Prepared by Majd Musa and Mohammad al-Asad
Grabar went on to discuss the second direction regarding the study of Islamic art, which is "archaeology." He mentioned that by the time he became a university student in the late 1940s and early 1950s, archaeology had begun to acquire the reputation of being a restrictive and tedious technique in which one endlessly counts shreds, drills little holes, and uses toothbrushes to clean excavated materials. However, archaeology still maintains and cultivates traces of older and much more exciting activities. One of these is travel. There always has been a wide range of extraordinary travelers who went to different places, saw different things, were afraid of very little, and whose travel accounts are often amongst the most exciting subjects about which one can read. These include people such as Gertrude Bell (1868 - 1926), Robert Byron (1905 - 1941), Nelson Glueck (1900 - 1971), Alois Musil (1868 - 1944), and Sir Aurel Stein (1862 - 1943), to mention a few. Another activity is the fascination with great monuments that initially concentrated on those of ancient Egypt. The fascination with great monuments is obvious for example in Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach's 1721 book Entwurff einer Historischen Architektur (Outline of Historical Architecture) on the general history of architecture. The work, which was translated to English in 1730 under the title A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture, is considered the first universal history of architecture and the first book to include representations of Islamic architecture from Egypt, Persia, and Turkey. Although von Erlach's illustrations of monuments from the Orient were extremely fanciful, the work did have considerable influence as a general work on the history of architecture.
Grabar added that the novelty of archaeology in the 1950s was the development of departments of antiquities in different countries of the Islamic world, which initially were often run by Europeans. The role of those departments primarily was to maintain monuments. It is their work that has resulted in the preservation of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which was completed during the reign of the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (r. 705 - 715), but was subjected to many interventions since then; the Tomb of Oljaytu in Sultaniyya in Iran (1306 -1312); the monuments of Cairo; etc. There are masses of other activities in which those departments of antiquities also have been involved. They carried out surveys. Grabar mentioned as an important example the surveys that Robert McCormick Adams, the former Director of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and author of the Land Behind Baghdad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), carried out in southern Iraq. However, Grabar believes that the most remarkable examples of these surveys are found in the ex-Soviet Union. There are surveys carried out in Central Asia during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s that kept track of every remain, every site, and every village. They provide a remarkable body of work, and one can reconstruct the topography of huge areas through those works. These works did include excavations, but the excavations had always posed problems because there is no critical number of sites for the development of criteria of classification and judgment, as opposed to prehistoric archaeology where such a critical number of sites exists.
Grabar added that archaeology also has posed practical problems. One is the low level of publication. Archaeologists generally do not publish excavations. This is because although excavations are fun to carry out, ninety percent of what excavators find is of no interest to the vast majority of people. In addition, the cost of archaeological work has become very high. Grabar mentioned that as a young scholar he could get by on small budgets that simply would be unthinkable today. To a student or a young scholar, archaeology offered, and still offers, a unique opportunity to do two things. The first is to acquire total knowledge about a place, in the sense that one excavates a place and therefore knows everything about that place. Thus, one is entitled to draw conclusions that most probably will not be contradicted. The second is the contact with the land and its people. When an archaeologist excavates, he or she enters into the life of the place in which he or she does the excavation, whether a village or a small locality of two or three villages, and one is able to "feel" a country or an area. This, according to Grabar, explains why a number of archaeologists were used by intelligence services. Archaeologists often have a better knowledge of the countries they study than do the inhabitants of those countries. Grabar added that the OSS (the United States Office of Strategic Services), which is the predecessor of the CIA, partially was created by archaeologists of the 1930s and 1940s. On a related note, he mentioned that during that period many American diplomats in the Islamic world seemed more concerned with archaeology than with political issues. For example, at the time when Grabar first came to Jordan in the 1950s, the American ambassador to Jordan used to automatically represent the American Archaeological Society and what was then the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. This has changed today, and most ambassadors would have very little knowledge of archaeology, and little interest in getting involved in such archaeological institutes.
Grabar added that, as in Orientalism, archaeology also had its "clubism." This was represented by either French or British institutions. The Germans were not present in archaeological activities in the Middle East at that time since they had just been defeated in World War II. In Beirut and Damascus, there were French institutes; in Jerusalem, there were British, American, and French institutes; and in Baghdad, there was a British institute. In Iran, there were British and French institutes; and in Turkey, there was a French institute in Istanbul and a British one in Ankara. There was a kind of informal agreement that archaeologists always would help each other. If somebody carried out an excavation, he or she would take a colleague for a week to help in the digging. If somebody had a four-wheel drive vehicle, he or she would take others for a trip. If somebody wanted to go and see a strange monument, he or she always found a group of people to accompany him or her. That was a kind of collective of people interested in seeing things together. Grabar pointed out that the defect in the practice of archaeology in the region was that archaeology was still a world from which, with a few exceptions here or there, the locals were absent except as granters of permits. They were not part of the team.
Grabar believes that modern archaeology poses problems in terms of cost effectiveness. It is expensive to do archaeological work, and it also is useless to do it unless it is done on a large scale in the Islamic world. For Grabar, whether archaeology is worth doing today or not is questionable. One has to question the importance of such work, and to ask how important is the knowledge it provides as small pieces in the puzzle of reconstructing the past?