Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A scholarly life

Obituary: Professor George Scanlon (23 April 1926 - 13 July 2014)

Professor George Scanlon
Professor George Scanlon
Al-Ahram Weekly

With the death of Professor George Scanlon on Sunday 13 July, during a short visit to New York, the field of Islamic art and architecture has lost a remarkable scholar and perhaps the last of the great amateur archaeologists: amateur in the best eighteenth-century sense of the word. His loss will resonate throughout Cairo, where he made his life’s home, in so far as anyone with such wide tastes and universal interests can be said to have had a temporal home, but, as his muse was Egypt, he wore the city like a comfortable old pair of shoes. His students will remember him as an inspired and incomparable cicerone of the Islamic architecture of Cairo, pointing out the discreet beauty of some stonework or the historical significance of some monument, but always insisting on the exactitude of dates and facts. In all of this he was to his students never less than a historian: ‘Do you realise that Ibn Khaldoun walked here?’

His archaeological staff will remember him as captain of the houseboat, appropriately named the Fustat, his office and home for so many years. George Scanlon was, through early experience a naval man and it seemed appropriate that from here he directed the excavations of his small kingdom of rubbish heaps and drains that is Al-Fustat, the earliest Arab city settlement in Egypt, implementing from the quarter deck a disciplined routine of work, recording, and study. He would deal with any insubordination from the lower decks with an experience acquired in the South China Seas. Here, his many friends will remember him as a generous host and trencherman and how, every evening, after a hard working day, the boat became the social centre to a distinguished style of guests: a visiting writer, a film star perhaps, an anthropologist arriving fresh from Dar Fur, or a sprinkling of local ambassadors, but only the sort of ambassadors who were ready to engage in lengthy discussions on the merits of the novels of Henry James. In spite of all the serious work that was done, those evenings during the excavations, whether in Cairo or in the sands of Nubia, were interludes of enormous fantasy and fun.

Professor George Scanlon was educated at Swathmore College, receiving a Bachelors of Arts in History and Literature. It was during his service with the US Navy that he first acquired his abiding interest in the mediaeval civilization of the Mediterranean and Egypt. He subsequently received a Masters of Arts in Oriental Studies, followed by a Doctorate of Philosophy in 1959, from Princeton University.  At the same time, he had joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the American University in Cairo (AUC) from 1957 to 1958, as a Fulbright Research Fellow, researching his doctoral thesis on Mamluk equestrian warfare, entitled A Muslim Manual of War, which reflected his lifelong passion for riding and horses.   

Under the auspices of the then recently established American Research Center in Cairo (ARCE), from the 1960s on, Scanlon became very active as a field director archaeologist for ARCE, working for three seasons on mediaeval sites in Nubia: Gebel Adda and the Coptic Monastery of Qasr Al-Wizz, as part of the UNESCO-backed Nubia Campaign to save or record monuments before they were engulfed by the waters rising behind the High Dam, and subsequently for nine seasons at Al-Fustat, the first Islamic capital of Egypt.  

Scanlon has left a strong imprint on the archaeological work he has been associated with in Egypt, and for which he has earned a great deal of respect and esteem. He took an unprecedented interest in Islamic archaeology in Egypt while other missions and institutes continued to focus on pre-Islamic sites. He was a pioneer in this field largely because of the circumstances at the time, which necessitated an improvised approach to fieldwork: both his concessions in Nubia and Al-Fustat were carried out with the aim of documenting important sites before their eventual destruction, be it the flooding of the Nile caused by the High Dam in Aswan, or by urban encroachment as was the case at Al-Fustat. He also deserves recognition for his research, directly related to the excavations he directed. Many of his articles, published in archaeological journals, focus on the unbroken development of urban sensitivity, in its relationship between water supply, sewage networks, housing and planning, following the Arab conquest of Egypt which had for long been regarded as something of a caesura in the civilization of Egypt.  These are as valuable as the descriptions that have been recorded by mediaeval travellers and historians. The amount and wealth of information that has been diffused through his scholarly publications influenced and accelerated subsequent missions to invest in Islamic sites throughout Egypt. Scanlon, the professor, also taught Islamic archaeology to generations of students from all backgrounds at AUC. Many of these students have gone on to acquire successful careers in the field and have earned higher degrees from prestigious universities in Europe and the United States.

When not working in the field, Scanlon pursued an extensive teaching career. He was a fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, and — at the invitation of the late Albert Hourani — Senior Visiting Fellow at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford (1966 to 1968). He resumed teaching from 1969 to 1971, as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, while also acting as a Research Curator at the Kelsey Museum of Ancient and Medieval Archaeology, at the University of Michigan. From 1971 to 1974 he returned to St. Anthony’s College, where he funded and inaugurated the annual George Antonius lecture.  A believer that fieldwork should be complemented by academic research and teaching, his career at the American University in Cairo (AUC) began in 1974 as a Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture. He was tenured at AUC in 1975 andcontinued to teach until 2011 when he chose to retire. As Professor Emeritus, Scanlon was still frequently on campus, and continued to inspire students and colleagues by his erudition and wit.  He was a strong believer in the central importance of the humanities in the central purpose of any university rather than those subjects that he regarded as grubby technical know-how and was fond of quoting the lines of Alexander Pope:

Know, then, thyself; presume not God to scan:

The proper study of mankind is man.

Professor Scanlon received numerous honours, including election as a Corresponding Member of the Institut d’Égypte in 1987, and in 1998 was the first recipient of the Middle East Medievalists (MEM) Lifetime Achievement Award, which has since been awarded to scholars who have studied the mediaeval Middle East with distinction.

George Scanlon will be remembered as enormously learned and well-read. In almost everything he said and did Professor Scanlon seemed a throwback to some more congenial and disciplined golden age of academia. He would quote not only reams of Shakespeare, Tennyson or T S Eliot but many minor poets and whole passages of Gibbon.  His other major passion was classical music and opera. He could often be found humming an area from Rigoletto or Simon Bocenegra in his fine baritone voice. 

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