All throughout the Islamic world, it is quite plain to see that each region – from Andalus, to the Arab World, Africa to Far East to the Nusantara (Malay World) – have their own architectural style, artistic elements including colours specific to that region. Whether this is intentional or intentional or because of certain limitations, we will together take a look at the wonderous colours of the Islamic world, and the factors that may influence the colour palette of each region.
Material Availability :
Suleymaniye Mosque entrance to garden from west
Arguably, this is one of the major factors influencing the choice of colours in every region. Colours were limited to the building materials available for construction. Unless otherwise painted over or decorated in any other way, the natural colour of the building materials would be the prevalent colour for the building.
Samarkand City Views
Decoration play another part in the choice of colours for building in the Islamic world. The prevalent art culture in the region – painting, tiling, marquetry, masonry, ironwork and the like all play an important part in decorating important private and public spaces. Areas like mosques, palaces were richly decorated and very often peruses the local craftsmen and their talents for this purpose.
Taj Mahal and outlying buildings as seen from across the Yamuna River (northern view)
Sometimes, colours are not merely just for aesthetic reasons for a building, but it could even be a necessity. Being in the midst of an area using the same materials, it is quite hard to distinguish normal building to special places such as mosques. By using decorations, not only it accomplishes the purpose of beautifying that particular building, but also to differentiate and hence elevate the importance of that building from the surrounding space. A building like a Mosque, for example, not only serves as a spiritual sanctuary for the faithful, it is also used very often as a public, social space. Sometimes it could also be used as an emergency shelter. Being different from the rest of the buildings in the area would certainly help people to identify it easier for example in a natural disaster, or for travelers who requires shelter.
For this article, I would like to start with the colours of Islamic Architecture in the Arab World.
Arab World –
According to the Arab League, the Arab World consists of 22 nations spanning from the Northern African Region and the Arab Archipelago. However, for this article, I would like to concentrate on the Arab Peninsula – Saudi Arabia, The Arab Emirate states, Yemen and including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, as they share the same characteristics with each other.
Islam originated in Saudia Arabia, specifically in Mecca and Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations from Allah over the course of 22 years, more or less. So it is only befitting that we start our study in this region, as the first mosque in Islam, The Quba Mosque, and two of the most important mosques in the Islamic history, The Haram Al-Sharif in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, are located. However, I won’t be elaborating on these two mosques because of how far it has been renovated throughout the years, although I will refer these buildings in their original forms.
The first mosques of Islam were simple affairs – sun-dried mud brick or stone (particularly basalt) were used, as well as palm trees and leaves as roofing and pillars. Decorations were added much later in the history of the earliest mosques, and even then they were simple ornaments – except for the two greatest mosques of Mecca and Medina – where amalgamations of different Islamic artistic cultures converge in these two sites.
Islamic architecture especially early ones, are influenced by even earlier architecture of the Byzantine empire. This is most apparent in the third holiest site in Islam, the Aqsa compound, where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Qubbah As-Sakhra were modeled after the Church of the Holy Sephulchre and Byzantine palaces and tombs. And as a direct influence, domes, most prevalent in Byzantine churches, were adopted by Muslim architects for mosques and in some instances palaces and other important buildings.
As the most common building materials used for these constructions were mud bricks or stone, this choice reflects the colors of the materials. Brown in its different shades, are the most prevalent colours, while white were also common but usually as a paint colour rather than the natural colour of the chosen materials.
White was chosen because of the easy visibility ; the white colour against the brown sandy colour of the desert contrasts greatly, thus it is easy to identify the building amongst the other buildings in the area. White might also be chosen because it provides a cooling effect where white reflects the heat from the harsh desert sand. Early mosques are often used as public and social spaces, and the cooling effect would be very welcome in the desert heat.
Notable examples :
Ibn Tulun Mosque :
The courtyard of Ibn Tulun Mosque in Egypt, with the spiral square minaret in the distance. Brown is the most prevalent colour here , which demonstrates the contrast between the colours of the natural stone and the blue sky.
A closer look at the square Minaret with external spiral staircase
Al Azhar Mosque
The Minarets and domes of The Al Azhar University and Mosque, showcasing the different styles of each dome and minaret.
An old picture of the interior courtyard of the Al Azhar. The walls are plastered and painted white.
A modren photo of the Quba Mosque, the first mosque in Islam. Granted, this mosque is not original, however uses the same colour language as most mosques in the region. The walls are plastered and painted white, creating a stark contrast between the sky and the mosque. I would imagine that the mosque, in its state today, would have been very outstanding and easy to see in the desert sands.
Al Aqsa Mosque
One of the oldest mosque in Islam, the Al Aqsa compound is the third holiest site in Islam. The natural stone colour shows here with the Medieval architecture creates a mosque profile that is easily recognizable.
Inside of the mosque you can see the influence of Byzantine art from the golden mosaics.
Another early Islamic mosque, it was formerly a temple of Jupiter, the a church, and then converted into a mosque. Remains of its older functions still can be seen here
Marble and stone can be seen here used as a part of the mosques courtyard. Quite commonly, pillars from previous temples and churches were repurposed to be used in mosques, especially those where Christian and Islamic history intertwines. Here you can see a gazebo (Dome of the Clock) held by recycled pillars.