The Crusades and the age of decolonization

East meets West

The Macquarie University History Museum has curated a small publication on the occasion of its opening, titled East meets West. The inside cover text provides the goal of this book: ‘East meets West seeks to illuminate the complex intersection of western and eastern culture and civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean during the period of the Crusades through the study of Byzantine and Mamluk Egyptian artworks and illuminated manuscripts.’ That is a tall order, and although the book indeed presents beautiful artworks, its concise size prohibits it from truly exploring the complexity of these cultural interrelations and their continued ripple effects in today’s world.

The introductory chapter and the following chapter on medieval Western understanding of the Islamic world briefly outline the complexity of the Middle Ages both in terms of historic events as well as in later perception. In the introduction it becomes clear that the ‘Age of Decolonisation’ in the title of the book refers to the period after the last Crusade, the 14th century, not to our own timeframe. I could not help but wonder if ‘decolonization’ is the right term to describe the nature of this period, especially when ‘the West’s failure to develop a balanced view on the Crusades’ is given as a reason for a lasting legacy that continues to this very day (p. 10). It is precisely this last part that leaves me wondering: this lasting legacy is alluded to, but never explored further.

A chapter on the Byzantine world introduces how this era connects both the Roman past and the rise of Christianity in the West with the Islamic world. Here, the connection on the Roman and Christian end is emphasized more than the overlap with the Islamic world, although of course the Eastern Orthodox church of today finds its roots in the Byzantine world.  The book then presents four short chapters on material culture that showcase the connection between the European and Arab worlds. The chapter on Mamluk building in Cairo explores the interconnectedness of Islamic and Christian worlds through architecture. Starting with a brief introduction on the Mamluks themselves, who have their origins in both Christian/Eurasian cultures and slavery, the chapter discusses the reuse of building materials in Mamluk architecture – not just Pharaonic blocks, but also material taken from Christian buildings in Syria and Palestine. Vice versa, the inspiration of Syrian church towers for minarets is a great example of cross-cultural exchange. I found this a fascinating topic, as it touches upon practical as well as ideological reasons for cross-cultural reuse.

Next is a brief introduction in the technique of sgrafitto-ware, that was originally developed in the Roman era and passed on to the Islamic world through the Byzantine Empire. The last two chapters present written works: illuminated Book of Hours manuscripts and Islamic calligraphy. Surprisingly, although these chapters sit back-to-back, they are not connected. Both chapters present beautiful examples and an absolutely interesting introduction into the prayers books and calligraphy, but neither refers to the other or places the works presented in the context of mixed artforms that resulted from the interaction between the Islamic and Christian world, such as banderoles with (pseudo)Arabic calligraphy in medieval Christian paintings, or the oriental rugs on the painting of the Annunciation as mentioned in the introduction (p. 13)

The complex, shared history of the European and the Arab world is addressed again in the last chapter of the book. Here, the ‘east-west’-divide is explored through the lens of Australia’s own colonial past and the Middle Ages are redefined as an era of interconnectedness, instead of incidental encounters. This is an important chapter as it delves into how these collections were acquired, and what factors are to be taken into account when studying them: as collected objects are inevitably based on a selection, this layer needs to be peeled off before any assumptions about the objects themselves can be made and this chapter deals with that given in great clarity.

The perspective of the book is one I find truly important: the interconnectedness of two worlds that are too often portrayed as separate planets, the colonialism of the Christian and Islamic worlds in the Middle Ages, and the resulting cultural exchange. Exploring that interconnectedness through material culture is an excellent starting point, although an argument could be made that the title East meets West in all its simplicity in turn belies this interconnectivity. Returning to the inside cover however, I found that one intriguing aspect mentioned here is missing from the book itself: ‘…the impact of the divide between East and West is still evident today. The Crusades changed the world forever.’ This ripple effect of the Crusades in today’s world is alluded to again for example in the last lines of the foreword. Here, we read that ‘although history itself is not repeated, patterns of history are. The violent escalations which erupted in East Jerusalem between the government of Israel and Hamas in May 2021 tragically follow such a pattern’ (p.8). Which pattern, and how that we should place that in the context of the relation between the Christian and Islamic world in the Middle Ages and afterwards is not elaborated upon.

All chapters in the book are illustrated with stunning artworks, expertly photographed and a joy to see – Byzantine glass bracelets and gold ornaments, intricate calligraphy and illumination, views of architectural details, coins, bowls and more offer us a glimpse of the Macquarie University History Museum’s rich collections. What East meets West offers is a beautifully illustrated window into the Macquarie University History Museum collections, while its concise texts provide an introduction into, as well as food for thought on, medieval material culture in the Eastern Mediterranean.

East meets West. The Crusades and the Age of Decolonization, by Martin Bommas (ed). Giles Art Books, 2021. 72 pp, full-colour, in English.

Available with the publisher Giles Art Books and online.

The book was gifted as a advance reading copy by the publisher.