Essay: Medieval Islamic Art and Architecture

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Medieval Islamic Art

The Transition Between the Byzantine and Islamic Empires

The Islamic conquest that spread with unprecedented quickness through the Middle and Near East regions, and through Iberia and as a major cultural influence in Western Europe thereafter, is often seen as a sharp point of departure from the Eastern Roman power that ruled these regions prior. Steeped heavily in Christian ideology and iconography from a seat of power in Constantinople (now in modern Turkey), the Byzantine Empire would cast a dominant impression on pre-Muslim Arab civilizations. Therefore, the apparent immediacy with which history shows this to have been replaced by the dominance of Islamic influences may not be fully accurate. Or at least, it may lack the nuance to explain the clear and formative impact which centuries of Byzantine rule would bear on the suddenly emergent Islamic revolution.

Though a pronounced break is imagined between the Byzantium rule of the Middle and Far East and the Islamic push back through Europe, the art and architecture which remain behind for us to consider suggest that this break was not as cleanly pronounced as history suggests. Research connects the consecutive eras in world history through the countless artifacts that suggest some continuity between Byzantine and Islamic rulers. Still, we are left only to speculate, warn such articles as that by Grabar (1964) as to that which occurred during the transition to destroy some cultural affects and to adopt others. On this point, Grabar "identifies a crucial moment in the political and cultural contacts between Byzantium and the Arabs, when the buffer world of pre-Islamic Arabs, who based at a distance in the glow of high Byzantine culture, was about to become the Islamic Empire, the strongest power of the Near East and the Mediterranean since the days of ancient Rome." (p. 69)

To this extent, the text by Grabar offers a primary finding to our discussion. That is, the rule of the Byzantine Christians which spread throughout the known world had cast an influence over Arab civilizations which far superceded any of the local or tribal powers that generally defined pre-Muslim Arab life. Therefore, many of the cultural affects of the Byzantine Empire would serve as a natural model for the emerging Islamic power. Indeed, Ettinghausen et al. (2003) describe this as a phenomenon connected the broader phenomenon of Islam's immediacy. To clarify, Ettinghausen et al. (2003) compare the rapid emergence and expansion of the Islamic world to the far more gradual and organic spread of the Christian ideologies that would eventually proliferate through Byzantium. Here, they note that in the 7th and 8th centuries, the prophetic visions of Mohammed would produce a sudden and unifying ripple through an already self-contained Arab world. (Ettinghausen et al., p. 17)

Quite to the point, then, Ettinghausen et al. explain that one of the reasons for the widely apparent influence of the Byzantine art and architecture on the cultural artifacts produced by the tremendously powerful and expansive Islamic world was the relative spontaneity of the Islamic movement as a whole. The text reports that "Islamic art did not slowly evolve from the meeting of a new faith and of a new state with whatever older traditions prevailed in the areas in which the state ruled; it came forth as suddenly as the faith and the state, for, whatever influences may have been at work in the building and the decoration of early Islamic monuments, their characteristic is that they were built for Muslims, to serve purposes which did not exist in quite the same way before Islam." (Ettinghausen et al., p. 17)

This underscores what our broader research finds is an almost simultaneous emergence of the new capitals of the Islamic world. This is the primary focus of the text by Ismail (1968), which would identify the seven major cities of Basra, Kufa, Fustat, Ramla, Wasit, Baghdad and Samarra as the collective capitals of the emergent Islamic empire. (p. 1) Each of these, the Ismail text would indicate, would be established on the edge of an expansive desert as a garrison for crusading Arab armies. Thus, the Ismail text reinforces a simultaneity of emergence that would precipitate the coopting of already existent modes for express. Accordingly, Ismail explains, "emerging almost at the same time (save for Ramla) and marking at the respective moments of their emergence, historical landmarks in the rapid expansion of the Islamic empire in its first stages of growth, these five cities were populated on the whole by Muslim Arabs, who were to safeguard the conquests and gradually absorb rather than be absorbed by other elements. These cities were thus able to maintain that Arab-Islamic tradition which, challenged later by the heterogeneous cultural heritage of what became the Islamic world, proved strong enough to make and keep that world Islamic, though not wholly Arabic." (p. 1)

This denotes two key features of those artifacts of the Islamic Empire. Namely, the did not first emerge as markers of an Islamic identity. No such identity yet existed. Instead, these developed as a means of serving such purposes as providing Islamic seats of rule, creating military fortitude in protection of newly established and expanding Islamic governance and as providing places of community gathering and, increasingly, for worship. (Ettinghausen et al., 18) This points us to the second consideration, which is that what we now perceive as inherently Arab architecture is in fact the hybrid created when these purposes converged with Roman Byzantine architectural conceits. This implies that the Arab conquest not only borrowed heavily from the Byzantine characteristics which preceded it but that the Islamic identity which would formulate over the next few centuries would summarily replace the impression made by the Byzantine empire. Naturally, this is a reality imparted to us as much by the impenetrable sway of influence possessed by Islamic faith in this region as by the connection between Islam and the architectural remains of the Byzantine influence. These are mostly bore out in the structures erected to serve Islamic purposes.

What our research on the subject reveals though is not a single catalyzing moment at which one influence supplanted the other. Instead, Grabar tells of a cross-breeding of influences during the period of transition that can be evidenced by such Arab monuments as "the desert baths of Qasayr Amrah or the wooden beams of the Aqsa Mosque." (Grabar, p. 70) Here, Grabar reports that during the first phases of Muslim conquest, the two passing empires engaged in a liberal exchange of influences that would eventually make them indistinct from one another. Grabar indicates for example that "in Cordova, the Muslim Arab caliphs apparently repeated an early Islamic practice and, in the tenth century, called on Byzantine artists to decorate parts of their great mosque. But, in a more general sense, a constant stream of influences flowed in both directions. The Byzantines acquired a taste for Islamic objects and an Orientalized aspect was given both to the court of the Constantinopolitan emperors and to many a church treasure." (p. 70)

This is to indicate that the continuity between Byzantium and Islamic architecture was not just incidental but highly conscious on both parts. The open cultural exchange belies the assumption that the spread of the Islamic movement was strictly a military conquest. Instead, we can see that a distinct and singular Arab culture was now coming into form, borrowing heavily from that which came before it and simultaneously distinguishing itself as cultural separate from the hegemonic force of the Byzantine Christians. Again, to reiterate the argument made by Ettinghausen et al., it was the Islamic imperative to repurpose exiting tradition to suit its interests that would help to establish this new cultural identity. In correspondence, Grabar points to the example of minarets, noting that there is documented evidence to support their presence in the Byzantium period even as we have come today to perceive these are inherently Islamic in their implications. Grabar indicates that "it is worth noting that minarets, according to the most plausible traditions, appeared first in the conquered cities of Syria. Their shape derived from Roman temenos towers in Damascus or from Church towers, but a new Islamic meaning was given to these high square towers; not only were they used for calling the faithful to prayer -- a function presumably of equal significance in new and purely Muslin cities -- but they also service the more important purpose of symbolizing the presence of the new faith in the midst of a predominantly non-Muslim population." (p. 74)

This strikes as a critically important and recurrent theme in our discussion. That is, the formulated associated between certain architectural aesthetics and the Islamic culture is largely a product of this repurposing. It is not simply that the Arab conquest produced a new correlation between a dominant culture and the primary mode of architectural expression used in this part of the world and at this time. More than that, the research points to the tendency of the Islamic faith to impart… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Medieval Islamic Art and Architecture.  (2010, October 16).  Retrieved May 25, 2019, from

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"Medieval Islamic Art and Architecture."  October 16, 2010.  Accessed May 25, 2019.