Second Lecture in the Focus Aleppo Series

Second Lecture in the Focus Aleppo Series

“City And Landscape in the Ottoman Aleppo: Experiencing Architecture, Narrating Space,” was the next lecture in the Department of Art History and Archaeology’s “‘Islamic Art:’ Disrupting Unity and Discerning Ruptures series,” presented by Heghnar Watenpaugh, professor of Art History at the University of California, Davis. We sent staff writer Romane Thomas to check it out last night.

“The art of Islam is not unified as many of us were taught,” Watenpaugh began.

Watenpaugh is an expert on architectural history in Islamic societies. Her book, The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries received the Spiro Kostof Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians in 2006. A polyglot, Watenpaugh attended Rice University and MIT before moving to the University of California. She agreed to visit the East Coast (#Beast Coast) to tell us about her research in Aleppo, Syria.

Avinoam Shalem, Professor of Islamic Art at Columbia and creator of the Focus Aleppo series, introduced Watenpaugh. He pointed out that “The Art of Islam is not unified as many of us were taught” and explained that, accordingly, Watenpaugh’s lecture would address the architectural innovations resulting from the Ottoman rule in Aleppo. Before starting her speech, she mentioned that the Syrian War has had a devastating effect on Aleppo architecture. According to her, “the destruction of Aleppo’s patrimony stands for the destruction of her varied social fabric.” Referencing the wreckage of the Minaret of the Great Mosque, Watenpaugh pointed out that as “products of the historical moment that we are in,” we need to reflect on the effect of our actions on centuries of history. The photographs that she was able to show the audience were taken by aerial view or by guerrilla fighters in the area.

She gave a short architectural history of Aleppo. Under Ottoman rule, Aleppo was a thriving hub of commercial exchange. Silk and spices from the East were exchanged within Aleppo’s walls in one of the world’s largest covered Bazaars (now destroyed). The Ottoman Empire had a huge impact on the architecture of the city, of which remains only a few Ottoman-style mosques. The nostalgia in Watenpaugh’s voice was palpable and gave her lecture a story-like character as she described how a foreign traveler would experience coming upon the sight of the great city.

Unlike in the European tradition, very few sketches or maps of Middle Eastern cities can be found in the 16th century. Watenpaugh explains that great middle eastern thinkers conveyed the looks of their cities through literature rather than craftsmanship, as they believed craftsmen to be of a different social class. Through text comparisons, Watenpaugh showed the audience that “the history of vision in the middle east has a very different trajectory than that of Europe.” In order to reconstruct the evolution of Aleppo’s cityscape under the Ottoman Empire, Watenpaugh relied on poetry and texts from famous literati and from the few sketches of the city drawn by European travelers.

Through her thorough yet engaging lecture, Watenpaugh took the audience through a historical journey into Aleppo. The enduring effects of the Ottoman rule on the urban landscape is one of the ruptures in Islamic art mentioned in the title of these lectures. Although Watenpaugh stated that one should not just express nostalgia at the loss of Aleppo’s patrimony, she poetically remarked that “Aleppo the grey, named thus for the color of its stones, has gone grey and faceless.”

Focus Aleppo poster via Columbia University