History

 

Dr. Gesink's Image Gallery Page 4

EARLY ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE  

                                   

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (Photo courtesy of Aga Khan MIT Visual Archives). The Dome of the Rock was built between 687 and 692 AD by the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik on top of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site sacred to Jews.  A second mosque, al-Aqsa Mosque, was constructed in 707 AD.  "Al-Aqsa" means "the furthermost," and many Muslims believe that Muhammad's night journey to this "furthermost" mosque (referred to in Qur'an 17:1) makes this place the third most sacred site in the Islamic world.  

The existence of two Umayyad mosques on the Temple Mount has caused considerable controvery over the last decade, as any attempt by the Israelis to excavate the site of ancient Temple or the nearby city of David are sometimes taken as attempts to undermine the foundations of the mosques. This interfaith controversy is somewhat ironic, as the construction of the Dome attests to the interfaith cooperation that existed in the early Islamic period (although an inscription on the Dome states that Jesus was a prophet, in accordance with Muslim belief). The Dome was the first masterpiece of Islamic architecture, but its architectural elements illustrate the adaptation of the Byzantine aesthetic and symbolic forms. The cupola rises above an octagonal base. Inside, two circular ambulatories surround a fenced-off rock, which is believed to be the site from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. The octagonal/circular form is found in Byzantine churches and martyrs’ shrines, such as the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem (378 AD), the shrine of St. Simeon Stylites in northern Syria (476 AD), and the church of St. Vitalis in Ravenna (540 AD). Also, the Dome’s architect had been trained by the Byzantines, and its builders and mosaicists were Christians from Syria and Constantinople (Taschen’s World Architecture, Islam, vol. 1, 30-38).

           

 
 
 
 
 
 
The Great Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus (Aga Khan MIT Visual Archives). This photo shows the entrance and central nave of an extraordinary mosque built by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (705-715 AD). Though historians have claimed that the mosque is a reconstructed Byzantine basilica, this is not in fact entirely true. The building does incorporate Byzantine elements, such as the octagonal dome, the classical façade, and the Corinthian capitals on the columns, and its collonades may have originally been part of the basilica of John the Baptist, which had been demolished (Taschen’s World Architecture, Islam, vol. 1, 45-60). 
 
 
 
     

 

     

                               


 
 
 
 Sahn, Great Mosque (Aga Khan MIT Visual Archives). Central courtyard of the Great Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus. 

                                                                 


 

 Ibn Tulun Mosque, 1996. Ibn Tulun, who was the ‘Abbasid governor of Egypt in the 9th century, built this mosque between 876 and 879 AD as part of the garrison town of al-Qata’i‘. Nothing remains of the town but the mosque and an aqueduct. Ibn Tulun mosque is unique because it retains its original form, whereas other mosques have been substantially rebuilt and renovated over the centuries. The arcaded halls (riwaqs) surrounding the central courtyard (sahn) are supported by brick piers, rather than the columns that are more common in Egypt. (Columns were often used because they were "recyclable" – that is, they could be taken from churches and temple ruins and reused in the mosques.) The architects used bricks in accordance with the traditions of the ‘Abbasid capital, Samarra. The domed ablution fountain in the central courtyard, used for ritual washing before prayer, is a 13th century replacement of an older drinking fountain. At the time of the mosque’s construction, ablutions were performed outside the mosque (Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture in Cairo, 51-57). The mosque on the horizon with the classic Ottoman-style pencil-shaped minarets and multiple domes is Muhammad 'Ali's Alabaster Mosque.

                                                                 


Sahn of al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo (courtesy of Saudi Embassy). Al-Azhar Mosque was constructed in 970 AD by the Sicilian general Jawhar for the Fatimid caliph al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah. In 989 AD it also became a college (madrasah) for the promulgation of Shi‘ism among the mostly Sunni and Christian Egyptians. After the Ayyubids conquered Egypt in the 12th century, al-Azhar was converted to a Sunni madrasah, and after the Ottoman conquest in 1517, it became one of the premier universities of the Empire. It has existed continually as a college for over a millenium, making it the oldest surviving college in the world. Today al-Azhar University includes a medical and engineering faculty, but it is still best known as a religious school and a defender of Sunni orthodoxy.

 
                                                                 
Azhar Madrasah interior, 1995. This is the inside of the old madrasah. For centuries Azhar professors taught their classes while seated before these columns and those in the central courtyard, their students sitting in circles around them on the floor. Note the low bookshelves and absense of chairs. One Azhar professor told me that sitting on the floor reminded one of the necessity of humility before God (i. e., all the time). Permission to use a chair was a symbol that one had been recognized for one’s high level of knowledge; only established professors used chairs. 

                                                                 


 

 

Drawing of a 19th century class at Azhar ('Abd al-Gawad, Taqwim dar a-'ulum). 

 

                                                            

 



Copyright © 1999 Indira Falk Gesink

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