Islamic Architecture

Islamic architecture is frequently distinguished by its use of so-called "arabesque" geometric decorative designs. Additionally, domes and arches are frequently associated with Islamic buildings and mosques. The style commonly associated with Islamic buildings has its origins in a variety of regional and historical styles. Those styles are thought to have combined and coalesced thanks to increased contact among peoples via their incorporation into the Islamic community. Rivalries between prominent Muslim leaders also played a part, with competition between them to establish innovative and large architectural projects, to project a sense of power and superiority.

The formative period of Islamic architecture is said to been during the Umayyad dynasty between 661 and 750 CE, when leaders ruled empires, of varying degrees of stability, from the Indus River to Spanish coast. As a consequence, a number of styles influenced the new construction undertaken by Islamic conquerors. Persian, Byzantine and the Spanish Visigoth style were particularly important in laying the groundwork for recognizably Muslim building projects.

The Byzantines perhaps had the greatest influence on Islamic architecture and art, being considered the origin of the dome and arabesque design. Arabesque patterns have been traced from the ancient Middle East and even ancient Egypt, being incorporated by the Greeks, who came to the region under Alexander the Great, into their own style. Similarly, the dome had been a distinguishing feature of Byzantine architecture since the 5th century, where it had begun to fade from popularity in the Western Roman Empire. The most prominent example of Byzantine architecture in this style is the Hagia Sophia, since converted into a mosque, from a church, by the Ottoman Empire, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah. Contemporary with that was the Great Mosque of Damascus, after its conversion from being the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist, in 705 CE. Its revered status among Sunni Muslims indicated the enduring influence the structure has had on Islamic architecture.

With the dawn of the Abbasid dynasty, building picked up pace as the capital of the Caliphate moved from Damascus to Baghdad, a new city built from scratch which served as a paradigm of coalesced Arab Islamic style. The new capital city of Samarra followed in this development. Today, both cities maintain prominent mosques and tombs incorporating major domes with some gilding. Simultaneously, Spanish architecture under the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty flourished, exemplified by the Great Mosque of Cordova built in 785 CE. The Moors of Spain also incorporated the Visigothic arch, something inherited from classic Roman styles of buildings and bridges.

Islamic architecture has had a wide distribution and large number of variants, but is astonishing still distinguishable as Islamic and generally categorized along the same lines as other Islamic styles by laymen. Persian architecture incorporates many Arab styles, notably the arabesque motif and more specifically some Syrian styles. The frequent exchange and vacillations of power in Arab empires brought a large amount of variety, with each ruler building widely, trying to establish himself as the identifiable ruler. New cities were built and major projects undertaken. One example is the Great Mosque of Isfahan, which was continuously built, expanded and modified over the centuries without having reached full culmination. The first major work was done by the Seljuks, but at least four major empires added their own touches to the mosque, which increasingly incorporated Turkic styles from central Asia. The Safavid Empire later built its own mosques, distinguishable by colored rather than gilded domes. The use of turquoise and navy blue is distinct in Persian Islamic architecture and thus Shiite Islamic architecture, as Iran served as the epicenter of Shiite Islam from the advent of the Safavids onward.

With the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the conquest of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia became a more direct inspiration for new Turkish projects rather than an example of old influence. The Hagia Sophia was converted from a church into a mosque and minarets were added in a notably Turkish cone style. Mimar Sinan, an early Ottoman designer, who was instrumental in building new major mosques in central Ottoman cities, had many disciples. His most recognizable work, the personal mosque of Sulayman the Magnificent called the Süleymaniye, would be notable enough, but the architect was so proud of his workt hat he decided this should be his burial place. While this mosque features the semidomes of the Hagia Sophia and matches the apparent ambition to surpass the greatest works of the Byzantines by the Ottomans, the Selimiye Cami is considered his greatest work, it phases out the semidomes. A student of his would lead the construction of the Taj Mahal mausoleum in India, noteworthy for its incorporation of Turkish and Persian styles and now emblematic of Mughal Indian Islamic architecture.

Islamic architecture today has incorporated modern art and unique forms of modern architecture, most notably in the design plans for the Islamic center in Manhattan.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Dictionary of Islamic Architecture
Andrew Petersen.
Routledge, 1999
Traditional Islamic Principles of Built Environment
Hisham Mortada.
RoutledgeCurzon, 2003
Cities and Caliphs: On the Genesis of Arab Muslim Urbanism
Nezar Alsayyad.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Early Islamic Architecture of the Desert: A Bedouin Station in Eastern Jordan
Svend Helms; A. V. G. W. Betts; F. Lancaster; C. J. Lenzen.
Edinburgh University Press, 1990
The Oxford History of Islam
John L. Esposito.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Five "Art and Architecture: Themes and Variations"
Companion to Contemporary Architectural Thought
Ben Farmer; Hentie Louw.
Routledge, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 37 "The Temple of Solomon and Its Influence on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Architectural Thought" and Chap. 74 "The Qur'an and the Sunna as the Basis for Interpreting Arabic House and Mosque Architecture"
Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise
Akbar S. Ahmed.
Routledge, 1992
Librarian’s tip: "Islamic Art and Architecture" begins on p. 201
Technology, Tradition and Survival: Aspects of Material Culture in the Middle East and Central Asia
Richard Tapper; Keith McLachlan.
Frank Cass, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Science and Technology in Islamic Building Construction"
Culture and Customs of Egypt
Molefi Kete Asante.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Architecture and Art"
Mosque Architecture in Bangladesh: The Archetype and Its Changing Morphology
Islam, Ishrat; Noble, Allen G.
Journal of Cultural Geography, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring-Summer 1998
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