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Art and Architecture

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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 monuments

Few congregational mosques were built, since most towns had had them since the first Muslim century, when Syria was the centre of power. But the old establishments in Aleppo,164 Damascus,165 Busra,166 and Jerusalem after the reconquest,167 were refurbished or repaired, increased or modified. At Aleppo, for example, while the plan and setting of the mosque are Umayyad, the porticoes (1146-47), courtyard, and minaret (1090) are from the Medieval period. But, as in late Fatimid Egypt, large institutions are rarer than smaller masjids or less ambitious congregational mosques serving either one of the many suburbs which sprang up at the time or some precise social or symbolic purpose. Such are the Hanbalite mosque in the Salihiya suburb of Damascus (before 1215-16),168 the Mosque of Repentance in a formerly ill-famed part of the same city,169 and various similar institutions in Aleppo known from texts or inscriptions.170 They are usually traditional hypostyles based more or less directly on the early model of the mosque of Damascus.

Several mosques were built or rebuilt in Yemen at this time. Some, like the mosque of al-Abbas at Asnaf (1126) or that of Sarha (thirteenth century) are closed chambers without windows, with a single entrance and, often, with beautifully decorated carved and painted ceilings [360]. Others are hypostyle buildings, like the mosque, founded by a woman, of Arwa bint Ahmad in Jibla (1088-89) with a courtyard and an axial nave reminiscent of Fatimid architecture in Cairo [361]. Monumental minarets and portals were added in the twelfth century to the mosques of Zabid and San'a.171

Of greater interest and importance are the institutions of Islamic learning sponsored by the new masters of Syria and Egypt. Most were madrasa for one or, more rarely, two of the four Sunnite schools of jurisprudence. At the Salihiya in Cairo,172 built in 1242, however, as at the Mustansiriya in Baghdad and probably under its influence, all four rites were united. In addition to madrasa there were several dar al-hadith for the expounding of Traditions;173 in many cases these also included the tomb of the founder or of a member of his family. The number of these schools is quite staggering. Later texts record the construction of forty-seven in Aleppo, eighty-two in Damascus, nine in Jerusalem, and nineteen in Cairo around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were the most popular form of piety at the time, fulfilling more than a simple teaching function. While undoubtedly their systematic construction by great leaders such as Nur al-Din and Saladin reveals political, ideological, and religious intentions,174 many madrasa, especially in the thirteenth century, with large endowed properties attached to them, were also examples of conspicuous consumption and a way of restricting private fortunes to the same families.

In contrast to those in Iran, these institutions were usually small, especially in Damascus, squeezed between other buildings in older parts of cities, often with only a narrow façade to the street but spreading out at the back. This apparent constriction, at times avoided by building in the suburbs, arose from the power of the landowning bourgeoisie in Arab countries,175 which made urban sites far more expensive in Syria than they were further east.

In spite of considerable variations in plan, and of differences both within one city and from one city to another, almost all these buildings are related, as can be seen by an analysis of six of them: the madrasa in Busra of 1135 [362], the earliest known in Syria; Nur al-Din's dar al-hadith (1171-72) [363] and madrasa (1167-68) [364] in Damascus; the Adiliya (1123) [365, 366] in the same city; and two of the greater Aleppo madrasa, the Zahiriya (1219) [367] and the Firdaws (1235-36) [368, 369]. All are rectangular structures around a central court often with a pool; at Busra, however, a curious corbel seems to suggest that the court was not open but vaulted. The entrance is usually in the middle of one of the narrow sides [370], although a significant number of side entrances exist. Around the courtyard there is always at least one iwan, and sometimes three or four; when there are four, one is usually small and connected with the entrance. The oratory is generally a long hall occupying one of the sides of the court - not necessarily that facing the entrance, since proper orientation is often precluded by the exigencies of the site. In a few instances the iwan facing the entrance is also the oratory with a mihrab, as in the Sahibiya in the Damascus suburb of Salihiya.176 A simple triple (or, in the madrasa of Nur al-Din and al-Adil in Damascus, quintuple) arcade led from the court to the oratory. Elsewhere, vaulted halls occupied the space between main iwan entrance and oratory. In the great buildings of Aleppo all elements of design were larger and more monumental than in Damascus, and the courtyard was generally surrounded by a portico.

The origin of the plan of the Syrian madrasa has been the subject of much controversy.177 There is general agreement that it was imported from the east, as the madrasa evolved there earlier, as the iwan was hardly known in Syria, and as a frequent awkwardness in planning, construction, and decoration can best be explained through new influences. Yet it is remarkable how rapidly the Syrian madrasa became a type of its own with a number of variables which could be used for other functions. For this reason, and in the absence of earlier Iraqi examples, the hypothesis of a primarily Syrian and Zangid creation, with no doubt some impact from the east, is the most likely one.

When we turn to mausoleums, most of the extant freestanding ones are of archeological interest only. An exception is the spectacular (and often restored) tomb of al-Shafi'i in Cairo (1217) [371], on a simple and traditional plan, but superbly decorated, with one of the largest domes (15 metres wide) of the time.178 Also in Cairo is the smaller so-called mausoleum of the Abbasids, dated around 1240.179 In Aleppo and Damascus are found a number of mashhads and khangahs (houses for Sufi orders) on madrasa-like plans.

Much of Zangid and Ayyubid secular architecture is gone: of the more than three hundred public baths recorded in Aleppo and Damascus, only a handful remain.180 The quality of construction and decoration of the caravanserais still standing on the main roads of Syria181 is not nearly so high as in Iran or Anatolia; nevertheless, together with the great markets, such as the one in Aleppo planned in medieval times although later in its present shape, they testify to the Saljuq and Ayyubid princes' interest in commerce, which is borne out by an account of a military leader buying a palace in Aleppo and transforming it into a warehouse and oil press.182 Hospitals were the most common philanthropic foundations; Nur al-Din's [372, 373], built in Damascus in 1154 on the ubiquitous four-iwan plan, still stands.183 It is one of the most harmoniously composed masterpieces of twelfth-century architecture, with a particularly elegant façade combining the geometry of a muqarnas half-dome with a classical lintel below.

The most spectacular secular architecture is military. The walls of Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Cairo all remain in part. Some (as in Jerusalem) were reconstructions or repairs of older walls, but more often a new enceinte was heeded to correspond to the growth of the city. Many of the new gates, generally with several turns for better defence, are still major landmarks of cities.184 But even more striking were the citadels known as qal'as. It was the residence and symbol of the sultan, usually overlooking the city and often set across its walls for combined control of the city and independence from it. In Aleppo work done on the citadel as early as the tenth century, at the time of Byzantine attacks, was continued under the Midrasids (1025-79) and the Zenguids, who built one of the sanctuaries inside. The magnificent construction now towering over the city [374], in spite of many later repairs and additions, goes back to the early thirteenth century and the sultan al-Zahir Ghazi, who was responsible for the spectacular glacis, the triple entrance, most of the towers, the great water tanks and food stores of the interior, and the mosque. Significant parts of the palatial ensembles have been cleared in recent years. The citadel of Damascus is not as striking. Saladin's brother entirely rebuilt it on the remains of an older and more primitive construction. It included private quarters, offensive and defensive gates, and an oratory.186 In Jerusalem the Crusaders and Saladin had transformed the ancient Herodian, and even earlier, citadel. The spectacular but often-repaired qal'a on a hill overlooking Cairo has been throughly analysed by K. A. C. Creswell.187 The one at Busra grew up round an ancient Roman theatre and thus succeeded in creating one of the most stunning contrasts in architectural design, as the sombre, vaulted, frightening halls of a basalt-built fortress lead to the brilliantly lit trabeated marble of the theatre.188

The interiors of these citadels, later rearranged, were probably rather monotonous, as in most military architecture, with long halls, narrow openings, various devices for defence, courts, stables, and originally austere living quarters. Yet some of the details from the citadel in Aleppo show considerable care given to details and a sober but effective masonry decoration. The gates were the most impressive feature, at times bearing figurative symbolic sculptures [375], always with magnificent inscriptions which were symbols both of possession and of the power and prestige of the individual sultan. It is unlikely that the often ephemeral rule of constantly warring princes gave rise at that time to any significant ceremonies inside the citadels, nor even to any elaborate cultural life, as happened at the same time in the Muslim West (see below, Chapter 7). There does not seem to have been much of an architecture of pleasure and comfort in most of them. But, since the later quite luxurious baths and halls in the citadels of Aleppo and Cairo were built over earlier palaces about which we know a little from texts,189 careful archeological investigations may yield many surprises.

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