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Moslem Architecture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



WE have seen that Christianity in its early days had little influence upon architecture, and that it did little towards asserting itself in this direction during the first 300 years of its existence. Far different was it with respect to a new religious movement which sprang up while the Byzantine empire was at the height of its power, in the sixth century of the Christian era—a movement which rapidly infected the East, sweeping over whole countries with an irresistible tide, and .at once leaving its impress upon every phase of art.

Mohammed, the leader of the new faith, lived from A.D. 570-652. SO 'sudden was the growth of his influence that within a century after his death he was acknowledged as the Prophet of God in Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, in Persia, in India as far as the Ganges, along the north of Africa, and in Spain. Under these circumstances the Mohammedan, a new architectural style, grew up, differing widely from the contemporary Christian architecture, and differing also in each of the various countries in which it prevailed.

The Arabs, who were the banner-bearers of the new Prophet, were a nomad and warlike race, but they were not great builders; they possessed, in fact, but little architecture of their own before the period of their conquests. As might be expected then, the earliest Mohammedan places of worship, or mosques, as they are called, were insignificant, and of simple form. Even at Mecca, the birth-place of the Prophet, the only temple of the Arabs-the sacred Kaabah—was nothing more than a square tower of little architectural importance.

The Koran, the sacred book of religious duties and precepts, contained no instructions for the followers of Mohammed with regard to the building of places of assembly or of worship. The faithful had their stated times for prayer when, turning their faces towards Mecca, they went through the prescribed forms; but for these ceremonies it was not necessary that there should be any assembling together: each man could offer up his prayers upon his own housetop. Nor were the mosques required—as in the case of temples of other religions—for the purpose of enshrining a sacred object or an image of the Deity, for Mecca was the one place sacred to all Mohammedans.

At first, then, there was little building in connection with the new religion : such mosques as were erected were merely shelters for purposes of prayer and retirement, of simplest form and, in the majority of cases, adapted from old buildings. When the Arabs began to erect new mosques, being without an architecture of their own, they were obliged to employ the native architects and workmen—a fact which accounts for the consider-able differences of styles found in the different countries.

The most important of the early works were the mosques of Amrow at Cairo (A.D. 642) and of El Aksah (A.D. 690) at Jerusalem. These earlier buildings generally took the form of arcaded cloisters with flat timber roofs one story high, enclosing a large square courtyard. On the side towards Mecca the cloister was much deeper and contained several rows of columns. On this plan was the magnificent mosque of Ibn Touloun, also at Cairo, built towards the end of the ninth century. Here the arcades of pointed arches spring from series of columns. On the side of the building nearest Mecca the arcades are five deep; in the centre of the outer wall on this side is the mihrab, or prayer-niche, indicating the direction of the sacred city, one of the indispensable features of the mosque-plan. At an early date minarets were added—slender towers from which the call to prayer was made to the Mohammedans throughout the city. The minarets assumed varied elegant forms, and added much picturesque ness to the exterior design. Usually they were octagonal, upon a square base, the upper part being circular, and marked by a projecting balcony from which the prayer-call was sounded. The roofs of the earlier mosques were flat and of wooden construction, but towards the end of the tenth century vaulting was introduced ; and the vaulted roofs soon became one of the most characteristic, as they were the most beautiful, of the features of Saracenic architecture. In the tombs of the Caliphs, built in the eleventh century, and in the mosques of Barkouk (1149), of Sultan Hassan (1355), and of Kait Bey (1463), all at Cairo, we find not only this form of roof, but increasing skill in workmanship and richness in design.

Every example shows that the architecture of the Arabs was essentially decorative rather than structural. Externally the domes were decorated with rich and intricate geometric designs; similar but more elaborate treatment was applied to the whole of the interior. The dome—after the Byzantine fashion—was carried on pendentives, which were richly decorated with honeycomb ornament. This honeycomb corbelling was constantly used by the Arabs in their roofs, for it proved an effective method of filling up the awkward corners resulting from the practice of carrying octagonal walls upon a square base. The whole of the mosque interior was treated with lavish decoration, in which color played a most important part. Ceilings were panelled out with intricately carved beams and were enriched with harmonious patterns; niches were resplendent with brightly colored honeycomb roof-corbels ; all the wall surfaces were encrusted with exquisite marbles or with brilliant arrangements of tiles, in which the Arab showed his fertility of invention equally with his feeling for color. In accordance with the rules laid down in the Koran, no imitation of natural objects was permitted in the decoration ; the designers were there-fore restricted to the use of flowing and geometric patterns, which thus became characteristic of their work. In many cases inscriptions from the Koran were introduced, the ornamental Arabic lettering forming a very effective embellishment. An interesting feature, which marks the architecture of the Arabs to the present day, was the delicate tracery which frequently filled the windows and the wall-openings with complicated geometric designs.

In addition to the semicircular arch, three other forms are found in Mohammedan buildings for the arcades and door openings. In Syria and Egypt occurs the pointed arch, similar to that used by the Gothic architects of Western Europe, In India and in Persia the most common form has the curves near the apex bent slightly upwards, giving to the arch an outline like the keel of a vessel; this form is sometimes called the keel arch. The third form, the horse-shoe arch, is most frequently met with amongst the works of the Moors in Spain.

Mention of the Moors recalls the fact that some of the most splendid examples of Arabic architecture are found farther west and in the continent of Europe. With the exception of the mosques of Cairo, few important works were produced in Northern Africa. When, however, the Moors invaded Spain in 710, there sprang up in that country a new Arabian empire whose architecture was destined to rival that of the East.

The first important building was the mosque at Cordova, begun in 786 by the Caliph Abd-er-Rahman. This consisted of an arcaded hall in the form of a parallelogram 420 feet by 375 feet—thus covering a larger area than any Christian church with the exception of S. Peter's at Rome. The height, however, was not more than 30 feet; the ceiling was of wood richly carved and decorated, and was carried upon seventeen rows of thirty-three columns each, all having two tiers of horseshoe arches. The mihrab-niche, indicating the direction of Mecca, was richly encrusted with delicate carving and with mosaics. This sanctuary at Cordova, which was rebuilt in the tenth century, is considered by Fergusson to be the most beautiful and elaborate specimen of Moorish architecture in Spain, and of the best age." Unfortunately but little of the great mosque re-mains in its original state.

Fate has been kinder to the great citadel pal-ace at Granada known as the Alhambra—the Mecca of travelers in Spain at the present day. This great work was begun in 1 248 by Mohammedben-Alhamar, after his expulsion from Seville, and was completed in the beginning of the fourteenth century. Those who have not been able to visit the Alhambra are afforded the opportunity of studying the wealth of its design in the magnificent illustrations and drawings of Owen Jones; interesting reproductions of parts of the building, by this artist, may be seen at the Crystal Palace.

The Alhambra is considered the gem of Hispano-Moresque art—a distinction due as much to its excellent state of preservation as to the delicate beauty of its work. Two large courts occupy the greater portion of the ground-plan: the more celebrated of these, the Court of the Lions, is surrounded by light arcades, with a central fountain supported by twelve lions, from which it takes its name. The whole of the interior is covered with delicate ornamentation of exquisite beauty, to which the harmonious coloring adds wonderful richness and charm.

The Alcazar (castle) at Seville, an earlier building than the Alhambra, was probably even more magnificent, but it has become much dilapidated, and its character has been destroyed by alterations. Of greater interest, in the present day, is the Giralda in the same city, a building in the form of a massive square tower, not unlike a minaret on a grand scale. Unlike the Moslem builders in the East, however, the Moors in Spain never built minarets in connection with their mosque architecture, and the Giralda appears not to have been constructed for the purpose of the call to prayer.

Mohammedan architecture flourished in Spain until the reconquest of the country by the Christians and the expulsion of the Moors in 1492. The Moors had obtained a footing also in Sicily, whence they were driven out at the end of the eleventh century, leaving behind them buildings which very strongly influenced the architecture of the Christian builders who succeeded them in the island.

Upon the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, the Christian churches there fell into the hands of the Mohammedans. The church of Hagia Sophia, the masterpiece of the Byzantine builders, was at once converted into a mosque, and, strange to say, served as the model for the architecture which sprang up to meet the new religious requirements. This new style culminated, just a century later, in the Suleimaniyeh, the great mosque built by Soliman the Magnificent in 1553.

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