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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 Fatimids founded their first capital at Mahdiyya on the eastern coast of Tunisia.4 Not much has remained of its superb walls and gates or its artificial harbour, but surveys and early descriptions have allowed the reconstruction of a magnificent gate decorated on both sides with lions, of parts of the harbour, and of a long hall or covered street similar to those already found at Baghdad, Ukhaydir, and even Mshatta.5 The parts of the palace so far excavated6 have yielded two features of interest [286]. First, there was a curious entrance complex, consisting of a triple gate, its centre set out within a large rectangular tower. As one proceeds inwards, however, this gate ends in a blank wall. Two narrow halls on each side of the central axis lead into the court; the side entrances, on the other hand, proceed directly into the interior. The purpose of this odd arrangement could hardly be defensive; perhaps the four entries were to accommodate some of the extensive processions which, at least in later times, characterized Fatimid court life.7 Second, we cannot determine whether the decoration of some of the rooms with geometric floor mosaics sprang from memories of Umayyad palaces or imitated the many pre-Islamic mosaics of Tunisia.

A much restored mosque also remains from Fatimid Mahdiyya [287, 288].8 It was initially a rectangular hypostyle with a covered hall of prayer consisting of nine naves at right angles to the qibla. An axial nave led to a dome in front of the mihrab, and a portico in front of the covered hall served as a transition between open and covered areas and as part of a court with four porticoes. But the most significant novelty is the monumental façade, involving the whole of the north western wall of the mosque. It consists of two massive salients at each corner, which emphasize and control the limits of the building, and three symmetrically arranged gates, the central one set within another salient decorated with niches. This earliest known instance of a composed mosque façade gives a sense of unity not only to the outer wall but also to the building as a whole. Its origins should probably be sought in royal palace architecture, where such compositions were known as early as the Umayyad period.

From the second capital built by the Fatimids in North Africa, Sabra-al-Mansuriyya near Qayrawan, we know so far only of a very remarkable throne room which combines the eastern iwan with the characteristic western Islamic unit of two long halls at right angles to each other.9

The last two major monuments from North Africa to be attributed to the Fatimid cultural sphere are (if we except certain minor utilitarian structures) rarities in that geographical area. The first is the palace of Ashir, in central Algeria, where, under Fatimid patronage, the Zirid dynasty founded a capital around 947.10 It is a rectangle (72 by 40 metres) with towers of varying sizes [290]. The single outer gate of the complex is transformed into two entrances into the palace proper. On one side of the court is a portico. The presumed throne-room complex comprises a long hall with three entrances and a squarish room extending beyond the outer line of the wall and no doubt dominating the landscape. On each side of the central official unit, lining a courtyard, are two residential buildings consisting mostly of long halls. This symmetrical organization of living quarters around official areas recalls Mshatta or Qasr al-Hayr rather than the sprawling royal cities of Samarra and Madinat al-Zahra. Moreover, the palace is remarkable for its great simplicity: limited design, no columns, probably simple vaults, and very limited applied decoration. Though but a pale reflection of the architecture created on the Tunisian coast, Ashir is nevertheless precious for the completeness and preservation of its plan.

The second monument is the Qal'a of the Beni Hammad [291] in central Algeria, begun around 1007 by a Berber dynasty related by blood to the Zirids and also under the cultural impact of the Fatimid centres of Tunisia.11 It was a whole city with an immense royal compound comprising a huge tower with pavilions at the top [292], a complex of buildings crowded around a large (67 by 47 metres) artificial pool in which nautical spectacles took place, a bath, a mosque with a superb maqsura, and a series of individual houses and palaces. Neither the chronology nor the ceremonial or symbolic meaning of these buildings is clear; typologically, however, the Qala belongs to the succession of Samarra's or Madinat al-Zahra's sprawling ensembles, but with the emphasis on a setting for leisure and pleasure. A celebrated poem describing a lost palace of the eleventh century in Bijaya (Bougie) in present-day Algeria elaborates on this luxury and describes an imagery charged with heavenly and secular topics.12 It was possibly this ideal of luxury that inspired the twelfth-century architecture of the Norman kings of Sicily, about which more will be said in Chapter 8.

One group of fragments of unusual importance from the Qal'a of the Beni Hammad is a series of long ceramic parallelepipeds with grooves at one end; they must have projected unevenly from a ceiling or a cornice, looking like stalactites of a particularly unusual kind [452]13 . Other plaster fragments were certainly more typical muqarnas transitions. The origin and inspiration of these features is still unresolved. They could have been local inventions or, a more likely hypothesis, local interpretations of forms and ideas from the east, and prepared the way for the later vaults of Morocco and of Norman Sicily, especially the large ceiling of Roger II's Cappella Palatina at Palermo.14 Nearly all these examples occur in secular architecture, suggesting that the muqarnas may have been transmitted through the medium of private dwellings. But this matter also is not resolved, and we shall return to these very same fragments in Chapter 7.

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