The Abbassid Mosques

by Rabah Saoud Published on: 14th January 2002

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Building enthusiasm of the Abbassids took a new dimension in the construction of mosques as reflected in their size and character. They adopted the tradition of mud and baked brick construction in moulded with geometric and vegetal designs.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
Muslim Architecture under The Abbassid Patronage (750-892AD) by Rabah Saoud

The building enthusiasm of the Abbassids took a new dimension in the construction of mosques as reflected in their size and character. Unlike the Umayyads who continued the stone tradition of Syria, the Abbassids adopted the Mesopotamian tradition of mud and baked brick construction often arranged in decorative manner or carved and moulded with geometric and vegetal designs (Blair & Bloom (2000).

The minaret of the Abbassids with its monumental character and size undertook another function, in addition to the call of prayers, consisting of advertising the presence of the Friday mosque from afar and sometimes used as landmark providing a sense of direction for travellers as the case of the minaret of Mujda (778)(endnote 5) (Creswell, 1959). These minarets also had a symbolic significance in that they expressed the prominent role of the mosque in the Abbassid society as well as a public display of the power of the Islamic Caliphate.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

The earliest major mosque construction undertaken by the Abbassids was the rebuilding of Al-Aqsa. The mosque was originally built by Omar (the second Caliph) in 634, but extended and improved upon by a number of Umayyad Caliphs especially Al-Walid. After its destruction by the earthquake of 747-748 the Abbassid Caliph al-Mahdi (775-785) rebuilt it in 780 and according to Creswell (1959) the mosque retained this plan to present times(endnote 6).

Al Aqsa is the second of the three holiest mosques in Islam after the Kaaba and Medinah. Religiously, the platform upon which it is constructed is referred to in the Quran and it is also the location from where the ascension of Prophet Muhammed took place. Al-Muqaddisi (10th century) gives a technical description of Al-Aqsa as follows:

“the mosque had a building lofty central nave leading to the Mihrab and covered by a trussed timber roof. The nave had a width measured by 15 places of worshippers. In front of the Mihrab, the space was covered by a great dome of bigger diameter than today’s and had four minarets projecting high in the sky.” (Richmond, 1926)

On the sides of the nave there were 14 aisles, seven for each side divided by arcades each consisting of eleven pointed arches. The access to the nave was on the main gate on the north, as well as from numerous secondary doors (7 doors on left and right sides of the nave, and 11 on its eastern side). The major Abbassid addition was the introduction of the arcaded portico in the northern, western and southern side to protect the faithful from winter rain and summer heat as well as sheltering the poor and travellers.

The other feature introduced by the Abbassids was the unusual shape of its plan by running the aisles of the sanctuary from North to South parallel to the central nave and intersecting them with the qibla in the Mihrab area forming a T shape. This space configuration was also adopted in North Africa in Quairawan Mosque (Tunisia) (836) and later in mosques of Samara; Al-Mutawwakil Mosque (848/849) and Abu-Dullaf (860).

There are suggestions which consider this spatial arrangement to be derived from the Christian cross plan of the church but there is a little evidence of that especially if we knew that the spread of cross as well T planned churches took place only since the 11th and 12th century Romanesque and later Gothic Europe.

Figure 1. Leaders of the crusade of 1099 noticed the elegance and practicalities
of the pointed arch in Al-Aqsa as well as in the Dome of the Rock and
subsequently adopted it in their constructions in Europe.

In relation to the transfer of the pointed arch to Europe we find historic sources indicating that at the first crusade of 1099 and after the fall of Palastine in the hands of the crusaders, crusading leaders held their first meeting in the Dome of the Rock Mosque. This was to settle their differences and intimidate the defeated Muslims. Those leaders who were interested in architecture could not escape noticing the beauty of both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa pointed arcades and brought it back with them when they returned to Europe (Lethaby, 1904).

The Mosques of Samara

The next major Abbassid building was the central mosque of Al-Mutawakkil (Samara) which was erected between 848 and 849 (some 140 years after the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus)) and was, until recently, considered the world’s largest(endnote 7) with an area of 109 acres and containing some 25 aisles “riwaqs” separated by octagonal piers supporting the teakwood beamed roof.

These colonnades run from north to south in the direction of Makka as in the Aqsa Mosque, and not across that direction as in Damascus. These features form the T plan discussed above. The uniqueness of this mosque reveals a new design and architectural techniques showing a great deal of ingenuity and innovation (Creswell, 1959).

Among these peculiarities is the absence of the Mihrab which has been substituted with three arched openings with the central arch being wider than the rest. The external wall, of baked brick and incorporating semicircular buttresses, was decorated with square panels and circular medallions in their centre.

The helical minaret al-Malwiya, as it became known, consisted of spiral tower, which stood on its own on the north outside the enclosure wall in an unprecedented fashion. A number of windows were carefully placed on the enclosure and spanned by cinqfoil arches. This is again the first appearance of this motif which soon afterwards reached Muslim Cordoba and from there entered Europe where it became a predominant feature in Gothic architecture.

The substitution of antique columns to carry arcades with brick piers in Al-Mutawwakil Mosque was also the first recorded instance at least 150 years before its adoption in Europe(endnote 9). These were octagonal in form on a square base, and have four circular or octagonal marble shafts to each pier. The shafts were joined with metal dowels and had bell shaped capitals.

These features were re-employed by Al-Mutawakkil in his second most important mosque, Abu Dulaf (Samara, 860/61), which also adopted the features found in the Abbassid plan of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Here, the sanctuary consisted of 17 aisles perpendicular to the Qibla wall and Mihrab but they connected with two naves running parallel to the Qibla and forming the T shape discussed earlier.

Figure 2. Al-Malwiya Minaret of the Great Mosque Samara
(848/49 AD) Source: Hattstein and Delius (2000) p. 105.

Ibn Tulun Mosque

Mosques that followed incorporated these innovations in combination with architectural elements of previous mosques. Ahmed Ibn Tulun, a soldier among the troops of Samara who was promoted to Emir of Egypt, built his mosque in Fustat, (Cairo 876) in the same fashion as Samara Mosques. According to Al-Maqrisi, this Mosque was designed by an Egyptian architect and consisted of a sanctuary which occupies the eastern side of the enclosure with six aisles divided by five arcades of pointed arches carrying the roof. Each arcade is carried on 16 robust piers of brick. These piers also appear in the courtyard carrying the two arcades of the cloister. This was the first employment of piers outside Samara. The other feature was the systematic use of pointed arches which is regarded as the first recorded example although the pointed arch appeared earlier in Ukhaidir Palace (below), the Alqsa Mosque (above), Ramlah Cistern (789) as well as Samara, but all these examples were Abbassid. This was at least two and a half centuries before it was introduced to Europe. Rice (1979) admitted this as he announced “The pointed arch had already been used in Syria, but in the mosque of Ibn Tulun we have one of the earliest examples of its use on an extensive scale, some centuries before it was exploited in the West by the Gothic architects” (Rice, 1979, p.45). And according to the same theory, Ibn Tulun Mosque was also the means through which the pier was transmitted to Europe.

The other important feature, in Ibn Tulun Mosque, is decorative connected to the use of an advanced (to Samara) combination of geometrical and floral patterns (Arabesque) on the architrave of its arcades, which in the opinion of Richmond (1926) is also the earliest example found. Later, this feature became a prominent theme in most Muslim decorative art. Other innovations included the introduction of ornamental battlements which crowned the external walls and later became a prototype of Gothic pierced and crested parapets (Briggs, 1924).

The transfer of these motifs to Europe according to Ibn Tulun’s theory is manifest through the 11th century strong links the Fatimids had with Amalfitan and Venetian traders who often visited Cairo and this monument.

Figure 3. Ibn Tulun Mosque (878) showing sahn and arcades of pointed arch.


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