MESA Roundtable Sponsored by Middle East Medievalists - "Pathways of Portability, 20 Years On: A New Frontier for Scholars of the Medieval Mediterranean"

Michelle  al-Ferzly's picture

Virtual roundtable at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, Sponsored by the Middle East Medievalists (MEM)

Organized by Bihter Esener and Michelle Al-Ferzly

Discusant: Eva Hoffman, Professor Emerita, Tufts University


Bihter Esener, Koç University/University of Michigan 

Arielle Winnik, Bryn Mawr College

Peter Boudreau, McGill University

Sarah Mathiesen, Florida State University

Michelle Al-Ferzly, University of Michigan


Since its publication in 2001, “Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century,” has shaped the questions, research, and methodologies of a generation of scholars of the Medieval Mediterranean. Following the author’s ‘pluritopic’, or multi-centered, model of cultural exchange and circulation, scholars of medieval art and architecture from the Byzantine, Western Medieval, and, in particular, the Islamicate world, have considered images and objects through their potential for movement, and as active agents in visual identity formation. “Pathways of Portability” has thus offered scholars the opportunity to reconceptualize modes of cultural exchange that challenge traditional models of center and periphery, highlighting the ability for the portable arts to not only move tangibly through space, but also to extend beyond a single geographic or cultural reference point to encompass a plurality of identities, contact points, and visual inferences.

This panel calls upon scholars of Islamic art and/or the Medieval Mediterranean to consider the impact of “Pathways of Portability” in their respective subfield(s). In the twenty years since the article’s original publication, academic interest in Mediterranean cross-cultural interchange has only increased, resulting in the creation of academic centers and programs, dedicated workshops, and journals. We invite explorations of the portability model that investigate the ways in which this paradigm shift has proved influential in the growing research on object histories, material culture, diplomatic exchange, and cross-cultural and religious encounters in the medieval Mediterranean and the Islamicate world.

Reflecting upon the past two decades of scholarship, we then ask, how has the author’s portability model generated new theoretical frameworks of inquiry that can be used for the study of medieval Mediterranean, cross-cultural exchange, whether within or beyond courtly spheres of the Mediterranean basin? What new questions and pressing issues must we address, how have these evolved since the early 2000s, what does the paradigm of portability have to offer and along what new ‘pathways’ will they lead us? Finally, how can scholarship and research in the dynamic field of Islamic and medieval Mediterranean art histories further investigate the mobility and cultural fluidity that characterizes both the medieval Mediterranean and cross-cultural encounter writ large?