“Give him alms, woman, as there is nothing in life as the sadness of being blind in Granada”.
Mexican poet Francisco de Icaza
At the dawn of the 7th century, tremendous religious, social, and political upheaval was taking shape between the undulating sand dunes of the Arabian Peninsula. Through the birth of Islam, the disparate Arab tribes of the oft overlooked southwestern corner of Asia were catalyzed into unifying and conquering their great Persian and Byzantine neighbors. By the beginning of the 8th century, Islam’s first caliphal dynasty, the Umayyads, had succeeded in subduing a dominion that stretched from the Indus river valley in the East to the Atlas Mountains in the west. Buoyed by their cascade of military successes, Umayyad commanders set their sights across the strait of Gibraltar, invading the Iberian Peninsula in 711. By 718, the Moors, as the Muslims of North Africa would come to be known in Christian Europe, had finalized their Iberian conquest. The effulgent sun of Al-Andalus had risen over the hills of the Islam’s western fringes.
The rapid spread of Muslim rule was not only apparent in its territorial expansion, but was also exhibited through the dissemination of knowledge as divergent civilizations were centralized under a single polity. Opportunity for inter-cultural dialogue ensued, facilitating the cross-pollination of ideas. This manifested in several burgeoning Islamic arts, particularly architecture. Early structures were greatly influenced by Sassanian and Byzantine styles and techniques(1). This is evident in the derivative floor plans, column styles, and mosaic tiling of buildings such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. These are among the earliest examples of Islamic architecture, and heavily resemble contemporaneous Byzantine churches. The Dome of the Rock in particular was largely modeled on the design of the Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with its builders studying the measurements of the church’s walls and dome(2).
Similarly, the Great Mosque in Kairouan borrowed stylistic elements, in both a metaphorical and literal sense, form previous architectural traditions. Examples include the use of a hypostyle prayer hall, supported by reused Corinthian and Ionic columns taken from nearby ancient roman monuments. The mosque also featured the earliest Islamic use of the iconic horseshoe arch, which first appeared in the buildings of pre-Islamic Syria(3). Built on this eclectic amalgamation of architectural components, the mosque’s design became the primary prototype followed by mosques in the Maghreb. These stylistic origins of early Umayyad architecture formed the basis for the Moorish style.
The East was not alone in shaping the architecture of Muslim Spain. Moorish architecture excelled in synthesizing elements form Arab, Berber, Roman, and Visigoth architectural traditions to create a unique blend. This was aided by the demographic composition of the society of Al-Andalus. The heterogeneous society included ethnic Arabs, Berbers, and Sephardic Jews. Such a multicultural intellectual climate proved a fertile ground for architectural innovation.
Islamic beliefs also molded the nascent Moorish architectural philosophy. Islamic tradition’s aversion to depicting human figures greatly influenced Islamic art, Moorish architecture included. This led to a heightened utilization of geometric and vegetal compositions, resulting in the cultivation of floral ornamental designs of unprecedented intricacy. Such arrangements were also inspired by the elaborate Qur’anic descriptions of the natural splendor of paradise. Coupled with the Moors’ appreciation of the natural beauty of their adopted abode, nature became a focal point of Moorish designs. Some contemporary scholars suggest that structures such as the Alhambra palace can be considered an early example of biophilic architecture (4).
Eschewing the depiction of human forms, in addition to the prominence of literary and calligraphic arts in Arab culture, contributed to the extensive use of ornate epigraphs. Quranic verses and poetic passages embellished the walls of mosques and palaces, as observed in Granada’s Alhambra palace and the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
Moorish Architecture can be distinguished by multiple emblematic architectural features, but few are as iconic as the horseshoe arch. In contrast to roman semicircular arches, these arches’ maximum width was greater than the space between its supports, evoking a billowing sail propelled by the wind. This created a porous interior atmosphere and allowed environmental elements such as light and air to enhance the spatial experience. Another arch design that gained prominence was the multifoil arch. Used in a more decorative context, these arches made use of multiple smaller overlapping circles, resembling symmetrical leaf shapes. Similar styles also included lambrequin arches, which incorporated ornate muqarnas sculpting. The motivation behind the design of such arches was aesthetic as opposed to structural, allowing for creative visual experimentation.
The Moors were greatly moved by their captivating Iberian surroundings and frequented the use of courtyards in mosques and Riads (interior gardens) in palaces, typically with a fountain at the center. The tradition of interior garden spaces is likely based on middle eastern antecedents(5), bearing similarities to the Indo-Persian Charbagh, (a quadrilateral garden layout modeled on the Quranic description of paradise), highlighting the diverse influences of Moorish landscape design. Prominent examples include the Court of the lions in the Alhambra complex and the Generalize gardens, which featured complex water supply systems.
Artisans of the period were renowned for their innovative use of complex ornamentation and decorative motifs. These incorporated floral and vegetal patterns, drawing on similar patterns found in Hellenistic structures. Building upon this tradition, artists developed complex patterns of interlacing motifs such as the Sebka. Meaning ‘net’ in Arabic, these compositions featured repeating curved shapes alternating along a rhomboidal lattice, creating a striking tessellating aesthetic. The famed Ablaq masonry technique, derived from Levantine building traditions, was also widely used. The approach is characterized by the utilization of alternating dark and light stonework, and can be observed most clearly on the of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba’s horseshoe arches.
As in other Islamic architectural styles, there was a strong association with calligraphy, typically including imperial mottos and Qur’anic verses. It was during this period that the unique Maghrebi Arabic writing style, evolving from the eastern Kufic script, emerged. The script featured an elaborate, sinuous, ribbon-like aesthetic, distinguishing it from its more angular progenitors. This novel calligraphic representation is found plastered on the walls of countless Moorish buildings and remains a powerful signifier of Maghrebi culture to this day.
A TOWERING LEGACY
The Moors continued to rule parts of the peninsula in some capacity for the next seven centuries, with the sun finally setting on Moorish Spain in 1492, when the last Muslim state in Iberia surrendered to the Kingdom of Castille, signaling the completion of the Reconquista.
The sun may have set, yet its radiance continued to shine over architectural thought for centuries after, its rays spreading over the rest of Europe. Christian crusaders, having witnessed the architectural progress of the Arabs, brought home Moorish architectural ideas which became a major influence on Gothic architecture. This was acknowledged most famously by acclaimed British architect Sir Christopher Wren:
“This we now call the Gothic manner of architecture though the Goths were rather destroyers than builders; I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen style, for these people wanted neither arts nor learning: and after we in the west lost both, we borrowed again from them, out of their Arabic books, what they with great diligence had translated from the Greeks.”
In its native Iberia, the style continued to thrive. The Mudejar style, pioneered by Muslim craftsmen living in Christian kingdoms, adorned Spanish buildings such as the magnificent 14th century Alcazar of Seville. Synthesizing Islamic motifs with Christian architectural styles, Mudejar ornamentation remained influential in Hispanic culture, even after the expulsion of the Muslims and their Morisco descendants. However, its influence was not confined to the old continent. The essence of Moorish architecture, through the Mudejar style, accompanied the Spanish conquistadors over the waves of the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of new world(3).Examples of Mudejar architecture are spread all-over Hispanic America.
Owing to the prosperity enjoyed by Jews during this period, the revivalist Moorish style became increasingly popular for synagogues in subsequent centuries, further exhibiting its power as an enduring cultural symbol. The style also survives in the Islamic Maghreb till present times. An exemplar of this is the grand Hassan II mosque in Casablanca built in 1993, mimicking the elaborate articulation of its forerunners. This admirable permanence and immutable beauty demonstrates the towering legacy of architecture’s scintillating Moorish sun.
Ayman Hassanen is a British-Egyptian architect based in Cairo. He graduated in 2018 from Helwan University and has participated in multiple international design competitions, as well as working on several projects around the globe at various multi-national architectural consulting firms. Ayman currently works as an architect at Khatib & Alami. In addition to architectural practice, Ayman maintains an academic interest in numerous architectural fields, including architectural history and conservation, healthcare architecture, and universal design. History in particular is a field Ayman is especially passionate about, as only through tracing the origins of the architecture of the past can we blaze the trail to the built environment of the future.
(1)- TALGAM, RINA, (2004). “The Stylistic Origins of Umayyad Sculpture and Architectural Decoration”
(2)-K.A.C. CRESWELL, (1924), “The Origin of the Plan of the Dome of the Rock” (3)-ANDREW PETERSEN, (1999), “Dictionary of Islamic Architecture”, Routledge. (4) -AHMED MOHAMMED MAMDOUH ABDUL-MOHSEN RHODESLY, (2019) “Biophilic Approach to Architecture: Case of the Alhambra, al-Andalus” (5) -BOELE, VINCENT. ED. (2005), “Morocco: 5000 years of Culture” Amsterdam: KIT Publishers.