Building the Islamic Metropolis: How the Mamluks Shaped Cairo
Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. His interests include Islamic architecture, urban history, contemporary Arab art, heritage studies, and post-colonial criticism. He has published numerous articles and several books on topics ranging from Mamluk architecture to Antique Syria, 19th century Cairo, and urbicide. His most recent book is ‘Imarat al-Mudun al-Mayyita (The Architecture of the Dead Cities) (2018). His book on the 15th century Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi will come out in 2022. Prof. Rabbat worked as an architect in Los Angeles and Damascus and held several academic and research appointments in Cambridge MA, Princeton, Los Angeles, Cairo, Granada, Rome, Paris, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Munich, and Bonn. He regularly contributes to Arabic newspapers and consults with design firms on projects in the Islamic World.
The book tells the story of Mamluk Cairo (1250-1517) when the city became the uncontested center of a resurgent Islam and acquired a character that defined the Islamic metropolis for centuries to come. More precisely the book aims to answer the following questions: how the city adapted to the new and idiosyncratic regime of the Mamluks, how it appropriated and modified the urban layers of earlier dynasties, and how it deployed architecture to incorporate and dominate its urban surroundings. Delving into the “why” side of things, the book ties the urban and architectural developments to the militarization of the state under the Mamluks, the evolution of an intricate patronage system that governed their interaction with various social classes, and the two-faced role of the waqf endowment process that supported the urban growth while diverting some public funds to the descendants of this one-generational imported aristocracy. The end result, however, was an impressive architectural repertoire consisting of more than 2000 monuments built in the span of 250 years that vied with each other to command the best location with maximum street exposure and high visibility. All was mobilized in the service of a vigorous urbanity that strove to accommodate the cosmopolitan population drawn to the city from everywhere while maintaining the delicate balance between the Mamluk caste of outsiders and the citizens in their capital.