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Islamic Architecture

Islamic Architecture

Author: Ian McConnell

This lesson will focus on the architecture of Islam.

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An introduction to Islamic architecture.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. And welcome to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about Islamic architecture.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the basic elements of Islamic architecture, and identify examples of Islamic architecture.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is minbar-- in Islam, the pulpit from which the sermon is delivered. Minaret-- a tower attached to a mosque calling people to prayer.

Mihrab-- in a mosque, a niche or a decorative panel showing the direction of Mecca. Qibla wall, or Kiblah with a K in Islam-- the wall the indicates the direction of Mecca and the Kaaba for prayer. Hypostyle prayer hall-- in a mosque, a personal space separated by columns for privacy.

And horseshoe arch, also called a keyhole arch-- semi-circular and characteristic of Islamic architecture. The big idea for today is that design elements of Islamic architecture are a blend of styles from the civilizations that Islam has touched and reflective of some Islamic religious beliefs.

So when in history are we looking? We'll be looking at architecture ranging from the seventh century AD to the 17th century AD. I've labeled 600 AD, which is the beginning of the seventh century, and 1700 AD, which is the end of the 17th century, as end points.

So our key terms are a list of architectural elements of Islamic architecture. The minbar, mihrab, Qibla, and hypostyle prayer hall are elements that are found within Islamic buildings. The minbar, the mihrab, and Qibla are common within all mosques. Styles of architecture vary, but there are some common design features that distinguish Islamic architecture for other styles. And I'm going to focus on a few that are usually architectural design giveaways that what you're looking at is, in fact, a piece of Islamic architecture.

So one of the most unique elements of Islamic architecture is the use of geometric or vegetal patterns. Now, these are patterns that can be repeated and continued indefinitely in any direction. They can adorn the exterior and interior of buildings and are just as common within smaller works of art.

Now, the dome is a borrowed element from earlier forms of architecture, such as the Christian design building of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Minarets are the, usually, thin towers that rise around, or are attached to, many Islamic mosques and are used as places to call people to prayer. Finally, the horseshoe or keyhole arch is another characteristic element of Islamic architecture. Here's an example of the horseshoe or keyhole arch.

So our first building can be found within the holy city of Jerusalem, Israel. Right there. And the name of the building is the Dome of the Rock. And it's a shrine that was constructed by Muslims in the late seventh century after the city had been taken from the Byzantines in 638 AD.

It shares certain characteristics with Byzantine architecture, which was, no doubt, an influence on the architects of the dome, such as with the octagonal-shaped centrally-planned building. Architecturally, the building is dominated by the huge golden dome. And it is covered in beautiful, colorful, vegetal, and geometric patterns, which continue inside. There's a nice view of it right there. So those patterns continuing on the inside, as you can see here.

Now, this building is a shrine, housing the foundation stone, which is the holiest location in all of Judaism, which was originally covered by the Jewish Temple of Solomon that once stood here. Now, in terms of Islam, it's regarded by some scholars-- but not all-- as the location where Muhammad ascended into heaven.

Our next building is found within Qayrawan, Tunisia, and is an example of a hypostyle mosque that was largely constructed during the ninth century. Now, Tunisia is in North Africa. And here is the location of Qayrawan.

So it's a huge stone building and resembles examples of Roman architecture, specifically with the large central courtyard enclosed by a colonnade. However, instead of a rounded arcade like we'd see with Roman architecture, this is an example of a horseshoe style arcade. Now, right at the top of the column, the masonry juts in, just slightly, creating a keyhole shape with the arch and columns.

You can get a better idea of the scope of the building in this diagram, as well as the location of some of our key terms from today. Now, of note is the large, broad minaret in the front of the complex, which contrasts with the thinner minarets that we typically associate with Islamic architecture.

So our next building is located in Cordoba, Spain. When people think of Islam, they tend to think of the Middle East, with good reason. But the Iberian Peninsula, which is home to modern-day Portugal and Spain, has a rich history associated with Islam as the narrow Strait of Gibraltar separating it from the African continent-- you can see there on the map-- did little to prevent the moors from Northern Africa from coming over and occupying it for many centuries.

So the Great Mosque at Cordoba-- shown here-- is another fantastic example of a hypostyle prayer hall that makes use of the horseshoe shape in the lower arches. It was completed in the late 10th century.

Our last example is located within the city of Isfahan, Iran, and was constructed over many centuries. There's Isfahan right there. Eventually completed in the 17th century, it's an impressive example of Islamic architecture at its finest. What can't be appreciated in this photo, however, is the attention to detail that was paid to the vegetal and geometric patterns or designs that adorn the mosque, particularly the colorful examples that cover two entrance gates shown here in the picture and flanked by the minarets and the large peaked dome in the background.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the basic elements of Islamic architecture? Can you identify examples of Islamic architecture? Once again, the big idea for today is that the design elements of Islamic architecture are a blend of styles from the civilizations that Islam has touched and reflective of some Islamic religious beliefs.

And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.


Image of Iran Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iran_(orthographic_projection).svg; Image of Iran Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iran_location_map.svg; Image of Tunisia Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tunisia_in_its_region.svg; Image of Tunisia Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tunisian_Republic_location_map.svg; Image of Spain Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EU-Spain.svg; Image of Spain Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Spain_location_map.svg; Image of Israel Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LocationIsrael.svg; Dome of the Rock Exterior; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Dome_of_the_Rock.jpeg Dome of the Rock Exterior; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dome_of_Rock,_Temple_Mount,_Jerusalem.jpg Dome of the Rock Interior; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MosqueOfOmar1914.jpg Dome of the Rock Interior; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Inside_the_Dome_of_the_Rock.jpg Coroba Mezquita; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cordoba_Mezquita.jpg Ifshan Mosque; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shahmosque.jpg Great Mosque Courtyard; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kairouan%27s_Great_Mosque_courtyard.jpg; Diagram of Great Mosque, Kairouan, Tunisia, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:3D_computer_modeling_of_the_Great_mosquee_of_Kairouan-en.svg; Image of Great Mosque, Kairouan, Tunisia, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:View_Great_Mosque_of_Kairouan.jpg

Terms to Know
Horseshoe arch

Also called a keyhole arch, semicircular and characteristic of Islamic architecture.

Hypostyle Prayer Hall

In a mosque, a personal space separated by columns for privacy.


In a mosque, a niche or decorative panel showing the direction of Mecca.


A tower attached to a mosque calling people to prayer.


In Islam, the pulpit from which the sermon is delivered.

Qibla wall

Or kiblah, in Islam, the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca and the Kaaba, for prayer.