Dr Khaled al-Sultany. All images courtesy of Niran al-Sultany

Meet the Middle East’s leading architectural historian

Iraqi academic, architect and author Dr Khaled al-Sultany speaks with Round City about his work, his interest in the formative years of Iraqi modernism and his upcoming publication on Samarra.

“Knowledge and information,” said Dr Khaled al-Sultany, an Iraqi academic, architect and author when asked what he hopes readers take away from his work. “I always say that if these two things reach the readers, then the efforts and endeavours devoted to the tracking, clarifying and enlightening of the professional subject won’t be in vain.”

Al-Sultany has spent decades educating impassioned readers through the written word: he began writing for Iraqi newspapers in the 1960s after he noticed a “knowledge deficit in the field of architecture”, as well as in the 1970s while he worked at the University of Baghdad. In addition to the local newspapers, he also published several articles and studies in the magazine Afaq Arabiya. Some of his essays were later translated into English and printed in Ur, a London-based magazine during the 1980s.

His articles were a gateway practice, leading him to expand into larger scale publishing. Al-Sultany sent his first book, Talk About Architecture, Little Encyclopedia Edition No. 159, to print in 1985, which has since been succeeded by 13 others that span topics like the architecture of the Umayyad period and modernism in Baghdad. Following the methodology of scientific research, al-Sultany seeks to present and describe his subjects while exposing their value. “Then I analyse and come up with results that enlighten the reader and present to them the quality of the studied question in our article or paper.”

With much of his writing focusing on Iraqi architecture, from the Islamic period through to post-modernism, al-Sultany hopes to contribute to the enrichment of Iraqi culture. His publications include Architecture of the Umayyad Period: Achievements and Interpretations (2006); A Hundred Years of Architectural Modernity (2009); Architecture as Acceptance of ‘the Other’ (2012); Architectural Modernity in Baghdad (2014); as well as books on the prolific Iraqi architects Mohamed Makiya and Rifat Chadirji. His most recent publication, Islamic Architecture in Ma Wara an-Nahr (Transoxiana), produced in 2018 and featuring 750 photos taken by the author himself while visiting the region, is among al-Sultany’s best, he said.

al-Sultany with students

And though his research interests are varied, al-Sultany is particularly fascinated by modernism and post-modernism in Iraq. According to his daughter, Niran, he is great admirer of what we can call the ‘beginnings’, or what is known as the ‘founding’ of modern architecture in Iraq, and as such, al-Sultany has written a number of studies and books dealing with this topic, as he considers the emergence of modernity in Iraq to be associated with the appearance of new architectural ideas and culture.

“Indeed, I am interested in the formative years of modernism,” al-Sultany added, referring to the 1930s. “I believe that this period reflects ‘the glow’ of the creative mind. As a follower, it takes me to the state where creativity is clearly reflected through the rapid and unprecedented change of creativity itself. It leads to the beginnings from which everything new is ‘founded’ and developed to influence the scene and speech. This is why I am pleased to pinpoint this period and its architectural developments that are different from the regular context.”

While his written contributions to regional architectural discourse are great and diverse, with his authorship at the forefront of his work, al-Sultany has also spent considerable time in other roles, namely architect, public speaker and professor.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, al-Sultany worked in Iraqi state departments and private architectural bureaus as an architectural designer, and he designed several buildings. In 1979, he designed the administrative building of Nasiriyah Electricity Directorate in Iraq, as well as several other facilities. Later between 1985 and 1999, he designed residential buildings (although he did not build them) in Iraq and Jordan, including his own house in Al-Kafaat Al-Karkh, Baghdad, and the gates of the teaching complex ‘Quraysh Complex’ at Al Al-bayt University in Mafraq, Jordan.

At the same time, and stretching until 2013, al-Sultany also maintained various academic posts: from 1974 to 2006, he worked as a professor at the department of architecture at the University of Baghdad; from 1996 to 1999, he was the director of the Institute for Islamic Art and Architecture at Al Al-bayt University in Jordan; from 1999 to 2000, he was a professor at the Institute of Traditional Islamic Arts at Al-Balaqa’ Applied University in Jordan; and from 2002 to 2013, he was a researcher at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen. The last post provided the foundation for his 2012 book, Architecture as Acceptance of ‘the Other’.

Dealing with Danish architects who were active in the Arab region, the publication explores their understanding of local culture and architecture, and their interpretation of local identity in their works. In doing so, Architecture as Acceptance of ‘the Other’ describes and analyses the work of architects like Jorn Utzon, who designed the Kuwait Parliament, and Henning Larsen, who designed Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh.

While it’s easy to argue that al-Sultany is leading the dialogue on regional architectural history, he invites others to contribute to this discourse, develop a broad base of opinions and establish further studies that tackle the development of architecture in Iraq and the region at large, said his daughter. His interest in engaging others is what drives his extensive activities in the public sphere: in the mid-1980s, he participated in the symposium The Buildings of the Fifties in Iraq, and later The Buildings of the Thirties. He has also delivered numerous lectures in non-architectural and non-academic cultural centres, and participated in professional conferences in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and more.

On the centennial birthday of Mohamed Makiya in 2014, al-Sultany organised another symposium, and issued his book on the Iraqi architect. During this time, he was recognised himself for his work by Tamayouz Excellence Award, and won its Architectural Personality of the Year Award, also known as the Mohamed Makiya Prize.

al-Sultany during a lecture

“In 2014, when Dr Khaled al-Sultany was selected as the winner of the Mohamed Makiya Prize, it was for his writing and documentation – particularly, his writing in the Arabic language,” said Ahmed Al-Mallak, founding director of Tamayouz. “The jury panel felt that what set him apart from others in his field was his skill in storytelling. He can turn any subject, regardless of what it is, into something that is interesting and digestible for the general public. This comes down to his deep knowledge of his subjects, and his ability to place them amidst larger contexts that draw from philosophy and theory.”

Al-Mallak added, “His books, such as the one about Transoxiana and the Umayyad architecture, are very important. They are encyclopaedias on their subjects, and are unparalleled internationally due to their quality of documentation, from the analysis to the photography. It took him years of travel and research to produce those, which shows his dedication and commitment.”

al-Sultany

At the moment, al-Sultany is working on another two titles: Modern Architecture in Iraq and Urbanistic Samarra, which he hopes to publish very soon. According to the author, while the Abbasid capital was built quickly yet hastily abandoned, its remains can teach us a lot about the principles and values of Islamic architecture.

“I am making serious efforts on the study of Samarra,” he said. “I believe that the subject is entertaining and useful. In fact, despite the architectural additions the city has provided to Islamic architecture, Samarra’s studies remain descriptive and historical. This is why I seek, in the scope of my study, to overcome these two sides and focus on the architectural additions and added values provided by Samarra in favour of our local and regional architecture.”

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