May/June 2000

T r i p o l i

Muqarnas: The Rythm of the Honeycomb

Written by Jonathan M. Bloom

Photographed by Dick Doughty


The dome in the mosque of al-Burtasi

Muqarnas may have developed first to decorate the squinches that support a dome's transition from a square, such as those below the central dome in the mosque of al-Burtasi.


When Mamluk patrons and builders wished to show their stuff - whether in provincial capitals such as Tripoli or in the metropolis of Cairo - they often turned to muqarnasdecoration, a type of ornament wholly an invention of Islamic artists, and one almost never used outside Islamic lands.

Muqarnasis composed of progressively projecting tiers of niche-like geometric elements, a three-dimensional pattern that in Mamluk buildings often decorated the deep hoods over portals, hid the squinches and pendentives that actually supported domes, and created a visual transition between such elements as the shaft of a minaret and the underside of the minaret balcony. Except for its use to decorate fine minbars, or pulpits, in mosques, muqarnaswas strictly an architectural technique, and it created a richly sculpted and textured visual effect that Westerners have often likened to honeycomb or crystals. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that virtually every medieval Islamic building between the shores of the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean displays at least a bit of muqarnassomewhere.

Invented before the year 1000 and largely abandoned by the 17th century, muqarnasdecoration enjoyed its heyday between the 11th and 16th centuries, when it became a defining feature of both religious and secular Islamic architecture. Unlike the geometricized vegetal ornament known as arabesque, which developed out of late antique and Byzantine decoration into another characteristic form of Islamic decoration, nothing like muqarnaswas known in any other architectural tradition. One of the very few examples of non-Islamic muqarnaswas commissioned by the Norman king Roger II, who in the mid-12th century ruled a Sicily only just conquered from the Muslims. His throne hall, now the Capella Palatina in Palermo, displays a splendid wooden muqarnasceiling.


The madrasa of Amir TuwashiThe Mashhad Madrasa

The madrasa of Amir Tuwashi and the "Mash'had Madrasa". Above the front doors of each, half-dome hoods with individualized ornamental schemes are a distinctive use of muqarnas that appeared from the 11th to 17th centuries throughout the Islamic world.


The origins of the muqarnasare obscure The Arabic name, which is not attested before the late medieval period, has been linked to the Greek word koronis("cornice"), but this popular etymology is not confirmed by linguists. The definitions found in the oldest Arabic dictionaries connect the word with the concepts of fragmentation and unsupported projection, both of which indeed characterize the motif. The oldest surviving examples of muqarnasare found in Central Asia and the province of Khurasan in northeast Iran and date to the 10th century; there, individual plaster or brick units were assembled to form muqarnasmuqarnas, which functioned to define and separate adjoining architectural elements such as walls and ceilings, or shafts and balconies. However, the rapid and wide diffusion of the form to Iraq, Egypt and North Africa has suggested to scholars that muqarnasmay actually have first developed in 10th-century Iraq, when that region was the homeland of the Abbasid caliphate. From there, the techniques of building with muqarnaswould have been disseminated along trade and pilgrimage routes to the various provinces, where local traditions of muqarnasdecoration developed along regional lines.

In time, builders in Iran, Iraq and Syria came to construct entire vaults out of plaster muqarnas. While the harsh climate of the Iranian plateau forced builders there to cover these fragile vaults with tile roofs, in other locations the rippling exterior silhouette was left exposed, resulting a distinctive "sugar-loaf" dome. In parts of North Africa, where timber was readily available, muqarnasvaults were occasionally carved from wood.


The Attar Mosque

The Attar Mosque. Above the front door, a half-dome hood with individualized ornamental schemes is a distinctive use of muqarnas that appeared from the 11th to 17th centuries throughout the Islamic world.


In Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, where stone was the preferred construction material, masons changed the methods of constructing muqarnasto achieve similar effects in their more durable but heavier material. Whereas plaster muqarnaselements could be quickly cast and "glued" together into modules with more plaster, working in stone meant that each individual element had to be laboriously carved and flawlessly fitted. Plaster muqarnasvaults were light enough to be suspended from a hidden structural brick shell, but stone muqarnasvaults had to be self-supporting. It was the Mamluks who commissioned some of the most daring examples of carved stone muqarnas, refining the motif into elaborate and deep semidomes festooned with stone pendants that hang over the entrances to mosques, muqarnasand palaces. These display not only the consummate skill of the builders but also their patrons’ commensurate taste.

The earliest muqarnas were the fanciful products of artisans’ familiar manipulation of humble plaster and brick, but as the vaults became increasingly complicated, the skills of muqarnasconstruction came to be entrusted only to specialists. An inscribed plaster plaque discovered in the ruins of the late 13th-century Ilkhanid palace at Takht-I-Sulayman in northwest Iran has been interpreted as a template for the workmen who were charged with assembling a plaster muqarnasvault from prefabricated elements. Two centuries later, a collection of architectural diagrams known as the Topkapi Scroll details the design and assembly of extraordinarily complicated muqarnasvaults. In all cases, the drawings were only templates to help a master already familiar with the process.


The minaret of the Ouwaysiyah Mosque

Between the shaft and balcony on the minaret of the Ouwaysiyah Mosque, a fish-scale muqarnas creates a transition zone.


Despite the almost universal use of muqarnas decoration in the medieval Islamic world, contemporary sources do not reveal a deeper meaning, or a reason for the great attraction that this type of ornament exercised. Modern scholars have speculated, among other things, that the fragmented and ephemeral quality of muqarnasvaults may have been an architectural metaphor for the atomistic theology propounded by Baghdad philosophers in the early 11th century, or that their changing repetitiveness and apparent defiance of gravity may have made them a visual metaphor for the infinite wisdom of God. More simply, visitors to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain today marvel at the splendid, 14th century muqarnasvaults composed of thousands of individual plaster elements: When lit by the light filtering through delicate window grilles, they evoke the starry night sky arching over the person of the ruling sultan. In short, it is unlikely that any one meaning can ever adequately explain such a widespread and popular motif. Like other aspects of Islamic art, the broad appeal of the muqarnasmay lie in its inherent ambiguity, for its geometric underpinnings delight the mind even as its visual characteristics delight the eye and inspire the soul.


Jonahan M. BloomArt historian Jonathan M. Bloom is author or co-author of several books on Islamic art and architecture. He lives in New Hampshire.


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