It is almost impossible to say that Islamic architecture or art has a purely Arab, Persian, Turkish or Indian style, as the will of the ruler in these eras played an essential role in that respect. However, it was natural that the unity of religion should have lead to many common features, particularly in terms of the architecture of mosques.

We will now take you on a quick tour of some Islamic countries to see how the art of architecture is similar, even though the eras in which this art emerged were different.

Art and architecture in Egypt:

The spirit of Islam and the culture of the Arabs swept over all the old part of Egypt, sometimes even dwarfing the stupendous architectural and artistic wealth left by the Ancient Egyptians. The influence of Islamic and Arab culture and architecture was so pervasive that Egyptian cities and towns became pioneers, leading Muslims and countries in many ages.

It is inevitable that the history of art and architecture in Egypt becomes linked to the political, social, economic, cultural and spiritual history of other countries. Different countries and regimes ruled Egypt, and each of these underwent many changes, which left a strong impression on the development of art and industry. This was quite evident in the development of building and architectural styles, particularly as a result of the change of religious sects in Egypt.

The Fatimids, for instance, were Shi’ites who seceded the Islamic Caliphate. They were followed by the Salah ad-Din dynasty, which led to an art that was completely different from that of the Fatimids in the style of building and decoration it used. The same is true in the cases of the Mamlukes and the Turks.

The magnificent architectural models in Egypt are many. They include Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque, which is considered as an architectural masterpiece. This mosque comprises of a square unroofed courtyard surrounded by porticos from four directions. The qiblah is located under the largest portico. There are also three external porticos between the walls of the mosque and the perimeter. These external porticos are called increments.

Significant Islamic architectural masterpieces in Egypt also include Al Azhar Mosque and the mosque and tomb of Sultan Qayt Bey.

Art and architecture in Maghrib and Andalusia:

Some Caliphs, including Abdul Rahman Al Nassir, Hisham, Abdul Hakam and others, paid great attention to art and architecture. They bestowed so much love and care to them that Cordoba, the capital at that time, assumed a universal importance and was called “The City of Science, Money and Beauty.” Andalusia has retained the greatest wealth of Islamic art. It stands prominently as an historical milestone with mystique and immortality.

Grenada is the last Islamic City in Spain. Its name is always linked to the most famous Islamic monument that exists in that region: Alhambra Palace. It is a source of pride for Islamic architecture and one of the miracles of ancient Islamic art. Alhambra (Al Hamra in Arabic) Palace was built in the early 13th century AD. It still carries the motto of the Al Ahmar family in Kufi and Naskh calligraphy on all its walls and on the walls of its adjoining buildings: “There is No Conqueror But Allah”. The palace comprises of several important architectural elements, including Al Shurah Hall, which leads into Al Ace Hall that has an artificial pool, then the Ambassadors Hall, where the throne was, and then to the famous Loins Hall. The halls of the palace are its most magnificent and beautiful features. The ceilings of the bathrooms in the palace are made of dome-shaped glass allowing only the weakest rays of the sun to penetrate inside the bathrooms, giving them a special beauty.

Seville was generally characterized by good planning and coordination, which was helped by the rich landscape and beautiful scenery around it. Cordoba was the capital of the Umayyad in Andalusia, and its most beautiful feature is the Grand Mosque with its myriad porticos and columns.

The Qayrawan Mosque and Zaytoona Mosque in Tunisia are two of the most famous Islamic architectural monuments that have survived in Maghrib (Western North Africa).

Art and architecture in India:

After the Muslims conquered Delhi in 1193 AD, Islamic art began to emerge. Islamic art in India can be divided into two eras:

  • The Batan Era: The most important characteristic of this era is that its architecture was memorial and expressive. During this era, building techniques advanced greatly, including the use of all kinds of limestone and marble and care given to scale in the design of buildings. This turned the capital city of Delhi, with its giant buildings and Islamic monuments, into an architectural rival to Athens, Rome and Constantinople.
  • The Mogul Era: During this era, which lasted from 1526 to 1857 AD, arts were influenced by ancient Indian art. Therefore, the buildings of this era are adorned with fountains and artificial springs, which gives them a special mystique.

Of course, the Taj Mahal, which Shah Jihan had built in Agra, is the most magnificent and most famous Islamic monument in India, to the extent that it is called “the brightest jewel in the Indian crown” in terms of architecture.

Art and architecture in Persia:
The Muslims ruled Persia in the days of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali). Its most significant surviving monument is the Great Mosque of Isfahan. Perhaps the most important characteristic of Persian architecture was the use of wall covers, including brightly colored ceramic tiles, which the Persians were masters in making. They are called “Balkash Farfuri.”

Art and architecture in Turkey:

The Ottomans were part of the tribe of Seljuk Turks. Ottoman art was influenced by Persian art. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, they founded their building and architectural designs on Byzantine architecture, which used decorations and a lot of ornamentation, and whose main feature was the large number of domes in buildings. They also turned many Churches into Islamic places of worship, and this is why they disposed of the design of open courtyards surrounded by porticos from four directions that was common in all mosques in Muslim countries.

The Ayah Sofia Mosque has been a model that mosque designers in Turkey try to emulate. The Ottomans used domes in their design to such an extent that they put them over columns and arches. Interior walls were covered with colored ceramic tiles. The most beautiful mosques built by the Ottomans include Bayazid Mosque and Al Suleimania Mosque, where all the windows are ornamented with exquisite colored glass embedded in gypsum moulds.

by Hayam Al-Sayyed*