Building the Caliphate: Construction, Destruction, and Sectarian Identity in Fatimid Architecture (909-1031)

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University Club, Room 212
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Portrait image of Jennifer Pruitt in front of bookshelves with Jennifer wearing a gray dress and gold necklace

Monday Seminar

Jennifer Pruitt

Resident Fellow (2016-2017)

Art History, UW-Madison


The Ismaili Shi’i Fatimid dynasty is most famous for founding the city of Cairo in 969. Generally considered a golden age of multicultural tolerance, the Fatimid era witnessed an efflorescence of art and architecture and relatively peaceful coexistence between the religious communities in their realm.  The single exception given to this tale of interfaith utopia is the reign of the “mad” caliph, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1021).  Al-Hakim is known as a psychotic destroyer of churches and synagogues; cruel persecutor of Christians, Jews, and women; killer of dogs, and God incarnate to the later Druze faith.  In this seminar, I ask: what do we find when we delve into the exception to this narrative of peaceful coexistence?  How can destruction play a productive role in medieval architecture?  How does medieval architecture operate as a stage and battleground in the quest for political legitimacy?  How are the contours of Shi’ism and Sunnism expressed in medieval architecture?  Is it true that Fatimid religious cooperation could only be disrupted by a mad man?


Jennifer Pruitt is an Assistant Professor in Islamic Art History at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research interests include art and architecture in the medieval Islamic world; the role of the caliphate and sectarian identity in architectural production; the status of Christian art in medieval Islam; and cross-cultural exchange in the medieval world.  She is also interested in artistic production in the wake of the Arab Spring; the re-imagining of the “medieval” in contemporary arts in the Middle East; and architectural patronage in the Arabian Gulf.  She received her Ph.D. in the History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University in 2009 and is currently completing her book manuscript, Building the Caliphate: Construction, Destruction, and Sectarian Identity in Fatimid Architecture (909-1031).