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Architecture and the Arts in Egypt and North Africa

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Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

From The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800
© 1994 Yale University Press
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press


The expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula in1492 by the Christian rulers of Aragon and Castile endednearly eight centuries of Muslim presence there. The simultaneous discovery of the New World encouraged a reorientation of trade to the North Atlantic from the Mediterraneanand its European and African coasts. North Africa had traditionally provided a route to supply Europe and the Mediterranean world with African gold and ivory, but the roundingof the Cape by the Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama in1497 rendered this overland route increasingly redundantand expensive. Cairo, which for centuries had been themajor entrepot for eastern goods, received a serious blowwhen its lucrative Indian trade through the Red Sea wasintercepted by the Portuguese. The Ottoman conquest ofthe Mamluk sultanate in January 1517 sealed the city's fate;it became a provincial capital in the Ottoman empire, astatus it retained for three centuries. Political disintegration and economic disruption across North Africa resulted in thereplacement of the regional powers of the preceding period(see Chapter 9) with Ottoman provincial governorates incity-states along the coast which were supported largely bypiracy. Although Spanish concerns in the sixteenth centurywere largely focused on the New World, Spain was enticedto protect its rear by extending its power to the Moroccanand Algerian coasts of the Mediterranean. In response,the Ottomans extended their influence across the Libyan,Tunisian, and Algerian coasts through the intermediary ofthe corsairs. Despite the recognition of Ottoman suzeraintyin Algiers (1529), Tripoli (1550S), and Tunis (1574) and theestablishment of Ottoman governors there, the high cultureof the Ottoman court at Istanbul was known largely at adistance. By the late seventeenth century local powers hadusurped much of the governors' power. 1

Architecture across North Africa presents a variety ofresponses by local traditions to the Ottoman domination andincreased European power in the region. Egypt, the closestto the capital, was a valuable supplier of textiles and foodstuffs, and architecture there shows the strongest impact ofimperial Ottoman styles. In Tunis and Algiers hybrid stylesof building were evolved under the patronage of Ottomangovernors, who looked not only to Istanbul for modelsbut also to Italy for materials, particularly marbles. Onlyin Morocco, which remained independent of Ottoman orEuropean domination under the Sharifan dynasties of theSa'dis (r. 1511-1659) and 'Alawis (r. 1631- ), were traditional styles of building continued, but the isolation of theregion from developments elsewhere led to the repetitionof traditional models to such a degree that they becamehackneyed cliches. European paper had already replaced theEgyptian product by the fifteenth century, and after 1500Ottoman and European manufactures increasingly replacedlocally produced luxury goods throughout the north of Africa.Other than architecture and its fittings, the traditional artsof this period are represented only by a few illuminatedmanuscripts.

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