A conversation with our post-doctoral fellow in Islamic Arts and Culture....

posted on 01 Nov 2012 13:29 by Elena Pinto Simon
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EPS: Prof. Balbale, welcome to the BGC! How is your first semester going? Tell us about what you are teaching this term.

AB: Thanks! I’m having a great first semester. I’m teaching “A Survey of Islamic Art and Material Culture,” and we’re covering a lot of ground very quickly, but it’s exciting to be teaching a class that is so object driven. I’m enjoying teaching a small group of highly focused graduate students and have been learning a lot from them.

EPS: What are your early observations about the BGC?

AB: The BGC is an extraordinary place. The faculty work on a diverse set of regions and periods and use a wide range of approaches, and yet they all have a common interest in material things. This means there are fascinating interdisciplinary conversations happening all the time. These conversations are further enriched by the people constantly coming through the BGC – visiting lecturers, fellows, students and others. For a small research institute, the BGC has amazing resources, and I am continuously surprised and impressed by the extensive library holdings in my field. I have found it very exciting to be here.


EPS: Can you tell us a little bit about your current research projects?

AB: I’m currently working on two projects. The first is an article on the uses of an Arabic inscription on a number of objects and structures on the medieval Iberian Peninsula. This inscription, which is a kind of well-wishing aphorism, likely originated on ceramics or silks in the Levant or North Africa, and began to be used on similar objects produced in the Iberian Peninsula in the twelfth century. What I find fascinating is that this phrase, with its particular orthographic anomalies, made its way onto the walls of a number of structures built by Christian, Jewish and Muslim patrons from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries. This article unpacks the layers of meaning that the phrase came to have, and talks more generally about the complexities of cultural interaction and exchange at a time of increasingly violent rhetoric toward Islam.

My second, and much larger project is a book on the legitimation of authority in al-Andalus in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I look at how rulers competed with each other in articulating their legitimacy as righteous Muslim authorities even as they entered into increasingly close relationships with their Christian neighbors. Cultural production reflected these two impulses. On the one hand, rulers sought to present themselves as pious rulers following the Islamic traditions of authority, and their coins and monumental inscriptions adapt phrases in use in the eastern Islamic world. On the other hand, they sponsored the creation of spaces and objects that were en vogue in the western Mediterranean regardless of religious identification. Palaces were adorned with wall paintings like those on the ceiling of the Capella Palatina in Palermo, which in turn reflected the production of Fatimid Egypt. The diplomatic relationships among Christian and Muslim kings was undergirded by a deep financial and material interdependence, and shared courtly culture.

EPS: You are currently planning this season’s Trehan Lecture Series. What do you have planned for us?

AB: We had a wonderful first lecture with Yves Porter on October 23, talking about production of ceramic lusterware in medieval Iran. Coming up in December, Heather Ecker will be talking to us about oliphants and the material dimensions of a shared hunting culture in the medieval Mediterranean. In April, David Roxburgh will be talking about cultural patronage in the court of Baysunghur in Timurid Herat. It’s a wide ranging group of lectures from some amazing scholars, and it’s been very exciting organizing them.