A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Historical and Architectural Aside: Sir K.A.C. Creswell

Anyone studying Islamic art or the history of Islamic architecture will have heard of K.A.C. Creswell, one of the founders of the field and a pioneer of the Western study of the Islamic architecture of Egypt. That would be Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell, With that name and title I probably don't need to note that he was British. But Creswell was not your average Oxford don. He had only a technical education in draftsmanship, and a profound interest in architecture. World War I saw him posted to Egypt with the Royal Flying Corps. As a Captain in the Flying Corps he somehow got himself named Inspector of Monuments in Palestine and Syria. And he was off and running. Born in 1879, he was already 40 when he convinced King Fuad I of Egypt in 1920 to support him in a massive scholarly study of Islamic Architecture in Egypt. Out of this came two great multi-volume works, Early Muslim Architecture and The Islamic Architecture of Egypt. He also acquired a massive library on the subject and a myriad of photographs, worked on bibliographies and other studies, and made himself the authority. At least a few decades ago the Survey of Egypt's map of Islamic monuments in Cairo was universally known as "the Creswell map," and may still be. He became a Professor at Fuad I University, later (and also earlier) Cairo University.

When I first went to Egypt in 1972 as a Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA) student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), I was aware of Creswell's reputation. He was one of those great figures of the post-World War I generation, born before my grandmother who'd died a decade before, and I assumed that he, too, was long gone. I know that many of my younger readers must think of 1972 as a time when dinosaurs or at least mastodons still roamed the earth, but I can attest that I discovered that indeed, there were still a few giants in the earth in those days. I soon noticed that the AUC community tended to go into a hushed awe when a tiny, wizened, very frail elderly man with a cane, usually dressed in white and as impeccably as in the picture above, passed through the courtyard. So far as I could tell, he might have lived in the school, or at least in the "Creswell Library" which held the Creswell collection. Finally someone said, "that's Creswell." I think my response was, "Is he any relation to the Creswell?" The answer was that he was "the" Creswell. He was 92, walked with a cane, and was deaf as a post, but he was treated like a mythic being, and in some ways, he was. His book collection was housed at AUC, over in the Center for Arabic Studies, not the main library (which was two libraries ago in AUC terms, so I'm not sure where the Creswell collection is housed today). AUC had snagged him when he retired from the University of Cairo. As long as Creswell lived, though, they weren't taking any chances on losing his library. They got it, and they got all his photographic prints as well; the negatives went to the Ashmolean at Oxford. In 1970, he received his knighthood.

Creswell, who never married, was in that year of 1972-73 very much under the protective custody and mother-hen protection of the librarian of the Creswell Library, an enormous (perhaps three or four times his own diminutive weight and volume) Coptic matron known, if memory serves, as Madame Ghamrawi.

I left Egypt after my study year in about May of 1973; according to Wikipedia, Creswell finally returned to Britain the following month of June 1973 (he'd only sporadically visited since leaving in World War I) due to doctor's orders. He died the following April, age 94. When I next returned to Cairo, the folklore of AUC held that what really killed him was having to return to England; if the doctors let him stay in his beloved Egypt, he might have still been around, some claimed.

I can't claim to have "known" him. As the Wikipedia article notes, prior to his death one of his conditions for letting AUC house his library was that mere students couldn't touch the books. He was a researcher, not a teacher/mentor type. By the time I got there his aloofness was greatly enhanced by his stone deafness; I doubt if anyone other than Madame Ghamrawi or the senior Administration of AUC can claim to have known him by then. But I saw him frequently, and I just wanted to note it for the record. His plans, drawings, photographs and analysis of the Islamic monuments of Cairo remains the fundamental underpinning of every study which has followed. Though not academically trained, he trained himself and created an academic field that had barely existed. His work provides many of the fundamental plans and surveys on which later scholarship has been based. A product of the colonial system and an "Orientalist" in a day when that was not yet a pejorative, Creswell was also one of a kind. I really don't know of any other "amateur" whose incredible skill and devotion to a single subject remains quite so influential.


David Mack said...

Thanks, Mike. Shared this with Roz at the National Gallery of Art, where she is by default the resident expert on Islamic art. She will love it.

Anup @ sarkari naukri said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Collins Dunn said...

The removed post was spam irrelevant to the subject. I never remove relevant posts.