CMES: Gibb lecture: The Historian and the City Between Ibn Khaldun and al-Maqrizi


Tuesday, April 3, 2018, 4:00pm to 6:00pm


CGIS South, S030, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA

CMES is pleased to present the 2018 H.A.R. Gibb Arabic & Islamic Studies Lecture Series speaker

iMAGENasser Rabbat
Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, MIT


This lecture addresses the writing on the city at an especially critical historical juncture: the fourteenth century, when the dominant polity in the central Islamic world depended primarily on legitimization through power (sultan). The analysis revolves around the writing of Ibn Khaldun and his student and colleague al-Maqrizi. In his Muqaddima (Introduction or Prolegomena), Ibn Khaldun presents a lucid review of the nomadic/ settled dychotomy as an engine of state formation, of the characteristics and conditions of urban life, and of the rise and fall of cities as a function of the rise and fall of states. Al-Maqrizi, focusing particularly on Cairo in his encyclopedic Khitat, uses his master’s theoretical framework to offer an overtly emotional and moralizing historical analysis of the consequences of human action on the urban landscape. His book actually prefigures —though in a less self-conscious way and in a melancholy tone—the questions fin de siècle archaeologists encountered as they tried to "historicize" by reconstituting as wholes the fragments of city spaces and structures they had uncoveredAs such, the Khitat may be considered a truly pioneering urban history, perhaps cosmocentric and depressed, but certainly reflective and imbued with a strong sense of purpose.

Note:  A link to Professor Rabbat's second lecture in this series, "Designing Transcendence: Light in Islamic Architecture" (April 5), can be found here.

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.  An architect and a historian, his research interests include the history and historiography of Islamic architecture, art, and cultures, urban history, Mamluk history and historiography, modern Arab history, modern and contemporary Arab art, and post-colonial criticism. Professor Rabbat has published several books and numerous scholarly articles in English, Arabic, and French. His most recent books are The Destruction of Cultural Heritage: From Napoléon to ISIS, co-edited with Pamela Karimi and published online by The Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, in December 2016,, and Al-Naqd Iltizaman: Nazarat fi-l Tarikh wal ‘Ururba wal Thawra (Criticism as Commitment: Viewpoints on History, Arabism, and Revolution) (Beirut, 2015), which deals with the roots and consequences of the "Arab Spring." He has previously published: Mamluk History Through Architecture: Building, Culture, and Politics in Mamluk Egypt and Syria (London, 2010), which won the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize in Middle Eastern Studies, 2011; al-Mudun al-Mayyita: Durus min Madhih wa-Ru’an li-Mustaqbaliha (The Dead Cities: Lessons from its History and Views on its Future) (Damascus, 2010); Thaqafat al Bina’ wa Bina’ al-Thaqafa (The Culture of Building and Building Culture) (Beirut, 2002); and The Citadel of Cairo: A New Interpretation of Royal Mamluk Architecture(Leiden, 1995).  He edited The Courtyard House between Cultural Reference and Universal Relevance (London, 2010, 2d edition 2016), co-edited Making Cairo Medieval (Lantham, Md, 2005), and co-authored Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2001).

Rabbat worked as an architect in Los Angeles and Damascus in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He was a visiting professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris (2009) and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich (2007). Among his honors are a Senior Residence at The American Academy in Rome, 2017-2018; Senior Fellowship, Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg, University of Bonn, Germany, 2015-16, Summer 2017, Summer 2018; Fellowship, Institut d’études avancées, Paris, France, Spring 2016; Fellowship, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2011-12), Fellowship, the American Research Center in Egypt (2007-08, 1999-00 and 1988-89), the Chaire de l’Institut du Monde Arabe (2003), the J. Paul Getty Postdoctoral Fellowship (1993-94), and the Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award, Humanities Section, The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), 1991. He regularly contributes to a number of Arabic newspapers on current political and cultural issues, including al-Hayatal-‘Arabi al-Jadid, and al-Adab.  He serves on the boards of various cultural and educational organizations and consults with international design firms on projects in the Islamic World.

Recently, Rabbat became involved in the debate on the preservation of the heritage in Syria and in the planning for reconstruction in his devastated native country.  To that end he has formed a collaborative research project at MIT, named Ethics of Intervention, which strives to frame the debates on the preservation of heritage and in the planning for reconstruction in countries devastated by civil wars within ethical, civil, and humanistic frameworks. He has co-curated with Filiz Çakır Phillip the exhibition, “Syria: A Living History,” at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto between October 2016 and March 2017. In April 2017, he co-founded Syrians for Heritage (SIMAT) a new professional association concerned with the preservation of the threatened Syrian cultural heritage. He was guest in several episodes of the BBC series: the Museum of Lost Objects and on reconstruction in Syria.  He has also published several essays in recent years on immigration, refugees’ issues, heritage conservation, and destruction and reconstruction in ArtforumCritical Inquiry, the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, and The London Review of Books.

He is currently writing an intellectual biography of the 15th century historian al-Maqrizi who penned the first true urban history of Cairo and finishing a second edition of his book on the “Dead Cities” in light of the massive looting and destruction of heritage sites in Syria and Iraq. He is also editing a book of his collected essays on Islamic art in French.

Photo by Saba al-Hadi.

Contact: Liz Flanagan