“Antiquarianism” is the term used to describe the study of the European past through its material remains before art history and archaeology emerged as disciplines in the nineteenth century. The encounter with Roman ruins by artists, travellers, and scholars, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries sparked a new and intense attention to the past. The “revival of antiquity” that we associate with the notion of “Renaissance” was also the revival of the study of antiquity. The spread of this style and this study to northern Europe, North Africa, Greece, and the Levant in the centuries between 1300 and 1800 led to the development of new notions of evidence, new technologies of historical argumentation, new forms of literary exposition, and new standards of proof. While history from texts remained powerful, for a few centuries its hegemony was challenged. And even afterwards, it was antiquarianism which bequeathed to academic History many aspects of what still count today as research.
The history of antiquarianism in Europe, first brought to some attention by Arnaldo Momigliano in 1950, has been the subject of a burst of new work in the past decade. This coincides with the importance attached more generally to “materiality” and the study of material culture. But there has also been a completely new effort to explore this phenomenon, in its own terms, in other cultures. Comparative projects were the focus of conferences at the Bard Graduate Center in 2004 and the Getty Research Institute in 2010, and each of these has resulted in a book of essays: Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China 1500-1800 (2012) and World Antiquarianism (2013).
The time has come to examine the Islamic world. The Getty volume was not able to include its discussion. But did the encounter with the material remains of the past spark a similar renovation and sophistication of the sense of the past in the Arab lands, Turkey and Iran? Can this be registered in the study of coins, inscriptions and architectural remains? Is a new attentiveness to the historical meaningfulness of old things, or even things in general, preserved in literary form, whether discovered in administrative documents, in legal records, travel accounts, medical reports or even theological discussions? What do medieval practices of collecting, cataloguing and archiving (of manuscripts, instruments and artifacts) tell us about how the past was perceived? In Europe, the study of old objects went hand in hand with the study of natural objects and with the study of peoples, as if they too were objects—this was the beginning of natural history ethnography.
We do not know the answer to our leading question. We do not expect the European story to be duplicated in the Islamic world. But, equally, we would be surprised if there were not some similar set of historicizing responses to the encounter with traces of older material culture. Our goal is to assemble a team of scholars who can bring with them sources reflecting in any of the ways outlined here the meaning and nature of antiquarianism in the Islamic World.