Spring 2020 Bios and Abstracts

Durability through Verse: Palace Building and Poetry at Abbasid Samarra
Matt Saba
Visual Resources Librarian
Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT
This presentation examines the relationship between palace building and poetry writing at Samarra, the capital of the Abbasid Empire in Iraq from 836 to 892 CE. Unusually, Samarra’s palaces became the subject of a number of poems written by the most talented court poets of the day. These architectural poems, consisting of twenty to forty lines written in the idiom of the classical Arabic ode, were lauded at the time of their composition as excellent examples of the poetic craft. The sudden presence of such poems raises the question of why they came to be: while poetry celebrating the military exploits of a patron or his political acumen were commonplace, poems dedicated solely to architectural works were rare. 
The answer to this question lies in the nature of Samarra’s palace architecture. Samarra, like many other palace-complexes, was built as an impermanent structure. In contrast to mosques, palaces built by the early Islamic caliphs remained occupied by the court for relatively short periods of time, and were often destroyed or substantially modified within decades after the death of the patron. My contention is that the Abbasid caliphs commissioned these poems in part to extend the lives of the monuments described. An examination of the role of poetry in Abbasid society and the substance of the poems themselves suggests that the Samarra poets used clever turns of phrase and powerful imagery to ensure that the palaces of their patrons would live in the canon of Arabic poetry for generations.
Matt is visual resources librarian for Islamic architecture at the Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries. Before joining the AKDC, he worked at the Metropolitan Museum as a curatorial fellow and has taught classes in Islamic art at Marymount Manhattan College, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. Matt received his PhD in art history from the University of Chicago in 2014. His presentation tonight is taken from his dissertation project on Samarra’s palace architecture, which he is currently editing for publication. 

March 16
On the Urgency of  Writing an Accessible History of Egyptian Modernism
Mohamed Elshahed
Independent Curator. Author of Cairo Since 1900:
An Architectural Guide
Mohamed Elshahed is a curator and architectural historian focusing on modernism in Egypt and the Arab World. After undergraduate studies at the College of Architecture and Design (NJIT) he earned his Masters from MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and a PhD from NYU’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies. His work spans architecture, design and material culture. He is the curator of the British Museum’s Modern Egypt Project and Egypt’s winning pavilion, Modernist Indignation, at the 2018 London Design Biennale. In 2019 Apollo Magazine named him among the 40 under 40 influential thinkers and artists in the Middle East. In 2011 he founded Cairobserver.com with six printed issues of the magazine by the same name, distributed for free in events in Cairo, Beirut and Dubai which aimed to stimulate public debates around issues of architecture, heritage and urbanism in the region. He is the Spring 2020 Practitioner-in-Residence, Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

The Making of the Mosque as Religious Monument: 
Notes from the post-war reconstruction of the ʿUmari Mosque
Nada Moumtaz
AKPIA@MIT Post-Doctoral Fellow
Today, in Beirut’s city-center, the historic and centuries-old ʿUmari mosque is overshadowed by the new neo-Ottoman al-Amin mosque. Sitting across from the majestic municipality, Al-ʿUmari is a very humble mosque compared to al-Amin. Yet, al-ʿUmari’s presence as an architectural object and especially as a “religious” building only dates to its current postwar renovation in the 1990s and early 2000s. Anchored in this renovation and the tensions between different visions of the mosque among various protagonists, this talk invites us to an architectural history of the mosque beyond typology and to historicize contemporary approaches to mosque design as religious monuments. 
Nada Moumtaz is Assistant Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion & in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. After a Bachelor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut, she received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research stands at the intersection of Islamic legal studies, the anthropology of Islam, studies of capitalism, and urban studies and spans the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries in the Levant. Her book God’s Property: Islam, Charity, and the Modern State will be out in March 2021.

June 15 Virtual Lecture
Inquiries into the Post-Secular Syrian Public Sphere and Urban Space
Ahmad Sukkar
AKPIA@MIT Post-Doctoral Fellow

Ahmad Sukkar is an Aga Khan Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Previously, he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the American University of Beirut, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut, a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture, and an Imam Bukhari Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (supported by a Barakat Trust Award). He has worked at leading architectural offices in the Syria and UK, including Zaha Hadid Architects. He completed his Ph.D. and M.Res. at the University of London in humanities and architecture, M.Arch. at the Architectural Association in architecture and urbanism, and PG.Dip.Arch. and B.Arch. at Damascus University. His individual and team work has received international awards. His most recent co-authored article is scheduled to appear as part of the publications under the project The Lay of the Land: A Social Mapping of Daily Practices in Informality amongst Syrian Displaced Communities in Lebanon, implemented by the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut, and funded by the Ford Foundation.