Study Aid 7: Early Islamic Architecture in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain

Islam is one of the world's great religions. It begins, like Buddhism and Christianity, with the life and teachings of a single individual--a man named Muhammed (c. 570-632 AD) who was born in Mecca in the Arabian desert. Based on revelations he received from God or Allah, Muhammed preached against polytheism and the worshipping of idols. Muslims (or Moslems), the followers of Islam, consider Muhammed a prophet, not a diety like Jesus. These divine revelations were set down in the Muslim holy book called the Koran (or Qur'an). Muhammed also preached the idea of the "jihad" or holy war as a means of spreading the teachings of Islam. By the 8th century AD (the same period when Western Europe was experienceing its "Dark Ages", Islam had been spread from southern Spain to India, creating the greatest empire (intellectually as well as physically) since the fall of Rome. The spiritual center of Islam is in Mecca which became the focus of great pilgrimages to the Ka'ba (rebuilt in 683 AD) which was erected on a sacred site dating back to pre-Islamic times. This modest structure forms the cosmological axis around which the entire Islamic world revolves.

The first great monument which displayed some of the architectural qualities that later became characteristic of Islamic architecture was the Dome of the Rock (c. 687-92, Jerusalem, Israel; patron: Caliph Abd al-Malik). Although its form was derived from centralized Early Christian and Byzantine shrines, it possesses distinct, non-Christian features-- especially its use of complex surface decoration often based on the Arabic script. The Dome of the Rock marks a site sacred to Jews and Muslims.

The mosque (masjid in Arabic) is the building where Muslims gather for community prayer, e.g. The Great Mosque of Qairouan, Tunisia, 836-862 AD; The Great Mosque at Cordoba, 786-966 AD, Spain. Perhaps initially inspired by Muhammed's own house, a mosque usualy contains several common features: a large prayer hall (the liwan) where prayer is directed towards a wall that is oriented in the direction of Mecca (the qiblah wall); a niche in this wall (the mihrab); a preaching platform (the minbar); a central open courtyard (the sahn) where people would gather and perform ritual washings prior to prayer; and towers (minarets) from which a singer would call the faithful to prayer.

Islamic cultures also developed a number of other characteristic building types including schools (madrasa, plural: madrese), markets (suqs or souks), fortifications, tombs, and royal palaces (e.g. the Alhambra, 13th and 14th C. AD, Granada, Spain). Surrounded by a fortified wall, the Alhambra contains rooms exquisitly decorated with colorful tiles, wooden ceilings, and plaster muqarnas (stalactite vaults) designed in complex geometric patterns. The Alhambra's courtyard gardens are ornamented with plants, pools and fountains.

Among the cities conquered and settled by Muslim forces were preexisting Roman grid towns which they altered and adapted, e.g. Damascus, Syria. But generally early Islamic cities and towns followed the traditional "organic" pattern of twisting, irregular streets that had its origins deep in prehistoric times. With blank walls to the street, courtyard-type houses provided a great deal of privacy for the family within a dense, organic plan. A notable exception to the dominant organic mode of town planning was Baghdad, Iraq, built near the Tigris River by Caliph Al-Mansur between 762-67 AD. It was an "ideal" city in the form of a circle with straight, radiating streets, and a palace, mosque and various government offices at the center of the plan.


Date: 630AD,683-
Location: Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Architect: Unknown


Schematic Image of the World's Mosques Focused on the Ka'ba


Exterior View During Pilgrimage (The Haj)

Ka'ba and Surrounding Building During the Haj

Dome of the Rock

Date: 686-692 AD
Location: Jerusalem, Israel
Patron: Caliph Abd al-Malik


Section/Axonometric View


Aerial View


Exterior Elevation


Interior View

Great Mosque at Cordoba

Date: 786-966AD
Location: Cordoba, Spain
Architect: Unknown
Patrons: Assorted Caliphs

Aerial View

Plan - Over Time


Portico in the Courtyard of the Oranges


Interior View - Prayer Hall

Interior View - Prayer Hall


Al-Hakam's Chapel

View of Mhirab

Dome Over Mihrab Chapel

The Alhambra

Date: 13th-14th Century AD
Location: Granada, Spain
Architect: Unknown
Patron: Various Caliphs


Plan of the Surviving Parts of the Palace


View from the City of Granada


Interior View - Carved Stucco Hall

19th Century View of Hall of Ambassadors (Salon de Embajadores)

Hall of the Ambassadors - Wood Ceiling


Stucco and Tile Work in the Hall of the Ambassadors


Court of the Myrtles


Court of the Myrtles - Fountain


Court of the Lions


Interior View - Muquarna Vault in the Hall of the Abecerrajes in the Court of the Lions


Interior View - Muquarna Vault in the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Court of the Lions


Date: 762-767 AD
Location: Baghdad, Iraq
Architect: Caliph al-Mansur


Site Plan - Reconstruction

Detail of Plan with Shopping Street