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Arab and Islamic Architecture: Domes, Arches and Islimi Design

posted on: Sep 11, 2020

Ancient Arab and Islamic Architecture

By: Sarah Chaudhry / Arab America Contributing Writer               The innovative nature of Arab architecture is clear through the unique structures and designs of buildings dominant from the 7th century and beyond. Eye-catching colors and silhouettes prevalent in ancient Arab architecture have made these structures popular spots to explore!

Islam and Arab Architecture

Most signature Arab structures are found in predominantly Muslim countries and in the land that was overthrown by Muslims in the Middle Ages. Arab structures are very intertwined due to this history. The Islamic faith had an overarching effect on the structures being built in these Muslim dominated areas.

The principal architectural types are considered to be the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace, the Fort, and the School among others. There was almost no differentiation in technique between buildings that were used for worship and those used for everyday activities. Islamic architecture introduced a group of once uncommon terms that are now widespread including fountains, public baths and domestic architecture.

Mosques: Their Architecture & Characteristics

Minarets

When viewing mosques there are distinctive attributes that create a different aesthetic experience than other viewing experiences. First, many mosques have minarets. These are tall towers that are the visual focal point of the buildings. Minarets are utilized for the call to prayer by the Muezzin (the person who calls people to the prayer).

Domes

Ancient Arab and Islamic Architecture
Example of a dome on modern mosque (Masjid Putra, “The Putra Mosque”, constructed 1997-1999 in Putrajaya Wilaya, Malaysia)

Second, there is almost always a dome when looking at historic mosques, an element also used in the Byzantine and Italian Renaissance periods. In mosques, however, the dome usually covers the main prayer hall and symbolizes the “vault to heaven” in an Islamic context.

Other elements to the mosque include the Mimbar and the praying area hall. The Mimbar is where Imams deliver their khutbahs (sermons), and the prayer area is where all the people gather to do their five daily congregational prayers. Many of these characteristics were found in mosques. Of course, there are variations and not every building had every element.

Arches

Ancient Arab and Islamic Architecture
Incredible arches on display at the Jāmeh Mosque of Isfahān (Isfahan, Iran)

An important component to historic Arab architecture (including mosques) is that of the arch. Greeks and Romans influenced Arab architecture in the structure and form of the arch. The Arabs, however, were the ones to  develop and add to the arch. They eventually introduced the four most common types of arches: the pointed, ogee, multifoil, and horseshoe.

Ancient Arab and Islamic Architecture
The horseshoe arch was first used in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus (706-715 AD). Some say it symbolically manifests the concept of the evil eye, and the design has spread across many countries since.

Arabesque Design: Islimi Art

Geometric Patterns

Mesmerizing Arabesque design in action at the Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque. (Shiraz, Iran)

The decorative component of Arab structures tends to be more abstract, with calligraphic, Arabesque (Islimi), and geometric patterns that encompass the architecture, rather than a central focus of the design. Islamic decoration does not utilize figurative images, but rather relies on an iconic design.

Some common geometric patterns include interlaced circles, polygons, star patterns, and many other shapes/arrangements. When looking at the Arabesque form of design, there are three components. Islamic designs contain the eternal spiral, rhythm/balance, and geometry/structure. The eternal spiral symbolizes a plant growing from its sprout to its full form. The other facets of Islimi design represent rhythm and harmony are important in Islamic design, it can represent a sense of unity or be at peace.

Calligraphy

Ancient Arab and Islamic Architecture Besides geometric patterns, the art of calligraphy is used extensively in the Arab and Islamic tradition. Most of the calligraphic art is composed of religious texts, aphorisms, and poems. Calligraphy has a spiritual influence and, in ancient times, was considered a very highly valued practice. Many walls in mosques are inscribed with beautiful calligraphy of Quranic verses, especially since pictures were not allowed.

Famous Historic Arab Structures

Ancient Arab and Islamic Architecture
Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem, Palestine)

One of the most famous examples of both Arab and Islamic architecture is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Palestine. The Dome of the Rock was built by Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in 688-691 AD, making it the oldest Islamic monument in existence and in the Arab World. This structure exemplifies a mesh of different architectural influences, with parts of the Byzantine era and the earlier Islamic architectural style both incorporated.

The Alhambra Palace (Granada, Spain)

Another example of Arab architecture lies in Granada, Spain. This famous palace is named the Alhambra. Mohammed ibn Yusuf ben Nasr (known as Alahmar literally “the red one” in Arabic) established this architectural masterpiece in the 13th century during the reign of the Nasrid dynasty. This fortress represents the last of the Islamic sultanate residing on the Iberian Peninsula.

The Alhambra contains beautiful gardens, fountains, and complex planning. Many of the ornaments were made of stucco (plaster) instead of stone with complicatedly beautiful tile mosaics covering a good portion of the structure.

Overall, Arab and Islamic architecture involve many symbolic components that are utilized to create an aesthetically pleasing experience.

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