How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe

By Diana Darke

In this video, Diana Darke, author of the award-winning book, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, takes you on a quick architectural journey to see how architectural styles and ideas passed from vibrant Middle Eastern centers, such as Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo, and entered Europe via gateways including Muslim Spain, Sicily, and Venice through the movement of pilgrims, bishops, merchants, and medieval Crusaders. It’s a rich tale of cultural exchange that will help you see some of Europe’s – and even America’s – iconic landmarks with new eyes.

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[The] Canterbury Cathedral, sometimes called England Stone, is one of Europe's finest examples of the style we call Gothic. But what if I told you that pretty much every architectural feature in this Cathedral, built incidentally by the Norman French, with stone brought in specially from Normandy, had its origins in the Middle East and the Islamic world. It's the same with Notre Dame in Paris. When it caught fire in 2019, the world was transfixed and the French suffered a nationwide outpouring of grief.

"Our identity is going up in flames," they cried, without any notion of their Cathedral's backstory.

That's when I decided to write a book about how Islamic architecture shaped Europe.

So let's take a quick architectural journey to see how cultures and religions interact and interweave in all kinds of ways that challenge assumptions we may make about our national history and heritage. We can trace ideas and styles as they passed from vibrant middle Eastern Centers, like Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo to enter Europe via gateways like the Muslim Spain, Sicily, and Venice, through the movement of pilgrims, bishops, merchants, and medieval crusaders.

It's a rich tale of cultural exchange that will help you see some of Europe's and even America's iconic landmarks with new eyes. We'll start with the twin tower cathedral style, so familiar to us from Canterbury and Notre Dame in Paris. The first church in that style dates from the fifth century and still stands on a remote hilltop in war-torn Syria. It's called Qalb Lozeh, meaning "Heart of the Almond."

And it's just one among thousands of churches scattered over the wild and magical hills west of Aleppo. These churches were built to serve the Byzantine settlements, known today as the Dead Cities. Syria in Stone, you could say. And collectively, they represent the transition from Roman Paganism to the zeal of Early Christianity.

When the first Muslims arrived in Syria, adopting Damascus as their capital, they absorbed and learned from the earlier Byzantine, Hellenistic, and Persian civilizations. Gradually synthesizing their architectural styles into something new and distinct. Among these early Muslim innovations were trefoil arches, triple arches, first seen inside the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Then developed further in Muslim Spain at the core of Mesquita, where they were elaborated into cinquefoil arches, that's with five arches instead of three, and multifoil arches. They covered every surface with great energy and flair. The early Muslims loved arches.

"The arch never sleeps," runs the proverb. As for the pointed arch, that first entered Europe thanks to Amalfi merchants in Italy trading with Cairo. Inspired by the pointed arcades of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, they funded the same style in their new cathedral. When a visiting Benedictine Abbot saw the style, he liked it so much what he ordered the same for his monastery at Monte Cassino, as did the Abbot of Cluny in France. Even importing the same craftsmen and materials to make sure they got it right.

Once Cluny, the most powerful church in all Europe, had them, the fashion was set. Soon, Europe's medieval, Gothic cathedrals, like Canterbury and Notre Dame, were covered in pointed and trefoil arches inside and out. Just like London's Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament were covered with them centuries later, after the fashion came back in the Gothic revival.

Early Muslims pioneered the use of ribbed vaulting in the ceilings of mosques and palaces, using their deep understanding of complex geometry. They discovered how to cleverly disguise the structural elements, the ribs, by covering them in decoration. Their technique was brought to Europe by Muslim Masons via Muslim Spain and Norman Sicily. And was then further refined over the centuries by Christian craftsmen, till it reached the peak of perfection in the fan voltage ceiling of King's College Chapel in Cambridge.

Medieval stained glass in cathedrals, like Chartres and Canterbury, was shipped into Europe from Syria, the world leader in glass production. Venetian glass recipes specified Cinders of Syria to give the best quality and luster, while Venetian craftsmen learnt from Syrian techniques.

The concept of heraldry originated on the plains of Syria where crusaders first saw Saracen Knights on horseback holding jousting tournaments. And the fleur-de-lis, now universally recognized as the national symbol of France, appeared for the first time as a blazon for the Muslim ruler, Nur ad-Din. Christopher Wren, England's best known architect, wrote that, "What we call the Gothic style should rightly be called the Saracen Style."

He even explains how he used “Saracen vaulting” in the dome of Saint Paul's Cathedral and why it was the best. That's why the cover of my book shows the interior dome of St. Paul's. It's also the reason behind the title, Stealing from the Saracens. A deliberate double irony, a play on words, based on the derivation of Saracens, Saariqeen, meaning thieves in Arabic.

In other words, isn't it crazy that we in Europe called Arab Muslims, thieves? When actually, we took a lot of ideas from them. The bottom line is that no one has a monopoly on ideas. Everyone's contribution needs to be acknowledged, no matter where it comes from. No one owns science, just as no one owns architecture. Cultures are intertwined and everything builds on everything else.

I'm Diana Darke, in collaboration with the Emir-Stein Center.

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