The 'Russian recipe' is brought up to date
- Given all your activities, how do you find time to do research work as well?
- For this purpose, I have some time in the evening and at night, on my days off and while seated in airplanes. As you say, all my working time goes into being the director. However, work as a researcher is an absolutely essential part of my professional life. Only so long as a museum director remains an active researcher can he remain as museum director. If he is only busy with administrative work, then he cannot be a director.
- Are we true pathfinders in some kind of research areas?
- Yes, development of the subject of similarities in Moslem and Christian artistic languages began in Russia. Director of the Hermitage Orbeli and an entire galaxy of his colleagues demonstrated - perhaps with some overstatement - that in the East the ruling class had no differences in religion or in culture. The Armenian, Moslem, and Christian rulers had one and the same style of life. Partly this is correct, partly not, but the basic idea is true.
Now the topic of interrelationships between Islam and Christianity in the Russian Empire is being developed. This is a set of very interesting legislative acts and of practices which created what I would call the “Russian recipe.” Beginning in the time of Catherine a system of dynamic relations was created which allowed people to live calmly and to more or less peacefully develop their cultures, moreover to develop them together. The “Russian recipe” is something very useful to study. Now we need to have the recipes brought up to date.
- What precisely are you working on now?
- I am continuing to process the materials of the Yemen expedition which I headed and in which I took part - to be specific, a description of the travels and the inscriptions collected. In part this has been published, but part remains to be published. In parallel with this and together with my colleagues in the Department of the Orient, I have begun work on publication of a manuscript which is called Reaching Two Holy Places. It contains a description of a journey to Mecca, very interesting illustrations, topographical descriptions, drawings depicting buildings and the holy sites. This rare manuscript is kept in the Hermitage. We are preparing a facsimile edition and an overview of the texts stating how people made the hadj in the past at various times and do so today.
In addition, I am working on a book about the peculiar features of Islamic culture in light of the European context. There are many works about how the Orient viewed Europe and how Europeans viewed the Orient. But this view is somewhat from the sidelines looking towards one or the other, on their interrelations. I deliver lectures in a course on this matter at the European and State Universities.
- Nowadays this subject is very topical...
- Without a doubt. Alas, there is no mutual understanding. On the contrary, there is constant provocation to misunderstandings. I hope to do something that will provoke understanding - academic research drawing on a great many sources and setting out new and different ideas. I think it may bring people together and turn out rather interesting for everyone.
- Surely you have your own “philosophy of the museum” and vision of what purpose it should serve.
- Yes, I am working now on this: the book is largely based on my personal experience and is polemical in nature.
- And will you pin down in some way your experience in archeology?
- In my future book on The Archeology of the Koran, there will be archeological essays about the historical legends of the Koran which analyze various aspects of them. This book tells about what we know and how much we know about the ancient peoples who are mentioned in the Koran, especially the ancient peoples of Arabia. That is what I am busy with during my time away from the job.
- That's impressive...
- I see it that way too, because I still have to write it all. I almost completed a book on the prophet Mohammed, but I postponed its completion. I think that after the other, general books it will turn out better. Now it is in a stage of ripening. To a certain extent, everything I enumerated earlier creates the context both for me and for the reader.
- Wouldn't you like to write something popular? Something not for specialists...
- My books are academic in the sense that they are fully based on study of sources, including new sources, on scientific conclusions, argumentation, etc. But I think the books about which I spoke will be interesting for the broad reading public.
- It would appear that the basic directions of your research activity do not change...
- Yes, I am continuing what I have been doing all my life. Most of all I am interested in the ancient history of Arabia. Here there are many materials that I still have to work on. Perhaps some day all this will go into a book on the history of Arabia as a region. My book on the history of Yemen relates how an ancient civilization gave rise to a medieval one, how a new religion was born, how a link between them developed. These were all horizontal links between cultures. The archeology of the Koran in this sense is situated on a vertical axis, while Islam in the European context is on the horizontal axis. A museum is a place where dialogue between cultures is organized. If the vertical line indicates how new cultures arise from ancient cultures and the horizontal axis shows the interrelationships of cultures, then together they form a cross. That's a museum.
The complete text of the interview is available on the website www.bia-news.ru