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Islamic architecture
Early Islamic religious architecture, exemplified by Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock
(ad 691) and the Great Mosque (705) in Damascus, drew on Christian
architectural features such as domes, columnar arches, and mosaics but also
included large courts for congregational prayer and a mihrab.
Characteristics of Early Islamic Architecture
Islamic style emerged from localized Egyptian, Byzantine, and Sasanian models. This style is
characterized by ordered repetition, radiating structures, and rhythmic patterns. Other
significant features include columns, piers, and arches, organized and interwoven with
alternating niches and colonnades.
4 Types of Islamic Architecture
The principle architectural types of Islamic architecture are; the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace
and the Fort. From these four types, the vocabulary of Islamic architecture is derived and used for
buildings of lesser importance such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture.
Describes Islamic Architecture.
The most recognizable characteristic of Islamic architecture is decoration utilizing geometric design
and a variety of colors, especially with tiles.
Architectural Character
The outwardly characteristic features of Muslim architecture are the pointed arch, and the horseshoe
arch in which the circle of the arch is carried past the nonnal springing point.
The origins of both may be traced back to the pre-Muslim era in the eastern territories of Byzantium,
and to the Sassanian Empire.
The pointed arch itself appears in the earliest significant Muslim monuments, and both were carried to
the western Mediterranean by Muslims in the eighth century.
Thereafter, the pointed arch is as typical of Islamic architecture as it is of Gothic.
Although in the West the horseshoe shape is frequently round-headed, in the East the round arch
virtually disappeared after the ninth century, when the four-centred arch was evolved. With minor
variants the latter form played a vital part in shaping the character of Islamic architecture in Egypt, Iraq,
Iran and India, but was less important in Ottoman architecture.
Less crucial to architectural development was the use of cusping and of guarding colonnettes or
Cusping has a pre-Muslim history in church buildings in Syria in the first century, but it was first used
regularly in decorative frets to arches in late eighth century Iraq.
Nookshafts are found in Coptic and Hellenistic Christian architecture of the fifth and sixth centuries,
but their regular use in Muslim architecture can be firmly dated to the ninth century. after which they
were used universally for openings of significance. By the eleventh century other important decorative
elements had also become established, among them the peculiarly lslamic muqarnas or stalactite
nook shaft A column or colonnette set in a square break, as at the angle of a building, or where the jamb
of a doorway meets the external face of a wall.
Muqarnas are superimposed corbels, angled so that the quoin of the lower corbel is coincident with the
groin of the two corbels above. From the tenth to the fifteenth century they were developed into a
range of astonishingly varied, intricate and imaginative patterns of crystalline brilliance to become ·one
of the most distinctive features of Muslim architecture.
The appearance of Islamic architecture is much affected by the use of colour on external surfaces,
Initially Byzantine mosaics were used, and sometimes quartered marble panels, but mosaic eventually
gave way to coloured glazed earthenware used first as inlay, and from the fifteenth century as patterned
tilework. The absence of figurative design in Islamic imagery has given rise to much misunderstanding
and not a little debate, The prohibitions do not arise directly from the injunctions of the Prophet, but
from comments based on the impropriety of man attempting to usurp the function of God in creating
representations of living creatures.
Early Islam was geographically near to the established Christian churches in Palestine when iconoclasm
was at its height, and its influence affected the attitudes of early converts.
Calligraphy and pattern-making took the place of figures, and by the eleventh century decorative
windows using the plate tracery of pre-Muslim Syria were becoming significant. Fretted grilles of stone,
marble or stucco were backed by coloured glass.
Geometric marquetry also became important, and wood veneers were augmented with ivory and
metals for use in making doors, screens, shutters and pulpits.
The most comprehensive range of features, however, does not make a coherent architecture. This arises
only from the methods of handling form and space in relation to structural order.
In Islamic architecture this was achieved by expressing each element of the building individually. There is
no attempt to collect numerous spaces and volumes within one great envelope whose facades then
describe a single mass. Each component stands identified in its own right, and is expressed externally as
part of a sequence of linked structures. The coordination, clear expression and articulation of the
individual components together supply the prime discipline.
Dome, iwan, cloister or portal may be emphasised or diminished as required within its proper station,
and each contains elements which display the essential structural form. All this was achieved by the
eleventh century, the classical phase of Islamic architecture, Subsequent developments relate to styles,
each with its own character-usually associated with location. Egypt produced the high-sided dome with a
tall profile and bas-relief interlacing on its outer surfaces, and these were complemented by multi-staged
minarets with bulbous tenninations that typify the skyline of Cairo. In Morocco and Spain, the ribbed
domes and stalactite pendentives grew ever more intricate, and although the style reached its .climax in
the virtuosity of Granada, it did not end there; the characteristic complexity of stucco and ceramic
mosaic has continued in Tunisia and Morocco to the present day.
Medina, Syria and Jordan .
The Prophet and his first followers did not seek a building in which to pray but made their prayers five
times a day wherever they were.
This example is still followed and the Muslim world has many outdoor praying places. At Medina the
Prophet first prayed facing towards Jerusalem, but in a small place on the outskirts of the city (still
known as Quiblatain-Tbe Mosque of the Two Directions) he faced towards Mecca. Thereafter this was
the rule.
The House of the Prophet was the congregational mosque of the first community. It was, simply. a
courtyard with a covered arcade for prayers at the end nearest to Mecca and with domestic
appurtenances on the other sides.
The call to prayer was made from the walls of the house. The simplicity of this building is, reflected in the
mosques which immediately followed.
There was no other model and as yet there were no architectural objectives, so the Prophet's house
provided an adequate example. Casual influences determined some of the characteristics of the mosque
as a building type.
The size of the earliest mosques in Mesopotamia, for example, followed the precedent of the country's
first mosque at Kufa. Built shortly after the Islamic conquest of the country, the size was determined by
successive arrow-casts in four directions. In Syria, converted Christian churches were used, and Muslims
were obliged to pray facing across the line of the nave and aisles. This set a precedent in favour of cross
arcading, which is to be found in many congregational mosques on the western side of the Arabian
desert. The early custom of building the governor's residence and treasury against the kibla wall of the
mosque followed a burglary. The Caliph gave instructions that the twu should be joined so that the users
of the mosque would constitute a 'watch by day and night'. There is flO evidence that in tbe seventh
century the Arabs of Mecca and Medina possessed either architectural knowledge or tradition beyond
the vernacular. The only literary references available refer to the Ka'aba at Mecca-a very simple
structure. To meet religious and administrative needs in lands they had conquered, and to establish their
dominant political position therefore, the Arabs made use of local craftsmen. They did not impose a
style, having none to impose, and consequently local traditions and Lechniques were continued. They
did, however, establish new settlements. The new town of Kufa was fourided within a few years of the
death of Mohammed, on the desert fringe of the cultivated lands of the Tigris and Euphrates. Its mosque
and palace were short-lived, but important in establishing a type and in demonstrating the acceptance of
local influences. Initially, the Great Mosque at Kura (638) was a primitive building whose courtyard was
marked only by a ditch. On its soutbern or kibla side, a covered colonnade extended across the full
width. There was no mibrab. The attacbed Dayr aI-Imara, or governor's palace, consisted of a courtyard
structure buttressed by half-round, attached towers which reflect the square plan of the frontier forts of
the Roman Empire. The central court terminated in an aisled hall which led to the domed chamber. Thus,
even at the earliest period, the dome was used as a focus.
The Mosque and Palace of aI-WalId at Kut (703) were similar. Very little is known of the first aI-Aqsa
Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but the mosque at Fustat in Cairo built by the victorious
general, 'Amr, which is contemporary, was similar to that at Kufa, with a simple open courtyard
terminating in a flat-roofed prayer chamber. The al-Aqsa Mosque was rebuilt about the year 710 under
the Caliph al-Walid, with the first variation on the courtyard plan. It contained a large prayer hall whose
dominant feature was a high arcaded central nave aligned on the kibla axis. Its distinctive features may
have been due in part to the employment in its construction of Palestinian and Coptic Christians. The
remarkable and elegant lateral arcades survived until the radical reconstruction of the 19405. A building
central and crucial to the whole history of the architecture of Islam stands in the centre of the Temple
Mount. It is the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem begun in 688, and after the Ka'aba probably the most
important Muslim shrine. With its contemporary and similar satellite, the Dome of the Chain,.it covers
the summit of Mount Moria, the 'Furthest Sanctuary' from which the Prophet is believed to have been
carried on the night-ride to heaven to receive fundamental revelations. The high double-shell timber
dome (p.554A) is carried on a 'stone arcade of pointed arches on Corinthian columns alternating with
marble-faced piers. Surrounding arcaded aisles are set out on an octagonal plan. The interior is richly
finished in glass mosaic and quartered marble. Pierced marble and ceramic lunettes fill the window
openings, which once had iron tracery. The entire outer surface was coated in a glittering mosaic which,
if it followed the pattern of the surviving mosaics internally, was a rich Hellenistic composition of swirling
patterns with vegetal motifs and a liberal admixture of gold tesserae among the predominantly green
colouring. In the sixteenth century, under Ottoman rule, the external mosaics were replaced with Iznik
'or similar tiles.
The dome was built as a double-shelled timber structure and was probably very similar to tbat of the
church of S. Simeon Stylites in northern Syria. The dome was repaired at various stages in its history and
survived until 1967 'when it was replaced by the present lightweight construction sheathed in anodised
aluminium. The building is a focus for minor pilgrimages and a shrine for a piece of rugged native rock.
There is a mihrab consisting of a flat marble slab worked in bas-relief in a niche with colonnettes and a
pointed arch. Its detailing sbows a combination of Hellenistic and Sassanian influences, and it may be the
earliest extant mibrab in Islam.
The introduction of the concave mihrab came only a few years later when, under the orders of the Calipb
al-Walid, the Mosque of the Prophet at Medina was greatly enlarged and reconstructed (707). Literary
evidence records the presence there of Coptic workmen and this would account for a central niche
terminating the main axis-a universal feature in Coptic churches. This seems to have been the origin of
the concave mihrab. One minaret may have been introduced in the Prophet's Mosque, as in the repairs
and extensions to the Mosque of 'Arnr in Cairo carried out on the instructions of the same Caliph. The
first practical minarets in Islam, however, were probably the towers of the Great Temple which became
the Great Mosque of Damascus (706-15) although the turrets on the Mosque of 'Amr at Fustat in Cairo
(q.v.) may have been of earlier date. It was traditional and symbolic in the early years of Islam that the
principal church of a city which had resisted the Muslims should be taken over as the . congregational
mosque. In a city such as Bosra in southern Syria, however, which had conceded without resistance, the
principal church would be left to the Christians and a separate mosque built. It is recounted that
Damascus was partly conquered and partly offered to the Muslims; and the principal church, which
boasted stone towers at each corner of its massive enclosure, was left to the Christians, and a large part
of the compound was set aside for Muslim worship. By 705, the Christians were displaced, and in
adapting the great compound o( the temple to Muslim purposes, al-Walid's architects made a number of
decisions which were to become fundamental in Umayyad Islam. The entire southern side of the
compound was converted into the prayer chamber ofthe mosque, with arcades set against the other
walls. The southern entrances were blocked and a mihrab was built in the place of one of them. A
further minaret was introduced centrally on the northern side and there was a high nave with lateral
aisles of double-tiered arcading at right-angles to it. In this, the Great Mosque of Damascus set a
precedent, and its transverse aisles, cut through by a central nave, became the hallmark of Damascene,
and hence of Umayyad, influence in other city mosques. The upper sutfaces of the walls were sheathed
in enormous fields of rich mosaic, and it is clear that by this period figurative designs were already
eschewed in religious buildings. In J ardan, there are two buildings held by some scholars to be early
examples of Umayyad architecture and by others to be relics of the Sassanian overlordship of Palestine
in the early seventh century: the Qasr at Amman and Qasr Karaneb lf they are early Muslim buildings,
they date from the late seventh century or very early eighth and they are remarkable because they
display pronounced Mesopotamian origins. At Amman, the Qasr is the entrance structure ofa palace
within an earlier Roman fortified building.