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Session R5886 (Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia), 2020
A textured and powerful analysis of post-war politics in Saudi Arabia, one certain to challenge existing understandings of the region, Archive Wars underscores an issue also taken up by historians of the late medieval and early modern Mediterranean region: how changes in sovereignty and systems of governance are marked by large-scale building projects that dramatically transform the built environment. They emphasize how the built environment is a site and means through which changes in power are enacted. The aftermath of both the Reconquista in Andalusia, and the Fatih of Constantinople/Istanbul—areas bookending the Mediterranean, borderland regions where differences between East and West have long been contested—resulted in the destruction, construction and transformation of a myriad of civil, state and religious sites that marked the regions’ shifting political and religious landscapes. Notable here is the conversion of Cordoba’s Mezquita/Cathedral and Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, our contemporary context where these borderland regions and monumental sites are being engaged anew by growing populations of middle-class Muslim tourists from the Middle East, South-East Asia, Europe and North America. In a global context where Muslim subjects are most often associated with other categories of mobility, most notably ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’, and where they are subject to overlapping regimes of mobility restrictions, Muslim subjects also constitute the fastest growing population of international tourists today, one industry insiders forecast will drive tourism growth over the next 20 years. Andalusia and the Greater Istanbul Region are among the most popular destinations for Muslim tourists. Although these areas are palimpsests of the intervening centuries, it is the late medieval and early modern periods of their histories, and monumental sites such as the Mezquita/Cathedral and Hagia Sophia that are the focus of Muslim tourists’ attention and of emergent ‘halal tourism’ infrastructures. Here, ‘history’ is engaged in a number of forms ranging from official nationalist heritage accounts, the civilizational accounts of guidebooks and popular texts, and the often trickster tales and urban legends told by tour guides and local actors, that are read in relation to the monumental sites Muslim tourists engage. Drawing on over two years of ethnographic research, in my roundtable remarks, I take up Archive Wars' incisive reexamination of the interrelation between history-making and the built environment by discussing comparative and crosscutting processes at play with Muslim tourists and emergent ‘halal tourism’ infrastructures in Andalusia and the Greater Istanbul Region today.