Professor Pruitt wins First Book award

Prof. Jennifer Pruitt in Jerusalem

Professor Pruitt’s book has been selected for a First Book seminar through the Center for the Humanities. The mission of the First Book program is to turn solid and promising manuscripts into first-rate, field-shaping books. A group of scholars will read and discuss her manuscript, Building the Caliphate: Construction, Destruction, and Sectarian Identity in Fatimid Architecture (909-1031).

Building the Caliphate challenges the assumption that artistic efflorescence was a function of religious tolerance in the medieval Mediterranean. Instead, it argues that conflict and destruction played a crucial, productive role in the formation of medieval Islamic architecture.

The manuscript focuses on the architecture of the Fatimids, an Ismaili Shi’i Muslim dynasty that founded Cairo and dominated the early medieval Mediterranean world. The era is generally considered a golden age of inter-religious cooperation and artistic production, but Building the Caliphate complicates this narrative by examining a prominent exception to this tale of interfaith utopia: the patronage of the “mad” caliph, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1171). Notorious as a psychotic destroyer of churches and synagogues and as a cruel persecutor of Christians, Jews, and women, al-Hakim also became a divine figure in the later Druze faith. To dive into his story is to see how architecture in his era served as both stage and battleground for competing claims to the caliphate, as well as for local religious conflicts.

Al-Hakim is infamous for his large-scale destruction of churches, most notably that of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (ca. 1010). This demolition eventually would act as a rallying cry for the Latin Crusaders to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim hands—a quest that would define interactions between the western world and the Middle East for the next three centuries and that continues to shape global politics. However, al-Hakim also sponsored significant architectural projects that would forever change the role of Cairo and Jerusalem in the world. By considering his acts of destruction and construction as part of a unified building program, Building the Caliphate problematizes the simplistic notion of an age of artistic cooperation temporarily disrupted by a madman.