Like everyone, we have been frustrated by the restrictions forced on us by the Covid pandemic. Determined to continue engaging with audiences and supporters, we initiated an exciting programme of online lectures, classes and events which allowed us to connect with a new, global audience of all ages and interests. The new learning space will enable us to expand our programme for schools, families, adults and the community, to offer new ways of learning such as practical artist-led workshops, and to offer online and in person courses with the modern equipment and facilities at our disposal.

The main objective of Leighton House and the mission of its curators, staff and trustees is to share with a diverse audience a rare example of an artist’s studio house with interiors that have been restored as closely as possible to their original appearance. We aim to explore the aesthetic ideas of one of Britain’s foremost artists and members of Victorian society but also to inspire creativity and to give exciting opportunities for learning. The Arab Hall, in Frederic Leighton’s words: ‘a little addition for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while’ tells us something about his fascination with the houses and interiors he saw over twenty years of travelling around the Middle East and North Africa and his desire to recreate some of the sights he experienced in his own house. A visit to Leighton House will encourage an appreciation of Frederic Leighton and his ‘house beautiful’, and more widely of art, design and craftsmanship from around the world.


Paul Wordsworth is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford specialising in the archaeology of the medieval Caucasus and Central Asia, with a particular interest on the northeastern fringes of the early Islamic world. He is currently directing two archaeological projects: one explores the landscape of a provincial Abbasid capital city in Azerbaijan, the other is with the Metropolitan Museum, New York, examining the emergence of a medieval Silk Road town in the desert of Turkmenist. His forthcoming book, Moving in the Margins: Desert Travel and Power in Medieval Central Asia, explores the complex relationship between movement, trade, politics and society that lies behind the development of medieval Islamic networks of travel in the region.
  1. What, in short, does archaeological investigation of the Central Asian trade routes reveal to us about the trade and cultural life of those routes and the people along it that is not otherwise obvious?

Over the past two decades or so, studies have increasingly revealed the complexity of trade routes across Central Asia, moving away from ideas of a single corridor running East-West towards ideas of multiple pathways and connections in different directions and the pivotal role played by this region. Most straightforwardly, an archaeological perspective of these exchange systems provides insights into the materiality of trade—the nature of the objects that were moved across this vast area. For example, the chemical analysis of pottery retrieved from archaeological sites speaks to methods of local production for exchange over a vast area, while there have been increasing studies of how Central Asian silver was traded epic distances to become the core component of metal hoards in medieval northern Europe. Archaeology has also begun shed light on the exchange of knowledge and practice across this zone, such as the spread of different modes of agricultural and livestock raising and the adoption of species native to Central Asia across the Eurasian landmass.

For the period after the arrival of Islam across Central Asia (8th century CE onwards), most archaeological attention in the 20th/21st century has focussed on the major cities of the region, which thrived as hubs of commerce and production but were also major consumers for traded goods. At centres such as Samarkand (Afrasiab), Merv (Marv), and Paykend, excavations uncovered the remains extensive workshops for ceramics which were used locally and traded regionally. Meanwhile the exploration of residential buildings (from humble to palatial), revealed preferences in consumption of both local and more exotic goods, as well as the choices in architectural style and decoration which demonstrate regional continuity but also strong connections with other parts Islamic world. Recent studies refining the archaeological data for these cities have been able to document not only their thriving cosmopolitan nature, but the dramatic ebb and flow in the economic and social life of these places. As such we are gaining an impression of the extent to which urban lives were crucially linked to trade, exchange, and connectivity.

Outside the cities, studies including some of my own research, have attempted to analyse the mechanisms of routes and trade, from suggestions of nomadic origins, to understanding more about the provision of way-stations or “caravanserais”. The archaeology of outposts has revealed that networks of movement were far more dispersed than previously realised and likely integrated into local pastoralist practices and the remote wells of the desert-steppe zone. By contrast the construction of monumental caravanserais was a specific means to promote (and thus control) certain routes, first seen in earnest during the period between 900-1200 CE, but the use of these buildings and their maintenance was often quite short-lived.

Some further readings on the topic:

  • Gruszczynski, Jacek, Marek Jankowiak, and Jonathan Shepard, eds. Viking-Age Trade: Silver, Slaves and Gotland. London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021.
  • Holakooei, Parviz, Jean-François de Lapérouse, Federico Carò, Stefan Röhrs, Ute Franke, Martina Müller-Wiener, and Ina Reiche. ‘Non-Invasive Scientific Studies on the Provenance and Technology of Early Islamic Ceramics from Afrasiyab and Nishapur’. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 24 (April 2019): 759–72.
  • Karev, Yury. ‘Qarakhanid Wall Paintings in the Citadel of Samarqand: First Report and Preliminary Observations’. Muqarnas 22 (2005): 45–84.
  • Rante, Rocco, Abdisabur Raimkulov, and Shukrat Adilov. Mission Archéologique Dans l’Oasis de Boukhara: Rapport Préliminaire, Campagne 2012. Paris: Musée du Louvre-LA3M (UMR7298), 2013.
  • Spengler, Robert N. Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Food You Eat. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019.
  • Wordsworth, Paul. ‘Sustaining Travel – the Economy of Medieval Stopping-Places across the Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan’. In Landscapes of the Islamic World: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography, edited by Stephen McPhillips and Paul Wordsworth, 219–36. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.


  1. What did your study of urban neighborhoods in Merv reveal about the way people lived? Were there significant differences between different neighbourhoods?


The city of Merv is unique among urban archaeological sites of Central Asia, in that each re-founding of the settlement shifted to occupy adjacent areas, resulting in a palimpsest of remains across an area of around 40 km2, dating from the Achaemenid period (6th century BCE) onwards. This particular practice means that the modern settlement, known as Bayram Ali, lies some way from the ruins of the earlier phases of the city, each of which is exceptionally well-preserved owing this process of abandonment. Unlike most cities, where the modern occupation overlies the ancient remains (Bukhara, for example), the urban layout of early Islamic Merv is visible from above in satellite and aerial imagery, allowing us to gain an overall impression of the city’s structure in a manner that is impossible elsewhere. Several attempts have been made to map the city from aerial photographs, and with increasing technological advances (for example in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) we are able to examine the site in ever higher resolution. Although studies are ongoing, some important aspects have already emerged concerning the neighbourhoods of the Abbasid city (from the mid-8th century) which thrived until the 13th century, referred to locally as Sultan Kala.

Perhaps the most significant finding concerns the planning of the Abbasid urban space, along the central spine of the Majan Canal, which is fed by the Murghab River. We know from 10th century texts that an elaborate system of water management and distribution existed on the canal, but from the aerial view we can demonstrate the fact that the city was planned around this system with perpendicular offshoot canals watering each quarter of the city from the main artery at regular intervals along its length. This degree of urban planning lends yet more evidence to the arguments against “organic” or unplanned development in Islamic cities of Central Asia, in favour of formal municipal design and management.

Another aspect clearly evident is the different uses of space in discrete urban zones. The courtyard is a prominent architectural feature throughout the city, and by differentiating the sizes of courtyards it is possible to postulate areas of predominantly administrative and commercial activities, versus those of a domestic nature. At the same time, the visible lines of streets indicate where early neighbourhoods were disrupted in later periods by the re-delineation of city walls and the insertion of administrative buildings.

In spite of the clarity with which some features are evident in the city, what we are seeing is nonetheless a palimpsest of remains from different periods, and we must be careful to avoid assuming our perspective on the city relates to one particular period. Unpicking the chronology of development presents real challenges, some of which will only be resolved through future archaeological excavation at the site.

Some further readings on the topic:

  • Kennedy, Hugh. ‘From Shahristan to Medina’. Studia Islamica 102/103 (2006): 5–34.
  • Williams, Tim. ‘The Landscapes of Islamic Merv, Turkmenistan: Where to Draw the Line?’ Internet Archaeology 25 (2008). http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue25/merv_index.html.
  • Williams, Tim. ‘The City of Sultan Kala, Merv, Turkmenistan: Communities, Neighbourhoods and Urban Planning from the Eighth to the Thirteenth Century’. In Cities in the Pre-Modern Islamic World: The Urban Impact of Religion, State and Society, edited by Amira K. Bennison and Alison L. Gascoigne, 1st ed., 42–62. Oxford: Routledge, 2007.


  1. One tends to think of the architecture of Islamic Central Asia as being very similar to that of Iran – what are the most significant differences, and in what ways do you think that it reflects the culture (or cultures) of Central Asia?


There are certainly strong parallels between the development of architecture in Islamic Iran and Central Asia. To consider the Abbasid period, for example, there are examples in the use of decorative carved and moulded stucco which share stylistic aspects from Isfahan and Nishapur, to Balkh and Samarkand. Likewise, certain aspects of architectural layout are adopted in a significant way around the same time, the most obvious being the model of a mosque with four cardinal eywans (open portals onto a courtyard). Some of these similarities owe much to shared responses to similar landscapes and materials across this zone, while others speak to common cultural and social ideas.

There are, however, many differences, and for the sake of brevity I will just mention two examples here.

Some of the starkest contrasts are seen in the continuity of practice from early- or pre-Islamic traditions. One example of a very recognisable decorative motif, which is incorporated as an aspect of architectural design is the use of “corrugations” or continuous walls of engaged columns of the exterior of buildings. This style is seen from at least the 7th century CE until the 12th century CE and is generally restricted to the regions of the Murghab River delta, Khorezm, and the Bukhara Oasis. Some scholars particularly associate this style with the monumental residences of pre-Islamic local authorities or dehqans, who in some cases continued to retain some importance after the coming of Islam.

On a broader level, another example of a significant Central Asian development is that of funerary architecture, which appears in a varied and elaborate expression earlier in Central Asia than it does to the east in what is now Iran. The Samanid Mausoleum of Bukhara is the most famous example, executed entirely in fired brick without glaze or colour, instead using texture and shadow to create a unique example of a dynastic monumental tomb. The use of cut and carved bricks continued in earnest through the 11th and 12th centuries in Central Asia, and while this technique was also adopted in some Iranian architecture, its expression in the East is arguable a category in its own right. Meanwhile each subsequent stage of the proliferation and innovation seen in mausolea, from the tomb of Sultan Sanjar at Merv, to the tiled extravagance of the many monuments of the Shahi-Zinda (Shah-e Zende), arguably speaks to particular resonance for these structures in Central Asia. It is likely that a strong part of this development is a differing approach to the cultural importance of funerary architecture, which also came to be expressed in other ways across the Islamic world.

Some further readings on the topic:

  • Herrmann, Georgina. Monuments of Merv: Traditional Buildings of the Karakum. London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 1999.
  • Michailidis, Melanie. ‘Dynastic Politics and the Samanid Mausoleum’, Ars Orientalis 44, 2014: 20-39.
  • Soustiel, Jean, and Yves Porter. Tombs of Paradise: The Shah-e Zende in Samarkand and Architectural Ceramics of Central Asia. Saint-Rémy-en-l’Eau: Monelle Hayot, 2003.
  • Wordsworth, Paul D. ‘Traditions of Monumental Decoration in the Earthen Architecture of Early Islamic Central Asia’. In Earthen Architecture in Muslim Cultures, edited by Stéphane Pradines, 233–48. Leiden: Brill, 2018.


Dear Muneer, I hope that you and your family are safe and well. Like so many others, I was shocked to learn of colossal loss in Gaza. Which included cultural assets such as Samir Mansour’s library containing around 100,000 books were demolished. How do you and the people of Gaza plan to re-build these cultural assets? And are you getting any help from the international community?

Gaza has witnessed numerous successive onslaughts on its cultural heritage of the ages – including the taking of many manuscripts during the French occupation of Palestine, and the burning of others in WWI, which damaged Gaza quite badly, destroying many historic buildings as well. During more recent years, there was no interest in preserving Gaza’s cultural assets: on the contrary, there were some initiatives to obliterate Gaza’s history. In the conflicts in Gaza between 2012 and 2021 many historic buildings were damaged, including al-Umary and al Mahkama Mosques, as well as cultural institutions such as Al Uyun Centre for Historic Studies, the Iwan Centre for Heritage and Cultural Preservation, Mishal Culture Centre and the library of Samir Mansour. In answer to your question, because of the dire economic circumstances and heavy loss of life and buildings cultural heritage is not one of the current government’s top strategic priorities, however there are numerous non government entities including universities and community associations working in partnership with funding bodies to save what can be saved of Gaza’s heritage assets. In short there are many different initiatives however as yet, there isn’t a unified, structured government policy for dealing with heritage preservation.

With regards the second part of the question: Is there support from the international community? In general most of the support comes from international organisations whose mandate it is to preserve cultural heritage, rather than from international governments. For example we have been able to work on the preservation of the archive of the great Umary Mosque through the support of the Prince Claus Fund, The Whiting Foundation, The British Library and The Barakat Trust. Similarly, the restoration of the old Qaysareya building has been possible through the support of The Barakat Trust and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. In addition to financial support we have also received inkind support from a range of institutions including the Biblioteca Alexandrina in Egypt and the Recanati e Restauro School in Italy. Despite all of this, we are still in search of substantial financial support to enable a large scale scheme to preserve Gaza’s heritage that would enable the city to shine as an example of a significant Arab historic city with an important and distinctive historic urban fabric.


What do you think the most important priorities are for the preservation of heritage in Gaza?

Gaza old city needs a specific body (planning unit) preferably a non-governmental unit working under supervision of Palestinian universities or cultural heritage experts. The first role of this unit is to control all efforts needed for a risk preparedness scheme. This scheme needs to consist of a culture risk fund, a training scheme, an information management scheme, first aid squads and an awareness programme, the second role is post-conflict development and preparing urgent intervention plans.

Taking into account the problems that threaten Gaza old city and the unstable political/security situations I suggest three stages for development in Gaza old city:

  1. The first stage is upgrading commercial routes with traders’ participation (even if these routes do not contain any monuments); this will help rapidly upgrade the physical, ecological and socio-economic environments.
  2. The second stage is upgrading open spaces, building surroundings, infrastructural systems and traffic and accessibility for the existing urban fabric; this will solve many ecological problems and also improve the social and economic situation.
  3. The third stage is to propose a methodology for restoring monuments, rehabilitating traditional buildings and remodeling facades of new buildings, this methodology has to encourage community participation, save natural resources, create new job opportunities, …etc.

What is the public response to the projects you are working on? How do people feel about them? 

Work with the community is not as easy as assumed. Here, I am thinking about the project to restore the historic Qaisareya building (the old market) in Gaza City. Building trust with shop owners is a very important part of the process of delivering a project like this one. Even though the benefits of projects like these are clear, one of the things that needs to be negotiated with shop owners is patience, as the work takes time and in some instance shop owners are required to shut their shops when the work takes place in front of them. As such, the project team needs to be in constant communication with the local community about the project details.

In some cases, shop owners complain about the project – usually because they are not as well informed as perhaps they should be about the work process.

The team also needs to be prepared that in the initial stages the local community might not respond positively to the project. As the project progresses and the outcomes become more evident, the local community tends to warm to the project and is now expressing thanks – seeing its benefits in different ways.