Architecture of Muslim Caliphate in North Africa

by FSTC Published on: 13th January 2002

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The arrival of Islam to North Africa at the hands of Uqba Ibn Nafi (d.683) transformed region into a construction field resulting in the elaboration and dissemination (to Europe) of building techniques and architectural forms.


The arrival of Islam to North Africa at the hands of Uqba Ibn Nafi (d.683) annexed this region to the Caliphate in the East, becoming firstly part of the Ummayads and later a province of the Abbasids. This ex-Vandals ravaged region was steered to civilisation and prosperity quickly restoring its important position in the Mediterranean region and later gaining strategic significance in the Muslim world. North Africa was, and still, the main propagator of Islam in Europe, and through it Islam reached Spain in 726, Sicily in 827, Malta in 868, and Syracuse in 876 at the hands of the Aghlabids(endnote 1). The strategic geo-political location at the crossroads between Muslim East and Europe made it a prosperous trade centre.

The region became transformed into a vast area of newly constructed structures resulting in the elaboration and dissemination (to Europe) of building techniques and architectural forms.

North Africa Influential Monuments

Figure 1. Qairawan Mosque showing the
rear side of the minaret.

Perhaps the most important monument, and the oldest, is the Qairawan Mosque (670-675AD)(endnote 2) in Tunisia.

One of the significant aspects of this Mosque is its irrgeular form. This is down to the fact that none of its corners form a right angle, H. Saladin(1899). Jairazbhoy, (1972) also gave similar importance to the plan, which consists of a large court surrounded by columns and horseshoe arches while the sanctuary (prayer hall) consists of 17 parallel aisles separated with arcades on rows of columns (believed to have been brought from Baghdad). These run to the end of the wall but stop before reaching the last bay.

The central aisle is wider and at the Mihrab is covered by a dome, and here it meets a transverse aisle running the entire width of the sanctuary, forming the T shape. This is believed to be the second instance of this peculiar layout, after the al-Aqsa Mosque plan outlined by the Abbassid Al-Mahdi in 780. This feature was later copied in the Great Mosque of Cordoba and Abu-Dulaf Mosque in Samara.

These features also dominated Aghlabid architecture and we can see them in the Great Mosque of Safax,. built in 849 (rebuilt in 988) with the same T shape plan and the rectangular Minaret standing above the central axis of the prayer hall.

Figure 2. Heavy atmosphere in Sousse
Mosque from robust pillars.

In the Great Mosque of Sousse (850) we find peculiar features to the contemporary style of the time such as the use of pillars and masonry groin vaults producing lack of both light and weightlessness usually seen in mosques. This style produces an atmosphere similar to that found in European Romanesque churches of 11th and 12th centuries.

Appearing firstly in the Great Ummayyad Mosque of Damascus, the square tower (minaret) became a dominant feature of the North African Mosque.

Under Banu Hammad, this minaret reached a cross section of 20 square metres and developed delicate ornamentation consisting of tripartite design as found in Qala (castle) of Banu Hammad 1007. Strong resemblance between this minaret and European square towers of the 11th and 12th centuries suggests some link which can be attributed to the influence of the Qala. However deeper investigation is needed to confirm this.

The other distinguishable period for the sophistication of the North African square towers came under the Almohads, the proclaimers of the oneness of God(endnote 3) (1130-1250). From their capitals Marrakesh (Morocco) and Seville (Spain). They took pride in the construction of mosques and paid particular attention to the minaret due to its symbolic significance.

Historic sources revealed four examples of large squared minarets. The first three of these was designed a Moroccan named Jabir, at Kutubia Mosque which was built in 1158 in Marrakesh. The minaret was 67.6 m high and 12.5 square meters with blind simple base, pairs of windows with horseshoe arch pierced in the first floor and the following sections, and richly ornamented top sections.

The other two sister minarets, also designed by Jabir, were the minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville (1172-1182) whose plan was remodelled from Kutubia Mosque, and the tower of Hasan Mosque in Rabat (1195-1196). In Seville, the whole structure does not differ greatly from that of Kutubia but the ornamentation details were significantly developed. The intersecting multifoil arch décor system (known as Shebka) which appeared in Kutubia as single intersection line in the top section was extensively worn by the Giralda. Meanwhile, wooden balustrades in the form of balcony were introduced in front of each pair of windows of each section. By the conversion of the Mosque into a cathedral, after the Christian conquest, in late 16th century a belfry and other Christian baroque ornaments were added, and only the orange courtyard (Sahn) of the original mosque remains.

Figure 3. Tower of Hassan Mosque,
Rabat (Morocco).

The impressive minaret of Hasan Mosque (1195/96) surpassed the above two examples by its enormous size (16 square meters and 80 m high) making it more like a tower than a minaret. Although only three sections remain standing today, we find similar design and ornamental arrangements were applied here too, confirming the same inspirational origin.

The fourth example is more recent and found in the Great Mosque of Mansurah, in Telemcen (Algeria). The mosque was built between 1303-1336 by Abul-Hasan Ali who ruled Telemcen beteen 1331 and 1348. Commentators [such as Marcais (1954) and Hoag (1987)] asserted that the mosque was modelled on Hasan Mosque of Rabat in terms of size (197x 279 feet), the use of stone columns, and the Qibla wall proceeded with three parallel aisles while the remaining aisles were perpendicular to the Qibla. The minaret conformed with the other Almohad minarets, described above, but had a remarkably larger horseshoe gate.

Although the North African minaret had enriched Muslim architecture, it had also influenced the towers of European churches. Male (1924) summed this influence in three main aspects; in the adoption of multi-section composition of the European tower, in the dual character of blind base and well ornamented upper sections, and in the flanking of the tower at the main entrance gate.

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