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Heritage Crusades: Saving the Past from the Commons

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The early 2014 bombing in Cairo that severely damaged the newly renovated Islamic Art Museum was reported as part of a list of incidents that indicated the precarious state of cultural heritage in the Middle East. In light of such events, this article queries the following: does the cultural heritage of the Middle East need saving? If so, by, from and for whom? In exploring the moral discourses and political motivations that anchor such calls for intervention, I examine how notions of care manifest themselves in heritage practice. In response to the moral outrage that often accompanies acts of cultural destruction, this research suggests the possible expansion of the ethical framework by which the material past becomes part of social life. Through an investigation into local engagement with artefacts and historical sites, specifically the sabbakhin in Egypt and contemporary agriculturalists in northern Syria, I describe forms of vernacular heritage linked to unstated assertions to the commons. At stake is a reframing of the hegemonic discourses of heritage management, one that often reads such activities as mere materialism unable to cultivate the correct cosmopolitan disposition for how the past should be valued. Ultimately, this article highlights the risk in overstating ideological forms of destruction as the cultural norm associated with Muslim societies.
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Keywords: Egyptology; Islam; archaeology; commons; heritage; iconoclasm

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of California, Irvine

Publication date: July 1, 2017

More about this publication?
  • The International Journal of Islamic Architecture (IJIA) is intended for those interested in urban design and planning, architecture, and landscape design in the historic Islamic world, encompassing the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, but also the more recent geographies of Islam in its global dimensions. The main emphasis is on detailed analysis of the practical, historical and theoretical aspects of architecture, with a focus on both design and its reception. The journal is also specifically interested in contemporary architecture and urban design in relation to social and cultural history, geography, politics, aesthetics, technology, and conservation. Spanning across cultures and disciplines, IJIA seeks to analyze and explain issues related to the built environment throughout the regions covered. The cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of this journal will significantly contribute to the knowledge in this field.

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