Motivated by religious belief, a small Muslim community known as the Dawoodi Bohras restored the 11th century Fatimid masjid of al-Jāmiʿ al-Anwar in Historic Cairo in 1980 to substantial criticism from the international conservation community. In a process which they termed iḥyāʾ, or to bring to life, the Bohras claimed to have returned the ruined masjid to its ‘original’ state by restoring its function as a site of living tradition. The ‘Euro-American preservation community’, however, insisted that the Bohras had instead created a ‘new’ building and in doing so, had killed the monument’s spirit and sense of ‘antiquity and authenticity’. The genesis of this research study lies in the tension between the Bohra restoration and the criticism levelled against it by proponents of modern conservation. Through an analysis of the Dawoodi Bohra community’s restoration of al-Jāmiʿ al-Anwar, this study has situated a Muslim community’s values towards the architectural conservation of a sacred place of worship within the larger context of Cairo’s conservation history and contemporary heritage discourse, giving voice to a particularly underrepresented phenomenon in modern conservation scholarship.
The interpretivist, qualitative methodology employed in this study begins with a series of literature reviews followed by the historical analysis of classical and pre-modern sources which describe a range of conservation activity at al-Anwar over its 1000 year history. These preliminary discussions provide context for a detailed account of the al-Anwar restoration and a critical analysis of the commentary it received in English and Arabic sources. A wide array of data collection methods — including narrative interviews of restoration participants, semi-structured interviews of visitors and behavioral mapping — helped reconstruct the restoration account and analyze its enduring legacy. Themes identified in the aforementioned literature and data sources through a process of inductive thematic analysis are used as a template to analyze the Fatimid Tayyibi textual tradition in order to determine the religious values and concepts embedded within the restoration and its surrounding discourse.
Research findings show that the Bohra community’s practice of architectural conservation is clearly informed by religious values. The analysis of the Fatimid Tayyibi textual tradition revealed that conceptions regarding beauty, light, renewal, completion, truth and originality were responsible for very specific decisions on site and coalesced to form a distinct aesthetic philosophy that dictated the restoration approach. The provision of bright interiors, for instance, was related to divine radiance, and the use of premium materials was associated with notions of sacrifice and devotion. Thematic analysis also revealed the multiple authenticities embedded within the philosophy of iḥyāʾ and demonstrated how four concepts in particular — respect, purity, beauty and functionality — impacted the Bohra community’s perception of the masjid and their approach to its restoration.
In its treatment of Islamic heritage, modern conservation practice must extend beyond merely accommodating religious agents in the dialogue surrounding the conservation of their heritage, and instead allow their beliefs and values to contribute to the parameters within which restorations operate and the criteria by which their success is measured. This will not occur until a process of acknowledging, identifying and accommodating Islamic values is undertaken. Aside from filling a major gap in the conservation scholarship of Historic Cairo, this study’s demonstration of an explicit link between Bohra conservation practices as Muslim lived experience and Islamic values as found in the Fatimid textual tradition contributes to this process and sheds light on the diverse and meaningful ways in which Muslim communities conserve and protect their sacred heritage.
Permanent link to this resource: https://doi.org/10.24384/3pgp-qd11
Madraswala, Aliasger Najam
Supervisors: Orbasli, Aylin; Goodey, Brian
School of ArchitectureFaculty of Technology, Design and Environment
Madraswala, Aliasger Najam
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