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Explorations of music, sound, architecture of Islamic Cairo and everyday life
Published in Ahram Online on 17 - 07 - 2019

What could be the connection between sound, architecture and everyday life? How does space serve human sound and reflect changes in society and belief?
With many years of first-hand experience in the Middle East and West Africa, director of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology and adjunct professor of religious studies at the University of Alberta Michael Frishkopf deals with these and other questions in his latest research.
His paper “Venerating Cairo's Saints through Monument and Ritual: Islamic reform and the Rise of the Architext” appears in Music, Sound, and Architecture in Islam (University of Texas Press, 2018), edited by Frishkopf and Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Cologne Federico Spinetti.
Using empirical studies on architectural changes in Islamic Cairo, he focuses on the role of sound not only in the development of religious culture and ritual but also in terms of how sound might help preserve architectural heritage.
“I had this idea of exploring the connection between sound and architecture within a concrete context seven years ago. It is an old field of study but mostly by the architecture historians who have general concerns about the sound and place but not what is called the built environment where people are involved in the process. This book explores further an anthropologist perspective where the human experience with sound and architecture is on the spot.”
Taking into account his long experience as a scholar in Egypt and that of Spinetti in Iran and Tajikistan, the framework of study is broad.
“The study, however, has nothing to do with Islam as a religion but it is more about the common features of the relationship between sound and architecture in the Islamic context. We found out that to be more specific in studying the issue is better than to have a general perspective. It is a step for further studies exploring the same idea.” The aim of the book goes beyond that.
“To open a pioneering and productive forum for academic fields and domains of intellectual reflection that have rarely been in dialogue, showing the possibilities offered by such an exchange for a greater understanding of both musical/aural experiences and built environments. The collection brings together a unique array of scholars, contributing perspectives from ethnomusicology, anthropology, art history, architecture, history of architecture, religious studies and Islamic studies.”
Frishkopf suggests there are huge possibilities that were not available years ago thanks to the technology of virtual sonic architecture, where historic places can be documented not only visually but through recording sound. “We tend to assume that material culture is to be understood as visual culture, but this is not the case. The material reflects and diffracts sound as well as light, and can be perceived through auditory as well as visual senses. The sound of architecture is at least as important as the look of architecture.”
Frishkopf refers to a new project called Virtual Sonic Architecture, led by the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology, which aims to enable collective immersive multisensory experience of architectural history, intercultural understanding and educational use through preserving the sound of historic places. The first project where the new technology was applied is the sound preserving of Hadim Ibrahim Pasha mosque, where one can virtually experience Ottoman Turkish culture, creating a powerful visual-aural-social experience for a more humanistic appreciation of Islam, its civilisation, and its rich history.
The two collaborators eventually found 12 other scholars whose work contributes to the idea. These include Nina Ergin, visiting associate professor in the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at KOC University, Istanbul, who contributes “Architectural Patrons of 16th Century: Istanbul Mosques and their Recitation Programmes”. For Frishkopf, Ergin's research is a good example of the connection of sound and architecture through human experience in the Islamic context: “Nina found out that because the Sultan was the only one who can have the biggest mosque in town in terms of space, the number and the size of the domes and minarets, confronting this architectural hierarchy, one of the pashas used the sound as a means to manoeuvre the restrictions by spending a lot of money to have the biggest number of Quran reciters in his smaller mosque. He used sound to his own advantage. Sound becomes in this case a different way to gain power.”
Likewise Frishkopf's take on Islamic Cairo, where architecture has silenced sound: “For centuries Muslims have venerated their saints through construction and maintenance of sacred built environments centred on monuments, especially shrines, and through individual or collective, private or public ritual acts centered in what I call language performance, especially individual shrine visitation, ziyara, and the collective ritual called hadra which are both socially and spiritually connected…"
"In 2000, Sidi Ali's idiosyncratic mosque-shrine was torn down. An imposing, standard-issue 21st-century mosque, in gleaming marble, was erected in its place, with the shrine on a lower level and the mosque above. The shrine room was divided into male and female sides, preventing mixed gender gathering and making circumambulation — a key moment of ziyara, during which the saint's axial centrality is deeply experienced — impossible. An extensive exterior stairway built above the old saha eliminated this open exterior space, forcing the hadra into side alleys far from the shrine while enabling reform-minded worshipers to enter the mosque at the upper level without encountering the maqam at all. A massive iron was constructed between alleys and stairways, blocking the former free flow between ziyara and hadra. While ziyara continued, its energy was depleted by disconnection from hadra, and resonance declined sharply.”
While the author does not suggest that this transformation should be interpreted as anti-Sufi, he has his own interpretation of the way the mosque was renovated. According to Frishkopf, when he used to visit Sidi Ali every Saturday in 1992-1993, the usual trickle of shrine visitors would coalesce into crowds participating in festive activities around the mosque and throughout the district not far from Sayeda Zeinab.
The energetic musical hadra beginning in early afternoon and continuing into evening took place in the saha adjoining the mosque entrance. The disappearance of this saha as a result of the 2000 renovation almost put an end to such musical rituals. In modern times the global Muslim community has weakened dramatically, so reformers have sought to strengthen the umma, at nearly any cost through enforced social uniformity.
Getting rid of what divides the umma from the reformist viewpoint became essential. Minimising the space of the sonic rituals of saint veneration in the sacred built environment only draws the frame of the relationship between sound and architecture, which reflects changes in people's theoretical and practical perception of religion.
The new structure out of the renovation also has to do with the entities in charge of the process of the renovation.
According to Frishkopf, after the 1992 earthquake there was a competition between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Housing to restore the damaged historic mosques.
“While the former adopted a holistic conversation approach, balancing engineering with historical preservation and concern for the local cultural context, the latter were more concerned with applying scientific principles regardless of history or culture.”
The Ministry of Culture was commissioned to renovate historic sites of tourist interest, while the Ministry of Housing was given the task of renovating Ahl Al-Beit's shrines including Ali Zein Al-Abidine Mosque, without consideration for the urban fabric. The result is that, separated from the maqam and ziyara, hadra attendance has markedly declined, its resonance inhibited.
“What remains cannot even be called hadra, properly speaking: all dhikr has ceased; there is no sheikh; munshideen privilege popular song over religious inshad, and spiritual emotion became limited. The weekly event has ceased to play an effective role in Islamic localisation as it used to do for almost 150 years at Sidi Ali's shrine.”
The same thing has happened in other mosques, which were beautifully renovated but where history was destroyed together with the functions of some items and spaces. The collective sound of people which should be in the saha of these mosques and outside is no longer there. Whether reflecting a perceived change in religious rituals or a miscalculation by the entities in charge of the renovation, the result is that “Sidi Ali's old idiosyncratic shrine, reflecting and supporting a long, diverse history of community veneration, from Fatimid to Ottoman times, is gone. At his glorious new shrine, veneration continuous, but disconnected from locality. Resonance is suppressed, as deeply localised spiritual-social meaning is sacrificed for global unity of power.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Sounds of history
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