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Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe

Who knew?  Who knew that the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe, so deeply associated with christianity, were in fact inspired by Islamic architecture?  Who knew?  Christopher Wren knew.  Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was the English architect who was commissioned by King Charles II to spearhead the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral, which had been nearly destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in 1666. Christopher Wren is among the heroes of "Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe" by Diana Darke.  If you have the slightest interested in architecture, in world history, or in religion, you'll find much to enjoy in this imminently readable book.  The author is a first-rate historian who specializes in Middle East studies and in ancient architecture, and a fine writer to boot.  At 390 pages, Darke's well-illustrated book is as much a feast for the intellect as it is a visual treat for the eyes.

The original St. Paul's Church was one of the more majestic examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.  Unfortunately, Christopher Wren did not appreciate Gothic architecture--which favored ornate pinnacles, slender towers and prickly steeples, and in their place erected a majestic Dome--an engineering triumph that made him the bane of parishioners, who wanted their cathedral rebuilt exactly as it had been before the fire.  Nonetheless, Wren's Dome lived on to become one of London's most iconic landmarks.

Christopher Wren was as much a student of architecture as he was England's greatest architect.  It was he who discovered that Europe's majestic christian cathedrals were in fact inspired by the Mosques the Muslim craftsmen had been building for hundreds of years in the middle east.  He wrote, "the Gothic style should be more rightly called the Saracen style" (note: the word 'Saracen' has dropped from our vocabulary, but in Wren's time it was commonly used as a pejorative term to describe Arab Muslims, particularly Spanish-Arab Muslims).

Writes the author: "While recognizing the Saracen origins of Gothic, Wren himself was no fan of the Gothic style, dismissing its weak roofing, its poor construction, and its fiddly decor and ornamentation. . . ."  Further on, she writes: "If Wren's theory is right, that the origins of Gothic are Islamic, it would mean the Muslims provided the inspiration for what Christianity regarded as its own unique architectural formula--a most inconvenient truth."

The author spends much of her book proving that Wren's theory was indeed right, and traces how it happened, beginning with the collapse of the Ulmayyad dynasty in 750 CE.  The Ulmayyads were builders, who created a rich legacy of architecture in the Syrian city of Damascus--mostly mosques and grand palaces, as well as a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs to capture, store and transfer fresh water into the desert city. After their violent overthrow, the surviving Ulmayyads fled Damascus, crossed over Northern Africa, and relocated in Spain, where they established a new political base, in Cordoba.  There, they built a number of mosques and grand palaces, many of which still stand today.

Having gained a foothold in Spain, their architectural influence soon spread into Northern Europe, beginning in 12th century France, with the construction of the famed St. Denis Basilica.  As with so many Gothic cathedrals to follow, the stone masons who designed and built it were Muslim craftsmen who had followed the Ulmayyads into Spain, and who passed their knowledge onto a host of European apprentices.  They had long-since mastered the art of stone-cutting and sophisticated building techniques that, in the centuries to follow, would lead to ever-taller and more dramatic Gothic cathedrals, far surpassing anything seen up to that time.

In the early chapters the author examines middle east architecture and how it evolved from ancient civilizations, and came to full flower during Islam's Golden Age (900--1300 CE).  Interestingly, a number of mosques started out as Christian churches and, curiously, as rulers came and went, switched back and forth between the two faiths.  A prime example is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which the invading crusaders mistook for Solomon's Temple, and therefore believed it was a Christian church.  Writes the author: "The Dome of the Rock represents the first power statement, a monument deliberately conceived to impress the mark of Muslim identity on Jerusalem and to proclaim Islam's dominance over the formerly Christian city."  The building's magnificent Golden Dome was one of the engineering wonders of its day, and would prove highly influential on the many European buildings to follow.

Another influential structure was the Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Christian church in sixth century Constantinople (modern day Istanbul).  A complex structure topped by an elegant Dome that dominates Istanbul's skyline. Today it serves the followers of Islam as a Mosque.  When designing the Dome for St. Paul's Cathedral, Christopher Wren used the Haglia Sophia Dome as one of his models, in particular the interior framing. Such were the complexities of building a Dome, the author devotes an entire chapter to how the engineering was developed and applied by master engineers, such as Christopher Wren.  Wren's counter-part in the middle east was an architect and civil engineer named Mimar Sinan (1488--1588) who lived a century before Wren.  He was hailed as the Euclid of his time and one of its greatest engineers.  Writes the author: "His contributions in the advancement of Dome technology was of huge direct relevance on European architecture, since it went on not only to inform the techniques of Christopher Wren in building the Dome of St. Paul's, but also to influence aspects of Italian Renaissance architecture."

One of Sinan's engineering breakthroughs was the double Dome--two half-shell structures--one fitting within the other, each one strengthening the other--that made giant Domes such as St. Paul's possible.

To Sinan and Wren, the Dome serves both mosque and church as a means of letting in more light, either through a central oculus or through windows in the vertical section supporting the dome, or indeed both, as at St. Paul's.

The author describes the Dome's effect on true believes thusly:  "From the inside, the worshippers could gaze up and marvel as his spirit rose, enjoying a sense of harmony and the sacred.  From the outside, the Dome was the embodiment of God's presence and power."

Further on she writes:  "Everyone built on everyone's knowledge in a constant synthesis of all the techniques and materials on hand, but East and West each interpreted their Romano-Bysantine inheritance in entirely separate ways.  While European architecture after the Renaissance became endlessly focused on designing facades using the antique orders so beloved of Wren, Ottoman architecture under Sinan instead concentrated on achieving perfectly centralized unified domed spaces filled with light. Sinan's was a single-minded search for geometric purity of form, textured by masterful fenestration (i.e. the arrangement and proportion of windows) and the control of light and shade into a centralized space.

The reason Middle East architects were able to build such complex structures--such as balancing a heavy dome on thinly supported walls-- was by their mastery of geometry.  Indeed, Islam's Golden Age was a time of scientific advancement, financed by world trade.  Through trade their ideas reached European centers of commerce, such as Venice, as well as Spain and Sicily, and from there their ideas spread into greater Europe.  Another of their advancements was the development of glass, which would prove critical to the grand stain-glass windows that are the hallmark of Gothic cathedrals.

The author sums up: "My purpose had been to show that no one 'owns' architecture, just as no one 'owns' science.  There is no property in a scientific discovery.  Everybody builds on what went on before.  Once made, a discovery can be used and built upon by people from other cultures, and where it came from is, in a sense, ultimately irrelevant.  When people talk about 'Greek science', 'Islamic science' or 'European science', this does not change the fact that whatever Greeks, or Muslims or Europeans discovered in the way of science is ultimately science, pure and simple. Double domes, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, etc. are all discoveries of architectural techniques that will, of course, subsequently be used and developed across cultures.

"Except that architecture is not just science.  Neither is it aesthetics.  It is a deliberate choice, reflecting self-image, and in the case of public and historic buildings, it is closely tied to national identity.  As such, architecture can be, and clearly already has been, co-opted into culture wars.  Such wars can play out within cultures, such as the Neo-classicism versus Neo-gothic that Wren struggled with all his life when building St. Paul's which (and here she quotes Wren), 'being contrived in the Roman style, was not so well understood and relished by others, who thought it deviated too much from the old Gothic form of cathedral churches, which they had been used to see and admire in this country.  Others observed it was not stately enough and contended, that for the honor of the nation, and the city of London, it ought not to be exceeded in magnificence, by any church in Europe.'"

Such is the price of being ahead of your time.

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