Reading this review by Olly Wainwright (the Graun’s design and architecture reviewer apparently), one can’t help be struck by the fact that he apparently he knows nothing first hand of many aspects of European and Islamic architectural history. The book sounds like trash if the review is anything to go by, and his smug preening while discrediting any criticism of the flaws in his review as “white supremacist trolls” suggests a boilerplate ego, but just for kicks I’m going to go through the whole thing and explain why he, and the book’s author Diana Darke (according to Wikipedia, a “Middle East cultural expert, Arabist and occasional BBC broadcaster”, but not as far as I can tell, an architectural historian) are wrong. The text of the original article is in italics.

As Notre-Dame cathedral was engulfed by flames last year, thousands bewailed the loss of this great beacon of western civilisation. The ultimate symbol of French cultural identity, the very heart of the nation, was going up in smoke. But Middle East expert Diana Darke was having different thoughts. She knew that the origins of this majestic gothic pile lay not in the pure annals of European Christian history, as many have always assumed, but in the mountainous deserts of Syria, in a village just west of Aleppo to be precise.

“Notre-Dame’s architectural design, like all gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria’s Qalb Lozeh fifth-century church,” Darke tweeted on the morning of 16 April, as the dust was still settling in Paris. “Crusaders brought the ‘twin tower flanking the rose window’ concept back to Europe in the 12th century.”

That’s dubious, but also Syria in the fifth century was part of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. It had been Roman since Pompey captured it from the Hellenised Perso-Armenian Artaxiad dynasty all the way back in 64 BCE. Qalb Lozeh is a Byzantine basilica, a Roman form that evolved from a roofed-over forum. The architectural model the builders of Qalb Lozeh drew on was Roman. They were surrounded by Roman buildings. Early Byzantine architecture is largely indistinguishable from Western Roman architecture and evolved on its own path. You can debate the degree to which the Roman Empire transcended categories like east and west but Qalb Lozeh is of Byzantine Roman origin.

The comment about the Crusaders is also incorrect. Rose windows appear to have evolved from design elements already found in Byzantine, Visigothic and Merovingian art and architecture even before the Moorish conquest of Spain, and we can already see the evolution of the symmetrical twin towers in eleventh century Romanesque church architecture. Also it’s difficult to see how the Crusaders would have transmitted this back as all but a handful of them were illiterate and few were interested in anything other than loot for its material worth. Those that remained were not exactly on the best of terms with the west either.

It is not only the twin towers and rose window that have their origins in the Middle East, she pointed out, but also the ribbed vaults, pointed arches and even the recipe for stained glass windows. Gothic architecture as we know it owes much more to Arab and Islamic heritage than it does to the rampaging Goths. “I was astonished at the reaction,” says Darke. “I thought more people knew, but there seems to be this great gulf of ignorance about the history of cultural appropriation. Against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia, I thought it was about time someone straightened out the narrative.”

The phrase “owes much more to Arab and Islamic heritage than it does to the rampaging Goths” is a fallacious deflection. “Gothic” as an architectural term, as any first year art history student should be able to tell you, was intended as an insult indicating wildness, crudeness and barbarity in contrast to the classical, and nothing to do with the Goths or their architecture. It would not have to owe very much to Arab and Islamic heritage at all to make that sentence true. Ribbed vaults were already in use in Roman and Byzantine architecture. Pointed arches are most likely of Middle Eastern or Indian origin – that has been widely accepted for over a century at least. Nothing to see there. The recipes for coloured glass had existed in western Europe since Roman times and it was likely the Byzantines, who came up with the idea of putting it in windows – they were already doing something similar with thinly-cut alabaster. So much of these early diffusions, rather than spreading west from the east per se, actually diffused east and west from the Eastern Empire at about the same time.  

And so she has, with Stealing from the Saracens, an exhilarating, meticulously researched book that sheds light on centuries of borrowing, tracing the roots of Europe’s major buildings – from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey to Chartres cathedral and St Mark’s basilica in Venice – back to their Middle Eastern precedents. It is as much a story of political power, wealth and fashion as it is of religious belief, with tales of looting Crusaders, fashion-conscious bishops and globe-trotting merchants discovering new styles and techniques and bringing them home.

“Now we have this notion of east and west,” says Darke. “But back then, it wasn’t like that. There were huge cultural exchanges - and most came from the east to the west. Very little went the other way.”

I’m not sure what Darke means by “back then” – I’m presuming the twelfth century, and if that’s the case, nope. Certainly a lot of Islamic science and preserved ancient Greek knowledge flowed back with philosophers and churchmen fleeing the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but Moorish Spain prior to the Reconquista in 1492 was not exactly friendly with the rest of Europe. There was a sporadic exchange, certainly, but for the most part there wasn’t a great deal of conscious assimilation that hadn’t already been through the Byzantine melting pot. For all that you have attractive individuals interested in these things, cultural objects were usually reduced to their component parts – gold and silver melted down, silks unwoven – to avoid the contamination of heresy. Texts were translated and Christianised, but often hard to come by because few could read Greek or Hebrew at the time, let alone Arabic. To be fair, though, this is one of the least questionable assertions, but it is unfortunately bogged down in reductive generalisation.

Given their prevalence in the great cathedrals of Europe, it is easy to imagine that pointed stone arches and soaring ribbed vaults are Christian in origin. But the former dates back to a seventh-century Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, while the latter began in a 10th-century mosque in Andalucia, Spain. In fact, that first known example of ribbed vaulting is still standing. Visitors to the Cordoba Mezquita can marvel at its multiple arches intersecting in a masterpiece of practical geometry and decorative structure, never needing a repair in its thousand-year existence. The vaulted maqsura – the part of the mosque reserved for the ruling caliph – was designed to cast a sacred glow across the leader. However, the official leaflet will tell you little of the building’s Islamic origin, perhaps because it has been a Catholic church since 1236.

That is sneaky – naturally ribbed vaults are not Christian in origin, but they were certainly in Europe well before the Umayyad Caliphate came on the scene. As stated above, the Romans made use of ribbed vaulting, mainly for the intersection of vaults of different sizes. These consisted of brick in certain groin vaults and in the rings supporting the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, or, as Vitruvius tells us, iron arcs, although in both cases these were imbedded in the ceiling or hidden behind plaster. There is also an excellent Byzantine example of an exposed ribbed vault in the crypt of the monastery of Hosios Loukas in Greece dating to 1000 CE which. The first true Gothic ribbed vault is to be found in Durham Cathedral ninety-three years later. Given the construction of the Cordoba Mosque look place from 784 to 1236 CE, the dating is a bit messy. The more elaborate ribbed vaults of the High Gothic quite possibly were inspired by Islamic prototypes, but the principle was already established in Europe. That palpable little jab at the end is not entirely true either. The Cordoba Mosque was converted and massively expanded from the Visigoth Basilica of Saint Vincent of Lérins – if we’re keeping score.

The pointed arch, meanwhile, was a pragmatic solution to a problem encountered by masons working on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. One of the holiest sites in the Muslim world, it was built in 691 by the ruler of Islam’s first empire. The challenge was how to line up an outer arcade of rounded arches with a smaller inner arcade, while maintaining a horizontal ceiling between them. For the openings to align, the masons had to give the inner arcade tighter arches, forcing them to become pointed. Another world first can be spotted higher up in the shrine, where encircling the dome is an arcade of trefoil arches, the three-lobed style of arch that went on to encrust practically every European cathedral, voraciously adopted as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

While pointed arches are indeed of eastern origin, they have been around a lot longer than the Dome of the Rock, which ironically was largely based on Byzantine prototypes. Load-bearing pointed arches can be found as far back as fourth century Gandhara. The arcade consists of shouldered rather than trefoil arches per se, the exaggerated trefoil of the gothic already being well established in Byzantine art.

“Again and again,” says Darke, “I am so struck by how much of this stuff that we think of as essentially Christian and European was based on ignorance and misinterpretation of much earlier Islamic forms.” She points out that the enormous influence of the Dome of the Rock was down to the Crusaders of the Middle Ages mistakenly thinking the building was the Temple of Solomon.

This is just nonsense. The Crusaders knew perfectly well the Temple had been destroyed as per 2 Kings 25. They nicknamed Al-Aqsa Mosque the “Temple of Solomon”, mainly to distinguish it from the Dome of the Rock, which in fact they gave the title Templum Domini, the Temple of the Lord. The former they turned into an administrative palace, and the latter, which they believed was on the site of Solomon’s Temple, became an Augustinian church.

They used the domed, circular layout of this supposedly Christian shrine as the model for their Templar churches (like the City of London’s round Temple church), even copying the decorative Arabic inscription, which openly chastises Christians for believing in the Trinity rather than in the oneness of God. Their pseudo-Kufic calligraphic patterns went on to adorn French cathedral stonework and the borders of richly woven textiles, with no one aware of what they actually meant.

Again, this is just plain wrong. Templar churches were based on the round, domed sanctuary of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, consecrated in 335 CE three and a half centuries before the Dome on the Rock was built.

The confusion was spread further by the first printed map of Jerusalem, published in Mainz, Germany, in 1486. It not only mislabels the Dome of the Rock as the Temple of Solomon, but depicts the building with a fine onion dome – a pure orientalist fantasy from the mind of a Dutch woodcut artist named Erhard Reeuwich. The book containing the map became a bestseller, reprinted 13 times and translated into multiple languages, influencing the spread of onion-domed churches across Europe in the 16th century. It is a tale of mistaken identity and unintended consequence worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

Onion domes are found in Russian icons and miniatures from the thirteenth century onward, possibly inspired by the shape of the aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre. Confusion with the latter might explain the shape of Reeuwich’s dome.

[…] There are the early square minarets, found on such buildings as the Great Mosque of Damascus, that taper thinner and are crowned with a bulbous finial dome. These inspired such great Italian towers as those of Florence’s town hall and St Mark’s Campanile in Venice, prefiguring centuries of church bell-towers.

This is far-fetched. Roman towers like those of Porta Palatina in Turin and the Tower of Hercules in Galicia, still exist. Some of the Irish “round towers’, built to house bells, date back to 900 CE. Florence’s town hall tower and St Mark’s Campanile were just as likely to have been inspired by Roman and Byzantine fortifications. They were designed as defensive structures.

Drawing on architectural historian Deborah Howard’s research, Darke shows Venice to be more Arab than European, from its narrow winding passageways and courtyard homes with rooftop terraces, to the Islamic ornamentation of the Doge’s Palace (modelled on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) and the onion domes of St Mark’s. All are the fruit of trips made by Venetian merchants to Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Persia, fostering a level of influence that extended even to fashion: women in Venice were veiled in public and dressed in black from head to toe. “One cannot see their faces for all the world,” a 15th-century source commented. “They go about so completely covered up, that I do not know how they can see to go along the street.”

That is highly contentious. Narrow winding passageways and courtyard homes are hardly uniquely Islamic and plenty of examples can be found in Medieval villages and Roman villas and town houses. A certain amount of this can be attributed to the restrictions imposed by the city’s location. The other issue is that while most scholars agree there that there likely is an Islamic influence in on Venice’s architecture (through trade with Andalucía, Sicily and the Ottoman Empire), it is not strictly required. While polychrome brickwork and marble veneers were popular in Islamic architecture, it can also be found in Byzantine architecture in Ravenna and Milan, and both Byzantine and Islamic architecture inherited it from the Romans. But Venice was already intimate with Christian Constantinople well before it fell to the Ottomans and that note surely remains a dominant one.

The book comes at a charged time, when supposedly western architecture is being mobilised by right-wing nationalist groups to bolster their idealised vision of a “pure” European identity. There are now countless social media accounts promoting messages of white supremacy disguised as heritage appreciation, while recent government edicts about tradition and beauty carry similar overtones. Darke’s work takes an eloquent sledgehammer to such ignorant, dog-whistle propaganda, revealing how the monuments idealised by the alt-right have their roots in the very culture of which they are so suspicious.

That’s ironic given how Olly-boy is attempting to completely rewrite architectural history to suit his own agenda in a way that only cheapens the great achievements and importance of the Islamic world on the development of Europe. Muslim architecture is wonderful and doesn't really require mental gymnastics and historical revisionism to make it more so.

The ignorance is widespread, and perhaps the most surprising thing in Stealing from the Saracens is how much of this should not come as a surprise to the modern reader. After all, throughout the book, Darke summons the words of Christopher Wren, who was well aware of the Middle Eastern origins of gothic architecture, and of the structural techniques he was using for St Paul’s Cathedral.

“Modern gothic,” he wrote in the 1700s, “is distinguished by the lightness of its work, by the excessive boldness of its elevations … by the delicacy, profusion and extravagant fancy of its ornaments … Such productions, so airy, cannot admit the heavy Goths for their author.” Instead, he concluded, “from all the marks of the new architecture, it can only be attributed to the Moors; or what is the same thing, to the Arabians or Saracens”.

That’s not to say he was entirely right, however. And the structural techniques he was using on St Paul's had more to do with his skills as a mathematician and early physicist as anything else, particularly his studies of mechanics as Savillian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. He wanted to surpass St Peter's in Rome. I'm utterly at a loss where Wren is supposed to have gotten his hands on technical specs for the great buildings of Islam. He never travelled further east than Paris and his greatest architectural influence was, as far as I'm aware, Bernini's drawings.

The irony is in the name itself: in Wren’s day, Saracen was a pejorative term for the Arab Muslims, against whom the Crusaders had fought their “holy war”. It originated from the Arabic word “saraqa”, meaning “to steal”, as Saracens were seen as looters and thieves. Never mind the fact that the Crusaders plundered their way across Europe, Jerusalem and Constantinople – pilfering the wonders of Islamic architecture as they went, and airbrushing the origins of their booty in the process.

Yes dear.


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