Mamluk History through Architecture, Monuments, Culture and Politics in Medieval Egypt and Syria. Reviewed by Jennifer M Scarce

Mamluk History through Architecture, Monuments, Culture and Politics in Medieval Egypt and Syria, by Nasser Rabbat.  London, I.B. Tauris, 2010. 261 pp, 71 b&w illustrations and plans. ISBN 981845119645. £45

The Mamluk Sultans who dominated Egypt and Syria between 1250 and 1517 were remarkable both for the length and organisation of their rule. They were not local but members of a foreign military elite, nominally of slave soldiers—mamluks (meaning ‘one who is owned’)—recruited from Qipchak Turks of South Russia and Circassians from the North Caucasus, Muslims but differing in language and customs from their subjects. The most enduring and visible impact of their often violent and currupt rule is seen in the architecture of Cairo and Damascus, first and second capitals, respectively, of their domains.

Cairo is a city where the most concentrated and varied range of surviving medieval Islamic architecture (456 registered by the 1951 Survey of Islamic Monuments of Cairo), including superb Mamluk buildings, mingles with crowded streets and shops in a remarkably preserved and dynamic historic centre. Here the only comparable rival is Fez, capital at times of Morocco, whose Islamic buildings dating from the 10th century onwards are still part of a densely populated urban environment. Many have attempted to document and interpret Cairo’s Islamic architecture in such diverse publications as medieval Arabic topographical texts and meticulously recorded and classified surveys compiled in the 19th and 20th century by European scholars. Nasser Rabat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has already published extensively on Mamluk Cairo, is a distinguished contributor to this extensive literature. He has now taken an original approach where he examines and interprets Mamluk social and cultural history through the medium of recorded architecture.

The present book is a collection of fifteen articles written between 1989 and 2005, now conveniently re-published as a single reference work. It is not a standard history of Mamluk architecture but rather the fruits of research combining the parallel disciplines of Islamic and art history—in other words texts and artefacts. Four sections, each of four or three articles, explore the following themes: Unpicking Mamluk sources—mainly Arabic texts; Architecture as history—case studies of specific buildings; Architecture and language—the relationship between text and building; Architecture as cultural index—a discussion broadly of attitudes to Mamluk architecture.

As each article contains intriguing insights, the best approach is to make a personal choice from each section. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Architects and Artists in Mamluk Society: The Perspective of the Sources. This takes the subject beyond dry facts to understand the problems which these craftsmen faced.
  • The Mosaics of the Qubba al-Zahariyya in Damascus: A Classical Syrian Medium acquires a Mamluk Signature. One of the few articles on Syria which discusses and analyses the composition and themes of buildings among luxuriant trees depicted in mosaics of the late 13th century.
  • Al-Azhar Mosque: An Architectural Chronicle of Cairo’s History which examines the changing role of this building in the transformation of Cairo to a centre of the Mamluk military state.
  • Documenting Buildings in the Waqf System. Documents recording a waqf endowment are essential for an understanding of the resources and budget allocated to an ambitious building project.
  • The Formation of the Neo-Mamluk Style in Modern Egypt. Spectacular landmarks such as the Rifai Mosque and the National Library built 1869—1912 and in 1904 respectively are an eloquent testimony to the impact of Mamluk architecture.

 

The book concludes with a glossary of Arabic terms, comprehensive notes and bibliography, which are a stimulus to further research. Enjoy and note Professor Rabbat’s insights and take them together with a detailed guidebook to explore the Mamluk monuments of Cairo with fresh eyes.

Jennifer M Scarce