ISLAMIC ART-The First Mosques

Islam is more than a faith, it is a peculiar interpretation of the universe and of human life. Islam accepted and accentuated everything we call Oriental by placing great emphasis on many concepts that the classical Western mind refuses to accept.

When Muhammad preached the Koran in Arabia, where the only art was the sung lyric poetry, he barely mentioned the other arts if not to disdain them.

There are no pre-Islamic ruins in the surroundings of Mecca, the holiest place of Islamism since its preaching, and the only objects that could be considered “artistic” were some funerary stele with reliefs lacking beauty. The horsemen of the desert didn’t seem to have had great eagerness for luxury; their tent, their horse, their beloved, all were their favorite motifs for inspiration and almost the exclusive motifs of the Arab poems recited during tribal festivals before the preaching of the Koran.

Idealized reconstruction of Muhammad’s house in Medina as prototype for the mosque form. This first mosque was built by Muhammad himself in his own house in Medina (Saudi Arabia) where he settled after his Hegira (emigration) to Medina in 622 AD. The colonnaded hall at top is known as Zulla.

Nor did Muhammad find native or imported art in Medina, where he migrated the year of the Hegira* which corresponds to the year 622 of our current era. In its origin, the mosque* of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina (or Al-Masdij an-Nabawi) consisted of a single patio with a footstool on a platform from which the Prophet preached every Friday. Palm arcades were soon added around the courtyard, and on one of its sides more naves were added to finally form a room with many rows of columns that helped shelter from the sun and heat, but the whole construction was completely opened towards the courtyard. This type of “place for prayer”, as these primitive mosques were called, was reproduced in the lands later conquered by the Islam. The first mosques of al-Kufa and al-Boshra, in the Mesopotamian desert, were still simple courtyards where the people congregated for prayer.

One of the first mosques, unique in the world for its architectural concept, has the shape of an octagonal temple. It is the so-called mosque of Omar built on the platform of the temple of Jerusalem, on the rock where it was traditionally believed that Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac, whence his other name of Qubbat as-Sakhrah or “Dome of the Rock” is derived. It was started in the year 643. Since during the first century of the Hegira the Arab people did not yet have a taste for artistic works or trained artists, it is admitted that the so-called Omar mosque in Jerusalem was built by Syrians or Byzantines. These artisans could not give the building a decidedly Mohammedan character. In the outside, it is decorated with plates of precious mosaics sent from Constantinople, and the dome is also covered with mosaics with plant designs that didn’t show any symbol or reference to the place and purpose of the building.

The Dome of the Rock mosque (or Qubbat al-Sakhrah) is located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is in its core one of the oldest extant works of Islamic architecture. Its architecture and mosaics were patterned after nearby Byzantine churches and palaces. The octagonal plan of the structure may also have been influenced by the Byzantine Church of the Seat of Mary (451-458 between Jerusalem and Bethlehem). Top: Aerial view of the Dome of the Rock. Bottom: Entrance facade view with mosaics and external dome.
Top: The tiled facade of the Dome of the rock. Bottom: Dome of the Rock interior view, with the Foundation Stone in first plane.
The mosaic decoration on the dome’s interior at the Dome of the Rock mosque.

While in the first conquest of Islam, that is to say Jerusalem, the Arabs respected the venerable sanctuaries of the Holy Sepulcher and the Ascension; in Damascus they used for mosque a great church initially dedicated to Saint John the Baptist perhaps built during the time of Theodosius. It had a basilica floor plan, with three naves divided by columns, and that also took advantage of the old walls of an ancient agora. Beginning in the year 707, it was relatively easy to transform that building into a three-nave mosque reserving a courtyard on the lateral facade. In the arcades of this cloister or courtyard, Syrian or Byzantine artists carved a mosaic decoration with images of fantastic gardens, themes that don’t manifest any Arab characteristic if not for the absence of figurative representations. Therefore, the mosaics of the Umayyad mosque of Damascus (or Ğāmi’ Banī ‘Umayya al-Kabīr), such as those of the Omar mosque in Jerusalem, aren’t Arab or Islamic except for their location. By their style and technique they are strictly Byzantine.

The Umayyad Mosque, or Great Mosque of Damascus (Damascus, Syria) is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist. A legend dating to the 6th century holds that the building contains the head of John the Baptist. The mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return at the End of Days. Top: Exterior view of the Great Mosque of Damascus. Bottom: Interior of the Great Mosque showing its 3 naves distribution.
Detail of the mosaics depicting fantastic gardens at the Umayyad mosque of Damascus.

But as the conquests of Islam extended to Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Arab peoples came into contact with oriental people and art schools, which were more congenial to their spirit than those of Constantinople and even of Syria so strongly Hellenized by those times. The Euphrates was the border with Persia and when the Arabs crossed it they encountered a civilization that had inherited all the Oriental artistic experiences. In the plains of Mesopotamia, the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties had both established some feudal frontier kings that guarded the area of the Euphrates in exchange for a maximum of autonomy. These were concessions for smuggling and looting rather than a proper security and customs zones. Each of these frontier governors had a court and a personal guard housed in a castle-fortress with many dependencies and enclosed within a wall, these fortresses were often built on an artificial hill or tell* from an ancient Mesopotamian city. From there, the Parthian or Sassanid prince kept watch over the Byzantine military forts and visited their garrisons during the long periods of peace or, rather, of armistice between the Emperor of Constantinople and the great Sassanid /Parthian monarch. In those frontier courts an artistic style had been created that didn’t have any Classic, Hellenistic or Byzantine elements or styles other than a certain sense of regularization and symmetry, but that, on the other hand accepted all the products of the artistic Oriental fantasy associating them with exquisite artistic taste. The plant or zoomorphic themes were schematized in such a way that it is sometimes difficult to recognize them; perhaps because in the dessert, under the strong contrast of sunlight and shadow, the hues of the chiaroscuro or the secondary lines of the profiles can’t be distinguish with clarity.


Hegira: Also called Hijrath refers to the migration or journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib, later renamed by him to Medina, in the year 622. In June 622, after being warned of a plot to assassinate him, Muhammad secretly left his home in Mecca to emigrate to Yathrib, 320 km (200 mi) north of Mecca, along with his companion Abu Bakr. Yathrib was soon renamed Madīnat an-Nabī (“City of the Prophet”), but an-Nabī was soon dropped, so its name is “Medina”, meaning “the city”. The Hegira is also often identified with the start of the Islamic calendar, which was set to 16 July 622 in the Julian calendar.

Mosque: A place of worship for followers of Islam. Many mosques have elaborate domes, minarets, and prayer halls, in varying styles of architecture. Mosques originated on the Arabian Peninsula, but are now found in all inhabited continents. The mosque serves as a place where Muslims can come together for salat (meaning “prayer”) as well as a center for information, education, social welfare, and dispute settlement. The imam (the worship leader of a mosque) leads the congregation in prayer.

Tell: (Derived from Hebrew meaning ‘hill’ or ‘mound’), an artificial mound formed from the accumulated refuse of people living on the same site for hundreds or thousands of years. A classic tell looks like a low, truncated cone with a flat top and sloping sides, and can be up to 30 meters high. Tells are most commonly associated with the archaeology of the ancient Near East, but they are also found elsewhere, such as Central Asia, Eastern Europe, West Africa and Greece. Within the Near East, they are concentrated in less arid regions, including Upper Mesopotamia, the Southern Levant, Anatolia and Iran.