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Art and Architecture >
The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

Because figural imagery was unnecessary in Islamic religious art, other themes of decoration became important. Several of these themes had been subsidiary elements in the arts of pre-Islamic times. In Byzantine art, for example, depictions of people had been set off, framed, or linked by geometric elements (shapes and patterns) and vegetal designs (that is, stylized fruits, flowers, and trees). In early Islamic times these subsidiary elements were transformed into major artistic themes. Thus, the mosaics decorating the Great Mosque of Damascus, erected by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (r. 705–15) in the early eighth century, were clearly derived from the traditions of late antiquity. The panel that survives along the west wall of the mosque shows a continuous landscape of fantastic buildings separated by trees and set above a flowing river. In classical and Byzantine art these subjects would have been background elements for large figures, but in this panel the landscape itself is the subject, probably meant to depict the garden paradise promised to Muslims in the Quran and described as a place of lofty chambers beneath which rivers flow.

In the Damascus mosaics the trees and buildings are still readily recognizable, but with the growing reluctance to depict figures, such specific representations were replaced by more stylized, abstract, and geometric motifs. This style was already popular by the ninth century, evident in a small ceramic bowl from this period that is decorated with four colors of luster. The main motif shown in the center of the bowl is a plant with a central stalk and paired leaves. The basic design is quite simple, but it has been elaborated with many different geometric patterns—spots, herringbones, blots, peacock's eyes, and so forth—that cover as much of the surface as possible and negate the organic quality of the main motif. In short, naturalistic elements, such as the flowers and leaves, were becoming increasingly stylized and subjected to the laws of geometry.

Little of the decoration has survived from the mosques in the Abbasid capital at Samarra, but one can get an idea of the abstract style of decoration that might have been used on the mosques there by looking at copies erected elsewhere. The mosque in Cairo, completed in 879 on the orders of the Abbasid governor Ahmad ibn Tulun (835–84), for example, is said to have been a close copy of a mosque in Samarra. In contrast to the earlier Damascus mosque, the decoration at the mosque of Ibn Tulun is restrained. A long wooden inscription runs around the building under the ceiling, and the undersides and borders of the heavy brick arches are embellished with stucco carved with simple elements to create patterns that combine geometric and floral elements. The decorated surface is totally filled so that there is no distinction between the background and the subject. This decoration, in which organic elements are subjected to the rules of geometry, can be extended infinitely in any direction.

The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

An original style of Islamic art evolved in the ninth century, when artists abstracted organic forms into a geometric style, in which there is no distinction between subject and background. This style was first developed in ninth-century Iraq, as exemplified in the plaster panels discovered at Samarra.

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A similar type of decoration was used in a small mosque at Balkh in northern Afghanistan, datable on stylistic grounds to the ninth century. Although badly ruined, the small square building has four massive cylindrical piers that once supported the nine covering domes. Most of the upper part was covered with stucco, carved in geometrical and vegetal patterns with a distinctive slanted cut. The use of a similar style, documented from Cairo to eastern Iran in the ninth century, suggests that it must have had a common source, undoubtedly in the Abbasid capitals in Mesopotamia. Its widespread use shows how styles could be disseminated over wide areas during this period of centralized power.

The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

A more evolved stage in the abstraction of vegetal motifs can be seen in the plaster decorating the arches of the mosque of Ibn Tulun (879) in Cairo.

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This type of design, which is based on such natural forms as stems, tendrils, and leaves rearranged to form infinite geometric patterns, became a hallmark of Islamic art and architectural ornament from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. To describe it, Europeans coined the term arabesque, first used in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, when Renaissance artists incorporated Islamic designs in book ornament and decorative bookbindings. Over the centuries the term has been applied to a wide variety of winding, twining vegetal decoration in art and meandering themes in music and dance, but properly it applies only to Islamic art. The nineteenth-century Viennese art historian Alois Riegl laid out the principal features of the arabesque: The tendrils of its vegetation are heavily geometricized and do not branch off as in nature from a single continuous stem; rather, the tendrils grow unnaturally from one another. Furthermore, the arabesque has infinite correspondence, meaning that the design can be extended infinitely in any direction. The structure of the arabesque gives sufficient information so that the viewer can extend the design in his or her imagination.

Like the Samarra style of ornament, the arabesque was probably disseminated from Iraq, the capital province of the Islamic world in the tenth century, and quickly spread to all Islamic lands. An early stage of this distinctive and original development may be found in carved marble panels flanking the mihrab (the niche in the wall facing Mecca) of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which was completed in 965. A central stem, itself patterned, has tendrils growing unnaturally from its base and tip; the stem provides the armature for a symmetrical interlacing of tendrils, leaves, and flowers that seems to press out against the confines of the similarly patterned frame. In Islamic art the arabesque's popularity lasted until the fourteenth century, when it was slowly displaced by designs using the Chinese-inspired chrysanthemum, peony, and lotus motifs that became popular in Iran and by the fantastic naturalistic foliage of the saz style that became popular under the Ottomans. Even these designs retain some of the arabesque's geometric underpinnings, however.

The popularity of the arabesque was due no doubt to its adaptability, because it was appropriate to virtually all situations, from architecture to the illuminated pages that were added to decorate the beginning and end of fine manuscripts, particularly copies of the Quran. One small manuscript of the Quran, for example, has five sets of double pages, three at the beginning of the manuscript and two at the end. Some manuscripts contain tables with writing added on top of the geometric and floral ornament; others are purely geometric and vegetal. The designs are elaborately drawn in brown ink and enhanced with gold, blue, white, green, and red. The circles on the vertical axis are self-contained, but those on the horizontal axis can be extended infinitely; the design thus achieves an equilibrium between static and dynamic.

The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

Arabesques, in which vegetal forms grow infinitely in all directions according to the laws of geometry, appeared in many media. In this detail of a carved marble panel, probably added to the Great Mosque of Córdoba in 965, the arabesque ornament betrays its early stage of development because it is still restrained by a frame.

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These pages are the work of a master hand, and according to the colophon, this manuscript was completed by the scribe Ali ibn Hilal in Baghdad in 1000–1001. He can be identified as the famous calligrapher commonly known as Ibn al-Bawwab, who refined the “proportioned script”—developed a century earlier by the Arab calligrapher Ibn Muqla—in which letters were measured in terms of dots, circles, and semicircles. The script used in this manuscript confirms Ibn al-Bawwab's talents; the 280 folios are transcribed in a bold rounded hand of the type called naskh. The script is remarkable for its clarity and regularity, all the more impressive because there are no traces of blind-tooled lines of the kind used by later calligraphers to guide their hands. The manuscript also represents a technical innovation because it is one of the first surviving copies of the Quran transcribed on paper.

The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

Arabesques were a major element used in decorating books, particularly manuscripts of the Quran. This page of illumination from the copy of the Quran transcribed by the noted calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab in Baghdad in 1000–1001 is one of the earliest examples to survive.

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The double pages of illumination with geometric designs, often known as carpet pages, became increasingly splendid over the years. Some of the finest were produced under the Mamluks, the sequence of sultans who controlled Egypt and Syria from 1249 to 1517. These rulers and their intimates commissioned elaborate copies of the Quran as furnishings for the large charitable foundations that they ordered in Cairo and elsewhere to preserve their names and fortunes after their death. According to Islamic law, property endowed to institutions founded for charitable purposes was safe from seizure by the state. This type of charitable endowment is known as waqf (pl. awqaf) or, in North Africa, as habus. In unsettled times, when rulers fell like dominoes, such charitable foundations allowed families to pass on their fortunes safely, as the deed of endowment could specify that the founder or his descendants be appointed as trustee.

To furnish these charitable foundations, the Mamluks often ordered large manuscripts of the Quran, typically embellished with elaborate frontispieces decorated with designs of star polygons. The most famous is a manuscript commissioned by an amir of Sultan Shaban, Arghun Shah al-Ashrafi, who was put to death in 1376. Its rectangular frontispiece is divided into a square central field bordered by rectangular panels with a stylized kufic script. The central square contains is a sixteen-pointed star set within a geometric trellis. This composition, which is often likened to a sun, seems to explode from the center but is actually closed and cannot be extended beyond the frame. The various frames are decorated with arabesque and floral arrangements, including many Chinese-inspired elements such as peonies and lotus flowers.

The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

Egyptian woodcarvers transformed the abstract curved forms of the beveled style into birds and other animals, as on this ninth- or tenth-century panel of Aleppan pine.

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Complex geometric effects were also achieved in other media, including woodwork. Wood was often used for fine mosque furniture, such as Quran stands, lecturns, and bookcases, but the largest pieces were minbars or pulpits. The minbar was the place in the congregational mosque from which the weekly sermon was given during the Friday bidding prayer, so it became a potent symbol of political authority. Patrons who ordered new minbars wished to make them as splendid as possible, but with the deforestation of the Mediterranean lands due to overharvesting in medieval times, wood was increasingly scarce. To make the most of this expensive material, new techniques of woodworking were exploited. One technique common from the eleventh century was marquetry, in which large panels were formed of angular interlacing strapwork radiating from central stars. To make these large and important pieces even fancier, artisans used different colors of exotic woods, which were sometimes inlaid with other precious materials, such as ivory and mother-of-pearl.

Aleppo (located in modern-day Syria) became a center for woodworking in the marquetry technique, and the finest and most famous piece produced there was the exquisite minbar that the Zangid ruler Nur al-Din ordered in 1168–69 for the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The city was then in the hands of the Crusaders, and Nur al-Din ordered the minbar in anticipation of taking the city. It was installed in its intended place two decades later after his nephew, the Ayyubid sultan Salah al-Din (also known as Saladin), successfully conquered the city, in 1187. This minbar, which was the most famous example of this prolific school of woodworking and signed by no less than four craftsmen, was destroyed by arson in 1969.

Nur al-Din's minbar followed the typical triangular form. Along the hypotenuse was a narrow flight of steps leading to a platform at the top; both the steps and the platform were enclosed by railings, and the platform, evident in many other examples, was surmounted by a cupola. The major fields of decoration were the large triangular sides. On Nur al-Din's minbar they were decorated with eight-pointed stars, and the extensions of their sides were traced in a net of joinery. The polygonal interstices were filled with minutely detailed arabesques. The intricacy of the design was matched by the expense of the materials, for the minbar showed an extensive use of inlaid ivory, both for the outlines of the polygonal figures and for some of the smaller interstitial stars. The marquetry technique made the most of expensive materials, but the geometric design, in which the arabesques varied from polygon to polygon, added to the aesthetic effect by inviting contemplation of the design from near and far.

Geometric designs were also popular methods of decorating buildings in the Islamic lands. In Iran and much of the eastern Islamic lands there was no suitable stone for construction, so the typical building material was brick. Mud brick had the advantage of being cheap and remarkably serviceable in areas with little rain, and its fragile surface could be protected by plaster or stucco revetments, which could be carved or painted to enliven the inherent drabness of the material. In the ninth century when the Abbasids needed to decorate the enormous palaces and other mud brick structures in their sprawling new capital of Samarra, they used molded panels with geometric designs that could be quickly executed in stucco.

Baked brick was more expensive because it required scarce supplies of fuel for firing. It had the advantage that it was much more durable, however, and where affordable, its durability was preferred, particularly in regions with greater precipitation and a more extreme climate, such as the Iranian plateau. Although baked brick could also be covered with plaster, particularly on interiors, it was usually left exposed on exteriors. With the adoption of fine quality baked brick, builders in Iran and adjacent areas quickly turned the material of construction into the material of decoration. By setting the bricks in patterns, they could enliven the wall surface. These patterns were particularly effective in a climate in which bright sun often rakes over the brick walls, and projecting and receding bricks could create patterns of light and shade.

The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

Builders in the Seljuk period exploited the decorative possibilities of light and shade on brick, particularly for the tall cylindrical towers known as minarets. Horizontal bands with different brick designs decorate the shaft of the Kalyan (“tall”) minaret finished in 1127 in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

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One of the earliest examples of this decorative use of brickwork is the tomb of the Samanids in Bukhara. Constructed and decorated with baked brick, the tomb is a small cube with sloped walls supporting a central dome and little cupolas at the corners. Despite the simple forms, the interior and exterior are elaborately decorated with patterns worked in the cream-colored brick. The quality and harmony of construction and decoration show that this building, although the first of its type to have survived, could not have been the first to have been built. By the early tenth century there must have been a long tradition of building ornate brick structures in the greater Iranian world.

This so-called naked style of brickwork became a hallmark of medieval architecture in the region. Builders exploited the decorative possibilities of brick patterning, particularly for the tall cylindrical towers known as minarets. These towers, often attached to mosques and used as the place from which the muezzin gives the call to prayer (adhan), are often considered to be hallmarks of Islamic architecture. Although a common feature of Islamic religious architecture, the minaret is neither a necessary or ubiquitous one. Minarets were apparently not used under the Umayyads, and only under the Abbasids was the idea of a single massive tower located in or beyond the middle of the wall opposite the mihrab disseminated throughout the Islamic lands, perhaps as a sign of caliphal authority.

By the end of the twelfth century the minaret, in the form of a slender freestanding shaft, had become the universal symbol of Islam from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. Minarets were often added to earlier mosques. They were less expensive than building a new mosque and were gratifyingly visible both from afar, where they indicated the presence of a town—or from nearby, where they indicated the location of the mosque. They served to advertise the presence of Islam at the same time that they demonstrated the piety of the founder.

The Decorative Themes of Arabesque and Geometry

Muqarnas, tiers of superimposed niche-like elements, is a unique contribution of Islamic architects to the decoration of their buildings. Muqarnas half-vaults were often above important doorways, as on the entrance to the hospital Nur al-Din, foundedin Damascus in 1145.

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More than sixty towers dating from the medieval period still stand in Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, either attached to mosques or isolated and freestanding. This large number attests to the explosion in popularity of this form, and the assurance of their decoration attests to the skill of their builders and the esteem in which these tall towers were held. Their shafts are typically decorated in broad bands of geometric brick decoration, often separated by guard bands and inscriptions. Builders exploited the decorative possibilities of the geometric patterns, deliberately widening the bands or setting the bricks in deeper relief along the height of the tall shaft.

Another form of architectural decoration that developed at this time is known as muqarnas. Sometimes likened to stalactites, muqarnas consists of tiers of niche-like elements that project out from the row below. Apparently developed in the late tenth century, muqarnas was first applied to supporting elements inside domes, such as squinches or arches over the corners, and to dividing elements between different parts of buildings, such as cornices on tombs or minarets. By the eleventh century muqarnas elements were used to cover the entire inner surface of vaults. Although the earliest muqarnas may have had a structural role, they increasingly became a purely decorative element. In Iran and the eastern Islamic lands decorative muqarnas vaults were made of plaster and suspended by wooden beams from the brick vault above. In the Mediterranean region, where stone is the prevalent medium of construction, muqarnas vaults, set over the portals of important buildings, were often laboriously carved in stone. Like writing, muqarnas was adopted by builders from Spain to Central Asia and beyond, so that it became the most distinctive decorative feature of Islamic architecture. Unlike other decorative motifs, muqarnas was never applied to any medium other than architecture and such architectural fittings as minbars.

The repeated module typical of brick construction made geometric ornament appropriate decoration; such ornament was equally appropriate to textiles, where the crossing of warp and weft threads also generates a geometric grid. Nowhere is this more apparent than in knotted carpets, where a weaver could easily create geometric designs by tying knots of different colors onto the warp threads. Throughout history, weavers worked to combine more-or-less stylized floral and animal motifs with the geometric grids. Knotted carpets have been produced for millennia in the Near East and Central Asia. The oldest surviving example, perhaps dating to the fifth century b.c.e., is the carpet that was discovered in a frozen tomb at Pazyryk in Siberia. Other fragments perhaps dating from the ninth or tenth century have been discovered in Egypt. The oldest carpets to have survived in significant quantities, however, were made in Anatolia in the early fourteenth century, using a fairly limited range of strong colors, such as red, yellow, blue, brown, and white. Some of the carpets have designs of repeated geometric motifs, others have extremely stylized representations of animals, but all have borders of geometrical motifs or stylized letter forms.

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