By the Pen and What They Write

I recently returned from a short trip to Doha, Qatar. This bright desert country was the venue for the Sixth Biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art and Culture. Titled By the Pen and What They Write: Writing in Islamic Art and Culture, the symposium brought together art historians, curators, artists and conservators to discuss the role of writing in Islamic art. The co-conveners, Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, share a particular passion for this subject and had gathered a diverse group of speakers accordingly.

For me, this meant the opportunity to meet scholars from around the world, and to discuss the role of the Conservator in understanding the materiality of the Islamic book. The cross disciplinary nature of the symposium facilitated many interesting discussions around this subject, and the intrinsic link between its usage, form and function.

The symposium was held at the Museum of Islamic Art- a spectacular space, with an equally impressive collection- which symposium delegates were encouraged to explore between sessions.
There was also time to see the historic Souq al Waqif, where it’s easy to stock up on spices and Gum Arabic, and the equally vibrant Falcon Souq. It was fascinating to see a souq dedicated to this ancient tradition- so familiar from manuscripts and the current exhibit, The Hunt, at MIA- alive and thriving in modern-day Doha.
Mountains of spices in Souq al Waqif; a falcon auction; and a craftsman making hoods for the prized raptors.
After two days of compelling presentations, covering topics as diverse as pre-Islamic graffito and contemporary calligraphy, it was a pleasure to visit more of Doha’s cultural institutions. The sense of growth is everywhere in the city, from its incredible modern skyline and the ever present building works, to the patronage of contemporary art and education. The recently opened Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies in the centre of Education City combined all of these things with its soaring architecture, calm but modern prayer spaces, and hi-tech classrooms.
Beautiful private and public spaces at the new Faculty of Islamic Studies.
Doha is a fascinating city. I was captivated by its enduring presence in such a seemingly inhospitable environment, and by the energy of the many cultural initiatives I was fortunate enough to see there.
It was a privilege to attend the Islamic art symposium, and to be given the opportunity to discuss conservation with such a varied audience. The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration is steadily being recognised within the cultural heritage sector as a tool with which to better understand the materiality, as well as the regional and chronological variations in the features of Islamic manuscript material.
Co-conveners Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom; art work at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.
To me, it also stands to reason that if we wish to ensure the long-term preservation of Islamic manuscript material, then we must work together to develop a more complete understanding of the many aspects of their intrinsic cultural value. The Sixth Biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art and Culture was a valuable opportunity to work towards this goal.

My own paper, “Reading with Conservators: the language of book archaeology,” will soon be available as a podcast via the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art and Culture website. By the Pen and What They Write: Writing in Islamic Art and Culture will be published in autumn 2017. 


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