Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

Antique Dealing and Creative Reuse in Cairo and Damascus 1850–1890: Intercultural Engagements with Architecture and Craft in the Age of Travel and Reform by Mercedes Volait

Reviewed by Ellen Kenney

Mercedes Volait,
Antique Dealing and Creative Reuse in Cairo and Damascus 1850–1890: Intercultural Engagements with Architecture and Craft in the Age of Travel and Reform.
Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021.
Leiden Studies in Islam and Society.
303 pp.; 145 color and 39 b&w illus.; bibliography; notes; index.
$109 (paperback)
ISBN: 978–9–0044–4987–9

Traditionally, art historians start with the art. For historians of art of the Islamic world, this usually means studying artworks that are held in private collections, galleries, and museums. The methodological toolkit for such research generally includes close visual reading, interpreting primary and secondary inscriptions, inspecting for traces of alterations, identifying comparative material, analyzing content, and reconstructing historical contexts. Past conservation reports and ex-collection data might also be consulted. It is this latter category of information that most often becomes a stumbling block. The elusiveness of object provenience and provenance for historical material culture from the Middle East has posed a perennial challenge for researchers on artworks in both public and private collections, notwithstanding a spate of studies, edited volumes, and themed journals dedicated to the history of collections and museology that has recently appeared in the field. Rare is the pre-modern artifact from the Islamic world whose place of fabrication and subsequent whereabouts can be firmly documented, aside from objects retrieved archaeologically according to modern methods. Even when an object’s recent collection history is known and its origin can be deduced with some certainty, there is frequently an itinerary in between that cannot be reconstructed.

It is this shadowy itinerary that Mercedes Volait brings to light in her recent study of antique dealing in later nineteenth-century Cairo and Damascus. Volait’s research picks up where the ex-collection data too often peters out: the point of purchase in the Middle East. Cairo and Damascus served as clearinghouses for collectibles from far and wide, not just from their immediate regions. Volait identifies the key players in the trade of antiques and antiquities in both cities. She explores the sources from which they obtained artifacts for sale, their methods for attracting collectors, and—at least sometimes—their motives. She does so by taking a deep dive into a remarkably wide range of archival sources, fleshing out details of business transactions and artisanal practices. In other hands, a study so reliant on such copious documentation might make dry reading. Luckily, Volait brings two particular gifts to the task that rescue it from that fate: her talent for engaging and sometimes suspenseful storytelling and her sharp art-historical eye. She demonstrates how illuminating it can be to start with the archive, as it were: drawing on letters, tax records, sale receipts, auction proceedings, exhibition lists, photograph collections, property inventories, and the like, and then often homing in on the specific object concerned and its present setting—a thrilling escapade!

The preceding remarks are not to suggest that this book is primarily conceived as a contribution to the field of provenance study. Volait sets out much more ambitious goals. She aims to generate an alternative narrative to three recurrent themes in visual histories of the Middle East. The first of these is the continued recourse to the concept of a “visual Orientalism,” a practice which she argues too often results in “distortions [that] reflect the spirit of decolonization, rather than the pre-colonial or colonial gaze” (11). The second has to do with the taxonomic approach bequeathed by earlier generations of architectural historians, according to which “Cairene specimens are generally dated to the time of their initial construction . . . representative of Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman architecture, and so on” (11). Third, she aims to shed new light on “the translocation of cultural heritage” by demonstrating—among other things—that “the commercialization of things from the past in the Eastern Mediterranean did not start with colonisation” (11–12). The result is a study that is both strictly focused and exhilaratingly wide-ranging. Along the way, Volait takes her readers to the foyer of a residence in Qatar and to a sitting room in upstate New York to see examples of architectural “trophies” re-inscribed in secondary contexts. She shows us the invoice of the 1898 sale of a carpet sold in Cairo by an Iranian shop owner to the director of the French Institute and an 1890 advertisement by Liberty & Co. marketing an entire “Saracenic Smoking Room” to demonstrate the commercial entanglements of this dynamic period. And she includes rare early photographs culled from archives and libraries in such far flung locales as Abu Dhabi, Leiden, Washington, DC, Rome, Beirut, Paris, Swindon (UK), and Ithaca (NY).

The introduction, subtitled “Connecting Historiographies, Challenging Assumptions,” directs the reader to the merits of the study and its innovative methods. Here, the author sets out the theoretical framework for the book, situating it squarely within a post-Saidian discourse and promising to move beyond the view of an “imaginary Orient” posited by Nochlin and others (11). She argues “[t]he stories recounted in this book demonstrate that there were dynamics other than colonial plunder channeling Middle Eastern objects to European museums” and that “commerce is a transaction between consenting parties, not necessarily a despoliation forced on people by coercion” (12). In her first chapter, “Early Shows and Sales of Islamic Antiquities in Paris,” Volait visits the subject of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century gallery exhibitions and universal expositions and examines their part in setting the stage for global commodification of Middle Eastern material culture. As she demonstrates, the displays at such venues shaped tastes and the mechanisms for arranging them prefigured the more commercial transactions that were to follow. Volait argues that already in these projects one finds “transnational dynamics working in both directions” (14). In the next chapter, “Expanding Trades in Late Ottoman Cairo and Damascus,” she turns to the practices of specific art dealers in Cairo and Damascus and to their role in growing the market for “Moorish furniture” and the like. These individuals also were central to the revival (and perhaps, sometimes, invention) of certain crafts and categories of artisanal production. Moreover, they participated in the globalization of the fashion for Orientalia through activities such as mass production of revival pieces and consignments for European department stores. Chapter 3, “Conflicted Commodification in Cairo,” focuses on Cairo and delves into local responses to this global commodification of its material past. Here, Volait represents a complicated narrative of resistance and complicity, and demonstrates the double-edged sword of architectural salvage.

In the following chapter “Fashioning Immersive Displays in Egypt and Beyond,” Volait turns her attention to the reception of Middle Eastern material culture as re-used in modern architectural settings in Egypt, Europe, and North America. She examines the in-gathering of fragments of historical Islamic architecture, art objects, and bric-à-brac into curated interiors, from Schatzkammers to period rooms, and illuminates parallel processes that took place in Cairo. She demonstrates that these spaces and their furnishings often had subsequent afterlives that complicate our understanding of them. Chapter 5, “Guise and Disguise Before and After the Tanzimat,” takes us into the realm of costume: here, Volait extends her scope to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “sartorial Orientalism” (186), as expressed not only in European and North American contexts, but also in the Middle East. Here, she investigates the popularity of donning alla turca costume when posing for portraits, dressing for themed social events, and circulating in expatriate enclaves. An epilogue subtitled “Diverging Routes” offers a thought-provoking glance at the cross-cultural and cross-temporal (and sometimes anachronistic) appropriations of Middle Eastern visual culture in our contemporary era, concluding with this suggestive vignette:

Even disguise has carved out its own place within Egyptian leisure. Portable photo booths, installed since the 2010s in front of the Mosque of al-Hakim in Cairo, offer the possibility of being photographed in Mamluk attire or in the guise of a Princess from One Thousand and One Nights for a few Egyptian pounds. It is not exactly cross-cultural dressing . . . because the clients are not outsiders. Or are they? (253).

Volait is at her most compelling when applying her highly specialized methodology to track dealer networks, trace shifts in taste, and argue on behalf of a more nuanced understanding of cultural exchange between Europe and the Middle East. Less convincing are the occasional strawmen and dead horses deployed to frame her otherwise astute analysis. In places, broad swaths of anonymous academics, unnamed “Islamic art historians,” and certain institutions are criticized for positions the author slightly mischaracterizes. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find many “Islamic art historians” unaware of the palimpsestic nature of extant artifacts and architecture (101). Similarly, most contemporary waqf scholars appreciate that the system worked well in theory but could be circumvented in practice (90–91). She claims the ex-collection information provided by “the Met” to be “partly erroneous” when, upon consultation, it seems to reflect a provenance history similar to that which she constructs (21). In discussing the incorporation of historical elements in nineteenth-century furnishings (166), Volait analyzes a mantlepiece made by the designer Ambroise Baudry in which fourteenth-century fragments are inserted. It seems valid to flag, as she does, that this object is now displayed at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo in the galleries of Mamluk art (a recent visit there confirms the absence of interpretive content indicating the pastiche character of the piece) and that the 2012 guidebook misidentifies it as a cupboard. However, she goes on to report the “perplexity” reflected in that publication from which she quotes: “nothing similar [had] ever been found.” In the next sentence, however, the guidebook authors propose, “[i]t is possible that the cupboard was built in the nineteenth century to incorporate some original Mamluk panels.”‍[1] This business of casting shade as a rhetorical device is manifestly unnecessary, since the originality, value, and timeliness of Volait’s research is amply demonstrated without it.

As for the book’s scholarly apparatus, let us rejoice! Throughout the chapters, the reader is treated to a series of suggestive subheadings to frame the discussions. The text is chock full of highly relevant illustrations, many of which are hitherto unpublished. Taken together, they do more than illustrate Volait’s narrative—they tell their own stories. To find the rich trove of information cited in Volait’s notes, one need only glance down to the bottom of each page. Hurrah for footnotes! The book’s exquisitely detailed index is helpfully sorted according to personal names, place names, and general terms. Furthermore, she consults a truly international and polyglot body of secondary scholarship, including many up-to-the-minute studies such as Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton, 2020). Considering the multilingual nature of the study, the editing of the manuscript must have required an eagle eye and yet very few errors made their way through the process.‍[2]

With Antique Dealing and Creative Reuse in Cairo and Damascus 1850–1890, Volait has produced a truly ground-breaking study that should be required reading not only for scholars of Islamic art and architecture, but also for those of broader material culture studies. Its findings require us to approach questions of global material entanglement with greater nuance, even if we do not necessarily arrive at the same interpretive conclusions that Volait does. This is a book that will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of students to emulate the author’s rigorous research methodologies and think more critically about cultural appropriation and exchange.


[1] Bernard O’Kane, ed. with contributions by Mohamed Abbas and Iman R. Abdulfattah, The Illustrated Guide to the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo (Cairo: The American University Press, 2012), 134.

[2] The errors I noted are: on p. 71, column 1, line 13, “fixe” should read “five” and column 2, line 7, “from” should read “to”; p. 101, she describes the makers of Fraktur art as descendants of Dutch rather than German immigrants; on p. 166 and 269 the name of one of the contributing authors in the above-mentioned guidebook should read “Iman” not “Imam.”