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Doctoral Project

The ‘Fertile Crescent’ as architectural playground for a new ruling elite. Reconsidering the Umayyad ‘desert castles’ in a transcultural perspective
Jennifer Pochodzalla (M.A.)

The ‘desert castles’, which were discovered in the Levant during the 19th century, are a tangible expression of Umayyad patronage (661-750 CE). Yet, with their meticulous planning, comprising reception rooms, mosques, baths and living quarters, as well as their distinctive and often figurative decoration, they challenge prevalent stereotypes of Islamic art and until now have resisted any straightforward interpretation.

Thus, they have usually raised more questions than they answer because existing methods and approaches have failed to understand the ‘desert castles,’ among them the famous Qusayr ʿAmra, Khirbat al-Mafjar and Mshatta, as emanations of highly productive and deliberate transcultural processes. This is due to a problem of method. The leading paradigm for the research of Islamic art has hitherto been based on a Western, linear theory of the evolution of cultures. Accordingly, the ‘desert castles’ have been perceived as being ‘influenced’ and the question of their artistic ‘origins’ permeates research.

In contrast to this view, my project proposes a new, transcultural approach which investigates and explains these works of art as constituted by conscious decisions, exchanges and relationships. Instead of placing the focus of my study on the sources of the artistic vocabulary employed by the Umayyads I wish to explore in my PhD project the “dialogic” (Rabbat 2003) creativity that took effect during the building process. Compared to existing research, this approach then offers the opportunity to engage with important, yet new questions: Why was it necessary for the Umayyads to create a new artistic ‘language’ as epitomized by the ‘desert castles’? How did the selection process of available elements work? What conclusions do these issues allow us to draw about the policy and dynastic self-perception of the Umayyads?

By investigating the ‘desert castles’ in a transcultural perspective, I expect two main results. First, this study shows how the Umayyads consciously linked their self-perception and representation to art production. This process, in turn, must be considered as transcultural by nature. Second, the project contributes to refining our present theoretical understanding of transculturality and to advancing art historical methods.