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Architecture in the Islamic World

I have a friend who wishes he had attended only architecture lectures in college. I know what he means: There is no substitute for the aesthetic dream state of watching slides of beautiful buildings parade by in a darkened room. There were many such moments in Nasser Rabbat’s Islamic architecture class at MIT, where every session’s slide set began — accidentally on purpose, I think — with a glimpse of Rabbat’s handsome 11-year-old son, Kinan.

There is a surfeit of beauty in MIT 4.614, which struggles to cover “fifteen centuries and three continents’” worth of Islamic architecture, from the reed huts of Sumer to today’s Persian Gulf megaprojects, in one semester. (I attended four sessions.) But it isn’t beauty that I remember most about the class. What I recall is a course that was simultaneously fascinating and humiliating, for me. To teach Muslim architecture, Rabbat had to teach Islamic history and culture as well, and at times my ignorance overwhelmed me.

From roughly the 8th century well into the modern era, successive waves of Mohammed’s followers dominated Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq and Iran — plus what we call the Middle East; Turkey; North Africa; and, of course, parts of Spain and Sicily. The achievements of the vestigial Islamic state are head spinning. A Muslim cartographer in 12th-century Islamic Sicily created what many view as the first credible map of the world. According to some historians, Al-Azhar divinity school in Cairo was the world’s first university. MIT thinks so. Not far from where we listened to Rabbat’s lectures, the Institute has erected a bust of Al-Azhar scholar Ibn-al-Haytham, the father of the science of optics.

Cordoba’s Great Mosque. Photo: Tony Castillo.

To explain why the Abbassid caliph built the 8th-century “round city” of Baghdad for his armies, or how the hypostyle (many-columned) mosques emanated eastward, then northward, then westward from Mecca, Rabbat had to explain the spread of Islamic civilization, about which I knew next to nothing. In a conversation after class, Rabbat tried to put me at ease and somehow convinced me that if ignorance isn’t a virtue, it certainly isn’t rare. “There are four Arabic speakers in the class [out of a dozen undergraduates], and they don’t know any more than you do,” he assured me. “Turks learn Turkish history, Persians learn Persian history, but they rarely see the big picture.”

“Why should you know anything about this period,” he challenged me, “unless you want to go dabbling in the affairs of these places? It’s sad that American soldiers are destroying some of these places without knowing what they are doing. But they are not the only ones.”

And here is another leitmotif of the innocent-sounding MIT 4.614: the recurring theme of desuetude and destruction. On the one hand, many of the mosques, palaces, mausolea, ribats (small forts), and hospitals have disappeared more or less naturally under the sands of time. Abu Jafar’s Round City has vanished, as have the glorious 10th- and 11th-century Fatimid palaces of Cairo. But many architectural marvels have been forcibly “repurposed” in the name of God. Perhaps the most famous example is the 8th-century Mosque of Cordoba, a World Heritage Site now known as La Mezquita de Cordoba. Here the Catholic Church simply absorbed and integrated the Great Mosque into its Gothic plan.

Much of Cordoba’s Great Mosque remains standing. Not so ancient Islamic mausolea, destroyed by Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia who reject the veneration of mortal beings. Not so portions of the 9th-century, 170-foot-tall Malwiya Minaret in Sammara, bombed in 2005 by Iraqi insurgents after US troops stationed snipers on its top floor. While we were sitting in Rabbat’s classroom, the destruction of Islamic architectural sites continued apace. Fighting between the Syrian Army and fundamentalist Islamic insurgents destroyed the minaret of the 11th-century Umayyad dynasty mosque in Aleppo, also a World Heritage Site. “It’s a huge loss,” the Syrian-born Rabbat told the class.

What did I learn? All of the above, and much more. I learned humility in the face of knowledge. Alas, the more you study, the less you know.