ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE


ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE
   Islamic architecture is broadly defined as any construction based on the religious principles of Islam. Both religious and secular buildings reflect design principles of Islamic culture. These include mosques, funerary monuments, private dwellings, and fortifications built after the establishment of Islam in the 600s down to today. In the year AD 610, a wealthy merchant named "The Trusted One" was traveling outside Mecca, and later reported that one evening the angel Gabriel came to him and told him he would from then on be the messenger of God, given the task of reciting God's commandments. Thus, al-Amin (c. 570-632) became Muhammad, the "messenger of Allah," and established the religion of Islam, which means "submission to God's will." Islam officially began in 622, the year of Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina. Muhammad was politically important to the unification of Arabia under Islam by negotiating the more peaceful coexistence of warring communities and linking this diverse region together under the Arabic language. His four successors continued the work of establishing this religion across these diverse regions of the world, but with the rule of Ali, the fourth caliph after Muhammad, an internal divide resulted in the split between Sunnis and Shiites based on the legitimacy of his rule. Nonetheless, while Islam originated in ancient Arabia, it quickly spread across Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe. Therefore, although styles change over time and this broad geographical area of influence reflects varied and regional artistic traditions, Islamic buildings can be seen to reveal an enduring set of design principles intricately linked to the historical origins of Islam.
   For example, during the earliest years, followers began to dedicate new buildings that would carve out a distinct culture and spread the word of Islam, yet Islam is based on a personal connection with God, and Muhammad himself taught from a simple mud-brick building next to his home in Medina and advised his followers against construction of elaborate architectural monuments. His own prayer building consisted of a simple square-walled courtyard surrounded by a covered portico on all four sides and a platform on the south side for Muhammad to speak from. The courtyard and the pulpit, called a minbar, are retained in later mosque designs. In addition, because the ancient square-shaped house that Abraham built for God, called the Kaaba, is thought to have been located in Mecca, this city became the most sacred site in all of Islam, to which Muslims even today direct their prayers. Therefore, the prayer wall of the mosque, called the qibla wall, always faces Mecca. Finally, the complete avoidance of divine, human, and certain animal likenesses can be seen in the architectural decoration. The Koran (Qur'an), the word of Allah, derives from the same religious tradition as that of the Jews and Christians. However, text and writing are so central to Islamic culture that mainly beautiful calligraphy, along with geometric patterns and images from nature, decorate its architecture.
   The earliest Islamic architecture appears under the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), when the political center of Islam moved from Mecca to Damascus and new mosques, palaces, and government buildings were constructed. Jerusalem was also considered a sacred city, and in 692, a shrine was constructed over a sacred rock in central Jerusalem that Muhammad was said to have climbed to meet God, the same rock where, it was said, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and where the ancient Temple of Solomon was located. This octagonal, domed shrine, called the Dome of the Rock, was constructed by Syrian architects who had been trained in the construction of Byzantine domes and centralized spaces. The central dome is covered in gold leaf, while the eight surrounding walls that form an interior ambulatory are decorated with turquoise tiles and marble. An arched doorway flanked by a recessed portico supported by pillars articulates the entrance, while only a few windows are needed along the lower walls to allow light into the interior. The blue and white exterior tiles blend into the background sky, while the gold dome reflects light and therefore seems to hover above its tiled drum in a Byzantine style. Inside the building, pilgrims walk around the double ambulatory, reading the text written in golden calligraphy around the interior frieze. Above the calligraphic inscriptions are beautiful mosaics outlined in gold leaf that reveal inter-twined, organic patterns that symbolize the gardens of Paradise. The center of the shrine, the most important part of the building, displays the sacred rock. The visitor will not at first see the rock, however, for it is bathed in light that streams down from windows in the drum of the dome, which ritualistically symbolizes the divine presence and the idea of enlightenment. The entire interior reveals a richness of material that blends Ancient Roman and Byzantine traditions into a new type of building.
   This structure set a high standard of architectural construction and ornamentation, which was continued through the Umayyad Dynasty with the building of elaborate palaces and civic buildings. One of the few examples that remain today is the Palace Complex of Mshatta in modern-day Amman, Jordan, begun in the 740s but never completed. This hunting lodge features a fortified stone wall that enclosed a complex of courtyards, pools, a mosque, audience hall, and separate apartment wings. The front of the palace complex is decorated with a carved stone register that runs along the lower portion of the façade and features ornate designs often called "arabesques" in western literature. Here the designs are triangular shapes with rosettes carved into intricate organic interlaced patterns of animals set in nature. The use of the lion in these structures recalls, in particular, the similar decorations found on limestone reliefs located on the exterior walls of ancient Assyrian palace complexes. Although they would have been partially destroyed by then, they would certainly have been known to these Islamic caliphs.
   It was during this first dynasty that the mosque format was codified to include a hypostyle hall arrived at through an open courtyard. Inside the hall, the far wall faced Mecca, and this qibla wall featured a niche in the center called the mihrab, where the Koran was located. The mihrab was often enclosed and contained a space for the ruler, called a maqsura, while a minbar, or pulpit, was located next to the mihrab and was used by the religious leader, or the imam, for prayers. Outside the mosque, tall towers, or minarets, connect to the courtyard wall and are used to call worshipers to prayer five times a day. The Umayyad Dynasty was overthrown in 750, but family members fled to Spain and continued to rule as local leaders from Cordoba for the next several hundred years. The Great Mosque of Cordoba, built in the 780s, survives from this time as a beautiful building created from local Roman ruins to feature a hypostyle hall of classical columns with double arches outlined in alternating stripes of white and red brick, which provide a greater height to the hall and allow for more air circulation. As Cordoba prospered under Islamic rule, the Great Mosque was more ornately decorated to feature a golden mihrab created with an intricate network of intersecting ribs and gold patterned inscriptions.
   The middle years of Islamic rule, under the Abbasid Dynasty of Baghdad, lasted until 1258 and can be characterized as a very prosperous time when literature and the sciences thrived. The monumental architecture during these years recalls the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, and here mosques grew larger to include more congregational space. The Great Mosque at Samarra, begun in 847, was the largest ever built, and features a wide minaret that recalls the ancient Sumerian ziggurats native to this region of modern-day Iraq. A format developed in Persia (modern-day Iran) is called the four-iwan mosque, as it includes four large hypostyle halls with barrel vaults that each face toward an internal courtyard. Regional leaders also carved out their own architectural traditions, as seen in the Alhambra palace complex, built in Granada by the Nasrids, who were the last Muslim, or Moorish, dynasty to rule in Spain, from 1232 to 1492. This beautiful palace epitomizes the melding of Islamic aesthetics into both religious and political structures, as the two are really inseparable in Islam.
   As Islamic culture became more and more diversified with a less centralized political structure, architecture became increasingly more varied. The Seljuk Turks, who ruled Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Persia from 1037 to 1194, defined an eclectic style of architecture that combined elements from Syria in the northwest of their domain down to Persia in the southeast. They are best known for the creation of a small round, domed funerary monument called a turbe, which recalls both Armenian chapels and Bedouin tents. In addition, the Seljuks built medresas, or religious schools, which are more enclosed than a traditional mosque, and they also constructed many technically sophisticated bridges across Anatolia, with paved roads linking their extensive trade routes. The Ottoman Empire, which overtook Seljuk control of Anatolia, provided a new prosperity and allowed the construction of many more fine examples of Islamic architecture. A type of mosque developed in Ottoman Turkey reveals a domed centralized plan that strongly resembles the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, built in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in the 500s. In 1453, the Ottomans captured Constantinople, named it Istanbul, and ruled a powerful empire until 1918. During their empire, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, with Koranic inscriptions added to the interior decorations and minarets built on the outside of the building. The architect Mimar Koca Agha Sinan, who built the Mosque of Sultan Selim in Edirne, Turkey, in the 1560s, was the best-known architect of the Ottoman Empire.
   The oil wealth of 20th-century Islamic countries provided further impetus for the construction of monument architecture. The King Faisal Mosque, built in Islamabad, Pakistan, and sponsored by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, was constructed in the 1980s by the Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay; it includes an enclosed congregational space for 300,000 worshippers and recalls in its wide, slopped roof a Bedouin tent, anchored in its four corner with minarets. The King Hassan II Mosque (1986-1993) in Casablanca, Morocco, is currently the second largest mosque in the world, slightly smaller than the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. Designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau, the mosque is built out onto the Atlantic Ocean and features a glass floor so visitors can see the ocean beneath their feet. The mosque accommodates 25,000 people inside, while an additional 80,000 fit into the courtyard. The King Hassan II Mosque also features the tallest minaret in the world. By blending traditional Islamic architecture with modern technical innovations such as a heated floor and sliding doors and roof, this building certainly sets the stage for 21st-century Islamic architectural trends.
   See also BYZANTINE ARCHITECTURE.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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