Syrian-born scholar reflects on Arab efforts to preserve Islamic architecture

With over 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 to reuse them rather than close them down.”

Rabbat welcomes plans like those adopted by Jordan and Morocco to reuse historic Islamic buildings and turn them into arts hubs, without tearing them down or commodifying them. However, he thinks the only downside to Morocco’s policy of reusing its historic buildings in tourist towns such as Fez, Meknes and Marrakech is their use by foreigners, mostly French.

“These people’s affiliation with the place is economic, not real or personal,” he said. “I’m afraid to pave the way for capital without any checks.”

It calls for a pragmatic policy for the process of repurposing historic Islamic buildings, in a way that preserves their architectural and artistic significance and reintegrates them into contemporary life.

Academic background

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

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

Rabbat’s 1991 doctoral thesis, titled “The Citadel of Cairo, 1176-1341: Reconstructing architecture from the texts”, was co-winner of the Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Prize of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of America (MESA).

Fascinated by Islamic Cairo

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