Silk Road Conversations with Courtney Ann Stewart (Senior Researcher, Islamic Arts)

Silk Road Interviews are inspired by Silk Road Week, an annual event conceived by Chinese Museums Association, International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT), and China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. The theme for #SilkRoadWeek 2020 is “The Silk Roads: Mutual Learning for Future Collaboration.” We thank IN ZHEJIANG, our media partner in China (on Facebook).

Name : Courtney Ann Stewart | Country : New York, USA | Years Active : 15 | Website : Courtney Ann Stewart & Senior Research Assistant, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tughra (Insignia) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66) c. 1555–60, Turkey, currently The Met Museum of Art, NY
Courtney Ann Stewart, courtesy SUNY Purchase University, NY

Q – How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about your field?

I study beautiful and interesting objects that were made in places where Islam had a significant presence. 

Q – What inspired you to become a curator?

People are transformed through stories that touch them personally. Museums have great potential to teach, transport, and even heal. I’ve always wanted to be a part of that.

Q – Why did you choose this particular field (of research)?

The artistic and cultural contributions of Islam to the world stage are often ignored, misunderstood, or assimilated into other narratives. I find Islamic art beautiful and fascinating and want to help others to see this too.

Q – What is the most memorable object you’ve researched, or worked with?

Once, when I was examining an 18th-century Moroccan Amazigh (Berber) necklace in the Met’s collection, I found a secret compartment in a pendant. When I opened it a piece of fragrant incense fell out! It was an incredible reminder of the individuals who originally created and owned the works of art that one sees in museums. My imagination ran wild picturing the person who wore the necklace and enjoyed the sweet scent of the perfume, years before it came into the museum collection.

Calligraphic Galleon, A.H. 1180/ A.D. 1766–67, ‘Abd al-Qadir Hisari, Ottoman Turkey, currently The Met Museum of Art, NY

Q – Do you recall when was the first time you heard of the phrase “Silk Road”? What was your first impression of it?

I really don’t recall, but it certainly conjures an image of beauty, craftsmanship, and exchange.

Folio from the “Tashkent Qur’an” late 8th–early 9th century, Uzbekistan, About one third of the original manuscript is housed in the Hast-Imam Library in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, currently The Met Museum of Art, NY

Q – What is your most memorable experience of travelling along the Silk Road?

Last year I took a train journey from Tashkent to Kokand, in Uzbekistan. It was my first time in the region, and I don’t speak any of the local languages. Somehow I ended up communicating with the man sitting next to me, and we ended up sharing his bread. His incredible generosity made a huge impression on me, which was only reinforced as I met other Uzbeks and spoke to visitors about their experiences. It definitely warmed my cold New York City heart!

Q – Which city or region along the Silk Road are you looking forward to visit, for the first time?

I dream of visiting the varied and vast landscapes of Mongolia.

“Rosette Bearing the Names and Titles of Shah Jahan”, Folio from the Shah Jahan Albumrecto, c. 1645; verso: ca. 1630–40, India, currently The Met Museum of Art, NY

Q – What language(s) spoken along the Silk Road have you studied, or would wish to study?

I would love to learn Persian (Farsi)! It sounds so beautifully musical.

Q – What is the hardest part of your work that people don’t realize?

Working in the museum field is very competitive, and job security is difficult, at least in my experience. For that reason, I’ve always worked on a number of side projects to support my main work, including teaching, consultant work, and guiding international tours. It requires having many irons in the fire at any given time, but working on a number of projects has also been incredibly stimulating and rewarding.

Q – What is your dream (or even fantasy) research project?

It would be amazing to collaborate with a lab like GIA (Gemological Institute of America) and a few museums with important gem collections, in order to analyze gemstones in historical Islamic jewelry, in the interest of determining a site origin of the gemstones.

With some stones, like diamonds, this is not currently possible. In other cases, for example, emerald, it is achievable. Analysis of the large number of samples already taken by GIA may allow us to identify a country of origin, or even specific regions for the source of certain stones, and would help to determine historical trade routes or patterns.

I think that would be absolutely fascinating, but would require the collaboration of a large number of people and institutions. Maybe one day!

– “Rosette Bearing the Names and Titles of Shah Jahan”, Folio from the Shah Jahan Albumrecto, c. 1645; verso: ca. 1630–40, India, currently The Met Museum of Art, NY

The Lovers, A.H. 1039/ A.D. 1630 by Riza-yi `Abbasi, Iran, currently The Met Museum of Art, NY

Q – If it were possible, what historic figure would you like to meet? Why?

I admire the entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit of Fatima al-Fihriyya, who patronized the construction of the al-Qaraouiyine mosque and madrasa in Fez, Morocco, in the 9th century. She and her family were immigrants from Tunisia who relocated to Fez, and after her father passed away, she used her inheritance to support the construction of this now-famous mosque.

The madrasa of al-Qaraouiyine is considered to be the oldest degree-granting university in the world, and contains one of the oldest libraries.  Over its 1,200-year history, students have travelled from all over the world to study Islamic history, theology, languages, and sciences.

I wonder if she would be surprised at the incredible legacy of her patronage and the positive effect of education on the thousands of students who have passed through the school’s doors.  

Q – What movie best depicts a historic or aesthetic aspect of the Silk Road?

I would love to know more about cinema that depicts the Silk Road and look forward to the responses of others. Instead I will answer with a television show. Long Way Round was a 2005 documentary series featuring actor Ewan MacGregor and his friend Charley Boorman traveling by motorcycle around the world. The episode where they travel through Kazakhstan is an incredible portal to the contemporary Silk Road. The terrain itself proved to be the most arduous of their entire journey, but it also depicts astonishing hospitality and their encounters with fascinating history and culture. Though this is a present-day depiction of the Silk Road, I think their experience can also illustrate the historical challenges and rewards of travel in this region.

Mihrab (Prayer Niche), A.H. 755/A.D. 1354–55, Isfanan, Iran, currently The Met Museum of Art, NY