Essay About Islamic Architecture Characteristics

Islamic Art and Architecture

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Islam is the religious faith preached by the Arab prophet Mohammed. During the five hundred years after Mohammed's death in A.D. 632, Islam spread far beyond its place of origin in the Arabian Peninsula. The followers of Mohammed, called Muslims, conquered the rest of the Middle East, as well as North Africa, Spain, central Asia, and north and central India. Most of the conquered people accepted the Islamic religion.

As Islam spread, a distinctive style of Islamic art gradually developed. It was used mainly for religious architecture, book illustrations, and the decoration of pottery, metalware, and other useful objects. Islamic art was influenced by the artistic styles of the conquered regions. These styles included late Roman, Byzantine, and Persian art.

The development of Islamic art was also influenced by two religious restrictions. Mohammed warned artists not to imitate God, the creator of all life, by making images of living things. Most religious art therefore consisted of ornamental designs that did not represent people or animals. The second restriction discouraged the use of costly materials. Islamic artists, therefore, worked mainly with brass, clay, and wood. They learned to decorate objects made of these less expensive materials so skillfully that they looked as beautiful as silver or gold.

Design Characteristics

The restriction on making images led to the development of one of the most outstanding features of Islamic art. Artists avoided depicting likelike forms. Instead, they developed a special kind of decoration, called arabesque. An arabesque is a very complicated design. It can consist of twisting patterns of vines, leaves, and flowers. It can be made up of geometric shapes and patterns of straight lines, or it can have curving lines that twist and turn over each other. Sometimes animal shapes were used, but they were always highly stylized and not lifelike.

Another important characteristic of Islamic art is the use of calligraphy, or beautiful handwriting. Arabic, the language of most Islamic texts, can be beautifully written in several different kinds of script. These include the straight, geometric Kufic script and the rounded, flowing Naskhi. Islamic artists used Arabic script (which is read from right to left) as part of their designs for religious books, wall decorations, and art objects. Especially beautiful calligraphy and decoration were used for copies of the Koran, the holy book of the Islamic faith.


The religious buildings known as mosques, where Muslims worship, are among the most important examples of Islamic architecture. Other kinds of buildings include madrasahs, or religious schools; tombs; and palaces.

The first mosques were simple buildings made of wood and clay. Then, as the world of Islam grew in size and power, large mosques of cut stone and brick were built. Because no Islamic building tradition yet existed, these early mosques were modeled after Christian churches. The oldest existing mosque, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, was built in 691. It has many features of Byzantine Christian churches, including Grecian-style columns and mosaic decorations.

Muslim architects soon began to develop a new type of religious building, designed specifically for Islamic worship. An early example of the new design is the Great Mosque in Damascus, begun about 705. It is entered through a rectangular court with covered passageways on three sides. In the court is a fountain for washing before prayer. The fourth wall of the court is closest to Mecca, the holy city of Islam. All Muslims face in the direction of Mecca when they pray. The wall is marked by a small, arched prayer niche. Over the aisle leading to this niche is a dome. A tower, or minaret, is used to call the faithful to prayer.

Other architects developed variations on this basic style. Some mosques have domes over each end of the aisle leading to the prayer niche. Other mosques have a large central dome. Some domes are ridged on the outside and resemble large melons. Inside, the ceilings of domes are often covered with decorative forms that resemble honeycombs, scales, or stalactites (icicle-like formations found in caves). Many mosques, especially those in Spain, North Africa, and Persia, are covered with tiles. In the 1500's and 1600's mosques became more complex, with many domes and minarets. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also called the Blue Mosque), in Istanbul, Turkey, is a typical example.

Madrasahs and Tombs
Madrasahs, or religious schools, were often built next to mosques. They are four-sided structures built around a central court. Each side has a large arched hall that opens onto the courtyard. Students attended lectures in the large halls and lived in smaller rooms within the structure.

Sometimes the tomb of a ruler was part of a complex of buildings that also included a mosque and a madrasah. The tomb-mosque of Sultan Hasan, built in the mid-1300's in Cairo, Egypt, is such a complex. It is laid out like a cross, with four halls opening off a large square court.

Another well-known tomb is that of the Tatar warrior Tamerlane, which was built in the city of Samarkand about 1400. (Today Samarkand is part of Uzbekistan.) This building has a melon-shaped dome covered with brilliant blue and gold tiles. The tiles are made of glazed earthenware cut into various sizes and arranged in elaborate patterns. Perhaps the most famous Islamic tomb of all is the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It was built in the 1600's by the ruler Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife. The Taj Mahal is so renowned that its very name calls up images of almost unreal splendor and beauty. An article on the Taj Mahal can be found in this encyclopedia.

The early Muslim rulers, or caliphs, were used to desert life; they did not like living in crowded cities. They built palaces in the desert where they could go to relax and hunt. The palaces looked like Roman fortresses, for they were built of stone and surrounded by walls with big towers. The throne rooms, prayer rooms, baths, and living quarters were decorated with murals and mosaics.

In the 700's the capital of the Muslim world moved from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad, Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The architecture of palaces changed as a result of the move. Domed palaces were built of brick covered with thick layers of stucco, and the interiors were decorated with stucco reliefs. In the Jawsaq Palace, built about 850 in Samarra, Mesopotamia, the stucco ornament was of three distinct styles. One type showed deeply carved vine forms, and another added patterns to the surface of the main design. The third style used more abstract patterns, as in the metalwork of Central Asian nomads. These three styles contributed to the development of arabesque decoration, which became typical of Muslim art all over the world.

Of later palaces, the Alhambra at Granada, Spain, built in the 1300's, is the best known. Its many rooms are built around three open courts. The Court of the Myrtles features a long rectangular pool flanked by hedges. In the center of the inner Court of the Lions stands a fountain supported by twelve lions. The lower part of the palace walls are decorated with colored tiles set in geometric patterns. Painted and gilded plaster designs cover the upper part of the walls. Arabic inscriptions in the midst of the ornament say that there is "no conqueror but Allah."

Book Illustration

Islamic painting developed mainly in the form of book illustration. Islamic artists produced many beautiful illuminated manuscripts (handwritten books decorated with painted pictures and designs). These paintings were created to help explain a scientific text or to add to the pleasure of reading a work of history or literature. Because of the restrictions on making images, illustrations for the Koran and other religious manuscripts often consisted of intricate ornamental designs.

Nonreligious manuscripts sometimes contained images of human and animal figures. Figures in early illustrations were simple and painted to look flat or two-dimensional. These qualities can be seen in the illustrations for a famous book of fables, Kalilah and Dimnah. Later illustrators painted more detailed and realistic works. Especially skilled were artists working in Persia from the 1300's to the 1700's. One of the best-known Persian painters was Kamal ad-Din Bihzad. This artist combined the ornamental style of Persian illustration with realistic observation of people and animals.

By the end of the 1200's, parts of the Islamic world, including Persia, had been invaded by Mongols from the East. From this time on, the influence of Chinese ink paintings, especially landscapes, can be seen in Islamic painting. The last of the great invaders from central Asia was Tamerlane. He and his followers ignored the dictates of their new religion and encouraged artists to paint pictures of people. These pictures still appeared mainly in nonreligious books, however. Most Islamic illustration remained essentially ornamental, uniting many design elements into an intricate pattern.

The Muslims greatly respected the knowledge contained in books, especially in the Koran. Their book covers nearly always include a flap to cover and protect the page edges. The covers were made of beautifully tooled leather, often with added decorations of gold and bright colors.

Decorative Arts

Many different arts were used in the decoration of Islamic mosques and palaces. Arabesque carvings in stone, wood, and plaster adorn the doorways, prayer niches, and pulpits of mosques. The borders of the decorations were often inscribed with quotations from the Koran. Both mosques and palaces were decorated with mosaics--pictures made by pressing tiny pieces of colored glass into wet cement. Painted and glazed tiles covered interior and exterior wall surfaces. Glass lamps decorated with arabesques and Arabic letters hung by long chains from ceilings.

Beginning in the 1000's, a new class of wealthy merchants arose in cities throughout the Islamic world. They traded ceramics, leather goods, metalware, and textiles as far east as India and China and as far west as Euorope. The tastes and spending power of the merchants, as well as the increased contact with other cultures, led to new developments in the decorative arts. Scenes of everyday and popular stories were realistically portrayed on all kinds of objects. These decorative scenes greatly influenced the development of book illustration.

Islamic metalworkers created beautifully worked brass and bronze objects, including pitchers, boxes, and trays. Sometimes they inlaid these objects with intricate designs of gold or silver. Arabesques, scenes with figures, and Arabic writing were all used as decoration. The designs began as detailed drawings, which were then skillfully adapted to a particular object and material.

By the 800's Islamic potters had developed many different techniques for making ceramics and pottery. A major center of pottery production was the city of Kashan, in Iran. The Kashan potters were especially skilled at making lusterware, a kind of pottery that is covered with a shining metallic glaze. Luster glaze was also used on tiles that covered prayer niches, wall surfaces, and the outsides of domes and minarets.

Luxurious rugs were made by knotting single strands of wool or silk to create intricate patterns. Fine woolen rugs have more than one hundred knots per square inch, while some silk rugs have as many as eight hundred.

Rugs were used in both mosques and homes. Muslims often kneel on rugs to pray. The designs on these prayer rugs were made to resemble the arch of the prayer niche in a mosque. Nonreligious rugs often were decorated with geometric patterns. Other designs featured arabesques of flowers and plants in imitation of gardens. Animal and hunting scenes sometimes were added to the floral patterns. Dragons and other fantastic creatures frequently were part of the design, as were such real-life animals as lions and gazelles.

Later Islamic Art

During the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims fought wars known as the Crusades. The nations of Islam were united in religion and in their common wars against the Christian Europeans. Islamic art was also unified. From Spain to India, the art of the countries of Islam was almost identical.

By the 1400's there was less to unify the Islamic world. Many people in Islamic nations belonged to other religions. The Crusades were over, and Muslim countries sometimes fought against each other.

Artistic activity in the Islamic style continues to flourish. Mosques are still being built; objects of metal, clay, and leather are still ornamented with arabesques; books are illuminated with miniatures; and rugs are still woven in the traditional way. However, after 1500, some Islamic artists began to add elements of European art to their work. Today the art of many Islamic countries has an international character, although the scenes or subjects may relate to a single Islamic nation.

Gulnar K. Bosch
Florida State University

Islamic architecture encompasses a wide range of both secular and religious styles from the foundation of Islam to the present day. Whilst it does have unique characteristics like its geometric and interlace patterned ornaments, it does draw some influence from Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Chinese, and Indian architectures as Islam was present from the Near East & North Africa to East Asia.[1][2] The principal Islamic architectural types are: the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace and the Fort. From these four types, the vocabulary of Islamic architecture is derived and used for other buildings such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture.[3][4][5]

There are different attitudes. Symbolic views of some scholars on Islamic architecture have consistently been criticized by historians for lacking historical evidence.[6]


The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) in Jerusalem (691) is one of the most important buildings in all of Islamic architecture. It is patterned after the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre[7] and ByzantineChristian artists were employed to create its elaborate mosaics against a golden background.[1][8] The great epigraphic vine frieze was adapted from the pre-Islamic Syrian style.[9] The Dome of the Rock featured interior vaulted spaces, a circular dome, and the use of stylized repeating decorative arabesque patterns. Desert palaces in Jordan and Syria (for example, Mshatta, Qasr Amra, and Khirbat al-Mafjar) served the caliphs as living quarters, reception halls, and baths, and were decorated to promote an image of royal luxury.

The horseshoe arch became a popular feature in Islamic structures. Some suggest the Muslims acquired this from the Visigoths in Spain but they may have obtained it from Syria and Persia where the horseshoe arch had been in use by the Byzantines. In Moorish architecture, the curvature of the horseshoe arch is much more accentuated. Furthermore, alternating colours were added to accentuate the effect of its shape. This can be seen at a large scale in their major work, the Great Mosque of Córdoba.[10]

The Great Mosque of Damascus (completed in 715 by caliph Al-Walid I),[11] built on the site of the basilica of John the Baptist after the Islamic invasion of Damascus, still bore great resemblance to 6th and 7th century Christian basilicas. Certain modifications were implemented, including expanding the structure along the transversal axis which better fit with the Islamic style of prayer.

The Abbasid dynasty (750 AD- 1258[12]) witnessed the movement of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, and then from Baghdad to Samarra. The shift to Baghdad influenced politics, culture, and art. The Great Mosque of Samarra, once the largest in the world, was built for the new capital. Other major mosques built in the Abbasid Dynasty include the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, Abu Dalaf in Iraq, the great mosque in Tunis. Abbasid architecture in Iraq as exemplified in the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir (c.775-6) demonstrated the "despotic and the pleasure-loving character of the dynasty" in its grand size but cramped living quarters.[13]

The Great Mosque of Kairouan (in Tunisia) is considered the ancestor of all the mosques in the western Islamic world. Its original marble columns and sculptures were of Roman workmanship brought in from Carthage and other elements resemble Roman form.[14][15] It is one of the best preserved and most significant examples of early great mosques, founded in 670 AD and dating in its present form largely from the Aghlabid period (9th century).[16] The Great Mosque of Kairouan is constituted of a massive square minaret, a large courtyard surrounded by porticos and a huge hypostyle prayer hall covered on its axis by two cupolas. The Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, completed in 847 AD, combined the hypostyle architecture of rows of columns supporting a flat base above which a huge spiraling minaret was constructed.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul also influenced Islamic architecture. When the Ottomans captured the city from the Byzantines, they converted the basilica to a mosque (now a museum) and incorporated Byzantine architectural elements into their own work (e.g. domes). The Hagia Sophia also served as a model for many Ottoman mosques such as the Shehzade Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque, and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. Domes are a major structural feature of Islamic architecture. The dome first appeared in Islamic architecture in 691 with the construction of the Dome of the Rock, a near replica of the existing Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian domed basilicas situated nearby. Domes remain in use, being a significant feature of many mosques and of the Taj Mahal in the 17th century. The distinctive pointed domes of Islamic architecture, also originating with the Byzantines and Persians,[17][18] have remained a distinguishing feature of mosques into the 21st century.[19][20]

Distinguishing motifs of Islamic architecture have always been the mathematical themes of ordered repetition, radiating structures, and rhythmic, metric patterns. In this respect, fractal geometry has been a key utility, especially for mosques and palaces. Other significant features employed as motifs include columns, piers and arches, organized and interwoven with alternating sequences of niches and colonnettes.[21]


Assimilation of earlier traditions[edit]

Compared to Western European Francia, period Islamic architecture has preserved to a greater extent the architectural traditions of its preceding cultures. From the eighth to the eleventh century, Islamic architectural styles were influenced by two different ancient traditions:

  1. Greco-Roman tradition: In particular, the regions of the newly conquered Byzantine Empire (Southwestern Anatolia, Syria, Egypt and the Maghreb) supplied architects, masons, mosaicists and other craftsmen to the new Islamic rulers. These artisans were trained in Byzantine architecture and decorative arts, and continued building and decorating in Byzantine style, which had developed out of Hellenistic and ancient Roman architecture.
  2. Eastern tradition:Mesopotamia and Persia, despite adopting elements of Hellenistic and Roman representative style, retained their independent architectural traditions, which derived from Sasanian architecture and its predecessors.[22]

The transition process between late Antiquity, or post-classical, and Islamic architecture is exemplified by archaeologic findings in North Syria and Palestine, the Bilad al-Sham of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. In this region, late antique, or Christian, architectural traditions merged with the pre-Islamic Arabian heritage of the conquerors. Recent research on the history of Islamic art and architecture has revised a number of colonialistic ideas. Specifically, the following questions are currently subject to renewed discussions in the light of recent findings and new concepts of cultural history:

  1. The existence of a linear development within the Islamic architecture;
  2. the existence of an inter- and intracultural hierarchy of styles;
  3. questions of cultural authenticity and its delineation.[23]

Compared to earlier research, the assimilation and transformation of pre-existing architectural traditions is investigated under the aspect of mutual intra- and intercultural exchange of ideas, technologies and styles as well as artists, architects, and materials. In the area of art and architecture, the Rise of Islam is seen as a continuous transformation process leading from late Antiquity to the Islamic period. Early research into the area regarded the early Islamic architecture merely as a break with the past, from which apparently rose a distorted and less expressive form of art,[24] or a degenerate imitation of the post-classical architectural forms.[25] Modern concepts tend to regard the transition between the cultures rather as a selective process of informed appropriation and transformation. The Umayyads played a crucial role in this process of transforming and thereby enriching the existing architectural traditions, or, in a more general sense, of the visual culture of the nascent Islamic society.[26]

Paradise garden[edit]

Main article: Paradise garden

Gardens and water have for many centuries played an essential role in Islamic culture, and are often compared to the garden of Paradise. The comparison originates from the Achaemenid Empire. In his dialogue "Oeconomicus", Xenophon has Socrates relate the story of the Spartan general Lysander's visit to the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger, who shows the Greek his "Paradise at Sardis".[27] The classical form of the Persian Paradise garden, or the Charbagh, comprises a rectangular irrigated space with elevated pathways, which divide the garden into four sections of equal size:

One of the hallmarks of Persian gardens is the four-part garden laid out with axial paths that intersect at the garden's centre. This highly structured geometrical scheme, called the chahar bagh, became a powerful metaphor for the organization and domestication of the landscape, itself a symbol of political territory.[28]

A charbagh from Achaemenid time has been identified in the archaeological excavations at Pasargadae. The gardens of Chehel Sotoun (Isfahan), Fin Garden (Kashan), Eram Garden (Shiraz), Shazdeh Garden (Mahan), Dowlatabad Garden (Yazd), Abbasabad Garden (Abbasabad), Akbarieh Garden (South Khorasan Province), Pahlevanpour Garden, all in Iran, form part of the UNESCO World Heritage.[29] Large Paradise gardens are also found at the Taj Mahal (Agra), and at Humayun's Tomb (New Delhi), in India; the Shalimar Gardens (Lahore, Pakistan) or at the Alhambra and Generalife in Granada, Spain.[22]

Courtyard (Sehan)[edit]

The traditional Islamic courtyard, a sehan (Arabic: صحن‎), is found in secular and religious structures.

  1. When within a residence or other secular building is a private courtyard and walled garden. It is used for: the aesthetics of plants, water, architectural elements, and natural light; for cooler space with fountains and shade, and source of breezes into the structure, during summer heat; and a protected and proscribed place where the women of the house need not be covered in the hijab clothing traditionally necessary in public.
  2. A sehan—courtyard is in within almost every mosque in Islamic architecture. The courtyards are open to the sky and surrounded on all sides by structures with halls and rooms, and often a shaded semi-open arcade. Sehans usually feature a centrally positioned ritual cleansing pool under an open domed pavilion called a howz. A mosque courtyard is used for performing ablutions, and a 'patio' for rest or gathering.

Hypostyle hall[edit]

A Hypostyle, i.e., an open hall supported by columns combined with a reception hall set at right angle to the main hall, is considered to be derived from architectural traditions of Achaemenid period Persian assembly halls ("apadana"). This type of building originated from the Roman-style basilica with an adjacent courtyard surrounded by colonnades, like Trajan's Forum in Rome. The Roman type of building has developed out of the Greekagora. In Islamic architecture, the hypostyle hall is the main feature of the hypostyle mosque. One of the earliest hypostyle mosques is the Tarikhaneh Mosque in Iran, dating back to the 8th century.[22]


In Islamic buildings, vaulting follows two distinct architectural styles: Whilst Umayyad architecture continues Syrian traditions of the 6th and 7th century, Eastern Islamic architecture was mainly influenced by Sasanian styles and forms.

Umayyad diaphragm arches and barrel vaults[edit]

In their vaulting structures, Umayyad period buildings show a mixture of ancient Roman and Persian architectural traditions. Diaphragm arches with lintelled ceilings made of wood or stone beams, or, alternatively, with barrel vaults, were known in the Levant since the classical and Nabatean period. They were mainly used to cover houses and cisterns. The architectural form of covering diaphragm arches with barrel vaults, however, was likely newly introduced from Iranian architecture, as similar vaulting was not known in Bilad al-Sham before the arrival of the Umayyads. However, this form was well known in Iran from early Parthian times, as exemplified in the Parthian buildings of Aššur. The earliest known example for barrel vaults resting on diaphragm arches from Umayyad architecture is known from Qasr Harane in Syria. During the early period, the diaphragm arches are built from coarsely cut limestone slabs, without using supporting falsework, which were connected by gypsummortar. Later-period vaults were erected using pre-formed lateral ribs modelled from gypsum, which served as a temporal formwork to guide and center the vault. These ribs, which were left in the structure afterwards, do not carry any load. The ribs were cast in advance on strips of cloth, the impression of which can still be seen in the ribs today. Similar structures are known from Sasanian architecture, for example from the palace of Firuzabad. Umayyad-period vaults of this type were found in Amman Citadel and in Qasr Amra.[30]

Islamic Spain[edit]

The double-arched system of arcades of the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba is generally considered to be derived from Romanaqueducts like the nearby aqueduct of Los Milagros. Columns are connected by horseshoe arches, and support pillars of brickwork, which are in turn interconnected by semicircular arches supporting the flat timberwork ceiling.

  • Arcades of the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba

In later-period additions to the Mosque of Córdoba, the basic architectural design was changed: Horseshoe arches were now used for the upper row of arcades, which is now supported by five-pass arches. In sections which now supported domes, additional supporting structures were needed to bear the thrust of the cupolas. The architects solved this problem by the construction of intersecting three- or five-pass arches. The three domes spanning the vaults above the mihrab wall are constructed as ribbed vaults. Rather than meeting in the center of the dome, the ribs intersect one another off-center, forming an eight-pointed star in the center which is superseded by a pendentive dome.[31]

The ribbed vaults of the mosque-cathedral of Córdoba served as models for later mosque buildings in the Islamic West of al-Andaluz and the Maghreb. At around 1000 AD, the Mezquita de Bab al Mardum (today: Mosque of Cristo de la Luz) in Toledo was constructed with a similar, eight-ribbed dome. Similar domes are also seen in the mosque building of the Aljafería of Zaragoza. The architectural form of the ribbed dome was further developed in the Maghreb: The central dome of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, a masterpiece of the Almoravids built in 1082, has twelve slender ribs, the shell between the ribs is filled with filigree stucco work.[31]

Islamic Iran[edit]

Because of its long history of building and re-building, spanning the time from the Abbasids to the Qajar dynasty, and its excellent state of conservation, the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan provides an overview over the experiments Islamic architects conducted with complicated vaulting structures.[32]

The system of squinches, which is a construction filling in the upper angles of a square room so as to form a base to receive an octagonal or sphericaldome, was already known in Sasanian architecture.[33] The spherical triangles of the squinches were split up into further subdivisions or systems of niches, resulting in a complex interplay of supporting structures forming an ornamental spatial pattern which hides the weight of the structure.

The "non-radial rib vault", an architectural form of ribbed vaults with a superimposed spherical dome, is the characteristic architectural vault form of the Islamic East. From its beginnings in the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, this form of vault was used in a sequence of important buildings up to the period of Safavid architecture. Its main characteristics are:[32]

  1. Four intersecting ribs, at times redoubled and intersected to form an eight-pointed star;
  2. the omission of a transition zone between the vault and the supporting structure;
  3. a central dome or roof lantern on top of the ribbed vault.

While intersecting pairs of ribs from the main decorative feature of Seljuk architecture, the ribs were hidden behind additional architectural elements in later periods, as exemplified in the dome of the Tomb of Ahmed Sanjar in Merv, until they finally disappeared completely behind the double shell of a stucco dome, as seen in the dome of Ālī Qāpū in Isfahan.[32]

  • Dome of the Fire temple of Harpak in Abyaneh

  • Non-radial rib vault in the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan

  • Dome of the tomb of Ahmed Sanjar in Merv

  • Upper dome of Ālī Qāpū, Isfahan

  • Modern Islamic architecture - Mosque of Isfahan International conference center


Based on the model of pre-existing Byzantinedomes, the Ottoman Architecture developed a specific form of monumental, representative building: Wide central domes with huge diameters were erected on top of a centre-plan building. Despite their enormous weight, the domes appear virtually weightless. Some of the most elaborate domed buildings have been constructed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.

When the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople, they found a variety of Byzantine Christian churches, the largest and most prominent amongst them was the Hagia Sophia. The brickwork-and-mortar ribs and the spherical shell of the central dome of the Hagia Sophia were built simultaneously, as a self-supporting structure without any wooden centring.[34] In the early Byzantine church of Hagia Irene, the ribs of the dome vault are fully integrated into the shell, similar to Western Roman domes, and thus are not visible from within the building.[35] In the dome of the Hagia Sophia, the ribs and shell of the dome unite in a central medallion at the apex of the dome, the upper ends of the ribs being integrated into the shell: Shell and ribs form one single structural entity. In later Byzantine buildings, like the Kalenderhane Mosque, the Eski Imaret Mosque (formerly the Monastery of Christ Pantepoptes) or the Pantokrator Monastery (today: Zeyrek Mosque), the central medallion of the apex and the ribs of the dome became separate structural elements: The ribs are more pronounced and connect to the central medallion, which also stands out more pronouncedly, so that the entire construction gives the impression as if ribs and medallion are separate from, and underpin, the proper shell of the dome.[36]

Mimar Sinan solved the structural issues of the Hagia Sophia dome by constructing a system of centrally symmetric pillars with flanking semi-domes, as exemplified by the design of the Süleymaniye Mosque (four pillars with two flanking shield walls and two semi-domes, 1550–1557), the Rüstem Pasha Mosque (eight pillars with four diagonal semi-domes, 1561–1563), and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne (eight pillars with four diagonal semi-domes, 1567/8–1574/5). In the history of architecture, the structure of the Selimiye Mosque has no precedent. All elements of the building subordinate to its great dome.[37][38][39]

  • Schematic drawing of a pendentive dome

  • Central domes of the Hagia Sophia

  • Dome of the Kalenderhane Mosque


Main article: Muqarnas

The architectural element of muqarnas developed in northeastern Iran and the Maghreb around the middle of the 10th century. The ornament is created by the geometric subdivision of a vaulting structure into miniature, superimposed pointed-arch substructures, also known as "honeycomb", or "stalactite" vaults. Made from different materials like stone, brick, wood or stucco, its use in architecture spread over the entire Islamic world. In the Islamic West, muqarnas are also used to adorn the outside of a dome, cupola, or similar structure, whilst in the East is more limited to the interior face of a vault.


Main articles: Islamic interlace patterns, Islamic geometric patterns, and Arabesque

As a common feature, Islamic architecture makes use of specific ornamental forms, including mathematically complicated, elaborate geometric and interlace patterns, floral motifs like the arabesque, and elaborate calligraphic inscriptions, which serve to decorate a building, specify the intention of the building by the selection of the textual program of the inscriptions. For example, the calligraphic inscriptions adorning the Dome of the Rock include quotations from the Quran (e.g., Quran 19:33–35) which reference the miracle of Jesus and his human nature.

The geometric or floral, interlaced forms, taken together, constitute an infinitely repeated pattern that extends beyond the visible material world.[40] To many in the Islamic world, they symbolize the concept of infinite proves of existence of one eternal God. The repetitiveness, simplicity contrasted with complexity and percision suggests that our complex universe is only one of the many manifestations of the infinitely obvious and present Allah, the one God. Furthermore, the Islamic artist conveys a definite spirituality without the iconography of Christian art. Non-figural ornaments are used in mosques and buildings around the Muslim world, and it is a way of decorating using beautiful, embellishing and repetitive Islamic art instead of using pictures of humans and animals (which some Muslims believe is forbidden (Haram) in Islam).

Instead of recalling something related to the reality of the spoken word, calligraphy for the Muslim is a visible expression of spiritual concepts. Calligraphy has arguably become the most venerated form of Islamic art because it provides a link between the languages of the Muslims with the religion of Islam. The holy book of Islam, al-Qur'ān, has played a vital role in the development of the Arabic language, and by extension, calligraphy in the Arabic alphabet. Proverbs and complete passages from the Qur'an are still active sources for Islamic calligraphy. Contemporary artists in the Islamic world draw on the heritage of calligraphy to use calligraphic inscriptions or abstractions in their work.

  • Geometrical tile ornament (Zellij), Ben Youssef Madrasa, Maroc

  • Arabesques and floral decoration in the Aljafería of Zaragoza

  • Dome of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan with calligraphic inscription

  • Bengali Islamic terracotta on a 17th-century mosque in Tangail, Bangladesh

Architectural forms[edit]

Many forms of Islamic architecture have evolved in different regions of the Islamic world. Notable Islamic architectural types include the early Abbasid buildings, T-Type mosques, and the central-dome mosques of Anatolia. The oil-wealth of the 20th century drove a great deal of mosque construction using designs from leading modern architects.

Arab-plan or hypostyle mosques are the earliest type of mosques, pioneered under the Umayyad Dynasty. These mosques are square or rectangular in plan with an enclosed courtyard and a covered prayer hall. Historically, because of the warm Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climates, the courtyard served to accommodate the large number of worshippers during Friday prayers. Most early hypostyle mosques have flat roofs on top of prayer halls, necessitating the use of numerous columns and supports.[41] One of the most notable hypostyle mosques is the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain, as the building is supported by over 850 columns.[42] Frequently, hypostyle mosques have outer arcades so that visitors can enjoy some shade. Arab-plan mosques were constructed mostly under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties; subsequently, however, the simplicity of the Arab plan limited the opportunities for further development, and as a result, these mosques gradually fell out of popularity.[41]

The Ottomans introduced central dome mosques in the 15th century and have a large dome centered over the prayer hall. In addition to having one large dome at the center, there are often smaller domes that exist off-center over the prayer hall or throughout the rest of the mosque, where prayer is not performed.[43] This style was heavily influenced by the Byzantine religious architecture with its use of large central domes.[41]

  • A sample of modern Islamic architecture - The mosque of international conferences center - Isfahan

Specific architectural elements[edit]

Islamic architecture may be identified with the following design elements, which were inherited from the first mosque buildings (originally a feature of the Masjid al-Nabawi).

  • Minarets or towers (these were originally used as torch-lit watchtowers, as seen in the Great Mosque of Damascus; hence the derivation of the word from the Arabic nur, meaning "light"). The minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia is considered as the oldest surviving minaret in the world.[44] It has the shape of a square massive tower of three superimposed sections.[44]
  • A four-iwan plan, with three subordinate halls and one principal one that faces toward Mecca
  • Mihrab or prayer niche on an inside wall indicating the direction to Mecca.
  • Domes and Cupolas. In South East Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia), these are very recent additions.
  • Pishtaq is the formal gateway to the iwan, usually the main prayer hall of a mosque, a vaulted hall or space, walled on three sides, with one end entirely open; a Persian term for a portal projecting from the facade of a building, usually decorated with calligraphy bands, glazed tilework, and geometric designs.[45][46]
  • Iwans to intermediate between different pavilions.

Towns and cities[edit]

Urban and nomadic life according to Ibn Khaldun[edit]

During its history, the society of the pre-modern Islamic world was dominated by two important social contexts, nomadic life and Urbanism. The historian and politician Ibn Khaldun thoroughly discusses both concepts in his book Muqaddimah. According to him, the way of life and culture of the rural bedouin nomads and the townspeople are opposed in a central social conflict. Ibn Khaldun explains the rise and fall of civilizations by his concept of Asabiyyah ("bond of cohesion", or "family loyalty"), as exemplified by the rule of the caliphs. Bedouins, being the nomadic inhabitants of the steppe and the desert, are interconnected by strong bonds of asabiyyah and firm religious beliefs. These bonds tend to slacken in urban communities over some generations. In parallel, by losing their asabiyyah, the townspeople also lose the power to defend themselves, and fall victims to more aggressive tribes which may destroy the city and set up a new ruling dynasty, which over time is subject to the same weakening of power again.[47]

Experiments with the hellenistic Ideal city[edit]

The antique concept of the architecture of a Greekpolis or Roman

Plan view of Bab al-Barqiyya along Ayyubid Wall. Located close to one of Cairo's main modern traffic arteries, al-Azhar Street, the Fatimid-era Bab al-Barqiyya fortified gate was constructed with interlocking volumes that surrounded the entrant in such a way as to provide greater security and control than typical city wall gates. Laser scan data from an Aga Khan Foundation/CyArk research partnership.


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