You might be wondering what is Muqarnas. Many, including myself before studying about it, are not aware of the term, even that some of us are actually lucky enough to walk underneath these cavernous architectural beauty.
Jame Mosque of Isfahan, Iran.
Muqarnas are essentially an architectural feature of geometric designs in 3D. The Islamic geometry were represented in small niches arranged in such fashion resembling caverns or stalactites, arranged in tiers usually under domes, Iwans, Mihrabs, Minarets, Squinches, columns, cornices and most commonly, under arches and vaults. It can be constructed with a host of materials – bricks, stucco, mosaics, ceramic tiles, plaster panels, mirror glasses, wood and paint.
A collage of muqarnas depicting different type of materials used to build it. From left upper to right lower – Wood, Mirror Glass, Paint, Plaster panels, Stucco, Ceramic tiles, Stone and Bricks
The construction of Muqarnas utilizes a system of complex mathematics : a tribute to the great mathematical achievements of Muslim scholars, as of most of Islamic decoration.
Muqarnas derived its name from Arabic مقرنص , meaning stalactite vaults. Developed in north-eastern Iran in the middle of the tenth century, it went to the northern Africa regions as the Islamic Empire expands. As it reached Al-Andalus of Spain it took on another form named Mocárabe. However, it is strictly in stalactite or honeycomb form, built with the clever arrangements of vertical prisms. Even though the terms Muqarnas and Mocárabe are used interchangeably, but Muqarnas does not necessarily have the same formation as Mocárabe.
An example of Mocárabe in Alhambra, Spain.
It is thought that this architectural feature was inspired by the story of the enlightenment of the prophet Muhammad – He received his revelation from God, bestowed upon him by the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) in a cave where he meditated in Mecca called Cave of Hira. The Muqarnas and Mocárabe reflects the cave with its stalactites adorning the ceiling and vaults. The usage of geometrical designs perhaps reflect the perfection of God, and how He is central in all life on Earth and its Heavens.
Perhaps the best example of Muqarnas are in Isfahan, Iran, where this architectural feature originated from. The famous Jame Mosque in Isfahan is one of the best place to observe and appreciate this architectural wonder, especially the famous four gates or Iwan, heavily decorated with Islamic art and of course, Muqarnas.
There are quite a number of styles these Muqarnas are executed – Square Style Muqarnas, the most common style in the North African region and Al-Andalus, Pole Table Style Muqarnas are more prominent in Middle Eastern area of Iran and the surrounding area. Then there is the other styles including Sinan, mostly in Turkey, Triangular, also in Turkey and Egypt and also, Syrian and Egyptian Style. And then, of course, the Mocárabe that are most prominent in Spain.
A Collage of Muqarnas and Mocárabe – From left, The Hall of The Two Sisters, Alhambra, Spain with its Mocárabe and square Style Muqarnas. Center, Masjid-I-Shykh, Isfahan, Iran with its Pole Table Style Muqarna and on the Right, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey with Muqarnas designed by Sinan, a chief architect of the palace (Royalty of Turkey)
In conclusion, the architectural features of Muqarna and Mocárabe are one of the most prominent feature of Islamic decorative art, but somehow it eludes the knowledge of many people. These features represent the mathematical prowess of Muslim scholars, as well as reflecting the spirituality of Islam.
http://www.tamabi.ac.jp/idd/shiro/muqarnas/ – extensive study of Muqarnas, plus resources. I took some of the pics from there.
wikipedia.org – for some of the pics as well as descriptions and history.