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Chahinda Karim, a Scholar of the History of Islamic Architecture, Dies

/ 06 Aug 2021

Chahinda Karim, a Scholar of the History of Islamic Architecture, Dies

CAIRO—After a rich three-decade-long academic career tracing the history and development of Islamic architecture across centuries, the scholar and teacher Chahinda Karim passed away on August 3.

She was professor of Egyptology and Islamic architecture at the American University in Cairo, and her final book, an extensive study titled “Ottoman Cairo: Religious Architecture from Sultan Selim to Napoleon,” is scheduled for release by the American University in Cairo Press in November.

In an official statement, the university’s Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations, where Karim used to work, lamented her loss, describing her as “a devoted and dedicated colleague who pushed generations of university students to study the material culture of Egypt and the Islamic world through her courses.”

Influenced by her passion for the history of Islamic architecture, Karim’s academic path began with her father, the pioneering architect Sayed Karim, after she obtained her bachelor’s degree from AUC’s Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations. She specialized in studying the Mamluk era and the buildings of the princes of Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun in Cairo, the topic on which she received her doctoral degree from Cairo University in 1987.

‘An Exceptional Academic’

“Chahinda was an exceptional academic in everything she did,” Jehan Reda, a professor of the history of architecture and Islamic art at AUC, said in a phone call. “She combined the qualities of showing permanent passion for her studies, innovation in teaching methods, and a human aspect represented in respecting students, dedicating her time to them with patience and love, and always supporting them in their career paths.”

“Chahinda was an exceptional academic in everything she did. She combined the qualities of showing permanent passion for her studies, innovation in teaching methods, and a human aspect represented in respecting students, dedicating her time to them with patience and love, and always supporting them in their career paths.”

Jehan Reda   A professor of the history of architecture and Islamic art at AUC

Reda’s relationship with Karim goes back to when Karim was a master’s-degree student in 1994 and to their being colleagues and friends in the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations in recent years.

Karim excelled in her ability to explain the development of Islamic architecture from its cradle in the Arabian Peninsula to various Islamic regions and countries, said Reda. Karim succeeded in helping her students to be able to distinguish the different eras’ styles, Reda added, as well as how factors like geographical distance and each region’s architectural heritage influenced the style of buildings under various Muslim rulers across the vast Islamic state.

In turn, Hind Mostafa, founder and managing director of the NADIM Foundation for Heritage and Development, believes that Karim’s proficiency in various languages has always gave her a three-dimensional view of architecture using references in these languages to document the history of buildings in the historical stages she was exploring.

An Innovative Approach to Teaching

While teaching at the American University in Cairo, Karim accompanied students on weekly strolls through the streets of the Egyptian capital’s ancient downtown to track its architectural development during the various Islamic eras.

Seif El-Rashidi, a researcher in urban design and the history of Islamic art and architecture, is one of Karim’s former students. He describes her as an “icon” in the study of the history of Islamic architecture, and a distinctive mark for anyone who had been taught by her or shared a work experience with her.

“We are deeply saddened not only by the loss of an outstanding academic, but also for the loss of a great person,” said El-Rashidi, who is the director of the U.K.-based Barakat Trust, a foundation that supports and encourages the study and preservation of Islamic art, heritage, architecture and culture.

“We are deeply saddened not only by the loss of an outstanding academic, but also for the loss of a great person.”

Seif El-Rashidi   Director of the Barakat Trust and a former student of Karim’s

El-Rashidi added that his relationship with Karim contributed to shaping his awareness of the need to read about buildings, not to look at them only, but to understand the stages of their development throughout history and the societies that produced them.

“She had a very patient and calm way of explaining things,” he said. “She was familiar with historical sources in Arabic, which made it very interesting to talk to her.  She was so popular among her students that they were waiting at her office door to greet her upon her arrival.”

Mohammad Emad Fetih, a scholar in the Regional Architecture Collections of the AUC Libraries, agrees with El-Rashidi about “Karim’s overwhelming presence while teaching her students, in addition to her mastery of research and analysis tools in her scientific subjects.”

Fetih, who met Karim in 2018 while working on a master’s degree in architecture and Islamic art, said that she was well-known for her “interesting narration” in her lectures, which contributed to transforming study topics about the history of architecture into a film script.

Ottoman Architecture: The Final Episode of a Rich Journey

In her career’s last decade, Karim’s research interests in architecture shifted from the Mamluk era to the Ottoman era’s religious architecture and development of styles from the time of Sultan Selim, in the early 16th century, to the Napoleonic era. The change came after she discovered the lack of a single textbook that documented the buildings of this era in Egypt and that explained this heritage’s socioeconomic contexts in that historical period. (See the related articles “Hazine, a Blog for Scholars of the Islamic World, Reinvents Itself,” and “Modern Architecture in Cairo: An Unsung Treasure.”)

“Such interest is rare in academia, as research studies of Ottoman architecture in Cairo are often overlooked in favor of the more famous buildings from earlier periods.”

Jonathan Bloom   A professor of Islamic and Asian art history at Boston College

After several years of investigating the streets of Cairo to trace the Ottoman architecture’s history and development, Karim wrote down all her experiences and studies in her forthcoming final book.

In an email, Jonathan Bloom, a professor of Islamic and Asian art history at Boston College, wrote that “such interest is rare in academia, as research studies of Ottoman architecture in Cairo are often overlooked in favor of the more famous buildings from earlier periods.”

Other prominent studies by Karim include “The Mamluk Mosque of Amir Husayn: A Reconstruction,” “El-Gamaleya Monuments,” “Mosque of Aslam al-Baha’i al-Silahdar in Cairo,” “Amir Qaysun Mosque in Cairo,” and “Almas El-Hajeb Mosque in Cairo.”

In her last book, Karim reveals how Egyptian sponsors and builders of the Ottoman era creatively combined local styles and technologies with new and often foreign concepts and forms, adding to Cairo’s already unique and rich architectural record, Bloom said.

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Reda added: “We are all deeply saddened that she is not among us anymore, to celebrate this scientific achievement and the fruit of efforts of many years that have been crowned with this book. This book is the best conclusion to a rich and bright career.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام