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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

Construction and decoration


Much work has been done on the methods of construction and decoration in Egypt and Syria. Consequently quite fine distinctions can be drawn between the individual architectural idioms of Cairo, Aleppo, and Damascus. At the same time, constant influences and movements of craftsmen and ideas from one city to another contributed many variations.190

Materials are traditional: stone in Syria, with brick fairly common for vaults in Damascus, basalt in the Hauran, brick and stone in Egypt; wood throughout for limited purposes. Unexpected techniques that appeared occasionally, such as the use of wood in the dar al-hadith of Nur al-Din in Damascus (between courses of stone, a feature common in brick, but in stone serving only to weaken the wall),191 indicate a new dependence on northern Mesopotamia or Iraq. But, in general, the masonry is simple, except on certain façades and arches where joggled voussoirs and the ablaq technique of alternating stones of different colours are used. Rubble in mortar - both inexpensive and quick - was fairly common in vaulting in caravanserais and citadels.

The supports consisted of traditional columns with capitals (sometimes utilizing new muqarnas-based designs) and of piers carrying arches. But, more and more, heavy walls, often pierced by bays, appear in new buildings, as they did in Iran. This is largely due to the spread of vaulting, which came about partly through the penetration of themes from the north and east, partly because often wood could not be used (particularly in military architecture) for fear of fire. A few masjids and the oratories of some madrasa have old-fashioned wooden ceilings, but barrel-vaults, often of simple semicircular section, as well as cross-vaults are usual on rectangular spaces and are especially typical of the long galleries of military architecture. Flat arches, usually in combination with relieving ones, are also occasionally revived.192

Domes and zones of transition are of almost unbelievable variety. The large wooden dome and the muqarnas zone of transition of the mausoleum of al-Shafi'i in Cairo date from the fifteenth century. Elsewhere in Egypt, as in the tomb of the Abbasids, the Ayyubid models simply transformed the Fatimid muqarnas squinch into a composition covering the whole zone of transition. The citadel of Cairo and most Syrian monuments use the squinch and pendentive alone or combined with muqarnas. The mosque of Busra may have had a corbelled zone of transition, in line with the corbelled roofing of the pre-Islamic Hauran, but it is still unclear whether a dome covered the centre of the madrasa. The Iraqi and northern Mesopotamian technique of high domes on rows of muqarnas did not reach Egypt in Ayyubid times, but became fully acclimatized in Syria with the first Zengid monuments. Translated into stone, it provided some of the most effective domes over tombs and entrances and half-domes on façades, probably endowing them at the same time with a rather cold and dry mathematical quality.

Decoration in Syria and Egypt was on the whole remarkable for its sobriety and simplicity. It was limited to gates, where single sculpted panels were often put on the walls around the entrance; to plaques and bands of writing, using Qur'anic quotations or established formulas to point up the purpose of the building and the glory of its founder; to the elaborate stone or stucco grilles of windows and oculi; and to mihrabs in wood, stone, stucco, or the peculiarly characteristic new technique of marble incrustation. Themes were traditional, including arcades (as in the minaret of the Great Mosque in Aleppo), classical and early Christian motifs reused from older buildings, or further developments on the Fatimid geometry based on star patterns [ ]. Three newer features are particularly significant. The first is a motif of interlacing heavy lines, varying in the complexity of their geometry and in the relationship between right angles and curves. It occurs most commonly in mihrabs [376] - more specifically, in the rectangle framing the nichehead - and also in gates, creating a strong and immediate visual effect. The motif reflects a simpler and ruder tradition and taste than the minute arabesques of Fatimid times, but its influence was to be quite strong in Anatolia and in Mamluk Egypt. The second characteristic theme is writing, often used in conjunction with floral motifs. Like contemporary objects, architecture bore both angular, somewhat artificially archaizing inscriptions and the more common cursive ones. Like contemporary sculpture in western cathedrals, the epigraphy both illustrates the purpose of the building and emphasizes its main axes and lines, fulfilling the function of a moulding in architecture as well as reflecting the expressive value and meaning of a monument. A most striking example occurs in the Firdows Mosque in Aleppo [377], where the mystical imagery of the inscriptions sets the tone for the peaceful and otherworldly atmosphere of the building.193

The third motif involves the windows and medallions used on qibla walls,194 domes, and façades, geometric in Syria, but often incorporating magnificent floral arabesques of leaves and stems. Related though they are to Fatimid or

Iranian themes, the main quality of these complex designs - as can be seen for instance in the Abbasid mausoleum in Cairo195 and the Maydaniya in Damascus196 - is their remarkable clarity, which enables the eye to catch the major lines of the movement without being bored with endless repetition. Such arabesques do not have the wealth of their Iranian or Iraqi counterparts, but they make up for the consistent simplicity of their designs by their elegance and restraint.

Two more original techniques are those of mosaic and of representational sculpture. Mosaics occur in some mihrab niches in Egypt197 and in Saladin's reconstructions in Jerusalem, in particular in the Aqsa Mosque. Saladin probably used mosaics in a conscious attempt to revive the decorative methods of the first conquest of Jerusalem by the Muslims in early Islamic times. The actual quality of the workmanship is not very high, but its presence attests to the major task of rehabilitating the Haram al-Sharif.

The second technique, representational sculpture, was applied chiefly to secular architecture, most interestingly at Aleppo, where intertwined dragons and lions guard each of the three gates to the citadel. Their iconography and their simple but effective style relate them to similar images in Iraq and northern Mesopotamia, and their prophylactic aim is confirmed by several texts,198 but their origin and their application to contemporary Aleppo are unclear.

Zangid and Ayyubid Syria was the second of the Muslim regions after Iran to evolve a great medieval architecture. Although the citadels of Aleppo and Cairo are the only monuments to rival some of those farther east in size and in the complexity of their history, Syria must nevertheless be singled out for the variety of its constructions, the growth of military architecture, the incorporation of motifs and techniques from the east and from the north, the importance of cities in determining the sizes and types of buildings, and the transformations given to the muqarnas. Many of these features reflect the religious and cultural needs of the time and illustrate phenomena wider than either Syria or the Arab world, most particularly that great Sunni revival which became the mission of many of the region's rulers. The simplicity and clarity of construction, excellence of workmanship, successful use of stone, the sobriety of decoration, fondness for geometric lines and for clear surfaces all reflect, wilfully or accidentally, some of the qualities of the rich heritage of Late Antiquity. Some scholars have even talked about a classical revival.199

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