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Islamic architecture


It is during his trip in 622 from Mecca to Medina, called hegira, that Mahomet formulated the both political and religious basis from what he began to call islam. By the time of his death in 632, that whole area between Mecca and Medina and the central western portion of the Arabian Peninsula, had become islamized.And by 720 or so, within its sway of influence, Islam was found across territories from Spain to India and from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. Unifying such remote areas and offering a true spectacle of domes and minarets, it is indeed an expression of a rich culture. Muslim civilization was founded on the basis of art, science and architecture resulting from the monotheistic faith.

Islamic architecture is usually characterized by buildings made of rammed earth, mud brick, baked brick, rubble stone or banco. Besides, arcs, pillars, columns and domes are the most representative elements of it. In addition, some ornamental patterns from floral, geometric or calligraphic inspiration are embellishing the splendor of Islamic art. It also includes arabesque which is a painting, sculpture, engraving or mosaics ornament repeating symmetries that are reminiscent plants' shape. It is one of the incredible peculiarities of Islamic decorative art.

Thus, mosques usually have a domed roof and are surrounded by minarets, some high towers from which the muezzin calls to prayer. Shapes of doors and windows are usually in "horseshoe". Each mosque encloses a portal pointing out the direction of Mecca, the Mihrab. Its decoration is often made of geometric mosaics inspired by plant patterns. All these elements can be found in the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, one of the most beautiful monument of Islamic architecture.

Inherited from Persian gardens, Islamic gardens "saw the light of day"/ developed in Near and Middle East and in territories occupied by Arab people and then spread around Mediterranean. With its magnificent ceramics, the smell of its flowers, the rustling of wind and water, and birdsongs, it requires all senses. The general theme of them is water and shade, hence it is a place of rest and reflection and a reminder of paradise. "Ones" of the most famous Islamic gardens are definitely the one of the Taj Mahal in India as well as the one of the Alhambra in Spain.

1st idea of dome

Inspired by the Pantheon, the idea of a dome is first seen in Islamic architecture in Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock developed by Abd al-Malik around 691. Its importance as a spot comes from the miraculous ride of Mahomet from Mecca to Jerusalem, the ascension during which he visited the seven heavens and received from god the five daily prayers of Islam. This miraculous event has taken this site as the meaning point between heaven end earth. It is the oldest Islamic monument that stands today and certainly one of the most beautiful. That dome emulating the Pantheon, and so the dome of heaven, is symbolizing heaven in a certain sense. It gives a statement of the relationship between god on earth and ourselves in abstract terms intermediating between the four squares bases below and the sphere above.

Looking at the details of the dome, there is a dialogue as well between monumental and minute elements. Indeed, the dome is soaring in its undifferentiated coloration over a structure which is endlessly broken up by different details. Those details contrast with each others in terms of colors (blue and green, white and black) and in terms of forms (arches and smaller arches) that not only echo each others but also ultimately echo the form of the dome.

Examples of buildings

Looking at the outset, of where Islam might have found its beginnings, then we turn to the Hagia Sophia, a church of holly wisdom built in the 6th century by Justinian the Byzantine emperor. It became a mosque when Constantinople was taken in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. It is constituted of four minarets offering a kind of geometric contrast between the upward and slender form of the minarets and the swelling almost pregnant belly form of the mosque dome itself. One may recall that the Hagia Sophia dome itself represents the notion of a free standing dome structure that began with the Roman Pantheon. However, Justinian had changed some of the details, indeed the dome's form became flattened and had a serie of windows that both connect the dome to and separate it from its support structure.

Moving all the way to the 18th century with the Madar-i Shah Madrasa in Isfahan in Persia , which is a school attached to a mosque, one may see the same general principle: a dome echoed by the arch just below and within that arch another archway. The later is an architectural element defined by a vast and extremely vaulted porch, walled on three sides with one end entirely open. It is called the iwan and is pointing the direction of Mecca. The decoration of it is both minute as we are and infinite as god is. That kind of dialogue between different elements that expresses the relationship between god and ourselves in truly abstract terms is to be found across the muslim world with diversities of details entailed by diversities of time and place. There is always a link between constructions and god in Islamic architecture.

For instance, if we look to India among the most famous construction, the Taj Mahal built by the emperor Shah Jahan between 1638 to 1648, one may notice that the whole monumental structure offering minute details is reflected in a reflecting pool that gives yet another level of divine/human interface. Indeed, it is to understand that the water on which the reflection is to be seen is part of god made nature.


After the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century, Islamic architects heavily borrowed some traditions of that fallen Persian empire. But they also provided several innovations to dome-building that enabled to build much taller monuments for instance. Certain design elements of Iranian architecture persisted as well such as high-arched portal set within a recess, columns with bracket capitals, columned porch, a dome on four arches, a vast ovoid arch in the entrance, an interior court and pool, an angled entrance and extensive decorations. The Persian empire played a decisive role in the development of Islamic architecture. And thanks to that conquest, Islamic architecture flourished also in Azerbaijian.

In central Asia, Timurid (Turkistan) architecture is the pinnacle of Islamic art, its style is largely derived from Persian architecture.

Mosques follow the Persian four-iwan plan popular since the twelfth century, but integrates a design innovation, dome chambers beyond the lateral iwans. With this modification to the Persian four-iwan plan, Timur expresses his embrace of Persian notions of rule and organization but with the addition of characteristics from throughout its empire. Mausoleum architecture was also well developed under Timur's reign.

With the conquest of Constantinople, Ottoman architects discover the Hagia Sophia, which became an absolute model of religious architecture. Influenced from Byzantine, Persian and Syrian-Arab designs, Turkish architects implemented their own style of domes. Mastering  the technique of building vast inner spaces, achieving prefect harmony between inner and outer spaces and lead by a principle of aesthetic, the Ottoman empire is making architecture more dynamic through vaults, domes, semidomes and columns. Tiles are highly used to decorate palaces, mosques and other buildings.

Mughal architecture, a style developed in India under the Mughal dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries is also a blend of Islamic, Persian and Indian architecture. Combining all those styles, the Taj Mahal is among the seven wonders of the world, quoted as "the jewel of Muslim art in India" and is one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage. Some others famous examples are the series of imperial mausoleums, which started with the pivotal Tomb of Humayun.   

The rapid spread of Islam and its new building traditions helped to inspire various styles of Islamic architecture in northern Africa. The Great Mosque of Kairouan is one of the  mosques that set the pace for the new architectural tradition that flourished in northern Africa. As Islam has spread to most of West and East Africa, Islamic-inspired architectural structures can be found in Egypt with Muhammad Ali Mosque in Cairo as well as in Tanzania for instance with the Palace of Husuni Kubwa at Kilwa. However, northern, western and eastern Africa's style of Islamic architecture are all greatly varying from each others. Basically, Islamic architecture is largely different depending on time and place. Indeed, a comparison between for instance Djingareyber Mosque in Timbuktu entirely made of banco, and the modern Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the largest mosque in the country, is a good illustration of that diversity.


As we have seen above, the dome of the rock is the oldest mosque of the world. The biggest and most visited mosque in the world is the one in Mecca in Arabi Saudi called Masjid al-Haram. The actual structure covers a surface of 400.800 square meters which includes inner and outer space and can receives over 4 millions faithfuls. Hassan II mosque in Casablanca has a minaret from a height of 200 meters, which makes it the tallest religious building of the world. The highest mosque is in Dubai as it was built on top of the world's tallest tower called Burj Khalifa which height reaches 630.5 meters. In the Maghreb, the oldest minaret is the one of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia. It is also the oldest standing minaret across the Muslim world and therefore the oldest in the world that has survived. The Three Doors mosque which is also in Kairouan and was built during the 9th century has the oldest sculpted and decorated facade of the Islamic world. The most expensive mosque to build was the one in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates called Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Finally, the largest surviving Islamic palace is Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was begun in the 15th century and underwent frequent additions until the 19th century.


Islam architecture is extremely diversified but nevertheless unified by a same climate, a same culture, a same love of geometric and arabesque ornaments as well as by the mobility of ideas, and of architects from a region to the other. The imposing buildings of Isfahan, Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba and Cairo are the proof. These magnificent buildings are the result of fifteen centuries of Islamic civilization.

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1. - Abbasside Palace in baghdad (Iraq)
- Great Mosque in Cordoba (Spain)
- Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dahbi (United Arab Emirates)
- Great Mosque in Kairouan (Tunisia)
2. - Great Mosque of Djingareyber in Tumbuktu (Mali)
- Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Turkey)
- Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca (Morocco)
- Humayuns Tomb in New Delhi (India)
3. Imam Mosque in Isfahan (Iran)
4. Taj Mahal in Agra (India)
5. - Madar-i Shah Madrasa in Ispahan (Iran)
- Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (Israel)
6. Dome of Muhammad Ali Mosque in Cairo (Egypt)
7. Masjid al-Haram Mosque in Mecca (Saudi Arabia)

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