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Volume 23, Number 3May/June 1972

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Knight of The Dead Stones

Vault, column buttress, pierced walls massed tower and cloud-encircled spire: up from the street and market stalls flames motionless the quarried fire.

Man sets dead stones in counterpoise, by thrust and pressure marshals strife: wrestling, grim-silent they rejoice: thus to brute matter God gives life.

— G. G. Williams

Written by Helen Gibson

Perhaps these lines express better than anything what Sir Archibald Creswell is all about. They represent a distillation of this man's lifework, and as such, of his life.

He used them to inscribe his book in 1932. But for 20 years before that, and for nearly 40 years afterwards, this professor has served those "dead stones" with an unswerving devotion that has left him little time for anything else—not even marriage.

Today Creswell is a word that is part of the vocabulary of the students of Islamic architecture, as familiar to them as Shakespeare is to aspiring actors. He is their Bible, their standard reference book that can be relied upon never to fail in the minutest of details.

For minaret, mosaic, arch, column and courtyard have filled every part of Professor Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell's life. From the time he set foot in Egypt, this 92-year-old son of an English insurance underwriter has catalogued, drawn, photographed and researched every mosque and monument in the Middle East and Spain within his reach.

Most mornings of the school year will find the professor in two stuffy rooms of the American University in Cairo, where he is still on the staff as Distinguished Professor of Muslim Art and Architecture. The university's main building was originally constructed as a palace in the 19th century, a fitting background to Creswell's work. (Aramco World March-April 1972.)

In June, a Cairo sun can nearly bake bread, but the slight professor might have stepped straight out of the pages of a tailor's advertisement. He sits, surrounded by his leather-bound library, a dapper figure, uncompromisingly immaculate and bolt upright in his cream-colored linen suit. The striped red-and-white shirt and starched white collar are set off by a purple tie. His pink and white complexion and white hair give the aura of long hours spent in steaming baths.

Soon you realize that his dress is only an extension of a life committed to law and order of a most meticulous nature. You see it not only in his intricately executed plans' of buildings, but also in small details—the notebook that lists the price of every book he has bought for his collection since 1910.

We sit on a hard little sofa. The smell of leather permeates even the glass-enclosed shelves. The cupboard housing the complete set of Roberts' prints, now selling for 50 Egyptian pounds each, is pointed out as "the elephant house." The books range from five feet upwards in height. The office is scrupulously neat.

"What attracted me to the East?" the professor asks. "Why, I suppose it was reading Arabian Nights as a little boy."

But it was not until 1910 that he seriously began the study of Muslim art.

Archibald Creswell was born in London on September 13, 1879, and eventually trained as an engineer at the City and Guilds Technical College in that city. His first job was with Siemens Brothers, the electrical-manufacturing firm. "My father had no use for my interest in the East. He thought I was wasting my time," the professor says crisply.

But the young man paid little attention to his father and three years after he took up his interest in earnest, he gave a lecture before London's Royal Asiatic Society. He was not to know that 46 years later this same society would award him its rare Triennial Gold Medal, that the president would tell members, "Professor Creswell has not only got to the head of his profession; he has created it."

At this point, in 1913, Creswell was an engineer who simply wanted to go east. But he had no money. Then war broke out and Creswell joined the Royal Flying Corps. He had only to wait two more years for his dream to come true. "I kept putting in a word to friends and acquaintances that I wanted to go to the East. I was transferred at the end of November, in 1916. It was the chance of a lifetime," Professor Creswell says. Then he sits even straighter on the stiff little couch and eyes the visitor sternly.

"They knew I had to come to the East to be able to get on with my work."

At that time, Professor Creswell recalls, "The Turks were only 20 miles from the Suez Canal. We gradually pushed them back. I was there right at the front when we broke through their lines. I can remember it was three o'clock in the morning and all the lights went off one by one along the Turkish encampments, which meant they were retreating. In two days we took 70,000 prisoners. We didn't know what to do with them."

Before that, however, he had been making use of his spare time to "get on with his work." It is said, in fact, that the moment he hit Cairo station he enlisted a guide and dragged the man around all the monuments and buildings he could get to. Creswell had prepared a chronological list and, characteristically, insisted on conducting his survey in the correct time sequence, refusing to take the easy way out by visiting all the monuments in the same neighborhood.

Six months after the war ended, Captain Creswell published his Brief Chronology of the Muhammedan Monuments of Egypt.

The professor looks surprised when you interrupt him with: "Why did you choose Muslim architecture? Why not the ever-popular Egyptology?"

"Egyptology?" he repeats testily, as though he has not heard correctly, "Egyptology never interested me in the least. I wanted to come to the East. Muslim architecture is the architecture of the East."

Perhaps it was the publication of Brief Chronology that really started Creswell’s career. At any rate, only a few weeks later he was chosen as an inspector of monuments in Syria.

"The Allies felt guilty at being responsible for damage to monuments and decided to make an inventory in Syria and Palestine," the professor explains in precise, clipped, English tones. "The territory was divided into zones—the whole was under the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration. I was given the eastern half of Syria along a line drawn through Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus.

"We started cataloguing the monuments, giving notes of what was needed in the way of repairs," Sir Archibald says. He extracts four red leather-bound notebooks full of his tiny neat handwriting setting out observations and relevant reference sources, displays them briefly and replaces them immediately in their correct niches.

In another cupboard, row upon row of massive red folders hold about 8,000 photographs taken by the professor during these and subsequent travels, but largely catalogued by his German assistant, Associate Professor Christel Kessler, an "absolutely invaluable, devoted person with a brilliant academic brain." Professor Kessler, a tall, attractive woman with gray hair urchin-cut, a faraway look and complete absorption in her work, explains in a soft voice that the professor had never trusted new cameras, preferring two heavy box cameras, complete with tripods and hoods. Sometimes these have taken a little longer than methods used today. The professor spent four weeks photographing the mosaics in Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock. "I would stand the camera on a painter's shelf across a scaffolding they had built me and leave it pointing at the mosaics. Each exposure took 20 minutes," the professor says. "And I'm still not satisfied with the results."

We turn from the mosaics to the great mosque in Aleppo, and the professor gives his whole-hearted approval to that city. "Best built stone city in Syria," he says firmly.

In Aleppo, he goes on, the highlights are the beautiful stone-built khans—the olden-time inns for the use of caravans. "What is so satisfactory is to find that a commercial building need not be ugly," he says. "They are most attractive places, with all the caravansary animals in the courtyards." Are? Yes, are. Professor Creswell was surprised to learn that the khans are mostly warehouses today.

The idea of encountering any danger from bandits or hostile elements—Syria was, after all, occupied territory—did not seem to bother Professor Creswell. For the most part he has always worked alone except for a man "to hold the end of my tape measure." He smilingly pantomimes an exaggerated tremble at the question.

"Danger? No. They once insisted that I take fourteen Mysore Lancers to go with me into the interior of northern Syria. I didn't think it necessary."

After three months in Syria, Creswell was posted to Amman and then Haifa on the same job, that of Inspector of Monuments. Then, realizing that the military administration in Palestine would soon be replaced by a civil one, he started to look for some financing to back what had become a consuming aim: the preparation of a history of Muslim architecture in the East.

He found such a backer in Egypt's King Fouad and, impatient to go to England, get his books and return to Egypt, went to a friend and said, "Can't you get me home as a King's Messenger with a dispatch?" With ships full of demobilized soldiers, the friend in the embassy naturally said, "Impossible." But a few days later Creswell arrived in Constantinople with the diplomatic bag. "When I went to the embassy they said, 'you don't belong to us, you're in the military,' and military headquarters told the embassy I was their responsibility. While they argued about it I went and took a couple of hundred photographs."

The embassy lost the argument. Creswell was sent to London by train and three months later was on his way back by ship with 23 cases of books. "It was sink or swim with my library," the professor remembers with a chuckle

Once in Cairo, Creswell set up house near the museum, today an impoverished district of the city. From that time onwards his life revolved around a rigid work pattern that changed very little over the years. From October to June he would travel, measuring and photographing. Very often he spent, and still spends, the three summer months working in the great museums and libraries of Europe, one of his favorites being the Victoria and Albert in London.

"I once asked the professor if he had ever taken a holiday," Dr. Kessler says later. "He thought for a long time, then said, 'That's right, I have—I went away with my sister when we were little.'

"Then I asked if I could have three days off to go to the Red Sea for snorkelling. I had to explain what snorkelling was, and the professor looked at me and said slowly, 'You are an astonishing woman.' He thought me amazingly diverse to do anything outside Islamic monuments."

Not that Creswell has gone unnoticed in the ordinary world outside those monuments, or that he has not followed world events. He had a sheaf of copies of letters addressed to English Members of Parliament protesting their dreadful administration of the country, and he clipped articles from newspapers about the United States, of which he did not always approve either.

He ruled the street where he lived with a firm, no-nonsense hand. Radios had to be tuned down to reasonable volumes, the street always came to him for permission to hold local weddings and funerals, and those who mistreated their horses or donkeys were not likely to forget it. And once he nearly caused a rift in American and British relations in Egypt. The U.S. Embassy had purchased a block of flats in which the professor was living. As it was planned for embassy personnel, the professor was asked to leave. His fury knew no bounds and he had the whole diplomatic corps in an uproar before he was forced to yield.

In the meantime, Creswell had discovered that before he could write his history of Egyptian Muslim architecture he would have to compile a book of basic research on Islamic architecture as a whole. There was no source material detailed enough for his purpose. Twenty years later, by 1940, he finished his two exhaustive treaties on Early Muslim Architecture—tomes, as one authority puts it, that are monuments in themselves. These tomes, now out of print, are unmanageable except in a library, but Penguin Books has published condensed versions which have sold 25,000 copies to date.

"I once looked up the price of four volumes of Early Muslim Architecture in one of those Book Prices, Current. I found them listed at 240 pounds sterling. Not bad during the author's lifetime, eh?" the professor says.

The work delighted the scholars. "Here is an example of clarity and perfected method ... the single-handed author of a definitive work on the grandest scale ... work of this quality is an inspiration to us all and of it the world cannot have enough," they wrote.

King Fouad was equally delighted. "The King had always seen the French productions and when he saw my book he cried, 'La presentation! Impossible être mieux!’" the professor says.

In 1931, when the first volume of Early Muslim Architecture was completed, the Egyptian Government appointed Creswell as professor in Fouad I University (now Cairo University). He remained Director of the Institute of Muslim Art and Archeology he formed until 1951. During that time honors were heaped upon him, including honorary doctorates from Oxford University and from Princeton in the United States.

"I enjoyed teaching," he says. "I had good students, anxious to learn and willing. They have done well—one is Director of Antiquities here and another Director of Arabic Monuments."

At the same time the professor was teaching and writing his histories, he was also compiling a Bibliography of the Architecture, Arts and Crafts of Islam. It was published in 1961, a 40-year project which involved the study of 15,850 items from books and articles, and 11,749 periodicals.

The professor is still working on supplements, when he is not attending meetings of the governing bodies of various museums. One German professor who reads Turkish has given him 800 new items and another scholar has made Russian contributions. "But he is not really happy with this," Dr. Kessler says. "He feels upset, unclean, not to have read the items himself. But he cannot read Turkish or Russian."

Two years ago, Professor Creswell was knighted by the Queen, but of his work, Sir Archibald says simply, "I thought I would begin at the beginning and make it as complete as possible."

Then he adds with a twinkle, "I suppose I more or less scooped it, didn't I?"

Helen Gibson covered the war in Vietnam for UPI and spent last year in the Middle East as a free-lance contributor to newspapers and magazines.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the May/June 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1972 images.