The sun beamed down on worshipers of many diverse religions as they gathered around the shrine of an ‘Alid as an equal community, inspiring one archaeologist to devote years of her life to show this peaceful side of the Middle East.
On Sept. 20, associate professor Stephennie Mulder was recognized as the grand prize winner for the 2015 Hamilton Book Awards, sponsored by the University Co-Op. Mulder’s publication depicts how Islamic ‘Alid shrines in medieval Syria served as community areas for members of every religion to come together, even during times of conflict.
After spending 12 years as an archaeologist in the heart of Syria, Mulder became inspired to show the cooperative history of the Middle East she witnessed. The shrines described in her book are dedicated to the ‘Alid or the direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad. While many people believed that these shrines belonged to only one sect of Islam, Mulder discovered that they were centers of coexistence.
Mulder said winning this award has validated the importance of her research and makes her excited for the future.
“You have to really care about your subject and think it matters — that can sustain you through the hard times,” Mulder said. “[This award] has brought home that this is a really relevant and timely issue. And I would like to go back to Syria to be part of reconstructing the country. If there’s something that I can do to contribute to rebuilding, that’s something I’d really like to do.”
Mulder is currently working to spread awareness about the destruction of important cultural heritage sites like those she wrote about in her book. On campus, she started the UT Antiquity Action, a group dedicated to educating students about important sites and researching issues of cultural heritage destruction.
The Hamilton Book Awards Showcase featured three other University professors, whose books covered topics from Latin American architecture to indigenous Nahua intellectuals in Mexico. Partially inspired by her students, associate professor Donna Kornhaber, a runner-up at the showcase, wrote her book on the directorial career of Charlie Chaplin.
“I’ve always included [Charlie Chaplin] in my teaching, and a lot of the ideas in my book came up in my classes,” Kornhaber said. “The inspiration comes from getting feedback from my students and working on these films as a professor and teacher and returning to these ideas as a writer.”
Travis Willmann, communications director for the University of Texas Libraries, said the Hamilton Book Awards allowed for an in-depth view of the research taking place at UT.
“Every discipline is represented at the Hamilton Book Awards,” Willmann said. “[Students] can come in and see where there might be threads or where there [are] unique differences in research across the University. You can have really complicated and complex scientific and engineering problems on one hand, and then you can have the humanities that are more ethereal but still have an application to modern life.”
Mulder said, for students interested in pursuing research, it is important to be interested in the topic in order to extensively learn and write about it.
“You have to choose something that you love and think is an important issue and is meaningful in the world, but also something you care about that can last you through a long period of research,” Mulder said, “Writing a book takes any where between three to 10 years.”