Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 22, 1999
Selma Al-Radi The “Amiriya in Rada”: The History and Restoration of a Sixteenth-Century Madrasa in the Yemen New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 216 pp. Cloth (0197280234)

This monograph is a composite presentation by three different contributors, who describe the layout, physical structure, and painted and carved wall and ceiling decorations of a religious college (madrasa) built on the central plateau of Yemen in the sixteenth century. Included is a compendium of the inscriptions from which the pedigree of the building is derived. Insight into traditional Yemeni building practices is provided in the section dealing with the restoration work. The main author is Selma al-Radi—a prehistorian by formal training—but one who became captivated by this charming building, and who committed herself to a decade of struggles to prevent its collapse. The Dutch government contributed the bulk of the financial support for the project through an enlightened program of development aid.

Chapter Four gives a tour of the complex, floor by floor, including a stunning double-page view in black-and-white, taken obliquely from the citadel of Rada’ by German traveler Hermann Burchardt around 1910. The view imparts a clear sense of the “pavilion on a platform” idea that the architect conceived, being complemented by a contemporary color one (Pl. 1 on pp. 154–55) where the picture’s graininess actually helps deliver a good sense of Yemen’s typical dusty haze. The complex is comprised of an arcaded ground floor service facility, a main second floor porticoed terrace with mosque prayer-hall and school rooms flanking a central courtyard, and a third story consisting of isolated superstructures, namely small rooms surmounting the entrance portico and its opposing space, as well as the most striking feature of all—the clerestory unit above the prayer hall comprising six small domes. The description includes the elaborate, lofty entry portal (that teetered on the brink of collapse when the restoration project began) and the ground floor bath-house (hammam) with its strong panels of decorative plasterwork (in waterproof lime qudad). Ample photographs, line drawing ground plans, and exterior elevations make it possible to follow the tour, though understanding how the upper clerestory interfaces with the hall below is difficult until one consults the section drawing on p. 202 (in the Appendix), which was presumably added as an afterthought. The tour concludes with the fact that the complex was completed in 910 A.H. (C.E. 1504).

Setting the stage for understanding the cultural context of the complex, the book starts with an introduction to the ancient history of Yemen, useful for those who know little about the country. More relevant for appreciation of the building’s history are the fifteenth-century Banu Tahir (Tahirids), a tribe who rose to power in Yemen after overthrowing their (Rasulid) overlords in 1453. Named in the dedicatory inscriptions, the individual sponsor of the ’Amiriya college was the last of the Tahirids, Sultan ’Amir ibn al-Wahhab. He and his Tahirid predecessors had acquired enormous wealth from the Indian Ocean trade, which made sponsorship of buildings possible. On page 32 al-Radi acknowledges that Sultan ’Amir also had a reputation for levying extremely high tribute from the tribes, while other writers have gone further and suggested that he was even went so far as to confiscate foundation trust properties. Passion for the building leads the author to see the patron through rose-colored spectacles. However, we benefit from the copious and detailed footnotes that contain a wealth of ancillary historical information that may be consulted for other purposes. For instance, in Chapter Two, note 36 discusses possible motives behind the rival Portuguese policy for Indian Ocean shipping.

Chapter Three (also by al-Radi) discusses what the architects of Sultan ’Amir’s era had inherited in terms of building traditions. Earlier Tahirid colleges are described. Already we learn that the Tahirids had created “a distinct hybrid style,” as a result of adapting the architecture of their predecessors, the Rasulids, by incorporating numerous Indian elements—a theme that will reappear throughout the book. Chapter Five returns to the earlier discussion about madrasas in Yemen, but expands it to include ones in Egypt, the Levant, Iran, India and Central Asia. Parallels for individual devices are also sought. These include the idea of galleries on the outside of the building at an upper level, merlon parapets, and small roof-top pavilions (Indian chattri). The chapter also includes a brief description of the decorative lime plaster (qudad), carved stucco, wood, and wall paintings.

Probable origins for the decorative details covered partly here in Chapter Five are then discussed again, albeit at greater length, by contributor Venetia Porter in Chapter Six. The repetitiveness reflects weak editorial direction on the part of Robert Hillenbrand. Nevertheless, the copious black-and-white figures (pp. 58–87) are a wonderful resource for painted and plastered wall surfaces in Islamic architecture, even though the black-and-white images are a little murky because of the dark tone of the paint. (For the real color, plates 2–18 faithfully reproduce the richness of the reds and blues.) In Chapter Seven, Ruth Barnes explores the possible influence of Indian textiles on the same decorative schemes. Yahya al-Nasiri and Venetia Porter publish inscriptions in an appendix that yield the all-important name and date of the building’s sponsor, al-Malik al-Sultan al-Zafir (Sultan ’Amir), 910 A.H.

Finally, on pages 165–98, we are treated to the story of the restoration program itself, including the piecemeal removal of the facing stones, the consolidation of the interior by pouring in a slurry of mortar, and then the re-facing with the original stones. It gives us a priceless insight into the materials and practices of the traditional Yemeni building industry. We get an explanation of the vital, near-magical properties of qudad–a waterproof lime plaster, which is both the external skin that keeps the building intact, as well as the hardener that preserves the decorative surfaces inside. Already acknowledged by name in the Preface, as ‘Izzi Muhammad Gas’a, we begin to encounter the personality of this master craftsman on page 175, where his extraordinary feats of working seemingly where all hope was lost are inspirational. He himself declared, according to his Islamic faith, that in the event of his accidental death he was content, because he would automatically earn the right to enter heaven directly. In fact, this is just as much a powerful story as that of the presentation of the rich decorations and their comparanda.

What kind of book best serves those who wish to extend their familiarity with Islamic architecture beyond that of the traditional scholastic boundaries of the Mediterranean latitudes? How can one balance art-historical inquiry with the story of a fascinating building restoration project? In the end, one must seriously challenge the editorial control that failed to address these questions successfully. Part of the fault lies with the fact that the reader faces analysis of the building’s embellishments before actually coming to grips with the realities of the structural details themselves. After all, when the materials used are seen as one hundred percent Yemeni, the “foreign influence” is put into proper perspective. Reading the comparanda essays by Ruth Barnes and Venetia Porter leaves one with the sense that the external influences are paramount. As a result, the editorial philosophy that opted to make the decorative schemes and the stylistic comparanda from three contributors the main focus, has produced a somewhat confusing overall package wherein the readers themselves must create their own syntheses. Too bad, too, that the story of al-Radi’s infectious enthusiasm was not allowed to play a stronger role in the book.

Deficiencies include the fact that one encounters such technical words as madrasa or qudad early on, but an explanation of what they stand for only occurs in the text dozens of pages later. A separate glossary would have helped immensely. The work also has other inconsistencies. While the appendix containing the inscriptions has the Arabic script and the translations correctly given according to professional rules of transliteration, the main body of the text does not make that effort. Nevertheless, these criticisms do not substantially reduce the value of the book. Certainly, the ’Amiriya can be appreciated for the hybrid quality of its form and decorations, as suggested by all of the contributors. We get to examine previously unknown and unrecorded features that force all of us who study Islamic art to broaden our horizons. Newcomers to the subject will be amazed that such a jewel of a building remained “unknown” for so long.

Edward J. Keall
Royal Ontario Museum