1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Saracenic (Arabian) Architecture

(Part 113)


The beautiful forms by which Saracenic or Arabian architecture is best known were wrought into a style, if they were not invented, by the descendants of the wild Arab tribes who accepted Mahomet as their leader and prophet. In estimating their influence upon architecture, the first point to be considered is whether the Arabs, as they emerged from their deserts and overran the rich countries of Syriua, Persia, and Egypt, brought with them any art of their own, or whether they formed their style after their conquests were secured, when they had become forms of art were known to the Arabs in early times. We gather also that the minaret, one of the most prominent and beautiful forms of their architecture, could not have been used in early times, since we are told that the call to prayers was then made from the roofs of the mosques.

The earliest example of a mosque in Arabia itself is supposed to have been that at Mecca, 705 A.D. But this was rebuilt in the 15ht century, and that of Medina in the 16th, and we have no definite account of the original structures. The earliest of those which still exist are the Mosque of Amrou at cairo (about 642 A.D.), and that of Damascus (705). Both of these were built of columns, &c., obtained by the destruction of Roman work.

In the Mosque of Tooloon art Cairo we find for the first time anything original. It was constructed about 879, and is said to have been designed by a Christian architect. Indeed, numerous passages in the early history of the Saracens seem to show that their architect and art workers generally were foreigners, attracted from Baghad, Byzantium, and other places. It was the same throughout their progress in Spain as well as in Egypt; and however that style was eventually formed, which has given to us the beautiful domes and minarets of Cairo, the Alhambra in Spain, and the houses of Algiers, there can be little doubt but that it was based upon the art of Persia and Byzantine.

Ultimately it developed into two very distinct forms, - the Arabic of cairo and the Moorish of Spain. But these still showed themselves, both in general form and in details, to be members of the same great family which we now call Saracenic. The chief structures in this style are the mosques and tombs. The former are very simple in plan. Great, and had consequently leisure and power to form it by the aid of foreigners. Now, in the Koran no notices are found that would lead us to suppose that any definite consisting, usually, of a mere open space with colonnades round and with a prayer niche (mehrab) in the side towards Mecca. Near this was a pulpit (mimbar), and at this part of the edifice was of course the most frequent the colonnades were made of extra depth. In the centre of the court was a fountain, just as in the atrium of the Christian basilcas; and conspicuously, sometimes at each corner of the mosque, was placed a minaret. The size of the whole and the number and richness of the columns might vary, but the general arrangement was nearly always the same, the really essential parts being the prayer niche, the pulpil, the fountain, some protection against the burning noonday heat, and some elevated place from which the priest could call to prayers. A remarkable exception to the ordinary plan occurs in the celebrated Mosque Soultan Hassan at Cairo, which is in the form of a cross, the four arms being arched over, whilst the centre is left open and contains the usual fountain. Closely connected with the mosque is, often, the tomb of its foundation. This is nearly always covered with a dome which, when on a large scale, was almost invariably a sign of a sepulchral edifice.

In these mosques and tombs we meet with general forms and details unknown elsewhere in Western art at the time of their erection. First of all we meet with the pointed arch. Very early in the style, and long before the era of Pointed architecture, this arch was used by the Saracens. But peculiar to their art the beautiful minarets. Springing from a square base, they were gradually brought to an octagon or a round with a corbelled gallery at every change, and each part ornamented by diaper work of the most elaborate kind. The domes are equally varied and beautiful. They springs from a square base, and are gathered into the usual circular form in the most graceful manner. Quite opposite also to the Western mode, the external surfaces of the domes are sometimes decorated with caper or other work, beautiful in itself and equally so in its application, and never is the Saracenic dome concealed outside by a conical roof. The want of a crowning cornice to the long lines of the walls was to some extent supplied by a peculiarly bold crest ornament often filled in with rich scroll or other work. A variety of these adorns many of the mediaeval palaces of Venice. The ornamentation was almost entirely conventional, as the strict rules of the Koran forbade the copying of any natural objects. That this rule was not always followed may be seen in the Alhambra; but it, nevertheless, was in general attended to, and wonderfully beautiful were the results of this absence of all copying. Intricate scrollwork, flat in appearance on the surface, but really in various planes and intertwining, formed the usual basis. And from the scrolls came a sort of leaf work certainly like nothing in nature, but most graceful and varied in its elegant curves. The whole is utterly conventional – as entirely the creation of the artist’s mind as the most conventional work of a Gothic architect. The capitals of the columns were usually some adaptation of the classic. But in Spain, as specially seen in the Alhambra, they were of quite an original type, somewhat like that which we have described as being the germ of the Ionic, but with long leaves under the block, tied together with a band at the top of the shaft.

One of the ornaments peculiar to the Saracens, and constantly used by them, was the honey-comb by which they brought the square base, which they almost always used on plan, into the circular dome or niche-head. It was, in fact, the Saracenic pendentive. In its simplest form in occurs very early in the style, as e.g., at the Mosque of Tooloon at Cairo, and was composed of a series of small niches the pointed head of each of which bent forward at the top and formed the springing point of two others. The repetition of a few rows of this produced a pendentive in which it is impossible to detect any harsh point of junction between the square base and the circular finish. Sometimes this honey-comb work was exceedingly intricate, and formed niche-heads, roofs, &c. Good examples of this occurs at the Zisa, Palermo, and at the Alhambra. The entrance doorways were often grandly composed in a very high square recess; but the Saracens were as careful as the Gothic architects not to dwarf the size of the interior of their buildings by making the actual openings large, and thus the recess was brought down in height by elaborate work in the upper part, and the actual doorway thus reduced to just the size required for us. the windows were, of necessity, small, in order to guard against the heat; they were fitted up with thick bars of marble or of plaster, in elaborate diaper patterns, these being filled in with pot metal glass brilliantly coloured. The ceilings, when not domed, were flat, showing the timbers, which, in the finest examples, were richly painted and gilt, the wood being canvassed over, and then covered with a fine thin stucco to receive the decoration. The pavements were of marble mosaic, in some cases lighted up in colour by enameled earthwen ware tesserae. The walls were often lined with still more leaborate mosaic, the outlines being in some cases marked out with mother-of-pearl. Add to this that the pulpits, doors, and other woodwork were of the most exquisite workmanship, and the bronze hinges, &c., often chased in a manner scarcely to be paralleled in any other style, and we have a combination of outlines and details which could scarcely be surpassed in design or execution in buildings of a size comparatively so small. Admirable descriptions of Saracenic architecture in Spain have been given by the late Mr Owen Jones and M. Coste; of that in Egypt, also be M. Coste, and in India by Mr Fergusson. Of the houses in Egypt the best descriptions, probably, are those given in The Modern, Egyptians, by Mr. Lane, who has illustrated his work by numerous details of the carved wood and other work in which the Arabs excelled. Of the houses in Algiers, a peculiar class, an accounts is given by professor Lewis in the Transactions of the R. Institute of British Architects, 1868-9.

It remains only to say that the present successors of the Saracens seem now to the have lost nearly all claim to individuality in art, and to be unable even to copy or imitate the illuminated MSS., the mosaics, the carving in wood or in ivory, which lend so great a charm to the old work. What is now done is merely a copy,, and a bad copy, of the work of their European neighbours.

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