FEW revolutions more sudden, more signal, and more widespread are recorded in history than that which covered not only the East but part of the West with the Mohammedan religion and dominion. Mohammed was born either in the year 569 or 570 of the Christian era, and died A.D. 652. The year of the Hegira, the era from which Mohammedans compute their chronology, is A.D. 622, and within little more than a century from this era the Prophet was acknowledged, and the suzerainty of the Caliph recognised eastwards, in Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Persia, and in India as far as to the Ganges; and westwards along the north coast of Africa, in Sicily, and in Spain. It was only to be expected that such a wonderful tide of conquest and such a widespread change [253] of religion should before long leave its impress on the architecture of the continents thus revolutionised; and accordingly a Mohammedan style soon rose. This style did not displace or override the indigenous art of the various countries where it prevailed, as Roman architecture did in the age of universal dominion under the Empire; it assimilated the peculiarities of each country, and so transmuted them, that although wherever the religion of Mohammed prevails the architecture will at a glance confess the fact, still the local or national peculiarities of each country remain prominent.

The Arabs, a nomadic race who lived in tents, do not seem to have been great builders even in their cities. We have no authentic accounts or existing remains of very early buildings even in Mecca or Medina, as the oldest mosques in those cities have been completely rebuilt. It is to Egypt and Syria that we must turn for the most ancient remaining examples of Saracenic architecture. These consist of mosques and tombs.


A mosque—or Mohammedan place of worship—has two forms. The earlier mosques are all of them of a type the arrangement of which is simplicity itself. A large open courtyard, resembling the garth of a cloister, with a fountain in it, is surrounded cloister-wise by arcades supporting timber roofs. On the side nearest Mecca the arcades are increased to several rows in depth, so as to cover a considerable space. This is the part in which the congregation chiefly assembles; here a niche or recess (termed Kibla), more or less enriched, is formed in which the Koran is to be kept, and hard by a pulpit [254] is erected. For many centuries past, though not, it is believed, from the very earliest times, a minaret or high tower, from the top of which the call to prayer is given, has also been an indispensable adjunct to a mosque.

The second sort of mosque is a domed, and sometimes vaulted building of a form chiefly suggested by the Byzantine domed churches, with a central space and four short arms. This sort of mosque became almost universal in Turkey and Egypt after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, and the appropriation to Moslem worship of Santa Sophia itself. The tombs are ornate and monumental buildings, or sanctuaries, of the same general character as the domed mosques, and often attached to them.

The top of the arch forms a horse-shoe shape, with extensive decoration above

Fig. 186.—Horse-shoe Arch.

From very early times the arches, in the arcades which have been described as virtually constituting the whole structure of the simpler sort of mosque, were pointed. Lubke claims as the earliest known and dated example of the pointed arch in a Saracenic building, the Nilometer, a small structure on an island near Cairo, which contains pointed arches that must have been built either at the date of its original construction in A.D. 719, or at latest, when it was restored A.D. 821. The Mosque of Amrou, however, which was founded very soon after the conquest of Egypt in A.D. 643, and is largely made up of [256] materials obtained from older buildings, exhibits pointed arches, not only in the arcades, which probably have been rebuilt since they were originally formed, but in the outer walls, which are likely, in part at least, to be original.

Mainly curved walls on the buildings; four minarets are visible

Fig. 187.—Exterior of Santa Sophia, Constantinople. Showing the Minarets added after its conversion into a Mosque.

Whatever uncertainty may rest upon these very remote specimens of pointed architecture, there is little if any about the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, also at Cairo, and built A.D. 885, or, according to another authority, A.D. 879. Here arcades of bold pointed arches spring from piers, and the effect of the whole structure is noble and full of character. From that time the pointed arch was constantly used in Saracenic buildings along with the semicircular and the horse-shoe arch (Fig. 186).

From the ninth century, then, the pointed arch was in constant use. It prevailed in Palestine as well as in the adjacent countries for two centuries before it reached the West, and there can be no doubt that it was there seen by the Western Crusaders, and a knowledge of its use and an appreciation of its beauty and convenience were brought back to Western Europe by the returning ecclesiastics and others at the end of the First Crusade.[37]

In the eleventh century the splendid Tombs of the Caliphs at Cairo were erected,—buildings crowned with domes of a graceful pointed form, and remarkable for the external decoration which usually covers the whole surface of those domes. By this time also, if not earlier, the minaret had become universal. This is a lofty tower of slender proportions, passing from a square base below to a circular form above (Fig. 187). A minaret is often divided into several stages. Each stage is then marked by a balcony, and is, generally speaking, a [258] polygon of a greater number of sides than the stage below it.

Showing extensive and complex decoration on the walls and vaulted ceiling

Fig. 188.—Alhambra. Hall of the Abencerrages.

In the interiors of Saracenic buildings what is generally known as honeycomb corbelling is constantly employed to fill up corners and effect a change of plan from a square below to a circle or octagon above. This ornament is formed by the use of a series of small brackets, each course of them overhanging those below, and produces an effect some idea of which may be gathered from our illustration (Fig. 188) of the Hall of the Abencerrages in the Alhambra. The interiors when not domed are often covered by wooden or plaster ceilings, more or less richly decorated, such as are shown in the view of one of the arcades of the Mosque “El Moyed,” Cairo (Fig. 189), where the horse-shoe and pointed arches can both be seen. This illustration also shows timber ties, at the feet of the arches, such as were commonly used by the earlier Saracenic builders.

The surfaces of the interiors of most Mohammedan buildings in all countries are covered with the most exquisite decorations in colour. Imitations of natural objects being forbidden by the Koran (a prohibition occasionally, but very rarely, infringed), the Saracenic artists, whose instincts as decorators seem to have been unrivalled, fell back upon geometrical and flowing patterns and inscriptions, and upon the use of tiles (Fig. 190), mosaics, inlays, patterns impressed on plaster, and every possible device for harmoniously enriching the surfaces with which they had to deal. Several of our illustrations give indications of the presence of these unrivalled decorations in the buildings which they represent (Fig. 195). Windows are commonly filled by tracery executed in stone or in plaster, and glazed with stained glass, and [260] many of the open spaces in buildings are occupied by grilles, executed in wood, and most effective and rich in design.

Arches leading up to a high ceiling; this and the walls are heavily decorated

Fig. 189.—Mosque ‘El Moyed’ at Cairo.

Showing complex interwoven geometric design

Fig. 190.—Arabian Wall Decoration.

An octagonal building containing centered octagonal and circular divisions

Fig. 191.—Plan of the Sakhra Mosque at Jerusalem.

Syria and Palestine.

Syria was one of the countries earliest overrun by the Arab propaganda, and Jerusalem was taken by the Caliph Omar as early as A.D. 637. He there built a small mosque, though not the one which commonly goes by his name. Two mosques of great antiquity and importance, but the origin of which is a matter of dispute among authorities, stand [261] in the Haram enclosure at Jerusalem. One of these is the octagonal building called the Sakhra (Figs. 191-2), known in the Moslem world as the Dome of the Rock, popularly called the Mosque of Omar, and occupying, as is all but universally admitted, part of the site of the Temple itself. Whether this is a “nearly unaltered Christian building of the fourth century,” or a construction of Abd-el-Malek, the second Caliph, erected in the year 688, has been debated keenly; but what is beyond debate is that this structure is very Byzantine, or, to speak with more exactness, very like some of the buildings of Justinian in plan and section, and that from early times it was in the possession of the Saracens, and was regarded by them as the next most venerable and sacred spot in the world after Mecca. Much the same difference of opinion prevails as to the origin of the neighbouring mosque, El Aksah, which bears an undoubted general resemblance to an ancient basilica, [263] though having no fewer than seven parallel avenues. This building has with equal confidence been attributed to the fourth and the seventh century. It is fortunately quite unnecessary here to do more than point out that these mosques, whatever their origin, were in use at least as early as the eighth century, and that the beautiful Dome of the Rock must have exercised a great influence on Mohammedan art, and, notwithstanding some differences of plan, may be fairly regarded as the prototype of many of the domed mosques and tombs to which allusion has been made. The decorations shown in our illustration of the Sakhra are, it is right to observe, most of them of a date centuries later than the time of the original construction of the building.

Showing extensive decoration to interior and dome

Fig. 192.—Section of the Sakhra Mosque at Jerusalem.

Sicily and Spain.

The spread of Mohammedan architecture westward next claims our notice; but want of space will only permit us to mention a small though interesting group of Saracenic buildings which still remains in Sicily; the numerous specimens of the style which exist on the north coast of Africa; and the works erected by the Saracens during their long rule in Spain. The most celebrated Spanish example is the fortress and palace of the Alhambra, begun in 1248, and finished in 1314. This building (Fig. 188) has been measured, drawn, and fully illustrated in an elaborate monograph by our countryman Owen Jones, and has become popularly known by the beautiful reproduction of portions of it which he executed at the Crystal Palace, and of which he wrote an admirable description in his ‘Guide-book to the Alhambra Court.’ The Mohammedan architecture of Spain is here to be seen at [264] its best; most of its features are those of Arab art, but with a distinguishing character (Fig. 193).

Showing arched entrance surrounded with extensive decoration

Fig. 193.—Doorway in the Alhambra.

Two other well-known examples are, the Giralda[38] at [265] Seville, and the Mosque at Cordova. The Giralda is a square tower, in fact a minaret on a magnificent scale, divided into panels and richly decorated, and shows a masculine though beautiful treatment wholly different from that of the minarets in Cairo. The well-known Mosque at Cordova is of the simplest sort of plan, but of very great extent, and contains no less than nineteen parallel avenues separated from one another by arcades at two heights springing from 850 columns. The Kibla in this mosque is a picturesque domed structure higher than the rest of the building. The columns employed throughout are antique ones from other buildings, but the whole effect of the structure, which abounds with curiously cusped arches and coloured decoration, is described as most picturesque and fantastic.

Persia and India.

Turning eastwards, we find in Turkey, as has been said, a close adherence to the forms of Byzantine architecture. In Persia, where the people are now fire-worshippers, the Mohammedan buildings are mostly ruined, and probably many have disappeared, but enough remains to show that mosques and palaces of great grandeur were built. Lofty doorways are a somewhat distinctive feature of Persian buildings of this style; and the use of coloured tiles of singular beauty for linings to the walls, in the heads of these great portals, and in other situations to which such decoration is appropriate, is very common: these decorations afford opportunity for the Persian instinct for colour, probably the truest in the whole world, to make itself seen.

In India the wealth of material is such that an almost unlimited series of fine buildings could be brought forward, were space and illustrations available. A large part of that vast country became Mohammedan, and in the [266] buildings erected for mosques and tombs a complete blending of the decorative forms in use among Hindu and Jaina sculptors with the main lines of Mohammedan art is generally to be found. The great open quadrangle, the pointed arch, the dome, the minaret, all appear, but they are all made out of Indian materials. Perhaps not the least noteworthy feature of mosques and tombs in India is the introduction of perforated slabs of marble in the place of the bar-tracery which filled the heads of openings in Cairo or Damascus. These are works of the greatest and most refined beauty: sometimes panels of thin marble, each pierced with a different pattern, are fitted into a framework prepared for their reception; at others we meet with window-heads where upon a background of twining stems and leaves there grow up palms or banian-trees, their lithe branches and leaves wreathed into lines of admirable grace, and every part standing out, owing to the fine piercings of the marble, as distinctly as a tree of Jesse on a painted window in a Gothic cathedral.

The dome at Bijapur, a tomb larger than the Pantheon at Rome, and the Kutub at Delhi, a tower not unfit to be compared with Giotto’s campanile at Florence, are conspicuous among this series of monuments, and at Delhi one of the grandest mosques in India (Fig. 194) is also to be found. The series of mosques and tombs at Ahmedabad, however, form the most beautiful group of buildings in India, and are the only ones of which a complete series of illustrations has been published. These mosques are remarkable for the great skill with which they are roofed and lighted. This is done by means of a series of domes raised on columns sufficiently above the general level of the stone ceilings, which cover the intervening spaces, to admit light under the line of their springing. The beauty of the marble tracery [268] and surface decoration is very great. Pointed arches occur here almost invariably, and in most cases the outline of the opening is very slightly turned upwards at the apex so as to give a slight increase of emphasis to the summit of the arch. The buildings are not as a rule lofty; and though plain walls and piers occur and contrast well with the arched features, pains have been taken to avoid anything like massive or heavy construction. Great extent, skilful distribution, extreme lightness, and admirably combined groupings of the features and masses, are among the fine qualities which lend to Mohammedan architecture in Ahmedabad a rare charm.

Showing domed building and minarets

Fig. 194.—Grand Mosque at Delhi, built by Shah Jehan.

The religion and the art of Islam seem destined to live and die together. Nothing (with the one exception of the suggestion of the pointed arch to Western Europe at the very moment when Romanesque art was ripe for a change) has developed itself or appears likely to grow out of Mohammedan architecture in any part of the wide field to which the attention of the reader has been directed; and in this respect the art of the Mohammedan is as exclusive, as intolerant, and as infertile as his religion. The interest which it must possess in the eyes of a Western student will rise less from its own charms than from the fact that it first employed the pointed arch—that feature from which sprang the glorious series of Western Christian styles to which we give the name of Gothic. This arch, indeed, appears to have been discovered by the very beginners of Mohammedan architecture, at a time when the style was still plastic and in course of growth, and the beauty of Saracenic art is due to no small extent to the use of it; but in the employment of this feature the Western architect advanced much further than the Saracen even at his best could go. The pointed architecture of the Middle Ages, with its [269] daring construction, its comprehensive design, its elaborate mouldings, and its magnificent sculptures, is far more highly developed and more beautiful than that of the countries which we have been describing, though in its treatment of the walls it cannot surpass, and indeed did not often equal, the unrivalled decoration of plane surfaces which forms the chief glory of Mohammedan art.

Showing large archway surrounded with decoration

Fig. 195.—Entrance to a Moorish Bazaar.


[37] The First Crusade lasted from A.D. 1095 to A.D. 1099.

[38] ‘Gothic and Renaissance Architecture,’ p. 141.