Ep. 11 | Preserving Islamicate Cultural Heritage from Harvard’s Libraries to the Balkans | András Riedlmayer

Andras with photos
András Riedlmayer with photos from his many visits to the Balkan region in the late 1990s and early 2000s / photo credit: Kris Snibbe, Harvard Staff Photographer, Harvard Gazette
The Alwaleed Program team speaks with András Riedlmayer, former Aga Khan Bibliographer of Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard's Fine Arts Library, about his career as a librarian, the development of the field of the history of Islamic art and architecture, and how his passion for cultural heritage preservation took him from working in Harvard's libraries to conducting field research in the war-torn streets of Kosovo and Bosnia and testifying as an expert witness for the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), even being interrogated by the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milošević, himself.

András Riedlmayer, scholar of Ottoman studies, writer, and editor, served as the Aga Khan Bibliographer of Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library from 1985 until his retirement in 2020. In that time, András built up the Fine Arts Library’s collection, which has become North America’s largest collection of materials on the art and architecture of the Islamic world. He has served as an invaluable resource for Islamic studies researchers at Harvard and beyond and a collaborator in the production of Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual cultures of the Islamic World, published by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard. In addition to his work at Harvard, András distinguished himself as a cultural heritage historian on the Ottoman-era Balkans, documenting the destruction of cultural monuments, libraries, and archives in the wars and ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. In 2018, the Middle East Librarians Association granted András the David H. Partington award for his “contributions to the field of Middle East librarianship, librarianship in general, and the world of scholarship.”


For more information: 

András on way to fieldwork in Kosovo
András waiting for his luggage at Skopje airport, on his way to do fieldwork documenting the destruction of heritage in Kosovo, four months after the shooting stopped (1999) / photo courtesy of András Riedlmayer

András testifying before ICJ in The Hague
András testifying before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in the Bosnian genocide case (2006) / photo courtesy of András Riedlmayer

András open house
András showing recent library acquisitions to students, at an open house held at Harvard's Fine Arts Library (2015) / photo by Naoe Suzuki, courtesy of András Riedlmayer


Episode 11
Release date: December 17, 2021
Hosts: Harry Bastermajian and Meryum Kazmi
Audio editing: Meryum Kazmi
Photo: Interior from Village Mosque, Carraleve, Kosovo, Showing Burned and Desecrated Religious Books (1999) / photo by Andras Riedlmayer, Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection
Transcription: Otter


András Riedlmayer  00:00

Then came 1991 and the wars broke out in the former Yugoslavia. You had the Bosnian Serb army, again, firebombing the National Library with up to 2 million books destroyed. And you had hundreds upon hundreds of mosques, Catholic churches, and historic buildings targeted. And especially the library upset me. I mean, there's no better way to upset a librarian than to burn a library. And I tried to get various professional associations to take a stand on it. And they didn't. It's as if this was a political act, which it wasn't. It was a war crime. And so, again, I became a mad librarian.


Harry Bastermajian  01:13

Welcome to the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Harry Bastermajian,


Meryum Kazmi  01:18

and I'm Meryum Kazmi. We're honored to be joined today by András Riedlmayer, scholar of Ottoman studies, writer, and editor who served as the Aga Khan Bibliographer of Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard's Fine Arts Library from 1985 until his retirement in 2020. In that time, András built up the Fine Arts Library's Islamic collection, which has become North America's largest collection of materials on art and architecture of the Islamic world. He has served as an invaluable resource for Islamic studies researchers at Harvard and worldwide, and a collaborator in the production of Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World, published by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard. In addition to his work at Harvard, András distinguished himself as a cultural heritage historian on the Ottoman-era Balkans, documenting the destruction of cultural monuments, libraries, and archives in the wars and ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. In 2018, the Middle East Librarians Association granted András the David H. Partington award for his contributions to the field of Middle East librarianship, librarianship in general, and the world of scholarship. Welcome, András, we’re so excited to finally have you join us.


András Riedlmayer  02:35

My pleasure.


Harry Bastermajian  02:37

Great to have you. To get us started. We'd like to know a little bit more about your background, and what brought you to the United States from your native Hungary, and to study Ottoman history and Middle Eastern languages.


András Riedlmayer  02:54

It's a bit of a complicated story. But to give you the short version, I grew up in Hungary until the age of nine. My father was an architect who worked for the Institute for the Protection of Historical Monuments and I have childhood memories of accompanying him to sites and holding the other end of the measuring tape. Hungary, at the time, was under Soviet occupation. And in 1956, there was a popular revolution against the Soviets, which was then brutally suppressed. We had no choice but to leave because my father had been elected by his colleagues to head the workers committee at his place of work and he knew that once things settled down, there would be consequences. And so we became one family among the many, about 200,000 people left out of a country of 10 million, so quite a substantial number. We spent time in refugee camps in Austria and eventually settled in West Germany. We stayed in West Germany for four years, four and a half years, and I learned German and attended a gymnasium, one of those classical institutions with lots of Latin and Greek and very little science. And then in 1961, my father was encouraged to apply for naturalization as a German citizen. And he was turned down, without reason given. Germany doesn't automatically grant naturalization. You can, in fact, be born in Germany and not be a German citizen. So 1961 was also international refugee year. And the US allowed a certain number of refugees, who were still stateless, as we were, to immigrate under that visa. And so we ended up in Chicago, in part because my father had an old university friend who had ended up in the US as an architect in Chicago and he found him a job. And I learned English, it was my sixth language at that point, and graduated from high school in Chicago went on to the University of Chicago. And when I started the university, I was quite sure that I was going into the natural sciences. And then I had a really exciting professor for classics, and I already had some Latin and Greek, and so I thought I might become a classics major. But everybody was scared to death of this guy, he sort of ate his students for breakfast. And so I decided it might be safer to move up in time and do Byzantine studies, same Latin and Greek, but different professors. And that was into my junior year and then disaster struck. Chicago only had two Byzantinists. One was Speros Vryonis, he got hired away by UCLA, and his colleague, Walter Kaegi, a brilliant Byzantinist, had a medical breakdown. And suddenly, there was nobody teaching Byzantine studies. So I was in Byzantine studies for not quite one academic year. And so, what comes after the Byzantines? The Ottomans. And so that's how I ended up in Ottoman studies. Now, there were other reasons too. Hungary has, as part of its history, its connection with the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Hungary for 150 years. And so it was familiar territory, it's not like I suddenly switched to Japanese history or something like that. So that was very exciting. I learned more languages, Persian, Turkish, and did my bachelor's thesis, my BA thesis, on Bosnia, and so ended up in graduate school at Princeton. And Princeton, then as it is now, was a great place to do Ottoman studies. They had good professors, they had an excellent library, and so I did my graduate studies there, ended up getting a Fulbright dissertation abroad fellowship, and so went off to Turkey to do my dissertation research. And I ended up staying in Turkey on various grants, and also teaching English and odd jobs for almost four years. My Turkish got lots better. I got to travel throughout the Middle East, Iran, Syria, the Balkans. And I might have even stayed on doing more research but then my dad passed away and I decided to come back to the States. And here I was ABD, all but dissertation, and suddenly, the employment prospects didn't look so good. As you know, the area studies centers really took off in the early 60s and the first crop of graduates from that whole era was just entering the job market in the 70s. And nobody was retiring and no new centers were being founded. And so there were no job opportunities. And then, suddenly, this program came online at Harvard, the Aga Khan Program, founded in '79. I had moved to Cambridge because my wife, then my girlfriend, was in graduate school in this area, then, good luck struck for a change. The first librarian, the first bibliographer, for the Aga Khan Program moved on, her husband got a job with the State Department and she moved to Washington, and I got hired, not because I had a lot of experience as a librarian, but because I knew the area, I knew the languages, and that was in 1985. And until the end of 2020, I held that job, and I enjoyed it, I really did. In a way, it gives you the best of both worlds, you can do the research, you can help people who are invariably very grateful, and then they have the hard job of actually writing it all up. So that's the long story of how I got from Hungary to Harvard.


Harry Bastermajian  10:54

That's great. Just wondering, when you were a student at the University of Chicago studying Ottoman history, was that during the time of Halil İnalcık?


András Riedlmayer  11:07

Well, yes or no. Actually when I was an undergraduate, at Halil İnalcık, was not there yet. But you had Fahir İz, who was a great historian of Turkish language and literature, you had Richard Chambers, you had a number of good people. And then after I came back from Turkey, I was formally still enrolled at Princeton, but I was living in Chicago with my mother. And I got to sit in on Halil İnalcık’s seminars for several years. So, informally, I was his student, yes.


Harry Bastermajian  11:48

Yeah. That's great. That's great. So you talked about how you came to Cambridge and Harvard in 1985 and working with the Aga Khan Program. Let's talk a little bit more about the history of the Islamic fine arts collections here at Harvard, and the Aga Khan's gift to the University. Being one of the, I guess, technically the second Aga Khan Bibliographer, I'm sure you have an intimate knowledge of sort of the history there. Could you tell us a little bit about, why this gift and why Harvard? What was the need?


András Riedlmayer  12:33

Okay, so a quick introduction to the Aga Khan. His Highness the Aga Khan went to Harvard, he was Harvard class of 1959. He is also the 49th hereditary imam of the Shi'a Isma'ili community. And 20 years after he graduated from Harvard, he was persuaded to establish a program both at Harvard and MIT. This came as a result of several things. One is he noticed that throughout the Islamic world, really from the Maghrib to Malaysia, everything was starting to look the same, you couldn't tell whether you were in Houston or Kuala Lumpur, there was nothing intrinsically local or Islamic among the architecture that was being built, and that the historical heritage was being neglected. And so he thought it would be a good thing to have two leading institutions, Harvard and MIT, run a program on Islamic art, architecture, and urbanism. And the division was as follows: Harvard would do art history, architectural history, gardens, and museum studies; MIT would do the practice of architecture and the teaching of architecture and urbanism. And so it would be a two pronged approach. And he was criticized at the time, "Why don't you set this up someplace in the Islamic world?" And the idea was that these universities had the resources to really do a serious job. And then people from the Islamic world would come to Harvard, would come to MIT, and take back the knowledge with them. So people teaching in architectural schools in Pakistan, in Jordan, in many other places, are all graduates of the program at this stage. And increasingly, with the benefit of technology, of course, the resources themselves are also being shared. So that's, in short, the program. The program has many aspects. One is that students get very generous scholarships, they get travel grants, there is a publication series of which the longest-lasting one has been Muqarnas, the annual on Islamic art and architecture, which has been renamed actually, Muqarnas: An Annual of the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World because it's recognized that we're talking about a multiplicity of cultures and about intercultural influences.


Harry Bastermajian  15:52

Thank you. Yeah, so, a little bit more about the work of the Aga Khan Program here at Harvard and how it sort of connects with the Fine Arts Library. There's a documentation center--


András Riedlmayer  16:11

So part of the program was establishing documentation centers that both MIT and Harvard, again with the respective focus of the two: Harvard more historical, MIT more practice oriented. And the technical cut off is early 20th century. Once the international style comes in, it becomes different. But in the case of Harvard, one thing that really made a difference is Harvard has an in-depth historical collection. Harvard is among the oldest higher-education institutions in North America, but also has one of the oldest libraries. Disaster befell Harvard's library just 10 years before the American Revolution, it burned down, and the only books that survived were 400 books that happened to be checked out in time. But as soon as the fire went out, there were campaigns to rebuild the library with donations and purchases. And one of the-- among the first things they bought, or were given, were things that documented the Islamic world. So for example, in the Fine Arts Library, one of our most precious and oldest books, is the first illustrated book on Palmyra, in the Syrian desert. An Englishman named Robert Wood traveled to Palmyra with an Italian engraver, and did site drawings and then brought them back and published them at his own expense. And they turned into a best seller the period. And within six years of his publication, Harvard had a copy. And so things got built up. Now Harvard established an art museum in the 1890s, the Fogg Art Museum. And from the beginning, the Fogg Art Museum collected not only works of art, but also documentation on art. So one of the things they collected was photographs of the Middle East, of which they had thousands by the beginning of the 20th century. So these were sort of the foundations that began and eventually, in 1969, Harvard hired Oleg Grabar as Professor of Islamic Art and he attracted a group of students. And he was also instrumental in the founding of the Aga Khan Program as well. And his presence also boosted the library's collecting activities, both in terms of publications and images. And so my job as Bibliographer, and my predecessor's job, was to build on and augment this collection, to facilitate access to it and provide reference. And because it was a unique center, a great part of my job had to do with outreach. People would contact me from overseas or from museums in various parts of the world, asking questions, and I would provide reference advice. They would come and use our library directly, or we could send them scans. It became a worldwide resource.


Harry Bastermajian  20:03

Thank you. Yeah, it seems to be quite the resource for students and scholars worldwide. So thank you for, for sharing that history with us.


András Riedlmayer  20:14

The other thing that happened is the kind of questions asked by art and architectural historians evolved over time. When I arrived in 1985, the department, the academic department, that was our principal customer at the library, was called the Fine Arts Department and its focus was on the great works of art. And now it's evolved into something much broader than that, it's visual culture. So everything from Hajj paintings on Egyptian walls to propaganda art, and so forth, all functions as visual culture. Also, it used to be that it looked at the prime examples of pure style. This is a Mamluk building par excellence, this is a Mughal building par excellence. Now we're looking much more into the contact zones. How do arts and cultures influence each other? What does it mean when a Mughal painter copies a Portuguese print? That kind of thing. And similarly, what is Orientalism in art? Is it a technology of stereotyping and oppression? Is it something else? And similarly, how does the Islamic world perceive, in visual terms, the West? And so in many ways, the field has greatly evolved.


Meryum Kazmi  22:07

Thank you for telling us about that history. So as you mentioned, you've been a librarian at Harvard since 1985. So I was wondering if you can tell us more about how the libraries and research have changed since then, in terms of technology and the methods for collection, preservation, and research? And how would you say that these changes have affected Islamic studies in particular?


András Riedlmayer  22:34

Okay, well, when I started in 1985, the primary way of finding books was still a card catalog. There was no internet, there was no online catalog. And eventually, by the 1990s, that changed. One of the huge projects was to digitize our, our and Widener's, in fact, the whole Library's cataloguing system. And that made it more accessible but in some ways also less accessible. And I'll tell you why, in terms of Middle East studies. Have you ever been on the top floor of Widener? Well especially not these days, but the top floor of Widener houses the Middle East Division, which is my colleagues who regularly order books from Cairo, Damascus, Tehran, all these places. And their card catalog used to be in Arabic script, which made it easier for people to search it. And then once we went online, suddenly, for a long time, well into the 2000s, the catalog couldn't handle non-Western scripts. And so suddenly, you had to become a Romanization expert to decipher an Arabic title. So in some ways, this made things more accessible. In other ways, it diminished access. And to this very day, new records are generally generated in bilingual form, both Arabic script and transliteration, but that leaves a huge amount of records that were never really transferred. And so you have to search both to get everything. So that's one. The other huge difference is digitization. Now, digitization was in its infancy in the early '90s, it was expensive, and everybody thought that memory would cost too much for any significant portion of a library collection to get digitized. Now we think differently. There are different technologies, you can store data in a cloud, and digitization is being pushed at a high speed. The problem there is also that digitization, to be usable, requires machine-readable texts. You can't search a digitized text unless there is optical character recognition. And optical character recognition for Arabic script is still only barely usable. There are many problems. One is different styles of script. Something that's Arabic type script, you can do reasonably well on. Get yourself a lithograph, for example, suddenly the script style is different and the layout is not predictable because it's all over the margins, all the marginal annotations. And you try to OCR that, you may not get very far. And that's 30 years into the so-called digital future. So we still have a ways to go. And that's despite huge amounts of money having been invested, both by governments and by various companies, into OCR. Libraries, of course, don't have the kind of clout that any of these have and so they're pretty far down on the pecking order. But, yeah, that's a continual challenge. On the other hand, you can now, if you get past the copyright lawyers, share digitized books, digitized images, and that has really opened up the world greatly. In the early years of the Aga Khan Program, we had various schemes to try to share our image collections. We would duplicate sets of 35 millimeter slides and send them out to various institutions in the Islamic world, then, moving on a little bit, we would record them on big DVDs. But all of these still had a very limited reach. Now we're at a point that Archnet, which is run through the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT, has open access images for 1000s of Islamic monuments, which are freely accessible to anyone who has access to the internet. So the world has gotten bigger in that way. And even though we cannot share our whole library, because of technical and copyright issues, if people write in with questions, we can often give them the page they want very quickly via a scanner and an email. So libraries have changed, in other ways they have stayed the same. The internet, as I've just described, has brought many changes. One of the very unfortunate changes of the internet is that it's not stable. If you do research and you have a URL for a website that was still functioning quite well in the early 2000s, odds are it's no longer there. So in some ways, the physical book-- both the books that have never been digitized and might not be digitized for a long time simply because it's economically unfeasible, or technically unfeasible, and even the digitized books-- it's very useful to have a backup in terms of a physical book. Think, again, of somebody who does research. If you do research in the visual arts, what do you need? You need texts, you need images, and you need to compare all of these all at once. Okay, it's wonderful to have a digitized image, but unless you have 20 laptops in front of you, how do you compare 20 images? Even if you have a plasma screen on your wall, which most people don't, you can't crowd them in there the way you could just laying out photographs on a table. And so, physical libraries remain very much a part of that world, which is why the Fine Arts Library is currently in a space that used to be the Economics Library. Economists now use Dow Jones databases, they don't really need the physical books that much anymore. But in the visual arts it's still very central.


Meryum Kazmi  30:51

We were also wondering if you can tell us a bit about some of your favorite pieces in Harvard's Islamic collections, whether books, manuscripts, artwork.


András Riedlmayer  31:02

Part of the fun of being a librarian for the Aga Khan Program was to have these resources for acquisition. Over the years, I had a fairly generous acquisitions budget. So on the one hand, I would buy things that were currently published. But I would also go after the occasional rare or unusual item. And the fun with that was, first of all, just the notion that you could get this thing which nobody or hardly anybody else had, and being able to afford to get it. And the moment it would arrive, you'd open it, you'd invite your colleagues to all take a look. And I still remember one was this very spectacular panorama of the entire Bosporus, the Bosporus being the strait that connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea, with Constantinople, Istanbul, and its suburbs all along it. And in the 1840s and '50s, there was a Maltese artist who was living in Istanbul and who had gotten an in with the government and was teaching drawing at the military academy. A thing happened the 1850s, the Crimean War. The Ottoman Empire, with France, Britain, and the kingdom of Sardinia, which later became Italy, allied against Russia. The fighting was mostly in the Crimea, but Istanbul suddenly had this huge influx of foreigners. Florence Nightingale tended to the wounded, and British officers attended parties at the British legation, and so forth. And when they were heading home, they all wanted expensive souvenirs. And so this artist came upon this wonderful scheme. He did careful drawings of the entire length of the Bosporus with the allied fleet in it. And he then commissioned a lithography firm in Paris to produce this publication. And the publication had a fold out that was-- I forget the exact length, but it was well over eight feet long. And you wonder what this is good for, except for a British officer in 1855 to show to the folks back home. Well, what it's good for is already several theses have used this, which were looking at things like landscape architecture in that period. These are areas that have since changed beyond recognition. Areas have been built up, entire mountainsides have been moved, and this preserves it. And I just remember when it first arrived, I spread it out on the table. We have a set of tables in our reading room that we could push together, and it barely fit. And it was a marvel. I mean, students came in and they were just flabbergasted.


Harry Bastermajian  34:48

That's neat. It's interesting to see how, to hear how something that was essentially a souvenir plays a critical role in understanding landscape, the history of landscape architecture, in the Ottoman Empire. That's fascinating.


András Riedlmayer  35:08

So, we have other stories too, lots of them. One very small book, we have-- normally, in the Fine Arts Library, we don't collect original manuscripts, manuscripts generally go to Houghton Library, but we do have a few, and one of them is this book on the licitness of images in Islam. And what it is, it was a doctoral thesis at King Fuad I University in Cairo, produced in 1941. Now remember, 1941, World War I is waging-- I mean, World War II is raging. The British Army is in occupation of Egypt. Rommel has just landed in North Africa, and he's about to head to El Alamein. And the Egyptians are resentful of the British. And so the British in turn, in order to cut down on anti-British propaganda, do various things. They impose strict censorship, but they also collect the Arabic typewriters, because that was one way of quickly duplicating things. And so this poor guy had just finished his thesis and he obviously couldn't find a typewriter to duplicate it to produce copies for his committee. And so he hired a calligrapher and had it nicely engrossed, you know, written out, and it popped up on the antiquarian book market. Probably no more than five or six copies were ever produced for members of this committee who have all since gone to their reward.


Harry Bastermajian  37:12

That's quite neat.


András Riedlmayer  37:14

And we have that. And right now, we have a professor who's teaching an undergraduate course on images in Islam, and some of the students know Arabic, and this would be a great thing for them to look at.


Harry Bastermajian  37:32

It certainly sounds like it. It's very neat. So Prince Alwaleed, in 2005, when he gave his gift to the to the University to establish the Alwaleed Program, the Islamic Studies Program as well as four professorships here at the university, he also gave money to the Harvard libraries for what's now known as the Islamic Heritage Project. Could you tell us a little bit more about that project and the benefit it has provided to both the library and researchers?


András Riedlmayer  38:11

Okay, well, just to backtrack a little bit. Among the professorships that were established by the gift from Prince Alwaleed was a second professorship in Islamic art. So basically, overnight, it doubled the number of permanent faculty members who work full time on Islamic art, so that was a big boost in general to the field. As far as the Islamic Heritage Project is concerned, I was actually on the committee that was looking at ways of best using the donation. And the committee came up with the idea that Harvard has a collection of Islamic manuscripts and antiquarian books from the 19th century, and while it's not the best collection by far in North America, places like the Library of Congress or Princeton have more, it is a rich, and in some ways, very unusual collection. It came to Harvard largely as gifts and it had never been properly catalogued and hadn't gotten much use over the years. And so the end result was that we devised a plan to hire project catalogers who would catalog these manuscripts to have the manuscripts undergo preservation review, many of them were not in great shape, and then have them digitized and made publicly available. And the project was amazing in its outcome, it produced a tremendous amount of material that was not otherwise available in digital form anywhere. Many of the manuscripts are unique or oldest versions of various texts. I know we at the Fine Arts Library contributed various things. I remember one of my purchases was an Ottoman map of the Balkans, for example, that got digitized for this project. So it's a tremendous resource. And it was all done in state-of-the-art digitization, with excellent finding aids. It's always a problem, when you digitize something, it doesn't make it usable yet. It has to be findable. And you have to be able to navigate within a large data set. And so, this provides that. You can search manuscripts by topic, by title, by language, by date, and it's accessible from anywhere in the world. So I think in that sense, it was a great thing. The other thing that the Alwaleed Islamic Heritage Program did is in many ways, open up undergraduate education, to the Islamic field. I know that certainly after the Alwaleed Program came online, the number of undergraduate classes, some undergraduate groups that came to use our collections, grew by a tremendous amount. Some of it is through outreach on our part, we have these sessions, where we would bring some of our most amazing things to these introductory sessions for first year graduate students or for undergraduates, but I regularly gave a presentations to Professor Ali Asani's course on visual culture in Islamic cultures. So the challenge always is not just to assemble these amazing collections, but to connect them to the instruction, whether formally through courses or through individual outreach.


Meryum Kazmi  42:51

Yeah, thank you. You've talked about this next topic on the Ottoman History Podcast, but we would love if you can also share with our audience a bit about the work that you've done beyond your role at Harvard in documenting the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, during the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. You also served as an expert witness in the UN War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. So it would be great to hear about that experience, and why you felt that it was so important to document this destruction, when so many people had been killed and displaced in those wars. Why was that aspect of maybe cultural ethnic cleansing also so important to document?


András Riedlmayer  43:37

Well, I can tell you a little origin story to begin. First of all, my very early childhood-- I told you my father was working for the Institute for Protection of Monuments in Hungary. This was 10 years after World War II and the destruction of World War II was still all over the place, and a large part of what my father and his Institute did was to essentially recover and restore things that had been destroyed in the mid 1940s. So I had some sense of that as, similarly, I still saw some traces of World War II when I was living in West Germany. But what brought this project into being was, as you might remember, the first Gulf War in 1990, '91, a lot of people were worried that, Iraq is the cradle of civilization, it's going to get bombed, and we'll lose so much of our cultural memory. And as a librarian for the Aga Khan Program, I started to get a lot of reference questions about that, and about cultural heritage and war in the Middle East, and the history of cultural preservation, or its opposite. And so I was fascinated by the question and I even got a publisher interested, I was going to do a source book, specifically on the Middle East and cultural heritage preservation. And then came 1991, and the wars broke out in the former Yugoslavia. Now, this is after a lifetime of worrying about the world ending in a third world war and nuclear holocaust. And suddenly, the Cold War was over, with hardly any casualties, but, in the middle of Europe, war breaks out again. And from the very beginning, I mean, beginning really in the fall of 1991, so exactly 30 years ago, culture was one of the targets in this warfare. Dubrovnik in Croatia, which had been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, was bombarded from the air, the sea, and the land, and massively damaged, even though it had been declared an open city and they had no military targets in it. That was bad enough, but then the following year, 1992, war broke out, the war spread to Bosnia. And you had massive destruction of cultural heritage all across Bosnia, again, closely targeted. You had the Institute of Oriental Studies in Sarajevo being fire-bombed with incendiary munitions and burning over 5,300 manuscripts. That same summer you had the Bosnian Serb army, again, firebombing the National Library, with up to 2 million books destroyed. And you had hundreds upon hundreds of mosques, Catholic churches, and historic buildings targeted. And especially the library, upset me. I mean, there's no better way to upset a librarian than to burn a library. And I tried to get various professional associations to take a stand on it, and they didn't. It's as if this was a political act, which it wasn't. It was a war crime. And so when I saw that nobody was doing this, I started doing research on my own and started giving lots of talks, and eventually became a go-to person on this because nobody else was doing it to the same degree. And so in the mid '90s, while the Bosnian War was still going on, I got invited to testify before the Helsinki Commission of the US Congress on the subject, and then eventually ended up contacting the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and saying, "Would you be interested in data?" and they said yes. And in 1999 there was the war in Kosovo, NATO intervened, and as soon as the war was over, the UN was put in charge of governing the territory, Kosovo. It's not a large country, it's the size of Connecticut in the US and, nevertheless, for the United Nations it was the first time they got to administer anything bigger than their headquarters on the East River in New York. And so I figured that UNESCO would have the culture brief. So I called up UNESCO headquarters in Paris and asked, "Are you going to do a survey of what happened to cultural heritage, which would be important for many reasons, including figuring out a strategy for reconstruction and preservation?" and they said, "Heavens, no, we don't do that except by invitation of member country and Yugoslavia, i.e. Belgrade, has not invited us to do this." Of course they wouldn't have invited them, because they're the ones who did it. And so again, I became a mad librarian. And with the support of the Center for Middle East Studies, I was able to get a small grant from the Packard Humanities Institute. And together with a colleague from Harvard, Andrew Herscher, who was just getting his Ph.D. and he was a trained architect, we went off to survey in Kosovo, four months after the shooting had stopped. And it was kind of dicey. There were landmines on all the verges off the shoulders of the roads, there was no electricity, there was no post office, the phones didn't work. And there were hundreds and 1000s of people on the move, trying to get back into the country. In three months, over 800,000 people had been displaced and the survivors were coming back. So it was kind of a rough thing to do, and nothing that I had previously done had really prepared me for it. But I couldn't have done it unless I had done research in the library, because we can't just go someplace and say, "Direct me to the nearest ruined monument." They'll point to a pile of bricks, and you say, "What's that?" He said," We don't know." So what I did between June when the war ended and September when we set out is spent the time at the library, collecting information on every single historical monument that had been published about. And this turned out to be very useful. Now, I was dreadfully worried that if I put it on a laptop, somebody would steal the laptop, the laptop would give up the ghost, and since the electricity wasn't good, it would have given up the ghost much quicker than you might have thought. And so I went there with a suitcase filled with photocopies. And this turned out to be terrifically useful, because when a building is completely destroyed, there are still traces in the ground of where the foundation was. And when something is published, usually there's a measured ground plan somewhere in the publication. So I did that. On the way to Kosovo, we were invited to stop at the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. And we spent an afternoon there speaking with lawyers and investigators, who essentially told us what makes for good evidence and what does not. So one thing was that it was very important to try to get documentation of the building or site intact, as close to the time of destruction as possible because in court, the defendants’ first move will be, "Oh, that fell down before the war, we had nothing to do with it." So if you have [a photo with] a date stamp, something that [shows that] three months before it was ruined, it was still standing, that makes for much better evidence. So things like that. And again, it helped that I worked in the library. As it happened, there was a journalist in Kosovo, who was an enthusiast on Ottoman heritage and who had self-published a number of books on Kosovo's Ottoman heritage, in Turkey. And we happened to have his books which had his address in the back. And so there was no post office, there was no phone, but we went and knocked on his door. And he was generous enough to share his photographs, all of which were date stamped. So we came back and started putting it all into a database quite leisurely. Milošević, the president of Serbia, president of Yugoslavia, was still in charge in Belgrade. But then less than two years later, he was overthrown. He was arrested and he was handed over to the UN tribunal. And suddenly, we started getting urgent messages from The Hague, [saying] give us a detailed report. So we did. And it was a bit dicey because we had all these color photographs and we had scans, but we needed to produce printouts and color printing in the early 2000s was still a difficult problem. But we managed to borrow a color printer from the museum and spent three days running it non stop and using up dozens of printer cartridges and produced a thick dossier on the more than 200 mosques that had been destroyed, the manuscript libraries and archives, and all the other cultural destruction. And then the following spring, in April of 2002, I ended up in The Hague confronted with Milošević who was acting as his own attorney, and questioning me from 10 feet away, which was again an experience.


Harry Bastermajian  55:47

Yeah, how was that? To be questioned by him?


András Riedlmayer  55:51

As you can imagine, I was nervous as hell. One thing that, oddly enough, helped, was, The Hague is on the North Sea. It has terrible winter weather, it rains all the time. And I was trapped in my hotel and then I couldn't go to court for several days because Milošević got a cold. And so I had nothing else to do. I could either watch Dutch television or I could just go through my database over and over, which I did. And then once I got into court, and it came to the cross examination, it suddenly dawned on me-- I don't know if you've had this experience while in graduate school, where you over-studied for a test, where you go in all worried and then you see the question, then you say, "Hey, I know this stuff." And that was precisely it. I mean, I realized immediately that all the questions he asked about specific places I could answer in detail, and I didn't answer him, it was always directed to the judge. So he would ask, "Mr. Riedlmayer, is it really true that this precious building was bombed to smithereens by NATO?" And I said, "Your Honors, addressing the judges, I've been to this site, and this is what I saw. It doesn't fit the scenario of being bombed. It has an intact roof, it has an intact front door, somebody has set a fire inside and did the graffiti on the walls. I don't think a Tomahawk missile did this." And so he would get upset. And we're-- after a couple of unfortunate American presidents, we know that one of the hazards of having ultimate power is developing the illusion that you can manipulate reality. And Milošević was like that. I mean, I thought he would get upset at being contradicted. Instead, he was puzzled, and he would repeat the same question, as in, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" A very strange experience.


Harry Bastermajian  58:22

He really believed, he really believed his own narrative.


András Riedlmayer  58:25

Yeah. And it also helped being a historian because he would say, "Well, this isn't really Kosovar heritage, it's Turkish heritage. Just things the Turks forgot to take with them when they left."


Harry Bastermajian  58:42

We know that that's not the case.


András Riedlmayer  58:47

That's not the case. I mean, this is local architecture built for local patrons by local people, who may have been participants in a larger cultural sphere, but


Harry Bastermajian  58:58

native to the lands.


András Riedlmayer  59:01

Yeah, and, very often, the same artisan and built the churches and the mosques,


Harry Bastermajian  59:07

which also happened in the Ottoman Empire, not just in the Balkans.


András Riedlmayer  59:13



Harry Bastermajian  59:14

I mean, in Anatolia as well.


András Riedlmayer  59:15

So, this went well enough so that the prosecutors about a few weeks after I returned to the US called me up again and said, "Well, could you do a similar thing for Bosnia?" I said, "Well, I've been to Bosnia, done a bit of documentation, but I haven't done anything systematic." And they said, "That's no problem. What are you doing this July?" And I said, "Well, fine, I'll come along." And so I spent an entire month traveling through Bosnia, about 4,000 kilometers up and down mountains, and doing documentation there, and I ended up testifying in nine cases before the UN War Crimes Tribunal, and then once before the International Court of Justice, so it turned into a second part-time career.


Meryum Kazmi  1:00:14

Yeah, that's incredible. Thank you for sharing that with us. So I was wondering, I mean, of course, unfortunately, there are so many conflicts in the world today. What are some of your concerns, but also hopes for the future of cultural preservation in areas of conflict?


András Riedlmayer  1:01:30

The UN War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia did some pioneering cases and established precedents, but it's now history. But now there is an International Criminal Court, it was established in the 2000s. It doesn't have any retrospective jurisdiction, only crimes that happened after its establishment. But it has already addressed examples of cultural destruction, such as the sites in Timbuktu that were destroyed, and it's looking at Syria and Iraq, and a number of other places. And I've actually been invited to a couple of meetings and invited to comment on their strategy for prosecuting crimes against culture. So I think culture has become something that people are concerned about in times of conflict. You asked very early on, what's the point of looking at crimes against culture when there are so many horrible crimes against people, 1000s of people killed, millions of people displaced? Well, the thing is that these people are, for the most part, being persecuted because they're members of specific groups. They're singled out on the basis of their cultural characteristics. So race, religion, ethnicity, are all basically cultural constructs. And so targeting their culture is targeting the group of people. You do this to terrorize people, to make sure they'll never come back, to promote a false narrative that they have never been here. And the Nazis did that in World War II, it happened in the Balkans, and it's happening elsewhere. And so addressing culture is vital to addressing the protection of groups against persecution, against genocide, and war crimes. Look at what happened to the Yazidis in Iraq. Look at what happens with any persecuted group. It invariably involves the destruction of culture. And it's unfortunate that it took the humanitarian disasters of the '90s and the 2000s to bring this into focus, but it actually goes back much further.


Harry Bastermajian  1:03:30

So to sort of end on a more positive note, just thinking ahead. We were chatting before this interview, that you've now been almost a year into retirement and unfortunately, because of the COVID pandemic, it's been difficult to really travel and do things that people hope to do during retirement, but we were just wondering, what are some of your plans moving forward? Do you look to--? Yeah, please.


András Riedlmayer  1:04:02

Well, I continue to write and lecture on the things that I know something about, whether it's Ottoman history or cultural destruction. Meanwhile, the material I gathered for the Tribunal is now housed in the Harvard Library as one of their archival collections, so it's available for research. And people still go on contacting me from all around the world, asking questions about these things. So I don't think the topics will go away. I do have projects, some of which I laid aside in the early '90s, because I got too busy on the Balkans, that I would like to pursue again. And one benefit of retirement is that you do have more control of your time. And so, writing and research are not something that you do after dinner, you can do it at a more reasonable pace. I still have access to my colleagues, I have access through the collections of the library, and if health holds, I hope to do it more in the future.


Meryum Kazmi  1:05:51

You can find more information about András's work at the Harvard Fine Arts Library and on cultural heritage preservation in the Balkans by clicking on the link to our website in the show notes. To learn more about the history of Islamic studies at Harvard, visit our digital timeline at timeline.islamicstudies.harvard.edu. You're listening to the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Meryum Kazmi, thanks as always for joining us.