Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 2017
Stephennie Mulder The Shrines of the 'Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi'is and the Architecture of Coexistence Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 320 pp.; 121 color ills.; 21 b/w ills. Cloth £ 75.00 (9780748645794)

The topic of ‘Alid shrines in medieval Syria has an established scholarly framework of sectarian arguments. These include, on the one hand, a debate concerning the role of Shi’i doctrine in the proliferation of shrines from the tenth century onward, and on the other, bold statements concerning the culturally transformative impact of the so-called Sunni Revival from the eleventh century. In her introduction to The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi‘is and the Architecture of Coexistence, Stephennie Mulder is very careful not to entirely dismiss any particular arguments within this framework, but refreshingly suggests an alternative way of approaching the subject—one that is hinged on a wide variety of evidence (archaeological, textual, and epigraphic) and that refrains from the common mistake of assuming an almost complete accord between doctrine and practice. The main argumentative contributions of the book to the existing discourse are twofold: first, it draws attention to a marked increase of architectural activity at Syrian ‘Alid sites from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, which Mulder explains with a post-Crusader shift in conceptualizing Islamic history as defined by place; second, it demonstrates that in the resulting process of marking the landscape with monuments to ‘Alid figures, Sunni patrons featured far more prominently than Shi‘i ones.

Besides being an indisputably important source of information on the now-endangered and partly destroyed architectural heritage of Syria and related textual sources, The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria is an exemplar of interdisciplinary methodology. This is not only because its disciplinary range extends from archaeology to textual research and anthropological theory. More importantly, the approach is flexible throughout the book, as method is guided by the requirements of the material itself. As required by the complexity of the subject matter, each of the four chapters that constitute—in Mulder’s own words—“the larger and more empirical” (9) part of the book displays a unique interdisciplinary approach in itself. The downside of this methodological flexibility is that each chapter appears somewhat disjointed from the previous one, although the fifth chapter successfully brings the threads together.

Chapter 1 concerns a pilgrimage site in Balis, which was abandoned in anticipation of the Mongol conquest in 1259. It is suggested that the building may be the mashhad (i.e., shrine or martyrium) of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib mentioned in textual accounts, which may have been constructed by a Sunni patron. Unfortunately neither the identification of the building nor the Sunni identity of the patrons proves possible to ascertain. Yet this chapter still has the immense value of containing an expert analysis of finds and information from the archaeological excavation of the site (2005–9). The analysis indicates that the site was continuously used throughout the two centuries, and was repeatedly renovated and expanded. Part of the chapter also deals with fragments of inscribed stucco decoration from Balis, probably from another building in or near the town, which attest to the veneration of Shi’i there.

Chapter 2 focuses on the shrines dedicated to al-Husayn and his stillborn son (al-Muhassin) at Aleppo, a city with a predominantly Shi’i population in the medieval period. Some of the main arguments here are also found in Mulder’s article “Seeing the Light: Enacting the Divine at Three Medieval Syrian Shrines,” in Envisioning Islamic Art and Architecture: Essays in Honor of Renata Holod (ed., David J. Roxburgh, Leiden: Brill, 2014) where she expands on the symbolism of light. Basing her discussion on a thorough examination of the architectural features and textual sources, in this second chapter Mulder highlights the renovation of both shrines under Sunni patronage, in particular under the Ayyubid ruler al-Zahir (r. 1186–1216), and in the case of the shrine of al-Muhassin, by his son al-‘Aziz (r. 1216–1226). She compellingly argues that the inscriptions on the facade of al-Husayn’s shrine, commemorating the Sunni Twelve Imams and the four Sunni Rashidun caliphs at the same time, were a deliberate expression of the sectarian ecumenism adopted by al-Zahir. These particular instances of patronage, of Shi’i shrines by Sunni patrons, are explained in the context of reconciliatory policies adopted by the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Nasir in Baghdad and mirrored by al-Zahir in Aleppo. Of the four “empirical” chapters, this one is the most important in terms of the book’s stated focus on the Sunni patronage of ‘Alid shrines in the medieval period.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on sites in Damascus, a city that by contrast to Balis and Aleppo had a predominantly Sunni population. The third chapter examines the history of ten shrines in the Bab al-Saghir cemetery to the south of the city. The analysis extends well beyond the stated period of focus in the book, into the late Ottoman period. This chapter highlights the lack of clear evidence regarding the early history of most of the buildings, though the evidence regarding their later history is also quite problematic. The sectarian affiliation and intentions accorded to patrons are often conjectural and based on questionable sources. For example, with regard to the four shrines that are currently under the trusteeship of the Murtada family, the patronage of the Ottoman sultan ‘Abdülhamid II (a claim of the current overseer) seems unlikely, as all four shrines are dated to three years after his deposition. The only shrine in the cemetery for which the Ottoman sultan’s patronage is documented is a fifth one, namely that of Sayyida Fidda, built according to an inscription dated 1327H (1909) by the sultan. The problem of a possible slight overstatement of Sunni involvement aside, this chapter is extremely useful in that it brings together textual, architectural, epigraphic, and anecdotal evidence with great competence to tell a diachronic history of ‘Alid shrines in a particular location from the medieval to the modern period.

The fourth chapter focuses in similarly diachronic fashion on four Damascene shrines. One of the shrines has completely disappeared, and three of them have been rebuilt in recent times. However, all four are consistently mentioned in Arabic sources, and Mulder uses these texts in an attempt to reconstruct each shrine in its particular urban context. The availability of a succession of accounts over a long period enables a cursory reconstruction of the architectural evolution of the shrines. Because the buildings’ histories extend beyond the medieval era up to the late Ottoman period, it would have been useful in this chapter as well as the previous one to provide less-informed readers with a background of religio-politics and changing patterns of architectural patronage under Mamluk and Ottoman rulers, although this is beyond the stated chronological scope of the book.

The fifth chapter is a fascinating attempt at making sense of a phenomenon that emerges from the material presented in the first four chapters, which Mulder eloquently summarizes as the emergence of a new kind of sacred history in medieval Syria, one that is marked by loci. New meaning and importance was attached to ‘Alid shrines in this context. The argument here is that the Crusaders’ immensely intensive architectural activity in the region, which aimed to “emplace” Christian history by marking the landscape with religious monuments, caused a shift in Muslim attitudes toward the same landscape.

Sadly, Syria today is torn to pieces by what is often seen as, but is much more than, a sectarian conflict. As the conclusion reminds us, the sectarian components of the current conflict have a long but largely obscure history. The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria sheds new light on that history through an examination of material culture alongside texts, which is a welcome addition to the largely text-based historiography of sectarian politics in the medieval Middle East.

Zeynep Yürekli
Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford

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