Masterpieces of Islamic Art

A field trip around to world to discover the variety and beauty of Islamic art.

Smarthistory

Façade from the Mshatta Palace, Jordan

We’re inside the Pergamon Museum looking at an ornately carved stone wall that is more than a thousand years old. This is a fragment of an enormous desert palace in what is today Jordan. It was likely built for the caliph (ruler) al-Walid II in the 8th century (though never finished). 

The building was intended as a hunting lodge and to entertain guests. The  stone walls are more than five feet thick and would have protected an interior courtyard, mosque, and living quarters. 

South façade from the Mshatta Palace

We’re looking at the base of one of two octagonal towers that flanked the entrance to the palace. There were 23 additional towers making for a very impressive and nearly impenetrable structure. The palace is most famous for the extraordinarily complex stone carving we see here.

Façade from the Mshatta Palace

Nearly every surface before us is deeply carved. Based on the complex mix of styles evident in the carving, art historians believe that the ruler, al-Walid II may have brought artisans from across the Sassanian empire to produce this frieze. 

View of rosettes, foliage, birds and grapes

Here we see two of the many large triangles that zigzag along the frieze (band of carving). On either side are large rosettes (flower shapes). Everything is densely carved with foliage and birds and animals eating clusters of grape growing on twisting vines.

Closer view with lions flanking an urn

Just below the protruding rosette we can see two lions drinking from a large carved bowl, we can even see their tongues extended. This might be a little difficult to see since the bowl seems to be growing from a plant emerging from the ground. 

Gallery view, Royal Treasury, Vienna (Austria)

The Treasury is home to some of the finest examples of royal garments and crowns, including a gem-encrusted Imperial crown, likely made for Emperor Otto I in 962 that can be seen through the door.

To the left of one doorway we see the Stola (stole), a long gold cloth, trimmed with silver thread, pearls, silk and enamel made in the 14th century. To the right we see a floor-length gown worn by the Holy Roman Emperor during his coronation.

Coronation Mantle, 1133-34

The most important object in the room, the Coronation Mantle, was made for the King of Sicily. The cape has been worn by kings and emperors for their coronations since the 1200s. It is made of silk, gold, pearls, filigree, sapphires, garnets, glass, and enamel.

A closer look, Right side of the Coronation Mantle, 1133-34

Highly skilled Muslim artisans made this object for their Christian king, but introduced Islamic motifs and even Arabic writing. In fact, the intersection of cultures is evident everywhere on this mantle.

Very close view, Lion Head, Coronation Mantle, 1133-34

Looking at a close up, we can see that the the cape’s ground is made of red silk and that the lions, camels, and the tree of life are made of gold thread outlined with thousands of pearls sewn onto the fabric in double rows.

A closer look, Inscription, Coronation Mantle, 1133-34

An Arabic inscription embroidered with gold thread reads: "This mantle was created in the most magnificent workshop and is connected with the desire and hopes, felicitous days and nights without cease or change, with authority...in the capital city of Sicily...”

 The Cairo Citadel (Egypt)

We are standing in a large open square on a hill high above the city of Cairo in Egypt. As we look around we see huge stone fortifications and two enormous mosques. This is the Citadel of Cairo.

A citadel is simply a hilltop fort and this one was begun by the great Islamic leader Saladin in 1176. Saladin ruled both Egypt and Syria and is perhaps best known for fighting brilliantly against European crusader strongholds.

Fortifications of the Cairo Citadel

The Citadel housed as many as 10,000 people and was the center of government from the 12th until the 19th century. Within its walls could be found schools, mosques, barracks, a mint, a library, and an arsenal.

Masjid al-Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun

We are looking at one of the Citadel’s most important and imposing structures. It was built in 1318 as the Citadel’s royal mosque—this was where the sultan himself would pray on Fridays.

Masjid Muhammad 'Ali al-Kabir

We are looking up the hill to another, later mosque—this one in the Ottoman style — seen especially in the numerous domes and the tall, slender “pencil” minarets. The Ottoman Empire seized control of Egypt in 1517.

Qutb complex, Delhi, India

The Qutb complex, near Delhi, in northern India, is an important example of early Islamic architecture in India. The site originally contained a mosque, two minarets, a palace, school, and administrative buildings.

Today much of this architecture has been lost, but its massive intact minaret (known as the Qutb Minar) and the ruins of its mosque are important reminders of Islamic rule in India (today most of the Indian population practices Hinduism).

Qutub Minar

This minaret rises 237 feet. It was one of the tallest structures in India until the 20th century. Minarets are used to call the faithful to prayer, but this one may have been a marker celebrating the triumph of Islam in India.

The Quwwat ul Islam Mosque

We are standing in a courtyard of the Quwwat ul Islam Mosque, now in ruins. Built in 1198, it is the oldest surviving mosque in India.

Iron Pillar

If you look toward the center of the mosque, you will see an iron column. Despite its location in a mosque, this is a Hindu object with an inscription mentioning the god Vishnu. It is beautifully made with a delicate capital often described as having bell form.

Mihrab (Prayer Niche), Isfahan, Iran, 1354–55

We’re in the galleries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York looking at a treasure, a 14th century mihrab (prayer niche) from Isfahan (today, Iran). A mihrab identifies the wall oriented in the direction of Mecca, indicating the direction for prayer. 

Top of Mihrab and exterior inscription

Looking up, we can clearly see the ceramic tile and an intricate interweaving of abstracted vines, foliage and flowers against a deep blue ground. The outermost tiles include a large Arabic inscription written in a flowing script. It is a verse from the Quran.

Niche semi-dome and Kufic inscription

The broad band of white that defines the pointed arch includes another inscription. This is written in a highly abstracted script, called Kufic—so abstract that it might at first look simply decorative if you don’t read Arabic or aren’t familiar with this style of writing.

Niche inscription

We are looking at yet a third inscription. This one is set low and would have been eye-level when the faithful were kneeling in prayer. This says roughly, "The Prophet, peace be upon him, the mosque is the dwelling place of the pious."

 Taj Mahal complex

Many of us are familiar with the beautiful Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan, ruler of the Islamic Mughal dynasty, had it built as a mausoleum built for his third wife, who died giving birth.

Originally called the Luminous Tomb, the Taj Mahal is set within a park that is laid out with a strict symmetry. Visitors enter by an extremely ornate red sandstone gate that leads to formal gardens and a long reflecting pool.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is set on a high platform clad in intricately carved brilliant white marble. The tomb is topped by four small domes and one enormous central dome. It feels tremendously light, almost as if it were made of paper-thin sheets instead of stone.

Taj Mahal façade inlay and inscription

Looking closely at the upper portion of the façade, we can see abstracted colored vines inlaid into the white marble just above the arches. The marble exterior is inlaid with several materials including amethyst, carnelian, coral, lapis lazuli, and onyx.

Minaret

The mausoleum is framed by four very tall round minarets of matching white marble. The minarets are set a significant distance from the central building as if they are guardians, adding to the sense of symmetry and formality.

Mosque

The mosque is made of red sandstone with marble accents, and is one of two similar buildings that flank the tomb. The red creates a warm contrast against the cool white Taj Mahal, the green lawns and blue sky.

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