ISLAMIC ART-Public architecture

An essential element of the Muslim cities were the baths which fulfilled the double service of hygiene and recreation. They were, like the Roman baths, places of meeting and entertainment, they represented the clubs and casinos for men and women. Life in the East would be intolerable without hamam* or baths, places for discussion and gossiping. This is why they were public buildings sometimes built with great luxury. They usually had a pool in the center and were covered by a dome with a skylight. They had rooms for parties and weddings which Eastern peoples tend to celebrate in these places. Another type of buildings essential in Muslim countries still to these days are the caravansers or caravanserais*, accommodations for the caravans of pilgrims and merchants. They were usually constituted by a large courtyard with stables, bedrooms and the mandatory mosque. The Eastern colossal bazaars, like a covered street, were also typical buildings of Islamic towns, as well as hospitals and leprosariums, which once had to be kept with great care.

Top Left: The baths of Comares in the Alhambra of Granada. Baths were one of the essential elements of the Islamic urban structure, the homes of those who could afford them were equipped with one as in all the palaces of the Alhambra complex. Top Right: The courtyard of the Seljuk caravanserai (Sultanhanı, Aksaray Province, Turkey) from the 13th century, these were charitable foundations providing travelers with three days of free shelter, food and occasionally entertainment as part of the charitable work emphasized by Islam towards travelers. Bottom: View of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4000 shops. The Grand Bazaar is often regarded as one of the first shopping malls of the world and is located inside the Walled city of Istanbul. Its construction begun in 1455.

In all Muslim countries, communication and public works were extremely primitive. Islam did not need administration and recreation buildings, nor circuses or theaters; but, on the other hand, hydraulic works used to be of extraordinary cleverness. In the rivers of Spain many current irrigation ditches and dams come from the time of the Arabs. They restored the old Roman bridges and built new magnificent ones, like the bridge in Córdoba. In Egypt, the Nilometer, a clever construction that serves to measure the flood of the Nile, is also the work of Muslims.

Top: The Roman bridge of Córdoba (Córdoba, Andalusia, southern Spain) was originally built by the Romans in the early 1st century BC across the Guadalquivir river. Most of the present structure dates from the Moorish reconstruction during the 8th century. During the early Islamic domination the Muslim governor Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani ordered a bridge to be built on the ruins of what was left of the old Roman construction. Bottom: The Nilometer of the island of Rhoda in central Cairo dates as far back as 861 AD. It was a structure for measuring the Nile River’s clarity and water level during the annual flood season and is calibrated in Egyptian cubits. There was a specific mark that indicated how high the flood should be if the fields were to get good soil. This particular Nilometer comprises a vertical column submerged in the waters of the river, with marked intervals indicating the depth of the water.

The Arabs were also masters of the art of fortification. The crusaders learned from them many of the stratagems for the defense of castles and cities that were later applied in Western countries. Most of the terminology used in the military constructions of the Middle Ages is Arabic in origin, such as battlements, barbican, etc. In the East there are still magnificent Arab fortifications in good condition, such as the Aleppo castle. In the frontiers of Persia other immense fortresses built by the Mongol sultans are still standing. In North Africa also abound walled Arab cities. The fortifications of Marrakech and Rabat were built in the 12th century by the Almoravids with large square towers interrupting the continuity of the walls.

Top Left: View of the ancient Citadel of Aleppo, a large medieval fortified palace in the center of the old city of Aleppo in northern Syria. It is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. Usage of the Citadel hill dates back at least to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Bottom Left: The ancient City Walls of Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. Right: The old City walls of Marrakesh (Morocco) stretch for some 19 Km (12 mi) around the city, they were built by the Almoravids in the 12th century as protective fortifications. The walls are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk, giving the city its nickname of “the red city”; they stand up to 5.8 m (19 ft) high and have 20 gates and 200 towers along them.

The gates of the Arab cities tend to be flanked by towers, like the Byzantine fortifications were. Good examples are the Fez gates built by the Almohads (such as the famous Bab-Chorfa), the Tlemcen and the Chellah gates (an ancient citadel near Rabat built by the Merinids). These gates open sometimes in an angle of the wall like the Gate of the Sun in Toledo. All have a long covered passage to defend the entrance. Other times a double wall with a second door was built next to the main gate; in some others the gate cannot be crossed in a straight line, so you have to walk in an angle once or twice. Frequently, the gate is reduced to a large arch or monumental framed liwan*.

Top Left: The Bab Bou Jeloud (in English: “The Blue Gate”) leads into the old medina* in Fez (Morocco). This beautiful monumental gate was built in 1913. Though modern, the Bab Bou Jeloud was built following traditional Moorish style and consists of three symmetrical horseshoe arches. The facade is beautified by a design rich in ornamentation based on geometric, calligraphic, and floral decoration and interlaced polychrome glazed tiles which are predominantly blue. Top Right: The old Gates of Chellah in Rabat (Morocco). Bottom Left: The Bab Chorfa (“The Gate of Nobles”) in Fez (Morocco) built in 1069. Bottom Right: The Puerta del Sol (“Gate of the Sun”) of Toledo (Spain) was built in the late 14th century by the Knights Hospitaller. The medallion above the arch of the gate depicts the ordination of the Visigothic Ildephonsus, Toledo’s patron saint. The name of the gate comes from the sun and the moon that were once painted on either side of this medallion.


Caravanserai: A roadside inn where travelers (caravaners) could rest and recover from the day’s journey. Caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa and Southeast Europe, especially along the Silk Road.

Hammam: A Turkish bath or a type of public bathing associated with the culture of the Ottoman Empire and more widely the Islamic world. The buildings are similar to the thermae (Roman baths).


Liwan: A long narrow-fronted hall or vaulted portal that is often open to the outside. Mats and carpets are typically spread along the length of the floor of the liwan, and the mattresses and cushions along the length of the walls make up the diwan or divan seating area.



Medina quarter: (Al-madīnah al-qadīmah or “the old city”). A distinct city section found in a number of North African and Maltese cities. The medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. The word “medina” (Arabic: ‎madīnah) itself simply means “city” or “town” in modern-day Arabic.