III. GLIMPSES OF ISLAMIC ART: 1058–1250

It was in this age of Berber domination that Moslem Spain raised the Alhambra at Granada and the Alcazar and Giralda at Seville. The new architectural style is often called Morisco, as having entered from Morocco; but its elements came from Syria and Persia, and mark as well the Taj Mahal in India; so wide and rich was the realm of Moslem art. It was a feminine style, aiming no longer at impressive strength as in the mosques of Damascus, Cordova, and Cairo, but at a delicate beauty in which all skill seemed absorbed in decoration, and the sculptor engulfed the architect.

The Almohads were enthusiastic builders. First they built for defense, and surrounded their major cities with mighty walls and towers, like the Torre del Oro, or Tower of Gold, that guarded the Guadalquivir at Seville. The Alcazar there was a union of fortress and palace, and showed a plain, blunt front to the world. Designed by the Toledan architect Jalubi for Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1181), it became after 1248 the favorite domicile of the Christian kings; it was modified, repaired, restored, or enlarged by Pedro I (1353), Charles V (1526) … and Isabella (1833); it is now predominantly Christian in origin but predominantly Moorish—or Christian Moorish (“Mudejar”)—in workmanship and style.

The same Abu Yaqub Yusuf who began the Alcazar built in 1171 the great mosque of Seville, of which nothing remains. In 1196 the architect Jabir raised the magnificent minaret of the mosque, known to us as the Giralda. The conquering Christians transformed the mosque into a church (1235); in 1401 this was torn down, and on its site—partly with its materials—was erected the vast cathedral of Seville. Of the Giralda the lowest 230 feet are of the original structure, the remaining 82 are a Christian supplement (1568) completely harmonious with the Moorish base. The upper two thirds are richly ornamented with arcaded balconies and lace-like trellises of stucco and stone. At the top is a powerful bronze figure of Faith (1568), which hardly symbolizes the ever-religious mood of Spain by turning with the winds; hence the Spanish name Giralda—that which turns (gira). Towers almost as beautiful were raised by the Moors at Marraqesh (1069) and Rabat (1197).

At Granada, in 1248, Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar (1232–73) ordered the erection of Spain’s most famous edifice, the Alhambra—i.e., “the red.” The chosen site was a mountain crag bounded by deep ravines, and looking down upon two rivers, the Darro and the Genil. The emir found there a fortress, the Alcazaba, dating from the ninth century; he added to it, built the great outer walls of the Alhambra and the earlier of its palaces, and left everywhere his modest motto: “There is no conqueror but Allah.” The immense structure has been repeatedly extended and repaired, by Christians as well as Moors. Charles V added his own palace in square Renaissance style, solemn, incongruous, and incomplete. Following the principles of military architecture as developed in Eastern Islam, the unknown architect designed the enclosure first as a fortress capable of holding 40,000 men.12 The more luxurious taste of the next two centuries gradually transformed this fortress into a congeries of halls and palaces, nearly all distinguished by unsurpassed delicacy of floral or geometrical decoration, carved or stamped in colored stucco, brick, or stone. In the Court of the Myrtles a pool reflects the foliage and the fretted portico. Behind it rises the battlemented Tower of Comares, where the besieged thought to find a last and impregnable redoubt. Within the tower is the ornate Hall of the Ambassadors; here the emirs of Granada sat enthroned, while foreign emissaries marveled at the art and wealth of the tiny kingdom; here Charles V, looking out from a balcony window upon the gardens, groves, and stream below, mused, “How ill-fated the man who lost all this!”13 In the main courtyard, the Patio de los Leones, a dozen ungainly marble lions guard a majestic alabaster fountain; the slender columns and flowered capitals of the surrounding arcade, the stalactite archivolts, the Kufic lettering, the time-subdued tints of the filigree arabesques, make this the masterpiece of the Morisco style. Perhaps in their enthusiasm and their luxury the Moors here pressed their art beyond elegance to excess; where all is ornament the eye and soul grow weary even of beauty and skill. This delicacy of decoration leaves a sense of frailty, and sacrifices that impression of secure strength which architecture should convey. And yet nearly all this frosting has survived a dozen earthquakes; the ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors fell, but the rest remained. In sum this picturesque ensemble of gardens, palaces, fountains, and balconies suggests both the climax and the decay of Moorish art in Spain: a wealth gone to extravagance, a conquering energy relaxed into a flair for ease, a taste for beauty that has subsided from power and grandeur to elegance and grace.

In the twelfth century Moorish art flowed back from Spain into North Africa, and Marraqesh, Fez, Tlemcèn, Tunis, Sfax, and Tripoli reached the apogee of their splendor with handsome palaces, dazzling mosques, and labyrinthine slums. In Egypt and the East a new virility was brought into Islamic art by the Seljuqs, the Ayyubids, and the Mamluks. Southeast of Cairo Saladin and his successors, using the forced labor of captured Crusaders, raised the immense Citadel, probably in imitation of the castles built by the Franks in Syria. At Aleppo the Ayyubids reared the Great Mosque and Citadel, and at Damascus the mausoleum of Saladin. Meanwhile an architectural revolution transformed the old courtyard style of mosque into the madrasa or collegiate mosque throughout Eastern Islam. As mosques increased in number, it was no longer necessary to design them with a large central court to hold a numerous congregation; and the rising demand for schools required new educational facilities. From the mosque proper—now almost always crowned with a dominating dome—four wings or transepts spread, each with its own minarets, a richly decorated portal, and a spacious lecture hall. Normally each of the four orthodox schools of theology and law had its own wing; as an honest sultan said, it was desirable to support all four schools, so that at least one would in any case be found to justify the actions of the government. This revolution in design was continued by the Mamluks in mosques and tombs firmly built in stone, guarded with massive doors of damascened bronze, lighted by windows of stained glass, and brilliant with mosaics, carvings in colored stucco, and such enduring tiles as only Islam knew how to make.

Of Seljuq architectural monuments not one in a hundred has survived. In Armenia the mosque of Ani; at Konya the magnificent portal of the mosque of Diwrigi, the immense mosque of Ala-ud-din, the cavernous porch and embroiderylike façade of the Sirtjeli madrasa; in Mesopotamia the Great Mosque of Mosul, and the mosque of Mustansir at Baghdad; in Persia the tower of Tughril Beg at Rayy, the tomb of Sinjar at Merv, the dazzling mihrab of the Alaviyan Mosque at Hamadan, the ribbed vault and unique squinches of the Friday Mosque at Qasvin, and there, too, the great arches and mihrab of the Haydaria Mosque: these are but a few of the structures that remain to prove the skill of Seljuq architects and the taste of Seljuq kings. But more beautiful than any of these—rivaled in Persia only by the later Tomb of Imam Riza at Mashhad—is the masterpiece of the Seljuq age, the Masjid-i-Jami, or Friday Mosque, of Isfahan. Like Chartres or Notre Dame, it bears the labor and stamp or many centuries; begun in 1088, it was several times restored or enlarged, and reached its present form only in 1612. But the larger of the great brick domes carries the inscription of Nizam al-Mulk, and the date 1088. The porch and the sanctuary portals—one eighty feet high—are adorned with mosaic faïence hardly rivaled in all the history of that art. The inner halls are roofed with ribbed vaults, complex squinches, and pointed arches springing from massive piers. The mihrab (1310) has a stucco relief of vine and lotus foliage, and Kufic lettering, unsurpassed in Islam.

Such monuments laugh out of court the notion that the Turks were barbarians. Just as the Seljuq rulers and viziers were among the most capable statesmen in history, so the Seljuq architects were among the most competent and courageous builders of an Age of Faith distinguished by massive and audacious designs. The Persian flair for ornament was checked by the heroic mold of the Seljuq style; and the union of the two moods brought an architectural outburst in Asia Minor, Iraq, and Iran, strangely contemporary with the Gothic flowering in France. Instead of hiding the mosque in a corner of a court, as the Arabs had done, the Seljuqs gave it a bold and brilliant façade, raised its height, and led it up to a circular or conical dome that brought all the edifice into unity. The pointed arch, the vault, and the dome were now perfectly combined.14

All the arts reached their Moslem zenith in this strange age of grandeur and decay. Pottery seemed to the Persians an indispensable amenity of life; and seldom has the ceramic art reached so heterogeneous an excellence.15 The techniques of luster decoration, of monochrome or polychrome painting over or under glaze, of enamel, tile, faïence, and glass, now perfected their Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Sasanian, and Syrian heritage. Chinese influence entered, especially in the painting of figures, but it did not dominate the Persian style. Porcelain was imported from China; but the scarcity of kaolin in the Near and Middle East discouraged the Moslem manufacture of this translucent ware. Nevertheless, during the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries Persian pottery remained unrivaled—superior in variety of forms, elegance of proportions, brilliance of decoration, grace and delicacy of line.16

In general the minor arts in Islam hardly deserved so slighting a name. Aleppo and Damascus in this period produced frail marvels of glass with enamel designs, and Cairo made for mosques and palaces enameled glass lamps which are among the prizes of art collectors today.* The Fatimid treasury dispersed by Saladin contained thousands of crystal or sardonyx vases whose artistry seems beyond our skill today. The old Assyrian art of metalwork reached now an unprecedented height in Syria and Egypt, whence it passed to Venice in the fifteenth century.18 Copper, bronze, brass, silver, gold were cast or beaten into utensils, weapons, arms, lamps, ewers, basins, bowls, trays, mirrors, astronomical instruments, flower vases, chandeliers, pen boxes, inkstands, braziers, perfume burners, animal figures, Koran cases, andirons, keys, scissors … delicately engraved, and in many instances inlaid with precious metals or stones. Brass table tops were incised with superabundant designs, and magnificent metal grilles were made for sanctuaries, doors, or tombs. A silver salver engraved with ibexes, geese, and the name of Alp Arslan, and dated 1066, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has been judged “the outstanding silver piece of the Islamic period” of Persian art, “and the most important single object surviving from Seljuq times.”19

Sculpture remained a dependent art, confined to reliefs and carvings of stone or stucco, to ornamental scripts and arabesques; a reckless ruler might have a statue made of himself or his wife or a singing girl, but such figures were secret sins, rarely exposed to public gaze. Wood carving, however, flourished. Doors, pulpits, mihrabs, lecterns, screens, ceilings, tables, lattice windows, cabinets, boxes, combs were cut in lacelike designs, or were laboriously rounded by cross-legged turners revolving their lathes with a bow. A still more incredible patience produced silks, satins, brocades, embroideries, gold-woven velvets, hangings, tents, and rugs of such delicate weave or fascinating design as set the world wonderingly envious. Marco Polo, visiting Asia Minor about 1270, noted there “the most beautiful rugs in the world.”20 John Singer Sargent thought a certain Persian rug “worth all the pictures ever painted”;21 yet expert opinion judges extant Persian carpets to be imperfect examples of an art in which Persia has for centuries led the world. Only tattered fragments remain of Iranian rugs from the Seljuq age, but we may surmise their excellence from their representation in the miniatures of the Mongol period.

Painting in Islam was a major art in miniatures, and an ever less minor art in murals and portraiture. The Fatimid Caliph Amir (1101–30) engaged artists to paint in his rooms at Cairo the portraits of contemporary poets;22 apparently the old prohibition of “graven images” was weakening. Seljuq painting reached its height in Transoxiana, where Sunnite prejudices against representation was diluted by distance; and Turkish manuscripts picture their heroes abundantly. No certainly Seljuq miniature has reached us, but the heyday of the art in the ensuing Mongol period of Eastern Islam leaves little doubt of its flourishing in Seljuq times. Subtle minds and hands made ever lovelier Korans for Seljuq, Ayyubid, or Mamluk mosques, monasteries, dignitaries, and schools, and engraved upon the leather or lacquer bindings designs as delicate as a spider’s web. Rich men spent small fortunes in engaging artists to make the most beautiful books ever known. A corps of papermakers, calligraphers, painters, and bookbinders in some cases worked for seventeen years on one volume. Paper had to be of the best; brushes were put together, we are told, from the white neck hairs of kittens not more than two years old; blue ink was sometimes made from powdered lapis lazuli, and could be worth its weight in gold; and liquid gold was not thought too precious for some lines or letters of design or text. “Imagination,” said a Persian poet, “cannot grasp the joy that reason draws from a fine-drawn line.”23

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!