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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 middle and upper parts of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the mountains and semi-deserts between the two rivers and their affluents, known as the Jazira ('island') in medieval times, consisted of three parts: the Diyar Mudar, essentially the middle Euphrates valley, more or less coinciding with present eastern Syria; the Diyar Rabi'a, the middle Tigris valley, corresponding to the present northern Iraq; and the Diyar Bakr, including the more mountainous regions of the upper Tigris and Euphrates, now almost totally in Turkey. Great mountains - the Tauric chains, the Armenian knot, the Zagros and the Kurdish ranges - surround the Jazira on the east, north, and northwest. To the west and southwest lies the Syrian desert; to the south, Iraq. For centuries the main battleground between Mediterranean and Iranian empires, northern Mesopotamia was conquered by the Muslims in the first years of their expansion. For several hundred years thereafter it remained an area of transition, a passageway from Baghdad to Syria through Raqqa and Aleppo for trade and armies guarding the Anatolian frontier against the Byzantines. At least in the Euphrates valley, an area of major agricultural settlements had developed in the shadow of fortified towns such as Raqqa, Harran,134 and Diyarbakr.135 Prosperity declined considerably in the tenth century, as nomadic incursions threatened trade and weakened agriculture.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries enormous social and political changes took place. The conquest of Anatolia, the Crusades, Turkish and Kurdish population movements, the necessity of providing for large armies marching against Christians and Fatimids led to the transformation of the Jazira into one of the liveliest regions of the Muslim world. Old towns were revived, small villages transformed into major centres.136 As the danger from the nomads in the desert was checked, agriculture developed around some of the more important settlements. From impregnable fortresses enterprising feudal rulers or robber barons exacted taxes and tribute from passing caravans and armies. The cities of Mosul, Sinjar, Diyarbakr, Mayyafariqin (modern Silvan), Mardin, Hisn Kayfa (modern Hasankeyf), Jazira ibn Umar (modern Cizre), Harran, and many others suddenly hummed with power and activity. Armenian, Nestorian, and Jacobite Christians fully participated in the wealth and growth of northern Mesopotamia, and the building of new churches and monasteries is almost as remarkable as that of forts and mosques.

Prosperity did not last long, however; the Mongol invasions came and, as the destinies of Iran, Anatolia, and Syria moved in different directions in the following centuries, the Jazira reverted for the most part to an impoverished and largely deserted region of a few strongholds separated by menacing wastelands. Such it remained until the twentieth century. This fate, as well as its modern divisions between remote regions of three different countries, explains why its numerous monuments are still very little known and, with exceptions in present-day Turkey, unrecorded and little studied. Yet the interest and significance of the Jazira in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, both for Syria and for Anatolia, cannot be overestimated. The Zengids and the Ayyubids, future rulers of Syria and Egypt, came from this area and, in the middle of the twelfth century under Nur al-Din and in the second quarter of the thirteenth under Badr al-Din Lu'lu' in Mosul, the Jazira was one of the truly great centres of Islamic economic and political life. Builders were busy, as a list of Nur al-Din's constructions proves,137 but limited investigation so far allows only for the identification of some of the more significant monuments and a suggestion of their importance.

New congregational mosques were constructed and older ones rebuilt. In Raqqa the old Abbasid mosque was redecorated and largely rebuilt in 1146-47, 1158, and especially in 1165-66.138 In Mosul almost all of the mosque built in 1148 under Nur al-Din (rebuilt in 1170-72) to replace an early Islamic shrine has disappeared or been redone; Herzfeld reconstructed it as a hypostyle with vaults in the Iranian manner.139 All that remains from the early construction, a superb minaret [350], cylindrical on a square base and curiously leaning, shows the impact of Iran in both construction and decoration. It may not date from the time of Nur al-Din, for another minaret certainly sponsored by him at Raqqa140 is a simple round structure, hardly showing an Iranian impact; or possibly the western part of the Jazira was slower to adapt new fashions than the eastern, for the earliest minaret in the middle Euphrates area clearly to show such brick influence Is the one erected in 1210-11 at Balis (modern Meskene).141

One of the most remarkable congregational mosques of the period, begun in 1204, is at Dunaysir (modern Kochisar) [351].142 All that remains is the prayer hall, a rectangle 63 by 16 metres divided, like the mosque of Damascus, into three naves parallel to the qibla - a Syrian-Umayyad plan to which was added a feature of undoubted Iranian origin: a huge dome in front of the mihrab which takes up two of the aisles. Also Iranian in origin is the squinch arch filled with muqarnas and the decoration of the spandrels of the squinches [352]; but the superb stone piers and brick vaults are in the pure classical tradition of Late Antiquity and of Byzantium. Equally classical is the traditionally moulded lintel gate, but the luxurious and monumental mihrab with its complex geometric, floral, and epigraphic designs reflects oriental influence [353], while the rather strange interlace motif of the façade recalls Armenian or Georgian themes and hardly fits with the decorative imagery of the Islamic Near East. The minaret was square, just like the one of 1211-13 farther west at Edessa (modern Urfa).143

The mosques of Malatya (1247-48, restored 1273-74),144 Mayyafariqin (1157-1227),145 Kharput (1165),146 Mardin,147 and a number of other cities of the area, though by no means yet thoroughly studied, plainly share the stylistic feature of characteristics drawn from various sources. The muqarnas squinch at Malatya is an almost perfect copy of a central Iranian type; indeed inscriptions confirm that there were Persian builders there. All exhibit a fascinating variety of decorative themes, from the 'brick style' and incrustation in the Persian tradition to portals with half-muqarnas domes of an Iraqi type here translated into stone, writing carved on an arabesque background, and rude but striking geometric themes also carved from stone. At Harran, even classical ornament was literally copied on capitals and friezes. Nowhere is this relation to a pre-Islamic world more apparent than in the mosque of Diyarbakr (ancient Amida). Quite close to Damascus in plan and proportions, its most remarkable feature is its court façades [354], at first glance an extraordinary jumble of antique and medieval elements. Undoubtedly the mosque was, in its main parts, erected in the twelfth century,148 adding new decorative motifs to elements of construction from older ruins, so that Late Antique vine rinceaux appear next to Islamic arabesques and Arabic writing. The result is less appealing aesthetically than it is fascinating as one of the most remarkable instances of the catholicity of taste which characterized the period and the area.

Besides congregational mosques, the cities of the Jazira boasted many smaller religious buildings. madrasa - none of which remains in its original form - are known from Mosul (seventeen of them),149 Diyarbakr,15 and most other cities. Some were attached to the tomb of the founder - the first instance of the combination of the mausoleum with some endowed public function which later became so popular in Syria and Egypt. Still standing in and around Mosul are a considerable number of sanctuaries dedicated to saints, prophets, and holy men,151 including Jonah and St George as well as medieval Muslims, indicating that ancient holy places were often taken over by the predominant faith. Their central feature was always a domed room, often conical or pyramidal on the outside, and the more elaborate ones frequently had an inner muqarnas dome (often in stucco, as in the mashhad of Awn al-Din [355], dated 1248-49) in complex polyhedral shapes related to Iraqi types, and handsomely carved mihrabs [356]. Christian churches took this form as well.152 In mosques the entrance proper is framed by interlaced polylobed niches filled with decorative designs, in churches by figures. The few known mausoleums and sanctuaries in and around Mosul are no indication of the numbers erected in the Jazira: a guidebook to places of pilgrimage written in the late twelfth century lists many more.153 Several are visible on the cliffs which border the Euphrates in Syria, and others could probably be found along the roads of the upper valleys of the two rivers.

The great sanctuaries of Edessa and Harran remain uninvestigated. These sanctuaries differ from known Iranian and Iraqi buildings in two ways. First, instead of being only tombs, they are usually associated with constructions dedicated to some cultic, philanthropic, or ceremonial purpose. Second, the architectural qualities found in Iranian mausoleums are not as consistently displayed in the Jazira. This may be because some of the best examples have disappeared, although it is more likely to be a reflection of a wider social basis among patrons and users in the Arab countries of northern Mesopotamia: the long and complex history of Arab cities - with their many religious, economic, and tribal components - might easily have led to greater differentiation in patronage and function than was likely in the constantly shifting and more ephemeral cities of Iran.

The secular architecture of the Jazira is equally varied and even less well known. The area became studded with castles, fortresses, and citadels. They occur along the Euphrates, as at Qal'a Jabar,154 Qa'la Najm.155 At Diyarbakr [357] the striking black basalt wall and massive round towers built over older foundations and often decorated with curious examples of animal sculpture.156 At Harran, strong walls and towers with long vaulted halls and impressive gates are still standing.157 And the celebrated Baghdad Gate at Raqqa [358] with its intricate decoration of brickwork clearly belongs to this period, as has recently been demonstrated. Other remains have not yet been systematically studied. Only small fragments remain of palaces. At the Qara Saray in Mosul,159 generally identified with the thirteenth-century residence of Badr al-Din Lu'lu', only a few mud-brick walls remain from what must have been a great pavilion on the Tigris; the only interest of the building now is its stucco decoration of interlaced niches with figures, as already encountered in religious architecture. The most significant feature of the single remaining caravanserai, al-Khan near Sinjar,160 is its two façade sculptures of a bearded man transfixing a snakelike dragon [359]. Of several surviving bridges, most of them ruined, the most interesting is at Jazira ibn Umar (modern Cizre), with its astronomical sculptures on the piles.161 Further explorations and occasional excavations will certainly bring to light other bridges, as well as standard monuments of secular architecture like caravanserais and bazaars so far known only from texts.

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