University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Stephennie Mulder

The Architecture of Coexistence: Sunnis, Shi'is, and the Shrines of the 'Alids in the Medieval Levant (Department of the History of Art)

In the Levant, (Greater Syria, Arabic al-Sham), the fifth/eleventh to seventh/thirteenth centuries was a time of great religious enthusiasm. The depredations of Crusader forces, a movement for the revival of Sunnism (ih[dotbelow]ya' al-sunna), and the political claims of new, unstable, and competing regimes in need of social and political legitimization facilitated a commitment to pious architectural construction, creating a new landscape of sacred sites throughout Syria. Among these were the shrines of the 'Alids, the descendents of the Prophet Muh[dotbelow]ammad. While these shrines have a particularly rich role to play in Shi'i devotion, they are revered by both sects. Yet, they have often been studied only from the perspective of their importance to various Shi'i actors. This research reconstructs the medieval architectural and patronage histories of the main 'Alid shrines in Syria, using a range of sources and methodologies--reports by medieval authors, archaeological excavation and architectural analysis, and epigraphy and the interpretation of inscriptions. Through the history of these shrines, the study also seeks to nuance a period often characterized as inimical to Shi'ism: when Sunni partisans strove to persecute, undermine, or eliminate Shi'i political entities, communities, and religious life. This research proposes that in medieval Syria, 'Alid devotional space was often recreated by Sunni elites—and experienced by visitors—as shared, pan-Islamic, and inclusive. This reconfiguration sometimes reflected personal devotion or piety, at other times, a political bid to gain influence over Shi'i communities, and at one point, a larger social policy of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi'is. In the end, this Sunni investment in 'Alid places of pilgrimage created a new type of polyvalent devotional space: for behind the political rhetoric of Sunni ascendancy, a complex inter-confessional negotiation often took place. The history of these shrines allows for a more nuanced interpretation of the relationship between Sunnis and Shi'is in the medieval period, and furthermore, the mapping of such sites reveals how material and devotional culture may often illuminate the disjuncture between official rhetoric and religious or social praxis.

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