Not a bit “English”: Architecture, Emotions and Empire in a “Muslim World”

Sara Honarmand Ebrahimi.

In 2011, I visited the Morsalin Hospital in Kerman (southern Iran) for the first time. I intended to work on the revitalisation plan of a historic hospital for my MA dissertation, and I was advised to focus on this hospital – I was told that the Morsalin hospital was the first contemporary hospital of Kerman. While I was born, grew up, and studied architecture in Kerman, I was not aware of this hospital, and my advisor failed to mention that it was established and built by British missionaries. On my first visit, the hospital did not appear to me to be “English” at all, or even “foreign” for that matter (Figure 1). I only found out the hospital was built by British missionaries after my third visit; approaching the main entrance of the hospital (which has been closed), I noticed the sign at the top of the entrance which reads “CMS Hospitals”. Upon further reading, I realised the CMS stands for the Anglican Church Missionary Society, which built more than 70 hospitals in Asia and Africa between 1865-1939. 

Figure 1. A view of Kerman CMS Hospital. Photograph provided by the author.

After the completion of my MA, I undertook a PhD at University College Dublin, researching the architecture of the CMS hospitals in Iran and Pakistan – the CMS founded almost one-third of its medical missions in these two regions between 1865-1914. The first impression that the buildings of the Kerman hospital left on me did not disappear in time and informed my reading of the CMS materials – I constantly asked myself whether the hospitals were built to look “foreign” or not. This blog post outlines my doctoral research, which I am currently preparing as a monograph provisionally titled, ‘A “Chain” of Affective Architecture: the Case of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Medical Missions in a Muslim World’. 

Gaining “trust”

Weaving together studies of the colonial built environment with the history of emotions, Christian missions and medicine, my monograph contemplates how missions sought to gain the “trust” of the local population – the missionaries frequently referred to the medical missions as the best and surest way to gain the trust of the local population. Engaging with literature on the history of emotions, I pay close attention to these concepts as used in the sources. Based on letters and reports of the missionaries, the term ‘gaining trust’ primarily meant provoking the interest of the people and earning their affection and friendship.[i]

To explore the means by which missionaries sought to gain trust, I draw on Monique Scheer’s concept of “emotional practice”. According to Scheer, emotional practices are the means – such as buildings – that aid the subject to achieve an emotional state. We either implement these means on our own, or sometimes simply be confronted with an “emotional set-up”. Using this approach, I view the architecture of missionary hospitals as a kind of “emotional set-up” that were built to instil feelings of trust. 

I should note that the precise ways in which the hospital buildings affected the local communities are not the focus of my analysis, being multivalent and difficult to measure. As stated by Claire McLisky, their affect depended on the type of colonialism practiced in the area in which the missionaries worked and on the specific nature of colonial people’s own emotional culture.

Architecture as a kind of emotional set-up

My monograph discovers and analyses the different architectural configurations developed by the missionaries for the purpose of obtaining trust. It illustrates that adaptation to local conditions was one of the main concerns of the missionaries when devising architectural form. Accommodation to local conditions is a recurring theme in scholarship on the colonial built environment. However, the CMS missionaries co-opted local architectural forms in a different way than their counterparts. In contrast to British architects in Egypt, Palestine or Iraq who were interested in the historical Islamic architecture and archaeological sites of the region, the CMS missionaries used local buildings’ layout and methods of construction that were related to the daily life of the people. Moreover, they sometimes put their own (civilising) concepts aside in favour of local requirements.

Figure 2: The Kermani vault, Kerman CMS Hospital. Photograph by author.

For example, the ceilings of the Kerman medical missions were vaulted using the Kermani arch which is local to the region, and found mainly in domestic buildings (Figure 2). The intention was to provide a “welcoming” environement. As I have explained elsewhere, the missionaries “drew a connection between familiarity of setting and the building of trust”. Another example is the “serai system” which was developed at Peshwar (north-western India). Besides out-patient and in-patient blocks, the hospital had a building called the “James serai” which was designed in a similar manner to a caravanserai (an inn for travellers built along routes in the Middle East and Central Asia), consisting of a set of identical rooms designed around a central courtyard. It accommodated families who visited the hospital from some far off districts, bringing sick relatives. Instead of just accepting the patient, the missionaries would place one of the rooms of the serai at the disposal of the “whole family”. While the missionaries feared that close associates might introduce dirt and thus infection, they were careful to not carry their “ ‘foreign ideas’ too far,” stated one report.[ii] There was also “purdah” hospital, a system of hospital architecture designed specificly for women according to Muslim and Hindu rules.[iii]

My observation does not disassociate the CMS medical work from the British project of colonialism. Rather, it calls for the reassessment of the hypothesis that changing beliefs was always closely tied to the introduction of new architectural forms. The missionaries worked towards creating emotional ties with potential converts, seeing this as a prerequisite for introducing Christian beliefs (or civilising ideas). In this regard, the last chapter of my monograph investigates how the missionaries presented and partly perceived their work (and their efforts to gain trust) as an essential ingredient in the defence of India against a Russian threat.

Sara Honarmand Ebrahimi is a Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Before starting this fellowship, she was an Irish Research Council (IRC) funded doctoral scholar at University College Dublin. Sara has an article published and forthcoming in the journal, Architecture and Culture (August 2019). At present, she is also the principle organiser of the event series “Worrying about the Field of the History of Emotions in Ireland” which has been funded by an Irish Research Council New Foundation award (@EmotionsIreland).


[i] The words “interest” and “affection” were widely used by the missionaries in their statements about trust. For interest, see M. Mackenzie, “Fuh-Ning Hospital,” Mercy and Truth 8, no. 87 (March 1904): 77. For affection, see “The Annual Meeting,” Preaching and Healing: The Report of the CMS Medical Mission Auxiliary for 1902-03 (1903): 12.

[ii] A Frontier Hospital, 1908, p. 6, CMS/ ACC7 O10, Cadburay Research Library, Special Collection, University of Birmingham 

[iii] Annie W. Egar, “The Mission Hospital at Multan,” Mercy and Truth 5, no. 56 (August 1901): 180-3.

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