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.”
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.
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