Imagining Islamic Aesthetics # – 27 The Architecture of The Umayyad Caliphate

We have discussed about the Islamic Art and Architecture in the reign of the Ummayad Caliphate before (click here if you want to reread the article) and for this edition of Imagining Islamic Aesthetics I would like to focus to this topic again, but only regarding the architectural aspect of the said period.

The Umayyad Caliphate (Banu Ummayah, arabic –  بنو أمية  ) is the second caliphate to rule the Islamic civilization after the Rashidun Caliphate who ruled the growing Islamic empire after the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. During this time, Islam and specifically talking in this article, its art and architecture, is still in its early stage, still assimilating foreign cultures and aesthetics and amalgamating them into their own, albeit still heavily influenced and not unique. Influences include the Roman, Byzantine and Sassanid arts.

Islamic art at this period does not develop extensively, but there are lots of Islamic architectural wonders built during the Ummayad Caliphate, some of which still stands today.

Source - * Photo by Eric Stoltz * Transferred from en.wikipedia; Transfer was stated to be made by User:sevela.p

Interior of the Al Aqsa mosque on Haram al Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. The Al-Aqsa mosque, as well as another shrine next to it, refer below, was built during the Ummayyad Caliphate. Both exhibits influences of Roman and Byzantine architectural styles. Gold coloured mosaics, as seen on the wall above the central arches are employed here, as well as roman columns.

Author - Chris Yunker from St. Louis, United States

The Dome of the Rock on the Haram As-Sharif in Jerusalem. This building stood next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Unseen in the picture) and both are built during the reign of  the Ummayad Caliphate. The shape of the shrine was influenced by Byzantine Martyriums and the dome is copied after the christian churches in the area for example, the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, not far from the Haram As-Sharif site.

Detail of the palace facade of Mashatta, kept at the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin. Very little remained of the Mshatta Palace, but fragments of its facade. It can be noted here that the art of the facade borrows heavily from the Persian civilization, perhaps from the Sassanid culture. The vegetal motifs and the zoomorphic figures are influences from the Persian empire, as well as the pattern and geometrical shapes.

Author - Roberta F.

The Facade of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. One of the best example of the Ummayad Architecture, it features clear influences from other cultures. The Mosque itself was a former Christian church (the Shrine where the severed head of John the Baptist, known as Yahya in Islam, is inside) it was also built on top of a former Pagan temple. The building utilizes the Arab Plan, the floorplan that uses copious amount of pillars, and the facade features gold coloured mosaics that shows influences of Byzantine Empire.

Author - David Bjorgen

The dome in Qasr Amra in Jordan. The Muslim artisans and architects were still learning at that time, so most buildings, especially palaces and other secular buildings were experimental. Here you can see the primitive form of the decorative Muqarnas, as well as execution of domes. The Qasr Amra also features figural drawings and murals that is very similar to Greco-Roman period style of painting.

Study – Minbars, The Artistic Significance

As discussed before in a post in Imagining Islamic Aesthetics, a Minbar resembles closely to a pulpit, but with the function of a lectern, installed in a mosque. It is where an Imam delivers his sermons (Khutbah) in communal prayers on Fridays, as well as on Eid. It is usually built in the shape of a small tower with a pointed or domed roofing (according to region) with steps leading up to the top, where a chair is placed, so that the Imam can sit in between the two sermons in Friday prayers. Usually made out of wood, and sometimes a freestanding structure which can be moved, it is also made in marble or other types of stone, and built into the Qibla wall, that is the wall which faces Mecca, where Muslims direct themselves in prayers. It is usually built on the right side of the Mihrab niche, sometimes with a space for the assistance of the Imam, the Muezzin, to call out the Adhan/Azaan, the Muslim call of prayer.

Author - Bernard Gagnon

The minbar in the Chapel of the Krak des Chevaliers, Syria


It is said that the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, only had an installations of  three steps and stood on top of it to deliver his sermons. The Minbar developed extensively from the start of the expansion of the Islamic empire until now. As Islam grew, and assimilated many cultures, so the aesthetics, in accordance to region, changes and metamorphose. Earlier Minbars were destroyed during the conquests of other cultures and civilizations such as the Mongols in Iran and Iraq, and very little early examples of Minbars survived.

Differences of Minbars Between Regions

The Fatimid era Minbars are the earliest ones that survived, one example being in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, made for Nur al-Din in 1168, which sees the Minbar as a structure of wood, with a platform on top with a dome canopy, as well as a portal before the steps. Stone Minbars are also built, an example is in the Sultan Hasan Mosque, in Cairo, Egypt. Having the same structure as the wooden ones, the decorative carvings of Muqarnas are also employed above the door in front of the steps.


The Mihrab and Minbar of the Mosque of An-Nasir Muhammad, in the Citadel of Cairo.

In Iran and its surroundings, the early Minbars were destroyed by the conquering Mongols ; only several examples from the Timurid dynasty survived. The Timurid Minbars are decorated with panels that featured geometrical shapes, Kufic calligraphies made with tiles, decorated with vegetal motifs, the same decorations that embellish the mosques and other significant monuments of Iran, Iraq and the Persian world.

Minbar in the Regent's Mosque, Shiraz, Iran
travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page: Minbar in the Regent’s Mosque, Shiraz, Iran

Turkish, particularly Ottoman, Minbars always have a  pointed top above the platform, echoing the shape of the Ottoman Mosques minarets. They are mostly made out of wood, however, the important ones, such as the Minbar in the Hagia Sophia, in Instanbul, Turkey. Both the wooden and stone Minbars are built attached to the wall, most usually to the Mihrab Wall.

Author - Giovanni Dall'Orto

A Mihrab in Sehzade Mosque in Istanbul

Indian and Central Asian mosques Mihrabs are almost always made from stone, and ornamented with carvings and Jaalis.  In North India region such as Gujerat and Ahmadabad the Minbars take the form of a pavillion on four piers. In the South, such as Hyderabad, the structure is much simpler and heavier, with no portals, doors or top covering the platform.

A stepped pulpit or minbar set between prayer niches on the western side of the courtyard at the Jamid Masjid mosque, in Fatehpur Sikri.

African mosques have stone Minbars which are very simple, only consisting of steps leading up to a platform. In Sanje Ya Kate in southern Tanzania the  mosque have a unique Minbar which is set into the Qibla wall, and entered through the means of accessing a set of steps carved into the wall that goes up to a niche in the Mihrab.

Decorations Employed

While African (Excluding the Northern African ones) have very simple Mihrabs, Other regions mostly have very heavily decorated Mihrabs, since it is one of the most prominent feature in a mosque, being next to the Mihrab and the function of the structure itself. In Syrian, Egyptian, Turkish and North African mosques, the Mihrabs are decorated with geometrical panels, made usually out of inlaid wood. Except for the Turkish Mihrabs, which have a pointed cone shaped canopies above the platform, the Minbars have domes for canopies. There are doors in front of the steps going to the platform, which the door itself, if there is any, is decorated with carved or inlaid geometrical patterns. Muqarnas decorations are almost always featured, whether above the portals, or under the canopies above the platforms. The more striking Mihrabs features exemplary Islamic artistry such as carved pierced screens and gilded decoration in the forms of vegetal and geometrical patterns.

Persian mosques features Persian craftsmen works of  relief patterned panels of geometrical forms and flowery, vegetal tendrils which are very similar to the covering of the walls of the mosques there.


Imagining Islamic Aesthetics #26 – Islamic Ironwork

For this edition of Imagining Islamic Aesthetics I would like to bring forward the topic of Islamic Ironwork. I have to note that this topic focuses on the subject of iron wares, not armoury or weaponry, which will be covered in another edition. Also, I have touched this topic before, however I would like to concentrate on non-weaponry items here.

Iron and other metals have been one of the preferred material/medium for Islamic artisans to express their creativity. They create daily items such as incense burners, ewers, plates and cutlery,  and decorate them in typical Islamic style such as geometric art or vegetal motifs. Gold and other luxury metals are not usually used for making daily items because of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, frowned upon the usage of excessive luxuries. Hence, during the Abbasid Caliphate, the Muslims discovered metallic lusterware, to imitate the colours of golds and silvers.

Incense burner. Description shows the name of an anonymous monarchy. Probably made in Syria or Egypt.

Ewer inscribed in the name of ‘Othman ibn Sulayman and dated 586 AH. Copper alloy with engraved decoration inlaid with silver and red copper, Iran, 1190.

Bronze lamp, 12th century, Khurasan.

Vase with foot ending in lion’s paws. Hammered copper alloy with engraved, repoussé and silver inlaid decoration, Syria or Egypt, 13th century.

Inkwell (?) bearing the name of Emir Abd Allah ibn Hasan Parsi in flowered Kufic script. Cast copper alloy, originally inlaid (?), 11th century, Nishapur

Study – Evolution of the Kufic Script

I have featured to a certain extend the Kufic script as a part of a general study of Islamic/Arabic calligraphy, and as one of the subject featured on Imagining Islamic Aesthetics. Now I would like to feature this subject again to look deeper and attempt to study the history of this one particular script.

The Kufic script is said to be derived from the old Nabatean script in Central Asia, and the name ‘Kufic’ is taken from the name of an Iraqi (Persian) city of Kufah. The scripts characteristic is that it is sharp and angular, and very geometrical. The script lacks annotations that is prevalent in more modern scripts, for example the dot below the letter ‘Ba/ﺏ’ (the B) or the letter ‘Ya/ﻱ’ (the Y/E) or the Fathah/Dhammah/Kasrah lines (the lines and symbols which are added either on top or bottom of every letter to aid non-Arabs to correctly pronounce each letter and hence each word).The script was already been used even before Islam. The importance of this script to the Islamic world is that it is used for the first copies of the Al-Quran, the sacred text of the Muslims.

The Early Form of the Kufic Script

The  Kufic script was not originally used just for Islamic sacred texts, as one would logically think. It was as noted above in fact used during the pre-Islamic times as the script for letter writing and diplomacy. There was no special decoration or embellishment to the script, just the letters that is sometimes not joined with each other, unlike the current Arabic script. There was no, as aforementioned, annotations or any kind of help with proper pronunciation to each of the words. this is mainly because that the Arabic script then was only used by the Arabs and hence there is no use of help of any kind for proper pronunciation since it would be perfectly understandable. Virtually all Al-Quran that were made and written in the 7th or 8th Century, under the command of one of the Rashidien Caliph, Caliph Uthman, were writ in Kufic. Since then the script evolved from a simple undecorated style that were straightforward into an elegant and elaborate calligraphy.

An Early Qur’anic Manuscript in The Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Script: Monumental Kufic. It is extensively dotted perhaps by a later hand.

Changes in the Kufic Script

During the 1000’s, as Islam grew and expanded its empire, and as people of different nationalities and cultures ans well as different languages embraced Islam as their way of life, the need of help for proper pronunciation of texts (particularly the Al-Quran) written in the straightforward Kufic emerges. Red dots were used to annotate and differentiate letters that were almost similar to each other (such as the Ba/Ta/Tha – ﺏ ﺕ ﺙ). One story has it that the need for these annotations arise when a Caliph sent a letter to a governor regarding the fate of a prisoner. The governor asked the advice of the Caliph regarding the prisoner, whether to set him free or to pass a fatal judgment. The Caliph replied, but to the surprise of the Governor the Caliph told him to “kill the man”. Knowing that there might be error, he replied back to asked why would he be adviced to do as such, since he knows that the Caliph is a forgiving person. It is then discovered that the Caliph meant “free the man” but misread as “kill the man”, due to the absence of annotations. This clearly tells that the Arabic language written in the Kufic script can be very easily confused and mistaken from one meaning to another very opposite one. By time the red dots, instead of being a separate mark in the text, turn into a part of the letters themselves.

Differences By Region

While the Kufic calligraphy has the common angular look, styles and decorations differ between say, the Kufic script in the Arabian Peninsula and the North African Region. The older, Arabian Kufic is more straightforward and angular, while Moroccan Kufic while still retaining the straight angular lines, features more curves, particularly on letters such as Noon, Wau, or Ra (ﻥ ﻭ ﺭ). Iranian and Central Asian ones are thinner and written in an angle, and some of them features floral decorations on the ends. Meanwhile, the Kufic script in Egypt are thicker, and features sharper points.

from Smithsonian” Folio from a Koran ,11th century ,Ink, color, and gold on paper ,Iran

Fall of Usage in Texts, Rise of Usage in Monuments

As early as the 11th Century, the usage of Kufic calligraphy in texts falls out of favour to the more recent, curvier texts. This is particularly because lines of Dhammah/Fathah/Kasrah, noted above that further help non-Arab in their pronunciations of Arabic texts can be introduced easily using the newer curvier calligraphy than the old Kufic texts that can only offer dots. however, while it is no more the preferred calligraphy of written texts, became prominent as decorative texts on monuments. This can be seen on the Egyptian Mamluke Dynasty monuments such as the Sultan Hasan Mosque in Cairo. It also enjoys a change in aesthetics,  as it is also combined with Arabesques and sometimes Geometrical patterns.

Fragment of a frieze bearing a floriated Kufic inscription: the ayat al-Kursi, or Throne verse from the Qu’ran. Aleppo pine, with carved, painted and gilded decoration. Fatimid Egypt, end of the 10th century.

Modern Usage

While it is still used as decorative element on religious buildings, the Kufic script in present times used for logos and such in Arabic or other Islamic countries that uses the Arabic scripts or its modifications (such as Urdu in India and Pakistan and Jawi in the Malay Peninsula). It is also found on flags such as the flag of Iraq and the flag of Iran.

Imagining Islamic Aesthetics #25 – Ramadan Celebrations

In a special edition of Imagining Islamic Aesthetics we will look into a subject not a in a physical way of Islamic art representation, neither does it shows actually artistic values, but rather something of cultural value – Islamic celebration of Ramadan – just the thing for we are in the holy month after all.

Ramadan, or spelled Ramadhan, Ramdan or Ramzan/Ramazan (Usually in Turkey) Arabic: رمضان‎ is the ninth month in the Islamic Hijri calendar. It is the time where Muslims observe one of the five pillars of Islam ; fasting, from sunrise to sunset.

Why is the month is so special not just because of the fasting, something most western minds cannot wrap around where one would deprive him or herself food, drinks or martial relationships, but because all the special things that can only be observed in this particular month – the early pre-dawn meal Sahur, the breaking of fast Ifthar, the special Tarawih and Witr prayers that can only be performed in the month.

Muslims of different cultures and countries celebrate the holy month is different ways unique to each…and this is what I want to bring forward in this edition. Unlike other Imagining Islamic Aesthetics posts, this wont have its own follow-up post.

Photo: Przemyslaw "Blueshade" Idzkiewicz.

A mosque in Mohandessin during the month of Ramadan, Cairo, Egypt.  Ramadan is decided by the sighting of a new moon, since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle. There is some confusion and debate amongst the Muslim community and the scholars of how the Hilal (Arabic for crescent moon) should be observed and hence deciding on the start of Ramadan – using just the naked eye or using calculations and astronomical equipments.

Author - Cem Topç

Blue Mosque during Ramadan (Sultanahmet, Istanbul/TR). There is two meals to be have for Muslims in the fasting month of Ramadan ; Sahur, the pre-dawn meal and Iftar, the breaking of fast taken at dusk. In both of the meals it is recommended by the Prophet himself to eat dates “in odd numbers”, usually in threes. When there is no dates available to the person who is going to fast or going to break the fast, he recommends drinking water “because it is pure”. He also said that it is preferable to end the meals with a glass of milk. These recommendations actually have nutritional significance – the sweetness of the dates can provide some one who is going to fast with energy and replenish one’s energy level after half a day of fasting.

Iftar in Patterson, New Jersey, US. Iftar is a joyful occasion to be had for someone who is fasting, both physically, for he is replenishing his energy after half a day of no consumption of food or water, and spiritually, for he had completed yet another day of fulfilling his religious duty. As the Prophet had said ” There is two happiness for the one who fasts in the month of Ramadan – the happiness when he breaks his fast and the joy of confronting God because he had completed His commandment”. Iftar is usually shared between family members, however it is also common that a community shared the Iftar together, most often in a mosque, as an act of charity because usually it is funded by individuals or groups.

Some veterans at the mosque from the 1980s war praying in a mosque in Iran. There are special prayers that is done in the month of Ramadan, namely the Tarawih prayers which meant “to be at ease” in Arabic, since it is to be done in a relaxed and not rushed fashion, and Witr, meaning “odd, in numbers” since it is performed in two parts of two rakaats (repetition of certain positions of prayers) and one rakaat. It is done during the nighttime, after the daily Isya’ prayers. It is most often supplemented with reading of the Qur’an afterwards. All these are done to maximize the spiritual profits the month have to offer.

posted to Flickr by Sajith T S

Eid crowds by the Charminar in Hyderabad, India. After the Ramadan month comes to a close, began the celebrations of the Eid-el-Fitr, the celebration of victory by the successful Muslims over gluttony that is managing to complete the fasting in Ramadan. It is a day where fasting is forbidden by God as a gift for the Muslims, and celebrated with a special Eid prayer and visiting friends and families and asking for forgiveness with each other, as well as visiting the graves of loved ones to offer prayers in remembrance of those who had passed away earlier.

Ramadhan Kareem to all Readers!

the special month for all Muslims is here now, so I would like to wish all my Muslim (and non-Muslims as well) readers a very happy Ramadan, Ramadan Kareem! Let us rejoice that we are still given the chance to celebrate this holy month, and let’s make the most out of the chance we are bestowed upon…and let’s not forget the yummy Iftar food! 🙂

I will resume my postings sooner after I have settled everything here. Until then, keep on reading guys!



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