Monday, September 12, 2011

Top 10: Islamic Architecture — Shoulders of Giants

As a religion, Islam was firmly based on the previous two that had risen up in the Middle-East: Judaism and Christianity. Just as Muslims hold Jews and early-Christians as "people of the books", many of the elements of Islamic architectural style have come from (or at least with inspiration by) "architects of the books" — Jewish and early-Christian planners, builders and engineers.

There, however, are notable differences. Islamic architecture may be identified with several notable design elements, which were inherited from the first mosque built by Muhammad in Medina (modern-dan Saudi Arabia), as well as from the other pre-Islamic features adapted from Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and other temples. Islamic buildings aren't limited to mosques, but also schools and other educational and scholarly institutions.

The top 10 principle elements that make up Islamic architectural style include:

1: Large courtyards often merged with a central prayer hall (coined at the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia).

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina "houses" many large couryards.

2: Minarets, which are the towers you see on most mosques and Islamic buildings. Originally, they were torch-lit watchtowers (also useful in case of conflict), like at the Great Mosque of Damascus (modern-day Syria). Today, however, they are normally lit with the green neon lights; the call for prayer is also no longer a purely vocal demonstration, but amplified with speakers (and sometimes pre-recorded).

The 3 minarets of the Great Mosque of Damascus: Qaitbay (built 1488),  Bride (~9–12th c.) & Jesus (9–13th c.) 

3: A mihrab, which is a niche somewhere on an inside-wall. It indicates the direction to, the Muslim holy place, Mecca. The idea for this may have come from the Torah ark of Jewish synagogues (where the Jewish bible's Torah scrolls were kept), or the Haikal in Coptic churches.

Mihrabs in Islamic buildings: Bu Inania (Morocco); Great Mosque of Kairouan (Tunisia); Great Mosque of Damascus. 

4: Domes and cupolas, which are perhaps the more well-known aspects of Islamic architecture. They not only rise above most surrounding structures, but also dominate with their clean, massive, round form.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691), Al Othman Mosque in Kuwait, and the Great Mosque of Kairouan (670 AD).

5: Open halls surrounded by three walls but one left open are known as iwans. Their main function is to intermediate between different sections of the building.

Iwans of the Ulugh Beg Madrassa (Uzbekistan), Qila-i-Kuhna (Delhi), and the iwan remains of Taq-i Kisra (Iran).

6: Arabesque, which is a beautiful, age-old elaborate form of decoration for murals as well as, for example, design elements made from wood. Arabesque employs using repetitive geometric shapes (as to Muslims, images of humans or animals are forbidden — as they may evoke idolatry).

Arabesque patterns on the exterior and interior of Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque (Iran), the Agra Fort (India) and Córdoba.

7: The use of decorative Islamic calligraphy instead of pictures. Images and likenesses of people, animals, plants, etc. were forbidden in mosque architecture — no idolatry. Note that in secular architecture, such pictures were and are indeed present.

Examples of Islamic architectural calligraphy on the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey) and the Old Mosque (Edirne). 

8: Bathing fountains, called wudu, which used by Muslims for ritual cleansing are present at almost every mosque and Islamic religious site. It is required by Muslims to wash themselves before prayer — when handing the Qur'an, at the least.

Wudu fountain (modernized) at the Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem), and bathing ritual at Badshahi Mosque (Pakistan).

9: The use of eye-catching, bright color. This one's a bit simpler, but still an essential part of Islamic architecture (and art too).

Bright color in Islamic mosques: Shah (Iran), Selimiye (Turkey), Nasir al-Mulk, Lotf Allah (Iran); and Hafez's Tomb.

10: A focus both on the interior space of a building and the exterior. This has been seen althroughout the images above, where great attention to both detail and the greater grandeur has been paid on the inside and outside of Islamic buildings.

Bonus: Byzantine architecture had a great influence on early Islamic architecture with its characteristic round arches, vaults and domes.

Byzantine architecture at: Pammakaristos Church (Constantinople), Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (Italy) and Hagia Irene.

Did I miss anything?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Akhenaten – An Ancient Egyptian Liberal

Pharoah Akhenaten ruled in Dynasty XVIII,
about 3400 years ago, and was quite the liberal.
Comic books of ancient Egypt, these works depict the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. A liberal for his time (almost 3400 years ago), Akhenaten was married to the half-sister of Tutankhamen.

King Tut is today's most famous pharaoh, but according to ancient art expert Sam Merrin of the Merrin Gallery, it's because of the pristine condition of his surviving tomb, which was discovered by archeologists in 1922. For his time, Tutankhamun wasn't anything special, and ruled ancient Egypt only for nine years.

However, what's special about Akhenaten is that he was the first pharaoh to denounce polytheism. The most evident characteristic that typifies these artworks to his new, monotheistic reign is that both are presented in a modern, state-of-the-art manner.

Let's elaborate.

Akhenaten's figure is made to be cartoon-like. His outline is clearly defined through engraved lines, much like in many of today's comic books (with black ink).

Sunk relief of Akhenaten, where he is presented
in a comical manner.
More importantly, this is an early example of where the artist's own free expression and interpretation can shine through in such a divine context – a pharaonic legacy to be carried into the after-life. Although, one can argue this was common in pre-historic art, it was was very new for the time in lands governed by kings – like ancient Egypt. Making fun at authorities was punishable by death, and a cursed after-life.

The pharaoh himself is physically elongated and certain comical features are exceptionally defined. His body appears feminine in contrast to his predecessors: hulking embodiments of pharaonic male-mass.

These were idealized and made to appear godly, and overall stiff in appearance and also in the sense that they adhered to rigid social norms.

The liberal, pharaoh Akhenaten is also known as Akhenaton or Ikhnaton.