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Islamic Architecture – Abbasid Period

Under theAbbasid caliphate (750–1258), which succeeded the Umayyads (661–750) in 750, the focal point of Islamic political and cultural life shifted eastward from Syria to Iraq, where, in 762, Baghdad, the circular City of Peace (madinat al-salam), was founded as the new capital. ThecAbbasids later also established another city north of Baghdad, called Samarra’ (an abbreviation of the sentence “He who sees it rejoices”), which replaced the capital for a brief period (836–83). The first three centuries ofcAbbasid rule were a golden age in which Baghdad and Samarra’ functioned as the cultural and commercial capitals of the Islamic world. During this period, a distinctive style emerged and new techniques were developed that spread throughout the Muslim realm and greatly influenced Islamic art and architecture.

Following text was originally written by: Sheila Blair, Jonathan Bloom

The “imperial style “and the cultural unity of the caliphate

In the time of the Prophet and his immediate successors, the mosque had combined several functions. It was, of course, a place of worship, but it was also the social and political center of the nascent Muslim community. Under the Abbasids, the mosque developed a new character as an exclusively religious institution. In early Islamic times, there had been no architectural uniformity, as mosques were made out of older structures or constructed in local vernacular styles. Under the Umayyads, the great Friday (congregational) mosques of the major cities such as Damascus, Jerusalem, and Medina had been monumentalized with the panoply of late antique architectural forms and decoration, but the effective confinement of Umayyad power to greater Syria meant that the “imperial style,” such as it was, was limited to the core Umayyad region. All this changed in the Abbasid period. The great power of the early Abbasid caliphate, combined with the growing role of the ulama, meant that a standard type of Friday mosque evolved over a wide geographical area, although individual examples might differ in the use of local materials and techniques of construction.

The typical Friday mosque in the Abbasid period was a rectangular structure, somewhat longer than it was wide, with a rectangular courtyard in its center. The courtyard was surrounded by hypostyle halls, in which many stone columns or brick piers supported a flat wooden roof. The hall was wider on the side of the qibla wall, which faced Mecca, and had in its middle a mihrab, or niche. In order to emphasize the mihrab, builders might add a small dome directly in front of it or a wider aisle leading from the courtyard. To the right of the mihrab stood a stepped minbar, or pulpit, from which the imam (prayer leader) gave the Friday sermon (khutba). In the Umayyad period, the caliph himself had often given the sermon, but by Abbasid times the caliph rarely, if ever, attended worship in the Friday mosque, and the job of leading prayers was taken over by a member of the ulama.

On the opposite side of the courtyard from the mihrab, stood a tower. This, usually called a minaret (from the Arabic manara, “place of or thing that gives light”), is often associated with the call to prayer, but there is little contemporary evidence that Abbasid towers were used for this purpose. Rather, their monumental size and prominent placement suggest that they were erected to advertise the presence of the Friday mosque from afar and symbolize the preeminent role of the mosque in Abbasid society.

In the same way that a standard mosque style was spread throughout the Abbasid domains, many other forms and techniques that had been developed in the capital were disseminated to the provinces. In contrast to the Umayyads, who in Syria had built stone structures, Abbasid builders favored mud brick and baked brick covered with a rendering of gypsum plaster, often painted, carved, or molded with geometric and vegetal designs. In part, this choice of materials may have been due to the lack of suitable building stone in the heartland of Abbasid power, but in practical terms it meant that Abbasid-style buildings could be erected wherever the raw materials — clay, lime, and gypsum – were found, in effect everywhere. Similarly, the Abbasid style of molded stucco decoration, which combined late anti practical innovation was transformed into an aesthetic one, as builders throughout the Abbasid lands adopted this type of stucco revetment.

Baghdad, the imperial metropolis of a far-flung empire, exerted a magnetic attraction on people and ideas. The capital also served as a kind of clearing house, as people and ideas returned to the provinces with new ideas and experiences. For example, it now seems that in the 8th century Syrian glassmakers invented the decorative technique of using metallic oxides to give their wares a lustrous sheen after they had been fired a second time in a reducing, low-oxygen kiln. This unique technique of luster decoration was adapted by potters in Abbasid Iraq, who used it to decorate their earthenware ceramics. From Iraq, Abbasid potters introduced the technique to Egypt, where it took on a new life of its own.

Baghdad also set the style for cultural norms in the Abbasid period, even for rival powers. For example, the Umayyads of Spain, who challenged the Abbasids political legitimacy, nevertheless emulated their art and culture. The musician Ziryab (789-857), an emigre from Baghdad, became the arbiter of fine taste in 9th-century Cordoba, where he set the standards for dress, table manners, protocol, etiquette, and even the coiffures of men and women.

Similarly, Abbasid elegance was emulated by their religious and political rivals in Byzantium. In 830 a Byzantine envoy went to Baghdad, where he was so impressed by the splendor of Abbasid architecture that on his return to Constantinople he persuaded Emperor Theophilos (829-842) to build a palace exactly like the ones he had seen. Theophilos complied, and a palace was built at Bryas, now Maltepe, an Asiatic suburb of Constantinople on the Sea of Marmara. Only the substructure remains, but it shows a large rectangular enclosure that calls to mind Umayyad and Abbasid palaces. The only departure from the Abbasid model was a chapel added next to the imperial chamber and a triconch church set in the middle of the courtyard.

Virtually nothing but memories remains of Abbasid Baghdad, which has been rebuilt over the centuries, and the vast palaces of Samarra have long since fallen into ruin. Much Abbasid art was ephemeral, made of materials such as cloth, plaster, and wood, which have not survived the ravages of time. Fragile ceramics and glassware were broken, but their shards have remained to give an unusually clear picture of the tableware of the Abbasid elites. Since what remains does not necessarily reflect what was made, the historian needs to combine the artistic remains with the many textual sources for the period and the archeological evidence to recreate a picture of the splendors and glories of Abbasid art.

 

The search for a capital

Building large new cities was the major architectural activity of the Abbasid caliphs. In terms of function, these cities were logical successors to the garrison cities that the Umayyads had built in newly conquered regions. In terms of architecture, however, these new cities were the continuation of a long Mesopotamian and Iranian tradition of rulers building administrative capitals. These range from Durr Sharrukin, the city founded by the Assyrian ruler Sargon II (721-705 B.C.) northwest of Mosul at Khorsabad, to the round city founded by the Sassanian emperor Ardashir I (224-241) at Gur (modern Firuzabad) in the province of Fars in southwest Iran.

During the first decade of Abbasid rule, the caliphs erected several administrative centers in the vicinity of Kufa, in southern Iraq. They were known as al-Hashimiya (in reference to the family from which both the Prophet and the Abbasids descended), but nothing remains of them and the sources provide little additional information. These centers must have been royal residences, since at least one of them had a throne room, called a khadra, the same word that had been used in the Umayyad period for a throne room.

The Abbasid throne room was on an upper floor, for the 9th-century historian al-Tabari reported that, when the Rawandiya rebels, members of an extremist Shiite sect, approached Caliph al-Mansur (754—775) in his khadra, they attempted to escape out the window and fell to their deaths. Al-Tabari s report indicates that even the earliest Abbasid administrative centers were substantial multistory buildings.

The construction of Baghdad

 

The residences near Kufa proved unsuitable, so on August 1, 762, the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, decided to move the capital to Medina al-Salam (Baghdad). The site, near Ctesiphon, was chosen for its easy riparian commu­nication with Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, and northern Syria, as well as its important land routes to the Iranian plateau, southern Syria, and the Hijaz. Work on the new capital was completed four years later in 766/767. As with the first Abbasid capitals near Kufa, nothing remains of Abbasid Baghdad, which is entirely covered by the modern city. Extensive descriptions in medieval texts, however, have allowed scholars in modern times to reconstruct the city’s general plan. About 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers), the Round City was surround­ed by a double set of sturdy, mud-brick walls, and a broad moat fed by the Tigris River. The walls were pierced at the intercardinal points by four gates — the Khorasan Gate on the northeast, the Basra Gate on the southeast, the Kufa Gate on the southwest, and the Damascus Gate on the northwest – from which roads led to the four quarters of the empire.

Each of the four gates to al-Mansur s Round City possessed a complex, bent entrance passage designed to guard it against violent attack. Each gate was surmounted by an elevated chamber reached by staircases or ramps. Each of the chambers was crowned by a dome, and the whole 50-cubit (82 foot, 25 meter) structure was topped by a weathervane in the shape of a human figure. The caliph used these rooms as audience halls when he wished to view anyone who might be approaching or whatever lay beyond the city walls. The audience halls also marked the extension of his personal domain and authority over the extremities of the city.

 

 

Four major avenues lined with shopping arcades and other buildings led from the gates into the interior of the city. Abutting the wall on the interior was an outer ring of residences for the caliph’s family, staff, and servants. An inner ring of residences housed the arsenal, the treasury, and government offices. The innermost zone of the city was a broad esplanade in which stood the police station, the Friday mosque, and the caliph’s palace.

The mosque was a square hypostyle structure measuring 200 cubits (approximately 330 feet, 100 meters) on each side, with an open interior courtyard. Adjacent to the mosque was the palace; located in the exact center of the city, it covered four times the area of the mosque. At the back of the palace, a reception hall (iwan) measuring 30 x 20 cubits (50 x 33 feet, 15×10 meters) led to a domed audience chamber 20 cubits (33 feet, 10 meters) on each side. Above it was another domed audience hall, known to contemporaries as the “Qubbat al- Khadra,” often translated as the “Green Dome” but more accurately rendered as the “Dome of Heaven,” thereby making reference to an ancient tradition of associating the ruler with the heavens. The top of this dome stood 80 cubits (130 feet, 40 meters) above the ground and was itself crowned by a weathervane in the shape of a horseman. Contemporaries considered the horseman the crown of Baghdad, a symbol of the region, and a monument to the Abbasids.

The revolving horseman was also a convenient metaphor for the caliph’s power and authority. It was said that, if the sultan saw the figure with its lance pointing toward a given direction, he knew that rebels would appear, before word had reached him. Like a weathervane, the horseman was supposed to predict storms before they blew in. The collapse of the Qubbat al-Khadra and its horseman during a storm in 941 was indeed an omen: within four years the Buyids entered Baghdad and established themselves as “protectors” of the Abbasid caliphs.

The Round City was built to separate the caliph from his subjects. Several settlements stood outside the walls: a great army camp stood at Harbiya, mar­kets were located in al-Karkh, and al-Mansur’s son al-Mahdi built a subsidiary camp for his troops on the east bank of the Tigris at Rusafa. The Round City soon failed to achieve its original purpose, as the population setded thickly around it, and even the administrative core was quickly transformed into a nor­mal urban entity. This was particularly apparent following the siege of 812/813 during the civil war between Harun al-Rashids sons, when the original Khorasani army was replaced by new units. The victorious Caliph al-Mamun moved his palace from the Round City to a suburban estate on the east bank of the Tigris, and the Round City was swallowed up by the new metropolis developing on the west bank. Sections of the original city wall remained visible for centuries, but no trace of the Round City has been found in modern times.

Its circular form and centralized planning, with the caliphs palace in the ex­act center of the city and the mosque adjacent to it, invite speculation about the city’s intended cosmic significance as the center of a universal empire. It has been speculated, for example, that al-Mansur modeled his city on such earlier round-shaped royal foundations as Firuzabad, in Fars. As attractive as this hypothesis and others may be, there is no contemporary evidence to either sup­port or disprove them. In any event, within a tew decades, if not years, or its foundation, the administrative center had been transformed from a large-scale palace into a rich and vibrant industrial and commercial center.

 

Other Abbasid cities and residences

Baghdad was not the only city founded by Caliph al-Mansur. He also developed & site in northern Syria on the east bank of the Euphrates River. The area had been Settled in classical times, but in 772, as part of a program of border Sbttification, al-Mansur founded a settlement known as al-Rafiqa, or “the Companion” (of the older settlement Raqqa). According to medieval texts, al-Rafiqa was modeled after the Round City of Baghdad, and the surviving fortifications confirm this statement. In plan, al-Rafiqa consists of a horseshoe- shaped area 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) wide, but contemporaries might have Considered this shape to have been “almost” round. It was protected by a massive wall, nearly 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) long and fortified by 132 defensive round towers, as well as an advance wall and a moat. Three gates led to the interior. In the center of al-Rafiqa stood a large (350 x 300 feet, 108 x 93 meters) Friday mosque, built to serve the garrison of soldiers from Khorasan. Its massive mud-brick walls were faced with baked brick and buttressed by a series of semicircular towers. The interior courtyard was surrounded by hypostyle halls carried on brick piers. The prayer hall on the qibla side was three bays deep, while those on the other three sides of the court were only two bays deep.

Raqqa, together with al-Rafiqa, formed the largest urban entity in Syria, and it was surpassed in all of Mesopotamia only by Baghdad. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Harun al-Rashid, who disliked Baghdad, transferred his residence there in 796, and it was to remain his base until 808. During his 12 years of residence, he not only added to the city’s fortifications, but also constructed an impressive palace quarter to the north. Covering almost 1 square mile (10 square kilometers), it included 20 large palace complexes. The largest of them, set in the center, measured about 1150 x 980 feet (350 x 300 meters). It can be identified with Haruns residence, which was mentioned in the sources as the Qasr al-Salam (“Palace of Peace”). Surrounding structures housed the caliph’s family, his court, and his troops. Constructed of mud brick occasionally strengthened by baked brick, the complexes were carefully laid out. The mud-brick walls were covered with white plaster carved in deep relief, particularly with designs of vine scrolls.

Harun also began construction of several other circular or octagonal establishments. Hirakla, located between Raqqa and Balis in northern Syria, was a walled circular enclosure with axial gates and a square building in the center. Al-Qadisiya, located at the entrance to the Qatul canal at Samarra in Iraq, was a huge octagonal enclosure, 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) across, with axial gates and a road leading to a central square structure. The outer walls were built of mud brick, and foundations were set out for a mosque, a palace, a central square, and three avenues. Neither establishment seems to have been completed, and they are known only through archeological excavations, which scholars have attempted to match with the equivocal and brief mentions in medieval texts.

The best-preserved of the early Abbasid palaces is, paradoxically, the one about which contemporary texts have the least to say: Ukhaidir, located almost 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Baghdad on the steppe to the northwest of Kufa. It consists of a large outer enclosure 575 x 555 feet (175 x 169 meters), built of limestone rubble in heavy mortar to a height of about 62 feet, (19 meters). Each corner had a round tower, and semicircular towers were spaced regularly between them. Quarter-round towers in the center of each side flanked gates, except on the north side, where a projecting block marks the main entrance. It leads to the palace proper (365 x 270 feet, 112 x 82 meters), which is next to the outer enclosure on the north. Along the central tract of the •V rectangular palace an entrance complex with a small mosque to the right leads to a large open court; onto this opens a great vaulted iivan, behind which stands a square hall, flanked by apartments. On either side of the central tract are two self-contained residential units arranged around smaller courts. To the southeast of the palace is a bath complex constructed of baked brick.

Ukhaidir is remarkable for its state of preservation, particularly of the vaults and upper stories, for most other early Abbasid buildings are known only in plan. Some of the vaults were built of bricks, which are occasionally laid in complex decorative patterns. In other palaces, the vaults are decorated with plaster elaborately carved to imitate brick patterns. Particularly noteworthy is the use of transverse vaulting to cover rectangular spaces. Many of these features will reappear in later Iranian architecture, suggesting that they were probably used in many buildings that no longer survive. The scale and quality of construction and decoration suggest that this structure was built by an important person, probably someone closely connected to the Abbasid court. Some scholars have ascribed its construction to Caliph al-Mansurs powerful nephew, Isa ibn Musa (d. 784), while others have suggested that it was the palace of al-Mansur’s uncle, Isa ibn Ali, built some two decades earlier. As no inscriptions were discovered at the site, the state of the evidence does not allow a decision one way or the other. In any case, the palace at Ukhaidir gives some substance to textual descriptions and archeologicai excavations of better- known sites.

Some of these features can be seen on a more modest scale at the site of Us- kaf Bani Junaid, also known as Sumaka, on the banks of the Nahrawan Canal, in southern Iraq. In early Islamic times, it was the largest city in the Diyala basin, apart from the capital. Excavations in the 1950s uncovered a rectangular palace 213 x 180 feet (65 x 55 meters) which was divided into three tracts. In the center, a courtyard opened onto an axial iwan flanked by rooms leading to a reception hall with apartments on either side. The mosque, measuring 165 x 150 feet (50 x 45 meters), had a central courtyard surrounded by arcades, two bays deep on three sides and five bays deep for the prayer hall. The mihrab is to the left of center in the qibla wall. The exterior walls of the mosque were built of baked brick, but the columns were of walnut wood. Since the mosque is undated, it must be dated by comparison to other, dated structures; these suggest a building date in the late 8th or the 9th century, probably before Samarra.

 

Samarra, the new imperial capital

Harun al-Rashid s long and glorious reign left many problems. After his death in 809, civil war broke out between his sons: Amin, who had inherited the caliphate, and Amin s younger brother al-Mamun, who had been given only the governorship of Khorasan. The Abbasid army of Baghdad supported Amin, the local candidate, so al-Mamun was forced to turn for support to independent warlords from his power base in eastern Iran. Al-Mamun emerged as the victor, but, during the bitter civil war, Baghdad was severely damaged, and the Abbasid army and Iraqi population, who had suffered most, were totally alienated from their new rulers.

To strengthen their control over a rebellious population, al-Mamun and al-Mutasim, another of his brothers and his eventual successor (833-842), adopted a new military policy. They appointed several chiefs in Transoxiana, Armenia, and North Africa as hereditary governors and hired regiments of Turkish slaves from Central Asia to serve in the army. This new institution strengthened the hand of the caliph but was also a major source of trouble, for bloody clashes broke out in Baghdad between the foreign Turkish soldiers and the local Arab soldiers and populace.

To separate the feuding groups, al-Mutasim, like his father Harun al-Rashid, decided to establish a new administrative capital. In 836, after trying several sites, he settled on Samarra, located 78 miles (125 kilometers) north of Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River, where his father had begun to build a palace some decades earlier. Unlike the Round City of Baghdad, which has been built over continuously since medieval times, the enormous area of ruins at Samarra was largely abandoned in medieval times and remained that way until the 20th century. When archeologists rediscovered it in the early 1900s, the site stretched for 30 miles (50 kilometers) along the bank of the Tigris and covered more than 60 square miles (150 square kilometers).

Palaces and mosques

In contrast to the self-contained and block-like palaces of al-Mansur and Harun al-Rashid, the one al-Mutasim built at Samarra covered more than 175 acres (70 hectares) and was enclosed by high blank walls. Al-Mutasim s vast palace, which was occupied by nearly all the caliphs who resided at Samarra, is known in the sources as the Dar al-Khalafa (“House of the Caliphate”), although archeologists initially misidentified it as another palace called the Jausaq al-Khaqani (“Pavilion of the Emperor”). A complex of interconnected courts and gardens, the Dar al-Khilafa measured 0.9 mile (1.4 kilometers), from the riverbank on the west to the viewing stand that overlooked a gargantuan cloverleaf race track on the east. A vast flight of broad steps ascended from the Tigris to the Bab al-Amma, the great public entranceway, still marked by its three large brick arches. Beyond the gate lay a string of courtyards and chambers, which eventually led to a central domed hall, surrounded by four vaulted iwans> presumably the caliphs throne room. In adjacent areas, sunken apartments arranged around pools provided the inhabitants relief from the torrid climate.

Although it was the largest palace at Samarra, the Dar al-Khilafa was only one of many. Adjacent to it were several lesser palaces and grand houses, and other palaces and gardens, such as al-Mutasim’s Qasr al-Jis (“Stucco Palace’) and the one built by his successor al-Wathiq (842—847) on the floodplain, stood on the west bank of the Tigris. There were also camps for the army, each comprising a palace for the commander, lesser residences, a ceremonial avenue, and a grid of streets along which stood quarters for the troops.

Al-Mutasims son, Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861), was the greatest builder at Samarra. He doubled the size of the city and at the beginning ot his reign gave it a colossal new Friday mosque. Measuring 784 x 512 feet (239 x 156 meters), the building has the 3:2 proportions of many mosques of this period. It stood within an outer enclosure of 1,456 x 1,233 feet (444 x 376 meters), enclosing a total area of 41 acres (17 hectares). For many centuries it was the largest mosque in the world. The mosques exterior walls of baked brick were buttressed with semicircular towers and decorated with a brick-and-stucco frieze along the top. Sixteen doors led into the interior, where a central courtyard was surrounded by hypostyle halls. Hundreds of square piers of brick and stone supported a flat wooden roof. The interior was decorated with glass mosaics and cut marble panels. The mihrab, flanked by two pairs of rose- colored marble columns, was rectangular in plan and decorated with gold glass mosaic. Openings on either side of the mihrab provided access for the imam on the left and storage for a movable minbar on the right. Opposite the mihrab, within the walls of the outer enclosure but outside the mosque proper and connected to it by a bridge, stands a tower known as the Malwiya (spiral). The tower is a great helicoidal ramp ascending counterclockwise to a pavilion more than 165 feet (50 meters) above the ground. The ramp gets steeper as it rises so that each story is the same height, an aesthetically pleasing but impractical solution for anyone charged with climbing to the top. The unusual form of the tower has often been linked to the Mesopotamian ziggurat, but it is more likely to be the other way around. For example, spiral ziggurats, particularly the Tower of Babel in European depictions by Brueghel and others, seem to have been inspired by travelers’ accounts of the Malwiya.

In the 850s, al-Mutawakkil built a new palace quarter for his son, the future al-Mutazz (866—869), at Balkuwara to the south of Samarra. The rectangular palace was set inside a square enclosure measuring more than 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) each side and facing the river. As at the Dar al-Khalafa, the reception halls form a square block, with a central domed chamber surrounded by four iwans arranged in a cross shape. Later in the decade, al-Mutawakkil began a new city to the north of Samarra, which was known as Jafariya (from the caliphs given name Jafar) or al-Mutawakkiliya. A grand avenue flanked by smaller palaces and houses led to the main palace, known as the Jafari, which had reception halls at the junction of the Tigris River and the Kisrawi Canal. The rest of this immense palace spread for over a mile (1.7 kilometers) to the east. The Friday mosque for the new city is now known as the Mosque of Abu Dulaf. Measuring 700 X 443 feet (213 X 135 meters), it is a smaller repli­ca of al-Mutawakkil’s earlier Friday mosque. Rectangular piers of fired brick supported arcades perpendicular to the qibla wall and a flat wooden roof. The spiral minaret, which reaches its height of 52 feet (16 meters) with three turns, was also modeled on the earlier prototype, the Malwiya.

 

Like earlier Abbasid foundations, the architecture of Samarra uses local materials such as brick and stucco to achieve its dramatic effects. The great wealth of the patrons, however, allowed them to enhance these humble materials with expensive wood and marble panels and glass mosaics. Nevertheless, the buildings at Samarra differ from what we know of earlier Abbasid foundations in several significant ways. Earlier palaces had tended to be high and to have domes over elevated thronerooms, which made the buildings seem even higher, while mosques were generally low affairs. In Samarra, by contrast, the palaces made their impact of impressive grandeur by covering huge areas, while the mosques were marked by enormous towers. Unlike the palace at Baghdad, where the ruler was literally and figuratively at the center of his realm, at Samarra, the caliph was removed from the populace behind blank walls. At this time, the towers and elaborate portals that had earlier been used in palaces began to be used in mosques.

The mosque tower, known today as a minaret, in fact, became the most distinguishing feature of mosques from the Abbasid period.

Although the contemporary texts are silent about why this change in architectural form occurred, it seems likely that it reflects the evolution from the more egalitarian society of early Islamic times into the more hierarchical society of the Abbasid period, where Persian ideas of kingship were increasingly adopted by Islamic rulers. Another reason for these architectural changes may be that the mosque was becoming an institution less attached to the ruler and increasingly associated with the ulama. Although theoretically there was in Islam no distinction between religious and secular authority, by the Abbasid period the two had begun to diverge in practice. The Friday mosque, for all its magnificence provided by the caliphs purse, served as the center of a self- perpetuating class of religiously minded people, while the ever more splendid palaces became the centers of secular power in which the caliphs and their governors were increasingly removed from the people they ruled.

 

Building decoration

Most, if not all, of the buildings at Samarra were constructed of mud brick which was protected and embellished with a covering of carved or painted plaster. Baked brick, rammed earth, and an unusual brick made of gypsum were also used, and some particularly important areas were revetted with stone or wood. To enliven the large expanses of stucco, carvers developed three increasingly abstract styles of decoration, which show how both technique and subject matter evolved over the course of time.

The first style is a carved technique that was clearly derived from the geometricized vegetal decoration that had been widely used in the Umayyad period. The decorative field is divided by pearl bands into compartments filled with vines, which, unlike the vines at Raqqa, have no grapes. The vine leaves have five lobes separated by four eye-like holes, and stand out against a dark, deeply carved ground. The second style, also carved, is characterized by the use of cross-hatching for surface details. Subjects are somewhat simplified but are still distinguished from the background and enclosed within compartments. The leaves do not “grow” naturalistically from a vine but have become abstract forms. The third style, also known as the “beveled” style, is a molded technique especially suitable for covering large wall surfaces quickly. It uses a distinctively slanted but relatively shallow cut, which allowed the plaster to be released easily from the mold. Decoration in the beveled style is distinguished by rhythmic and symmetrical repetitions of curved lines ending in spirals that form abstract patterns — including bottle-shaped motifs, trefoils, palmettes, and spirals- in which the traditional distinction between the subject and background of the decoration has been dissolved. The beveled style was undoubtedly developed for stucco, but it was also applied to wood, which was used for doors and other architectural fittings. It is perhaps the most original contribution of Samarra decorators to the development of Islamic art, for the geometricized vegetal subjects and the quality of infinite extendibility are key elements in the arabesque decorative scheme.

Thousands of fragments of paintings found in the palaces at Samarra show that figural decoration, as in the Umayyad period, continued to be acceptable for private interiors, especially in palaces. Some of the scenes included cornucopia scrolls inhabited by wild animals and naked women, as well as hunting scenes. One reconstructed mural shows a pair of danc­ing girls with interlocked arms. While they dance, each figure pours wine from a long-necked bottle into a cup held by the other. Fragments of broken wine bottles, identified by their painted labels and smashed in bouts of rev­elry, littered parts of the palace, suggesting that some of the mural decoration evoked the kind of activities that took place in the palaces more private rooms.

 

The Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo

Hypostyle mosques were also built in other areas of the Abbasid realm. Perhaps the finest example is the mosque in Cairo built by Ahmad ibn Tulun (835—884), which preserves much of its original aspect. The son of a Turkish slave who had been sent from Bukhara as tribute to the Abbasid court at Samarra, Ibn Tulun received military training there. Coming to the notice of the caliph, he was sent to Egypt, becoming governor of Egypt and Syria in 869. The following year Ibn Tulun established a new district in Cairo named al-Qatai’ (“The Plots of Land”) in an area previously used as a cemetery. He built an aqueduct there to bring water from the Nile, as well as a palace, a hippodrome, a mosque, offices, and housing for his troops, all probably based on his experiences at Samarra.

The Ibn Tulun Mosque (876-879) bears many superficial resemblances to the mosques of Samarra, although it is clearly the product of local craftsmen working to the specifications of a foreigner. The building measures 400 x 460

feet (47 x 37nieters), unusually square proportions for an Abbasid mosque. The whole is enclosed on three sides in a ziyada (walled precinct) measuring 530 feet (162 meters) each side. This outer enclosure served to separate the mosque from the bustling city outside, and seems once to have contained latrines, ablution areas, and the like. The interior of the mosque comprises a vast court­yard 202 feet (92 meters) each side, surrounded by rectangular brick piers supporting arcades that support a flat wooden roof. The arcades are five bays deep on the qibla side and two bays deep on each of the other sides.

A limestone minaret, dating from the late 13th century, stands on a square base opposite the mihrab in the ziyada. Although it now shows some similarities to the Samarra type of helicoidal tower, the present minaret seems to have replaced the original minaret, which was also of a similar type, perhaps even more closely modeled on the Samarra example. The present fountain pavilion in the center of the court, also dating to the late 13th century, replaces the original two-storied structure, which was also used for the call to prayer.

The mosque is built of red brick plastered with white stucco. The plain walls were enlivened with carved plaster bands and friezes which run along the arcades and line the soffits of the arches around the court. They are worked in a great variety of motifs in the first and second Samarra styles. Wooden lintels and door panels were carved in the third Samarra, or beveled, style, and narrow wooden friezes of Koranic inscriptions in Kufic script, reputed to contain the entire text of the Koran, decorated the interior. The new style of decoration seems to have set a precedent throughout Egypt at this time, for similar work is found in the carved wood and plaster decorations of the Christian monastery known as Dair al-Suryani (914) in the Wadi Natrun.

The Ibn Tulun Mosque is often nowadays seen as an Egyptian imitation of the imperial Abbasid style seen at Samarra. The mosque and its accompanying minaret are normally interpreted by modern scholars as architectural expressions of the power of a central authority over the provinces through the imposition of distinctive, foreign forms.

Ibe Tulun Mosque (Youtube)

We are fortunate, however, to have several medieval Egyptian sources that de­scribe the mosque, and none of them supports this hypothesis. For example, the geographer al-Yaqubi (d. 897), who had lived both at Samarra and in Egypt, explained that the mosque’s form was the product of a dream of Ibn Tulun’s.

The historian al-Qudai (d. 1062) explained the unusual use of brick as a pre­caution against fire or flood, while the bureaucrat al-Qalqashandi (c. 1412) said that piers had been used to eliminate columns, which were tainted by having been used before in Christian chapels and churches.

One may therefore conclude, that, if Ibn Tulun had intended that his con­temporaries see his mosque as an imitation of Samarra, he failed, for contemporary viewers did not understand the reference. The relationship between architectural form and political message was, therefore, more complicated than it might appear at first sight.

 

Small mosques and tombs

Although widely popular, the hypostyle mosque was not the only type of mosque built in this period. At Nayriz in Iran, for example, the prayer hall of the mosque consists of a single barrel vault, open at one end, a type of space known as an iwan. Iwans had been used for centuries in Iranian architecture, but no earlier mosques incorporating them are known. The early date of the Nayriz Mosque is suggested by an inscription in the mihrab which mentions that the mosque had been built in 973/974, repaired in 1067/68, and repaired again in 1164/65. Some scholars believe that small, domed cubes also served as mosques in early Islamic Iran, although the evidence for them is less clear. The undated domed mosques at Yazd-i Khwast and Qurwa, for example, may be older buildings that have been converted into mosques.

In addition to Friday mosques meant to serve the entire community, there were also smaller mosques built to serve smaller segments. At Siraf, for exam­ple, at least 10 small mosques, ranging in size between 320 and 1,100 square feet (30 and 100 square meters), were found in the residential quarters of the site. Most of these were simple rectangular structures entered through a yard and divided by an arcade that supported the roof. Three of them had a stair­case minaret, an early type known from the Umayyad period.

From archeological evidence, the most widespread type of small mosque was a square structure with four internal columns or piers supporting nine domes. This type is found from Spain (Toledo, Mosque of Bab Mardum, 999/1000) to Central Asia (Hazara, undated), suggesting that the mosque of this type, like its bigger brother, the hypostyle mosque, diffused from some central source. One of the best-studied examples of a nine-domed mosque is found at Balkh, a town in northern Afghanistan, once the capital of ancient Bactria and a major city in Khorasan during the Abbasid period. The building is approximately square, and measures about 66 feet (20 meters) on each side. The walls and piers are built of baked brick, but all of the nine domes they originally supported have fallen. The glory of the building is its decoration, for the piers and arches are superbly decorated with deeply carved stucco. The style of the carving, combining the first and second Samarra styles with sever­al new elements, suggests that the building was constructed toward the end of the 9th century.

 

Other buildings erected in the provinces during this period were tombs, which are known from textual sources and monumental remains. Texts indicate that members of the Alid family were venerated at Najaf, Kerbala, Qum, Mashhad, and other sites, but their sanctity precludes archeological investigation of these complexes, which have been repeatedly restored and enlarged over the centuries. Other figures were also venerated. The Abbasid ruling family appears to have encouraged the veneration of their ancestor Qutham ibn Abbas, a cousin and companion of the Prophet who accompanied the caliphs army in the invasion of Transoxiana in 676. Qutham died at Samarqand — it is unclear whether in battle or of natural causes — and his grave site was subsequently developed as a shrine and place of pilgrimage. Most of the extant complex dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, when many members of the Timurid elite, especially princesses, were buried there, but fragments of patterned brickwork and carved wood suggest that the complex was founded in the 10th or 11th century. The remains of a cylindrical brick minaret from the 11th century suggest that the tomb was accompanied by a mosque as well.

Tombs were also built for local rulers. The earliest complete example to survive is the tomb of the Samanids at Bukhara. The Samanids (819—1005), who descended from an old Persian noble family, had served as the Abbasids’ governors in Transoxiana. Ismail ibn Ahmad (892-907), the most successful member of the family, came to control much of the land between Baghdad and India, although he always acknowledged the caliphs suzerainty. Popular tradition ascribes the mausoleum in Bukhara to Ismail, but it is more likely to be a family tomb erected after his death. Constructed and decorated with baked brick, it is a small cube with sloped walls supporting a central dome with small domes 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 could not have been the first of its type to have been built. This tradition, perhaps inspired by the Abbasid tombs in Iraq, only grew stronger in the 10th century. The Buyid rulers, for example, built their dynastic tombs at Rayy, one of their capitals, south of modern Tehran. According to the geographer al-Muqaddasi, writing in 985, the rulers erected high and solid tombs over their graves and lesser princes erected smaller tombs.

 

Even lesser rulers sought immortality by building grandiose tombs, and a striking group of tomb towers survives from the 11th century in northern Iran. Some of them are located in the mountains, others on the plain; some are domed cubes, while others are cylinders with conical or domed roofs. The most extraordinary example of this ambitious structure is the Gunbad-i Qabus, a brick tower built by Qabus ibn Wushmgir (978-1012), the ruler of the local Ziyarid dynasty. It stands 170 feet (52 meters) high and gains an additional 33 feet (10 meters) from an artificial hill that makes it look even taller. With its soaring verticality and simple form of a flanged cylinder topped by a conical cap, the tower dominates the surrounding plain.

The undecorated exterior is broken only by two identical inscriptions which encircle the tower and sate that Qabus himself ordered the tomb in 1006/07. Qabus* attempt to attain immortality succeeded in part, for this minor ruler has thus achieved a place in the history of architecture.

Tombs were also erected in Egypt. The geographer al-Muqaddasi mentioned that the beautiful tombs in the cemeteries of Egypt were equaled only by those of the kings of Dailam at Rayy. Many thousands of dated tombstones survive from the period before the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969. Most were formerly to be found in the great Muslim cemeteries at Aswan and Cairo, but at the end of the 19th century they were removed from their original contexts in order to be preserved in museums, since scholars at that time were mainly interested in studying the evolution of the Arabic script on them.

Many, however, had originally been attached to buildings, of which several dozen survived in whole or in part. They range from simple structures comprising a single-domed room or canopy to more elaborate, multichambered edifices comparable to the nine-bay mosque type. As these buildings now lack any inscriptions, they can be dated only on stylistic and historical grounds. The nine-bay mashhad, or martyrium, of the Sharif Tabataba outside Cairo, for ex­ample, has plausibly been dated to the middle of the 10th century because it is identified by later sources as the tomb of a descendant of the Prophet who died in 943. Similarly, some of the simplest mausoleums in the cemetery at Aswan have been dated to the 10th century on the basis of the type of squinch used to support the dome. These structures suggest that by the 10th century the con­struction of tombs was not only a royal prerogative but was also carried out by a broader segment of society.

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  • islamic architecture
  • abbasid architecture
  • abbasid art
  • iranian architecture

About the Author
Professor Blair teaches about all aspects of Islamic art from the seventh century to modern times. She offers surveys on Islamic art, architecture, and urbanism, as well as research seminars on the Silk Road, the Islamic book, and the arts of the object. Her research is equally broad: she has written or co-written 15 books, including several international award winners, and more than 200 articles in journals, encyclopedias, colloquia, and festschriften. Several of her books were written with her husband and co-holder of the Calderwood Chair, Jonathan Bloom, with whom she served as artistic consultant to the three-hour documentary Islam: Empire of Faith, shown nationally on PBS. She is currently working on a monograph on text and image in medieval Iranian art, a two-hour documentary for PBS on the arts of Islam, and a 2013 exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Islamic art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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  1. this the article is excellent

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