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Central Islamic Lands

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Richard Ettinghausen et al.

From The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250
© 1987 Yale University Press
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press


The history and development of Iraq, defined here in the medieval sense as the lower part of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, were somewhat overshadowed by the momentous events taking place in Anatolia, Palestine, and Syria. Nevertheless, the orthodox Abbasid caliph resided in Baghdad and in spiritual and intellectual power the city was as great as ever. Nizam al-Mulk, the celebrated vizier and ideological guide of Saljuq rulers, founded his most important madrasa there. The tombs of Ali and Husayn, the tragic heroes of Shi'ism, and of the great founders of Sunni schools of jurisprudence were in Baghdad, Kufa, Kerbela, and Najaf; they all became centres of large religious establishments for pilgrims and other wayfarers; their impact was as wide as the Islamic world.125 The port city of Basra in the extreme south was still one of the major Muslim gates to the Indian Ocean, and travellers such as the Muslim Ibn Jubayr and the Jew Benjamin of Tudela continued to be struck by the wealth and importance of most Iraqi cities. Iraq's political significance, on the other hand, had shrunk, to revive briefly in the first decades of the thirteenth century, when the caliphs al-Nasir and al-Mustansir asserted themselves as more than figureheads.126 In 1258 the last caliph was killed by the Mongols and the city sacked.

Few monuments survive from this period. Of those mentioned in texts, mostly chronicles,127 many were reconstructions of, or comparatively minor additions to, older buildings. The vast complex of the Mustansiriya in Baghdad, inaugurated in 1233 by the caliph al-Mustansir,128 stands out both ideologically and architecturally [344, 345, 410]. The first recorded madrasa built for all four Islamic schools of jurisprudence, it reflected the idea of the caliphate as the sponsor of an ecumenical Sunnism, a strong feature of the new guidance that the later Abbasids attempted to provide. Built along the Tigris, the Mustansiriya is a huge rectangle (106 by 48 metres) with a large central court (62 by 26 metres). It had three iwans opening on the court, one of which served as an oratory. Between iwans and oratory lay long halls at right angles to the court, and various other halls and rooms extended to the north and south, probably equally divided between the four official schools of Islamic law, according to Sunni practice.

Extensive reconstructions and long use of the Mustansiriya as a customs house have greatly altered the internal aspect of the building, but two points about it are of some significance. First, although, with its two superposed arches in rows symmetrically arranged on either side of larger single arches, it was clearly influenced by the Iranian court with four iwans, it differs in that one of the iwans was transformed into an oratory whose function separated it from the rest of the building. This function was emphasized by a triple entrance on the qibla side of the court [346], balanced by a totally artificial triple façade on the opposite (entrance) side. Thus the openings on the court do not correspond with the same clarity as in Iran to the purposes and forms of the covered parts behind them; from being a meaningful screen, the court façade has become a mask or a veil, perhaps aiming to provide an eastern Islamic effect to a Baghdadi building and being, thus, the expression of social taste. Second, the ratio between length and width, the multiplication of long vaulted halls, and the peculiar separateness of the oratory are all anomalous features, at least from the point of view of an Iranian model. They could be due to the location of the Mustansiriya in a bazaar area where previous constructions and all urban rhythm of life imposed peculiar forms on the new buildings; on the other hand they may derive from earlier developments in Iraq in the eleventh and twelfth centuries of which as yet we have no knowledge. In any case the originality of the ecumenical function of the Mustansiriya is indubitable.

A second Baghdadi monument, probably of the twelfth century,129 the minaret in the Suq al-Ghazi [347], uses the brick technique and decoration of Iranian minarets. Stucco decoration on one side shows that it was once attached to some larger construction.

The mausoleums erected in Iraq during this period are particularly novel and original among the funerary buildings seen so far. Many of the most celebrated, such as those of al-Hanafi and the Shi'ite ones in Kufa, Najaf, and Kerbela, either have been altered beyond recognition of their early appearance or have never been available for scientific analysis. Two less holy ones which have been studied are the Imam Dur (or Dawr), near Samarra, datable around 1085 [348, 349], and the so-called tomb of Zubayda in Baghdad, datable around 1152, and very much restored in recent times.130 In both instances the individuals originally commemorated in these mausoleums are unknown. Their plan is quite simple: a polygon or a square covered with a dome. The curious development occurs in the dome: over an octagon, five (at Imam Dur) or nine (in Baghdad) rows of niches lead up to a very small cupola. The dome has been transformed into a sort of muqarnas cone. In detail the two monuments vary considerably: the Baghdad one is drier and more obviously logical in its construction than Imam Dur, where there is a much more complex combination of geometric forms, particularly inside. In both domes, however, great height was achieved through a geometrically conceived multiplication of single three-dimensional units of architectural origin. This type remained quite popular in the Persian Gulf,131 and its impact elsewhere has been well documented. Although the full documentation of the point is difficult to make, recent and forthcoming works are very suggestive in proposing that the type identifies the Baghdadi version, if not invention, of the muqarnas as an ideological statement of Sunnism.

Secular architecture is represented by a few fragments from thirteenth-century palaces in Baghdad (now much restored and transformed into museums),132 with iwans and porticoed courts and rich stucco decoration covering most of the walls, and by two gates to the city. The more interesting, the Gate of the Talisman, was blown up in 1918.133 Built by the caliph al-Nasir in 1221, it was remarkable for the sculpted figure of a small personage pulling the tongue of two dragons, possibly a symbol of the caliph destroying the heresies threatening the empire, or perhaps a more general, apotropaic talisman, as was fairly common in the popular culture of the Fertile Crescent at that time.

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