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Monograph presents the results of Kahil’s research on the Sultan Hasan Complex

Assistant Professor Abdallah Kahil recently published the first monograph on the Sultan Hasan Complex in Cairo.

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Dr. Abdallah Kahil

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The cover of Kahil's book.

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The massive portal of the complex.

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The Tomb Chamber, the northern façade, and the portal of the Sultan Hasan Complex.

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A view of the courtyard seen from the mihrab in the Eastern Iwan.

Click on any photo above to view all five images

After 12 years of research, Assistant Professor Abdallah Kahil took the lead in recently publishing the first monograph on the Sultan Hasan Complex in Cairo that has fascinated visitors and scholars since its construction.

Built during the Mamluk period in Egypt (1250-1517), the massive complex—including a mosque, madrasas and the tomb of its founder—is one of the most visited sites in the capital and is considered a masterwork of Islamic architecture.

The 403-page monograph, entitled The Sultan Hasan Complex in Cairo 1357-1364: A Case Study in the Formation of Mamluk Style, examines “the architecture and decoration of the complex in its historical, urban and stylistic context,” according to the preface.

Although scholars have considered it a typical Mamluk building, they have argued that its importance lies in its outside influences, said Kahil, who has been teaching art and architectural history at LAU since 2003, and is the director of the Institute for Islamic Arts, Architecture and Design.

Kahil’s book, on the other hand, focuses on the reasons that make the complex Mamluk. By examining its different parts, Kahil seeks to show that “the influences are from within,” because they are “part of the visual culture that was developing at the time in the areas dominated by the Mamluks.”

Kahil said the main question his work addresses is: “What makes this building fit within its tradition yet at the same time be so unique?” So, the study explores the individual components of the structure’s distinct design, but also “identifies common compositional themes,” suggesting “that the building embodies a conscious attempt to integrate the plan, elevation and decoration in a harmonious composition,” Kahil wrote in the preface.

A class lecture on Islamic art and architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University (where he pursued his M.A. and Ph.D. in history of art), introduced Kahil to the complex. He said its incomplete portal decoration stayed in his mind till his doctoral dissertation that started in 1990, and his initial idea was to research that aspect.

But soon, “my focus shifted from the unfinished decoration; which became understood by the fact that the sultan was assassinated before the work on his complex was completed, to issues of style and design,” writes Kahil.

His ability to read Arabic, French, German, and English, as well as his several field trips to Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo and Tripoli, allowed Kahil to thoroughly review, document and use a wide array of references.

Kahil said he faced numerous difficulties, especially at the early stages of his work, ranging from accessing archives in Cairo during his first trip to technology limitations. He remembers how he had to buy Windows NT handling Arabic fonts from the Netherlands—he couldn’t find the product in the United States.

Kahil said the publication’s high cost, due to the large number of color photos, was another obstacle. In order not to have to pay copyright fees for some already available images, he took most of the pictures illustrating the 162 pages of his book.

These difficulties, as well as the tensions in Lebanon, didn’t allow him to meet his initial plan of publishing the book in 2004, two years after the completion of his dissertation. However, his hard work did pay off eventually.


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