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Saracenic Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

The character of the style is difficult to describe because of its variation in countries whose inhabitants differed widely in origin, and where already existing types of architecture influenced that of the Saracen invaders. Followers of the Prophet established their faith in many lands, but nowhere did they carry a style of architecture with them: They were content to adopt that which had already been proved suitable to the locality, but upon all types which they appropriated was set the distinguishing seal of their peculiar form of decoration and ornament. Mosques, tombs, and dwelling-houses are the chief buildings. Like Egyptian temples, mosques were of far greater architectural importance internally than externally. The disposition of the essential parts of a mosque (p. 853) is governed by ritual requirements. Interiors of earlier mosques are characterised by forests of columns which support arches under low flat roofs, while richly decorated walls and domes are features of later periods. The pointed arch, which came from its original home in Assyria (p. 6o), was used, both internally and externally, as a symbol of the faith. The arch is either formed of two segments of a circle, or as a four-centred arch (p. 859), and is unmoulded, thus differing from the pointed arch of Gothic architecture. Pointed, horseshoe, multifoil, and ogee arches are all used (pp. 848, 859). The outline of a characteristic form of dome is obtained by revolving one half of a four-centred arch round a vertical axis passing through the summit. Exteriors are notice-able by reason of pointed or bulbous (pear-shaped) domes (p. 833 A), originally indicating a tomb beneath, and by lofty, graceful, and elaborately decorated minarets (= signal-posts or light-houses), used by the priests to call the faithful to prayer, and these mark off Saracenic religious buildings as unique and different from those of any other style. Dwelling-houses, too, are plain externally, and ornament is lavished on pavements, walls, and ceilings. Surface decoration is all-important, and its geometric character is largely due to the prohibition by the Koran of animal forms (p. 839). It is indeed on its decorative rather that its constructive side that Saracenic architecture is specially impressive. The characteristic " stalactite " vaulting (from Gk. stalactos = icicle-like), like the Byzantine " pendentive " (p. 227), was a device to bring a square plan to a circular base to carry the dome ; but " stalactite vaulting, instead of being treated as a plain surface like the Byzantine " pendentive," consisted of rows of upright pointed niches, rising in ranges one above the other, till the circle for the dome was formed. The use of rings of such niches to form the pyramidal roof of the Tomb of Zobeide, Bagdad, would suggest that this peculiar stalactite ornament was of Persian origin. The ornamental form thus produced was afterwards freely used in decoration, as in the bracketing of minaret galleries, the upper part of niches (p. 848), the capitals of columns (pp. 833 D, 848 F), and the crowning cornices of walls.

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