Art History professor talks about her work in Syria, recent trip to Iran to receive book award


March 29, 2016

Stephennie Mulder, an associate professor in the Departments of Art and Art History and Middle Eastern Studies, was invited to Tehran in February 2016 to receive the Islamic Republic of Iran’s World Award for Book of the Year from the Iranian Ministry of Culture, to be awarded in a ceremony by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Her book, The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’is, and the Architecture of Coexistence, explores multiple shrines in Syria and how the architecture tells a story that complicates the traditional narrative of the divide between Sunnis and Shi’is in the country. The book also received UT’s Hamilton Award Grand Prize, the Syrian Studies Association Book Prize, and was selected as one of ALA Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Titles. Mulder is also a co-founder of UT Antiquities Action, which is hosting a conference this weekend: Global Initiatives Towards Cultural Heritage Preservation: Who Owns the Past? We spoke with Mulder recently about her work and her trip to Iran to receive her award.

You recently returned from Tehran, where you were invited to receive the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Book of the Year World Award from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. What was it like to receive that piece of news? 

To be honest, getting this news was a bit complicated. Of course my first response was to be thrilled my work had received international recognition. And it’s always been a dream of mine to go to Iran, which is a spectacularly beautiful country, rich in history. Americans are free to travel to Iran and are usually received warmly there, but it is sometimes challenging to get a tourist visa, so as an art historian the invitation was an exciting opportunity. As a scholar of Islamic art, I guess it was what would be, for most Americans, the equivalent of hearing you’ve just received an all-expenses paid trip to Italy! I even decided to take my 9-year-old daughter with me.

But then the political reality of the prize dawned on me, and I realized wasn’t sure if I wanted to accept the prize. Iran is a key supporter of the Bashar Al-Assad government in Syria, and it’s Assad (not ISIS), who has killed the majority of civilians in Syria. I worked for over 12 years in Syria, have lost friends in the war, and have many close friends whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the war, and Iran’s support has been a key factor in that. On the other hand, the prize had been awarded by a group of Iranian scholars for a book that was about the power of architecture to unify, and I thought it was meaningful that they had chosen this book in this moment of conflict. I asked a number of Syrian friends for their thoughts, and surprisingly there was universal support for my going: partly for the chance to tell a different story to Iranians I might meet about the Syrian people. In the end, I decided to go, and to donate the $10,000 prize to a charity that supports Syrian mothers and children. 

Once I made the decision quite a drama ensued—it turned out that because of the U.S. sanctions on Iran, I could only receive the prize if I had a permit from the Departments of Treasury and State. Permits normally take 4-5 months to process, and I had a mere two weeks before the ceremony. At that point a group of wonderful people at UT worked very hard over those two weeks to get me there, including David Ivey in the Office of Sponsored Projects, UT’s security analyst Jess Miller, Art History chair Jack Risley and Deans Randy Diehl and Doug Dempster. It took a letter to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s office to make it happen, but in the end, I got the permit in five days and permission to travel. It came a day late, so I missed the ceremony itself, but given my ambivalence about the situation, I think it all turned out OK in the end.

Your book, The Shrines of the ‘Alids, explores multiple shrines in Syria and how the architecture tells a story that complicates the traditional narrative of the divide between Sunnis and Shi’is in the country. Why do you think your book caught the attention of the selection committee for this award?

I wondered about that quite a bit myself. The Syrian conflict is not primarily a sectarian conflict: it began as part of the Arab Spring movement of 2011 and was a revolutionary political uprising that aimed to overthrow the Assad government. But the uprising was met with a brutal government crackdown, and the situation quickly deteriorated into civil war. In that context, sectarianism, though not the cause of the war, has been used to manipulate peoples’ fears in Syria and—as I learned on my trip—also in predominantly Shi’i Iran.

Though Iranians have access to global media, it was interesting to see that much like here in the U.S., certain propagandistic ideas become commonplace in the local media that powerfully influence people’s way of thinking. For example, many Iranians I spoke to, even very educated Iranians, seemed genuinely surprised when I told them that Assad was bombing his own civilians—though this is a fact that’s widely attested by multiple international organizations.

They were somehow under the impression that their Iranian Shi’a government was fighting the Sunni-identified terrorist group ISIS in Syria. Because most Iranians are Shi’a, the war as they understand it then (however accurately or inaccurately) does have a sectarian connotation. I wonder if the story of Sunni-Shi'i sectarian cooperation in Syria that my book reveals was somehow of interest to the Iranian awards committee for that reason—because it invites us to re-think the history of sectarianism in Islam. 

Tell us about your experience of traveling in Iran—what surprised you most?
Although I had never traveled to Iran, I study it and I have many Iranian friends, colleagues and students. So I had a fairly accurate picture before I went, and, other than being perplexed by the Iranian misperception of the Syrian conflict, not too much surprised me. Well, actually, my Texan daughter discovered Mexican street corn is a thing in Tehran—that surprised both of us! But I realize the U.S. media presents a fairly un-nuanced picture of Iran, and I think most Americans would be surprised to learn a few things. For example, Iranians welcome American tourists. Everywhere we went we were warmly received. I was traveling with my daughter, and I think she must have been hugged, kissed and photographed hundreds of times. Of course, the repressive government with its strong anti-American sentiments is a reality—but like any place else, the government’s propaganda doesn’t necessarily reflect the range of how individual Iranians feel. Iran has a vibrant political opposition and had its own Arab-Spring style uprising (the Green Movement) in 2009. Many Iranians want a more open and just society, and many are risking their lives fighting to create it. Second, Iran is an ancient country with a spectacular cultural heritage and lively and dynamic cities with a flourishing art and music scene: a place where it’s normal for 7-year-old kids to be able to recite 11th-century poetry from memory. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has one of the largest collections of contemporary art outside Europe and the United States. Iran is three times the size of France and the capital of ancient empires from Darius to Alexander the Great, and is home to 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and dozens of national parks and wildlife refuges. Have I mentioned the food? Persian food! Saffron, turmeric, kashk, pistachios, rosewater! In short, it’s a pretty great place to visit.

What sites were you able to visit while you were in Iran, and did you see connections between those sites and your work on archeological sites in Syria?

It was the middle of the semester here at UT, so I had only six days in Iran. It felt like torture. But I was determined to make the most of it, and in those six days I visited four cities (Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Qom), several palace—ranging from the 19th-century glittering mirror mosaic-ornamented Golestan Palace, to the elegant pavilions set in gardens in Isfahan; several beautiful mosques, including the colored light- and mosaic-filled Pink Mosque in Shiraz; a number of ancient and early modern capitals of Iranian empire, from the magnificent ruins of Darius and Xerxes at Persepolis (burned to the ground by Alexander the Great in an early act of cultural heritage destruction) to the Safavid capital of Isfahan with its mosques, gardens and winding bazaar set around the grand Naqsh-e Jahan square, the largest open public square in the world in the 16th century. 

One site I was especially excited about was Naqsh-e Rustam, an ancient Iranian necropolis with a number of rock-carved reliefs depicting Achaemenid and Sassanian rulers accepting the tribute of Roman emperors they’d conquered. I teach these sites every year in my classes at UT, and it was incredible to actually get to experience them. In terms of connections between Iran and Syria, the two countries have very different, but sometimes interrelated, histories. Iran is different culturally: it's Persian and not Arabic-speaking, and in general occupied a different cultural sphere than Syria throughout much of its history. But both Iran and Syria were on the ancient Silk Route, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of sites like the spectacular caravan city of Palmyra in Syria when I visited the equally stunning ruins of Persepolis in Iran. One connection that still plays a key role is that Syria is home to the shrines I wrote about in my book: the burial places of the many members of the Family of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet’s family is revered by all Muslims, but they play a special role in Shi’i piety and thus the sites in Syria are significant for Shi’i Iranians—in fact that sectarian connection is one reason the Iranians are involved militarily in Syria. In many ways Iran reminded me of Syria before the war, a country with a repressive government but warm and gracious people, rich in culture and history.

Many of the places in Syria you write about in your book have been destroyed or have sustained massive damage in the Syrian civil war. Can you tell us about your advocacy work to help preserve these important sites of cultural heritage?

In the fall of 2014, as ISIS began to systematically destroy cultural heritage sites in Syria and Iraq, I felt helpless as sites I had visited, researched and loved were being quickly obliterated. I decided to call a meeting for anyone in the UT community who wanted to think about how we could raise interest and awareness to the problems of cultural heritage destruction around the world. That first meeting was attended by more than 50 people and led to the founding of a group called UT Antiquities Action, which has expanded to over 400 members on Facebook and on Twitter. We hold monthly meetings where we sponsor educational events, films, speakers and plan various “actions” that are designed to raise awareness of the issues surrounding endangered cultural heritage. Last spring, we visited the Austin office of Homeland Security chair U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul to deliver a petition to support a law before Congress that was designed to prevent the import of looted antiquities from Syria. Last year a number of students also worked together to create a poster campaign, which was recently featured in an exhibition on artistic responses to cultural heritage destruction in New York City. We are now gearing up for our first one-day symposium, titled “Global Initiatives toward Cultural Heritage Preservation: Who Owns the Past?" The group is open to anyone at UT and beyond—please join us!

Photos: Associate Professor Stephennie Mulder received the World Prize for Book of the Year from the Iranian Ministry of Culture.

Twelfth-thirteenth century shrine to the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson al-Husayn in Aleppo, Syria

Mulder at the mosque of Nasir al-Mulk in Shiraz, Iran.

Mulder and her daughter at the Achaemenid and Sassanian necropolis of Naqsh-i Rustam, Iran (ca. 1000 B.C. - 3rd c. A.D.) In the background is rock-carved relief depicting the Sassanian ruler Shapur accepting the surrender of the Roman Emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab.

View over the site of Balis in northern Syria, where Mulder worked as an archaeologist for 12 years.