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Saracenic Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )



I. Geographical.—The term Saracen, perhaps derived from " Sahara," a desert, was first applied by Greeks and Romans to nomad desert tribes west of the Euphrates, who harassed the borders of the Roman Empire, and the name was used by Christians in the Middle Ages for the followers of Mahomet, irrespective of nationality. Arabia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain were in turn, wholly or in part, subjected to the influence of the Mahometan religion, and India had a succession of Mahometan capitals in the upper valley of the Ganges, due to waves of invasion bursting through her north-west frontier. Saracenic or Mahometan architecture, as it is sometimes called, therefore differs from other styles in being the product of a religion rather than of a country, in contrast to that of ancient Rome, which everywhere represented the influence of a country rather than of a religion ; and, though the Saracenic style exhibited local divergences in treatment and detail, it prevailed in all countries brought tinder Mahometan influence.

II. Geological.—The varying geological formation of the different countries provided every sort of building material—marble, stone, brick, timber, and plaster, each of which had its influence on building methods and somewhat modified the style in each country. Domes, for instance, were either of brick plastered externally and internally, as in Syria, or of stone, as in India, and were generally built in projecting horizontal courses, thus minimising oblique pressure on the supporting walls. In Spain, brick and plaster, as the principal materials in use, were responsible for the rich decorative surface treatment. In North and Central India, where marble and red sandstone were available, a more monumental type was evolved, in which richness of surface decoration was obtained by the inlay of precious stones of the country.

III. Climatic.—The climate of the countries in which the Mahometan faith gradually spread was not as varied as that of the Roman Empire ; for it was confined to Eastern and Southern countries, and thus the climatic influence did not, in itself, produce much difference in architectural treatment. Sheltering arcades and small doorways and windows prevailed, because of the fierce heat of the sun. Doorways, although small in themselves, were, however, in India given additional importance as forming part of the design of great entrance gateways (p. 854), and windows, already small, were filled in with delicate pierced screens. The coolness of mosques was further ensured by wide-spreading roof-eaves ; while, as is usual in Eastern countries, the flat house roof, with its screening parapet, provided a welcome resort in the cool of the evening.

IV. Religious.—The Mahometan faith was the last of the three great religions which have arisen from among the Semitic nations, and its essence is contained in the words from the Koran, " There is no God but Allah, and Mahomet is His prophet." The Koran was compiled by Mahomet (A.D. 570-632), with his own additions, from the Bible, Talmud, and Apocryphal Gospels. Most of the states which embraced Mahometanism—Syria, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain—had independent Caliphs who only yielded nominal obedience to the Chief Caliph, and this made for certain differences in architectural style. Each Caliph was both a spiritual and a temporal ruler ; and this union of religion and state was responsible for the numerous religious buildings erected by Caliphs to perpetuate their memory. The prohibition of the use in decoration and sculpture of human and animal forms probably led to the intricate geometrical surface decoration known as " arabesques," a form of ornament largely derived from Byzantine - art (p. 861). Mahometans were fatalists (Islam = God's will be done), to whom the present was everything, and thus it was natural that they should have cared more for the transient beauty of decoration than for the permanent nature of buildings, whether religious or secular. They were satisfied on occasion to use poor and flimsy materials, such as plaster, provided it was disguised by abundance of surface ornament. Local traditions and varieties of national temperament, however, produced certain differences of treatment ; for in Egypt and India tomb houses of a permanent nature were constructed, such as the Taj Mahal, Agra (p. 851), and these were used as pleasure houses during the life of the founder.

V. Social.—The war of conquest by which Islam was to subjugate the world is outlined below, and bears an important relation to the various developments of the style, according to the country of its adoption. It is manifest that the type would inevitably be subjected to certain changes to suit such different civilisations as those of Spain or of India, and the social life of each country, which came in turn under the influence of Islam, is responsible for the varying modifications of Saracenic architecture to suit local requirements and institutions. Architecture was also continually receiving an impetus by the building of new capitals for different dynasties. The position of women in the social system influenced the planning and design of palaces and houses, in consequence of the isolation of the harem. The harem system, which is so general in the East, is of earlier origin than the Koran, and remains of Babylonian and Persian palaces show that it had even then given rise to a special distribution in house-planning ; for the seclusion of women in palaces of kings and nobles, with their innumerable attendants, required that the " haremlik " or women's quarters should be on one side, and the " selamlik " or men's quarters on the other side, with the private apartments of the owner in the centre for the reception of his male guests. In smaller town houses the harem is allocated to the upper floor, with a separate locked entrance, courtyard, and garden while the overhanging windows are filled in with intricate lattice-work designed to hide the women within. The Ten Commandments of the Mosaic dispensation contain a striking epitome of the social conditions of Eastern life, in the words " Thou shalt not covet . . . his ox or his ass." As it was then, so it is today ; the ox for draught work and the ass to carry his master have always summarised the material conditions of life in the unchanging East. The " Arabian Nights" describe Mahometan religion and customs and give the general atmosphere of life in the East. Omar Khayyam (A.D. 1075-1125), the great Persian astronomer-poet and philosopher-mathematician, reveals in his voluptuous verses the Persian pursuits of his day, while as a free-lance, though a friend of princes, he directed his epigrammatic satire against the narrow bigotry of orthodox believers.

VI. Historical.—Saracenic chronology commences with the year of the " Hejira " (A.D. 622) or flight of Mahomet from Mecca to Medina. The first four Caliphs, friends or kinsmen of Mahomet, were succeeded by the " Omayyads " at Damascus, and under this dynasty, which lasted till A.D. 750, the war was continually carried on which was intended to conquer the world for Mahometanism.

Persia was subjugated (A.D. 632-651) by the"Omayyads," who pushed east from Damascus to Kufa, and the country was ruled from this city till the " Omayyads " were overthrown in A.D. 750, when the "Abbasides " dynasty was founded by the descendants of Abbas, the uncle of Mahomet. Their newly-built capital, Bagdad, on the Tigris, then rose to importance and became the seat of the Eastern Caliphate till it was burnt and sacked in A.D. 1258. In the time of the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid (A.D. 786-8(39) Bagdad became an important centre of the arts and sciences.

Syria was conquered about the same time (A.D. 632-639), and the falsely so-called " Mosque of Omar " or the Dome of the Rock on the Temple platform at Jerusalem was established in the year A.D. 688. The Mahometans held Jerusalem till A.D. 1099, when it was taken by Crusaders, but was recaptured by Saladin in A.D. 1187, and has remained under Turkish rule till occupied by the British in A.D. 1918.

Egypt fell in A.D. 638, but the foundation of Cairo by the Fatimite Dynasty dates from A.D. 971. Saladin, however, reconquered Egypt for the Abbaside Caliphate of Bagdad in A.D. 1171, but he himself founded a semi-independent dynasty which lasted till A.D. 1252. This Ayyubide dynasty was followed by the two Mameluke dynasties, which lasted till A.D. 1517 and were nominally under the Abbasides Caliphs, who, how-ever, were dominated by the Sultans at Cairo. In A.D. 1517 Egypt became part of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled by Pashas from Constantinople till A.D. 1707, when the Mamelukes again became the rulers. The French occupation was followed by the restoration of Pashas in A.D. 1805 with hereditary rights, and their descendants were called Khedives, until in our own day the British instituted a Sultan of Egypt.

North Africa was brought in, with Carthage (A.D. 647—709), and the foundation of the sacred city of Kairouan is commemorated in the Great Mosque of Omar, then built in that city of pilgrimage. Algiers, Tunis, Barbary, Tripoli, and Morocco, all bordering on the Mediterranean, formed connecting links between the style, as developed under the Eastern Caliphate at Bagdad and the Western Caliphate at Cordova.

Spain was overrun by the Mahometan Moors in A.D. 710, and the independent Western Caliphate was established at Cordova. During a period of general anarchy this was divided into the four states of Seville, Granada, Toledo, and Valentia, which were gradually recovered by the Christians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, till the fall of Granada (A.D. 1492) marks the end of the Moorish rule in Spain,

Sicily, on the sea-route between East and West, naturally fell under the Moors in the eighth century ; but their dominion was of short duration, for the island was recaptured by the Christians in A.D. 1090, though not before the Moors had grafted their peculiar style on the local architecture.

Turkey fell under the Seljuk Turks, who had commenced their conquering career under Osman I in Bithynia (A.D. 1299), and took Constantinople from the Christians in A.D. 1453. This important historical event marks the period of Byzantine influence on Saracenic architecture in Turkey ; for S. Sophia, the great Byzantine cathedral, supplied hence-forth the " motif " of the style.

India began to fall into the hands of Mahometan invaders in A.D. 1000. The Pathan dynasty (A.D. 1193—1554) ruled over the whole of North India ; but after the death in A.D. 1316 of Mahomet Shah I, there gradually arose other independent states with capitals at Jaunpore, Ahmadabad, Mandu, Gaur, Kulbarga, Golconda, Bijapur, and elsewhere. The Mogul Empire (A.D. 1526-1857), founded by Babar, consolidated the Moslem Empire by the gradual absorption of all these petty kingdoms Akbar the Great (A.D. 1556—1605) first removed the capital from Delhi to Agra, and afterwards founded Futtehpore Sikri as the capital of the Empire, and in these cities are found the most famous buildings of the period. Shah Jehan (A.D. 1628—58) raised the Mogul Empire to its highest pitch of strength and magnificence. He erected in North India many splendid memorials of the Mogul dynasty, such as the Taj Mahal and the " Pearl Mosque " at Agra, the " Great Mosque " and Palace at Delhi with the celebrated " Dewan Khas " or court of audience. The Mogul Empire, however, rapidly declined in power (A.D. 1720—61) when invaders were pouring into Central Asia, while French and English traders were establishing the influence of their countries in the peninsula. British trade, under the East India Company, became powerful enough to inaugurate British rule, which was established by royal proclamation in A.D. 1858, when Queen Victoria assumed the government of India.



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