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A Complex Pie

Catherine B. Asher

By Ahmad Nabi Khan , with a foreword by R.E. Mortimer Wheeler
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2003, pp. xxviii 310, Rs. 1200.00


This lavishly illustrated volume written by prolific author and former “Director-General of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan (1987-83), Dr. Ahmad Nabi Khan” [taken from book jacket] is a rare attempt to cover architectural production by the Muslim rulers of the Indian subcontinent from the inception of Islam in 8th-century Sind, today in Pakistan, through the 18th century.  The author has met his own difficult challenge by dividing the book into fourteen individual chapters with an introductory essay and a concluding epilogue.  This division is not monotonous for some chapters are organized completely by chronology, some strictly by region regardless of chronology, some by media, while others are a combination of the above.  Khan had to cut this complex pie in some manner, so while a case can always be made for reorganization, his approach appears to have some logic.      Khan’s discussion opens with the architecture of Deybul and al-Mansura, early metropolises founded by the Abbasids about the eighth century.  This and other portions of the text that emphasize material in Pakistan, often inaccessible to many, are the most interesting sections of the volume.  These early Arab urban centers tend to consist of an elevated citadel for the elite and a lower walled town for ordinary people, but with sophisticated sanitary arrangements throughout.  The mosques constructed for these cities, not surprisingly, follow those pillared flat roofed models in the Abbasid homeland.  Al-Mansura, apparently originally grander than the better known port of Deybul, had awe inspiring administrative buildings, several of which have been recently excavated.  During the course of excavating the Dar al-Imara, one of these impressive office buildings, two exquisite bronze door knockers with animal heads were discovered.  Inscribed with Quranic verses and with the name of the patron, the 9th century amir, Abdullah ibn Umar, these bronze door knockers are extremely rare examples of any visual art form other than building foundations and city walls from this period.  Chapter two follows with a brief discussion of Ghaznavid material in Pakistan focusing on Rajagorha in Swat which is virtually unknown to the majority of scholars and the public.  It has recently been excavated.  Here plans and isometric views of its mosque are provided which is extremely useful for anyone interested in 10th and11th century Islamic and South Asian cultures.      The section on the architecture of the early Turkish sultanate comprising chapter three is somewhat disappointing after the previous ...

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