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A Syrian-Born Scholar Reflects on Arab Efforts to Preserve Islamic Architecture

The Syrian-born scholar Nasser Rabbat views recent projects of some Gulf countries to document and preserve elements of Islamic art and architecture as “an attempt to create a national identity and collective memory, to ignite a sense of belonging among citizens.”

This approach is “understandable and justified, especially when countries have the financial capabilities and realise that documentation is part of restoring or creating this national identity, given the young age of these countries,” Rabbat, who is the Aga Khan Professor and director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Al-Fanar Media In a Zoom interview.

However, Rabbat criticises some documentation projects for overlooking architecture that “does not serve the promotional goal”, such as the Bedouin architecture and the architecture of workers recruited in Gulf cities. “This might have given greater benefit to readers rather than just neutral, cold information,” he said.

With more than 40 years of experience in the study of Islamic architecture, Rabbat is a keen observer of the strengths and weaknesses of architectural documentation projects in Arab countries. “The best way to develop Islamic historical monuments,” he says, “is by reusing rather than closing them.”

“Mamluk architecture is like a jewel in the rubble; while carved in stone, it is enormously delicate and of fine taste. It has also something that tempts you to study the socio-cultural structures of this period.”

Nasser Rabbat  

Rabbat welcomes plans like those adopted by Jordan and Morocco to repurpose Islamic historical buildings and turn them into arts centres, without demolishing or commodifying them. However, he thinks that the only drawback to Morocco’s re-use policy of its historical buildings in touristic cities such as Fez, Meknes, and Marrakesh, is their being used by foreigners, who are mostly French.

“These people’s affiliation with the place is economic, not real or personal,” he said. “I am afraid of opening the way for capital without any control.”

He calls for a pragmatic policy for the process of re-purposing Islamic historical buildings, in a way that preserves their architectural and artistic importance and reintegrates them into contemporary life.

Academic Journey

A native of Syria, Rabbat graduated from Damascus University’s Faculty of Architecture in the early 1970s before continuing his studies in the United States. He obtained a master’s degree in solar energy and architecture from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a doctorate in the history and theory of architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

While at MIT, Rabbat studied with the late Oleg Grabar, who was Harvard University’s first Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture. Grabar helped Rabbat discover the world of Islamic architecture from the Umayyads to the Ayyubids and the Mamluks. Through that experience, he realized that the history of Islamic architecture suited him as a research specialty.

Rabbat’s 1991 doctoral dissertation, titled “The Citadel of Cairo, 1176-1341: Reconstructing Architecture from Texts”, was a co-winner of the Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award from the American Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

Fascinated by Islamic Cairo

While planning his doctoral dissertation, Rabbat visited Cairo for the first time in 1985. He fell in love with Mamluk-era architecture in Islamic Cairo and chose it as his research topic.

State-sponsored projects to document and preserve Islamic architecture are “understandable and justified”, Rabbat says. However, they should not ignore architecture that “does not serve the promotional goal.”

“Mamluk architecture is like a jewel in the rubble; while carved in stone, it is enormously delicate and of fine taste,” said Rabbat. “It has also something that tempts you to study the socio-cultural structures of this period that witnessed a great power struggle.”

He attributes the deterioration of Islamic Cairo’s buildings and the loss of about 10 percent of them over the past three decades to negligence and hapzard planning that allowed residential and highway projects to encroach on these historical monuments.

Improving Cairo’s status as a historical city will require “great sacrifices on the part of its residents, as the Germans did when they rebuilt their cities after World War II by re-purposing these buildings,” Rabbat says.

He believes that the generation of Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), Egypt’s most famous novelist and the first Arab winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, “had respect for Old Cairo and was more in harmony with life in the old city than the current generation”. He calls for the adoption of a policy to restore and repurpose the city’s historic buildings.

New Research Projects

Rabbat is working on a comprehensive biography of the fifteenth-century historian Taqi Al-Din Al-Maqrizi, who was the first to write an urban history of Cairo. The biography will include social and historical aspects of Al-Maqrizi’s life.

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He is also editing a book, in English, on “Reconstruction as Violence,” that reviews the government-led reconstruction in a number of capitals around the world, including Damascus, Beirut, and Mexico.

Rabbat and 25 other scholars are also working on another book on Syria’s cultural and artistic history, from A.D. 200 to the present period.

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