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What happened to the Arab City? MEMO in Conversation with Nasser Rabbat

The Arab world of yesteryear had cities abuzz with sounds, schools, mosques and places to learn and improve. Now these cities have dropped in importance and become dirty and congested as Western ideas of metropolitan life took over, but is there a revival?

April 17, 2024 at 4:00 pm



Urbanisation is deeply rooted in Arab history. The city has been the epicentre of Arab ideals and Islamic tradition. Muslim empires have long been noted for their emphasis on building great cities and encouraging urban dwelling. For the Mamluks, Cairo represented their vision for an Islamic city, with more mosques, religious schools, endowments and religious public spaces than any other metropolis of that time. Sound was a big feature of the Mamluk city, the call to prayer, Quranic recitations and the sounds of worship were audible throughout Cairo no matter the time or day. Other Arab cities implemented their own understanding of Islamic ethics by applying it to both function and aesthetics of the city. Hygiene played a big role, protecting the poor was important and creating spaces to enable spiritual wellbeing of residences, the pre-modern Arab city enabled life in its various forms.

However, the 1800s would see all of this change and modernisation would see traditional attitudes towards architecture, function and purpose of cities uprooted and supplanted by newer and more Westerner ideas. Today, Arab cities are much more marginalised by ruling authorities, dirter, run down and poorly persevered. While major cities of the pre-modern period have fallen from importance from Baghdad to Cairo, cities in the Gulf are thriving and changing the face of the region. We ask what happened to the Arab city. Joining us to answer this question is Nasser Rabbat. Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.  His interests include Islamic architecture, urban history, heritage studies, Arab history, contemporary Islamic art and post-colonial criticism.  He has published numerous articles and several books on topics ranging from Mamluk architecture to Antique Syria, 19th century Cairo, Orientalism, and urbicide.

His most recent books are ‘Writing Egypt: Al-Maqrizi and His Historical Project’; ‘Nasser Rabbat: Critical Encounters’; and ‘Imarat Al-Mudun Al-Mayyita’ (The Architecture of the Dead Cities. His co-edited book, ‘Reconstruction as Violence: The Case of Syria’ will be published later thsi year.  He is currently editing a book on the cultural history of Syria, tentatively entitled, ‘Syria: The Land Where Cultures Met’, and writing a history of Mamluk Cairo.

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