ISLAMIC ART-Eastern expansion

While in the Muslim West the Spanish-Moroccan school used vaults and domes with notorious sobriety, in Persia and Turkestan the Arabs preferred the vaulted structures so traditional in the region. In those places, mosques had a square floor plan with a central dome, like the ancient Zoroastrian temples, but included a first courtyard as in those found in the mosques of western Islam. Persia is the country usually associated with classic glazed decoration; the facades almost always appear decorated with a number of enameled pieces that fit perfectly. This decorative method reached its maximum sumptuousness in Samarkand, the famous city of Uzbekistan located in Central Asia and cited so many times in The Thousand and One Nights because of its strategic position on the caravan route towards China. On the crest of a hill immediately adjacent to the city are the tombs of the Mongol conquerors forming a singular necropolis of dome-shaped tumuli, like those of the Egyptian sultans, but here they shine thanks to the enamel of their glazed tiles. Among them stands out the monumental sepulcher of Timur (also known as Tamerlane), the conqueror of the world, built at the end of the 15th century. It is the famous Gur-e-Amir, a high dome on a cylindrical drum carved with vertical grooves resembling a gigantic desert tent that is accessed through a liwan. The same abundance of blue and green mosaics appears in the facade of the Ulugh-Beg madrasa of Samarkand: crowned by two domes and two minarets, it is the most impressive element of the famous Registan square in which it is located.

Top Left: The Gūr-i Amīr (“Tomb of the King”) is the mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Timur (also known as Tamerlane) (Samarkand, Uzbekistan). It represents an important landmark in Art History since it is considered the precursor and model for later great Mughal* architecture tombs, including the Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra. The construction of the mausoleum itself began in 1403. Top Right: The Shah Mosque (or Royal Mosque, in Isfahan, Iran) was built during the Safavid Empire with groundbreaking occurring in 1611. It is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Persian architecture during the Islamic era, its splendor is mainly due to the beauty of its seven-color mosaic tiles and calligraphic inscriptions. Bottom Left: The Ulugh Beg Madrasa (Samarkand, Uzbekistan). It was built from 1417 to 1422. The exterior decoration of the walls consists of blue, light-blue and white tiles organized into geometrical and epigraphic ornaments against a background of terracotta bricks. Bottom Right: The Registan (“Sandy Place”) square was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan. It was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and a place of public executions. It is framed by three madrasas (Islamic schools), in the picture from left to right: Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Tilya-Kori Madrasah and Sher-Dor Madrasah.

Perhaps the most perfect works of decorative art in the whole world, thanks to their enameled coloring, are the domes and liwans of the Persian mosques of Isfahan. In them, the monumental entrance arch gets gigantic proportions; however, it is not their size that impresses most but the variety of decorative details that change color as the day light progresses. The Islamic characteristic in art and literature is this desire to produce a continuous illusion and remind us with beauty, as well as with the affirmations of the Koran, that our perceptions are not permanent, that everything is a veil of illusion extended by Allah that he will take away when he pleases.

Top Left: The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (Isfahan, Iran), considered one of the architectural masterpieces of Iranian architecture built during the Safavid Empire. It was built between 1603 and 1619. Top Right: Entrance portal of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque showing the intricate muqarnas* decoration traditional of Persian architecture. Bottom Letf: A richly decorated Mihrab in the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Bottom Right: Entrance door leading from the L-shaped vestibule into the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.

Since the fourteenth century the domes of Turkestan and Persia have had a bulbiform silhouette (onion style domes). They are double: one lower, internal, and the other external, which appears swollen and rests upon the drum by radial small walls which act as counterweight. These bulbiform domes have been imitated by Polish and Russians: the Russian national architecture is more Persian than Byzantine.

The most beautiful examples of this type of domes and of the large enameled surfaces that have just been mentioned are the buildings erected in Isfahan by the Safavid dynasty which reached power in 1502. The most important is the Masjid-i-Shah or Royal Mosque, whose three iwan* or porticoes crowned by domes colored in green and blue, look like three gigantic independent buildings. Next to it contrast the soft pink and violet hues of the mosque of Masjid-i-Shaykh Lotfollah dating from the early seventeenth century.

In the mid-thirteenth century, Mongol people (strangers to the Arab race of Mesopotamia and the Aryan race of Persia) accepted the Koran. A group of these peoples from the Far East -the Turks- settled in Asia Minor, and from there they launched their attack upon the corrupt Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad and later on the Byzantine Empire. From this heroic period of Turkey came the mosques of Konya and Bursa full of character and originality. They represent a different interpretation of ancient Islamic models, though they are original, genuine and exclusively Turkish. Thus, the Ulu Cami mosque in Bursa built in the late fourteenth century has an almost square floor plan with several naves covered with small domes and two high minarets next to the corners.

Top Left: Selimiye Mosque (Konya, Turkey), built between 1558 and 1570. This double-minaret mosque is a typical example of a 16th century Ottoman mosque. The praying area is roofed by a big dome with other seven smaller domes over the nartex. Top Right: The Grand Mosque of Bursa or Ulu Cami (Bursa, Turkey) built between 1396 and 1399. The mosque has 20 domes and 2 minarets. Bottom: The Süleymaniye Mosque (Istanbul, Turkey) built by the architect Mimar Sinan between 1550 and 1557 is the second largest mosque in Istanbul.

But the great figure of Turkish architecture was Mimar Sinân (who died in 1588), an artist whose genius, like that of the great artists of the Renaissance, marked a whole era with the seal of his personality. Among the 318 buildings he directed, it is customary to highlight the Süleymaniye mosque (1550-1557) in Istanbul inspired by the structure of the nearby Byzantine basilica of Hagia Sophia. Sinân masterly used the space under the dome to counteract the weight of the gigantic structure above. Inside, light diffuses in all directions and illuminates the captivating harmony of its proportions. The influence of Sinân is visible in multitude of later buildings, like the Blue Mosque or Ahmediye, also in Istanbul, built by the architect Mehmet Aga between 1609-1616. Its immense dome rests on cylindrical pillars.

The last and most glorious Mohammedan conquest was that of India, where the Islamic artistic style underwent modifications that later reverberated even in the Muslim West. In India, the Mongol sultans built magnificent Persian-style residences, with patios and pavilions scattered among ponds and gardens. The shape of the mosques and minarets was also modified by the influence of the Indian buildings that surrounded them.

Top Left: The interior of the Süleymaniye mosque (Istanbul, Turkey) is almost a square forming a single vast space. The dome is flanked by semi-domes, and to the north and south arches with tympana-filled windows. In order to mask the huge north-south buttresses needed to support the central piers, the Architect Sinan incorporated them into the walls of the building, with half projecting inside and half projecting outside, and then hid the projections by building colonnaded galleries. Top Right: Exterior view of the Ahmediye mosque in Istanbul (Turkey). Bottom Left: The Akbar’s tomb (Agra, State of Uttar Pradesh, India) built between 1605–1613. The south gate (pictured here) is the largest, with four white marble chhatri*-topped minarets which pre-date those of the Taj Mahal. The buildings are constructed mainly from a deep red sandstone enriched with features in white marble. Bottom Right: The Humayun’s tomb (Delhi, India) was the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent. It was built mostly using red sandstone with white and black marble and yellow sandstone detailing to relieve the monotony. It was the first Indian building to use the Persian double dome on a high neck drum. The real burial chamber of the Emperor lies in an underground chamber. This burial technique along with pietra dura* seen all around the facade is an important legacy of the Indo-Islamic architecture, and flourished in many later mausoleums of the Mughal Empire, like the Taj Mahal.

The dynasty of the great Mongol sultans of India had its origin in Babur, a distant descendant of Tamerlane. After re-conquer Samarkand and rebuild the Timurid Empire, this prince focused all his ambition in India, which he invaded five times with little success, until he finally succeeded. Babur also inaugurated the series of enlightened princes, writers, and artists of Muslim India: he began the embellishing works in Agra continued by his successor Humayun (1530-1556) and especially by his grandson Akbar (1556-1605), one of the most interesting figures in Eastern history. The poets and writers who surrounded him left enough testimonies of his court’s splendor, which also shone in the art of the illustration of literary works and in miniature portraits made on paper. Akbar was succeeded by Jahangir and he in turn was followed by the Shah Jahan (1628-1658), the builder of the Taj-Mahal and other buildings in Agra.

It was customary for the Mongol sultans of India to build for themselves a splendid palace, which served as royal residence during the emperor’s lifetime and after his death it was transformed into a sepulcher. The monarch’s mausoleum, with those of some of his wives, was placed in the center of a courtyard or in the main room. These sepulchers were in the midst of vast gardens with monumental entrances. Unlike the Arabic-Spanish-Moroccan school which carved decorative elements in stucco and plaster, those of India were carved in marble and hard stones.

The Taj Mahal (“Crown of the Palace”) mausoleum built in ivory-white marble between 1632 and 1653 (Agra, India). The tomb is the centerpiece of a 17-hectare complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall. It is regarded as the best example of Mughal architecture. Its design was inspired, between others, in the Gūr-i Amīr and the Humayun’s Tomb. The tomb, the central focus of the entire complex of the Taj Mahal, is a large, white marble structure standing on a square plinth and consists of a symmetrical building with an iwan topped by a large dome and finial* which mixes traditional Persian and Hindustani decorative elements.  Four minarets 40 meters tall frame the tomb, one at each corner of the plinth. The main chamber houses the false sarcophagi (bottom right) of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan; the actual graves are at a lower level. The most spectacular feature is the marble dome (bottom left) that surmounts the tomb. The onion dome is nearly 35 meters high and accentuated by the cylindrical “drum” it sits on which is approximately 7 meters high. The shape of the dome is emphasized by four smaller domed chattris placed at its corners.

The Islamic monuments of the first years of the invasion are still little known; the most famous, the mausoleums-palaces of the Mongol sultans in Agra, are already from the sixteenth century. The one in Akbar built in 1613 in a park in Sikandra by his son Jahangir, shows the influence of the type of vihara* or traditional Hindu monastery. Even older, the mausoleum of Humayun was built in Delhi by a Persian architect in 1556 and marks with its enormous white marble dome the birth of the Mongolian imperial architecture. White marble and red stone were the materials used to create extraordinary decorative graphics on the facades. In this era, India leads the Muslim civilization; it was already in contact with Europe because the Portuguese merchants had opened the way to the Jesuits and missionaries, and they in turn participated in the education of the lavish court of the Mongols. The European influence can be seen in the Taj-Mahal in Agra built between 1632-1653 by the Shah Jahan to serve as burial monument to his beloved wife Mumtaz-Mahal. This mausoleum was built on a platform 250 meters wide and admirably arranged between gardens and ponds. It was directed by the Persian architect Ustad Ahmad, except for its famous dome that rises up to 60 meters height and that was the work of the Turkish architect Ismail Khan. In the center of the building is the octagonal room with the sepulcher, with large niches and doors that give access to the other rooms all decorated with reliefs in white marble which seem to have been the work of a French sculptor from Bordeaux. Its whole interior follows the structure of Humayun’s tomb, and the great gate follows the layout of that of the tomb of Akbar. But despite the mixture of styles, the magical charm of the Taj-Mahal and its changing appearance according to the hours of the day make it one of the wonders of world architecture.

Top (left and right): The exterior decorations of the Taj Mahal are among the finest in Mughal architecture. The decorative elements were created by applying paint, stucco, stone inlays or carvings. The decorative elements can be grouped into either calligraphy, abstract forms or vegetative motifs. On the lower walls of the tomb are white marble dados* (top right) sculpted with realistic bass relief depictions of flowers and vines and decorated with pietra dura. The inlay stones are of yellow marble, jasper and jade, polished and leveled to the surface of the walls. Bottom Left: Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah another example of a Mughal mausoleum (Agra, state of Uttar Pradesh, India), it is often regarded as a draft of the Taj Mahal. Along with the main building, the structure consists of numerous outbuildings and gardens. The tomb, built between 1622 and 1628, was primarily built from red sandstone with marble decorations, as in Humayun’s Tomb and Akbar’s tomb. The mausoleum is set in a large cruciform garden crisscrossed by water courses and walkways. On each corner are hexagonal towers, about 13 meters tall. The walls (bottom right) are made up from white marble encrusted with semi-precious stone decorations formed into images of cypress trees and wine bottles, or more elaborate decorations like cut fruit or vases containing bouquets.

The same Shah Jahan ordered to build in Agra the mausoleum for his father-in-law, I’timād-ud-Daulah, who had been treasurer of the Empire. This building also seats in the middle of gardens, with a central room surrounded by other eight, and four tower-like-kiosks located at the corners. Erected in 1626 without a dome, like the Akbar’s tomb, it is entirely built in white marble inlaid with jasper, carnelian, mother-of-pearl and other semiprecious stones.

In India, the Mongols (who were a minority surrounded by other local races and religions) had to build large walled enclosures with gates, pits and magnificent towers in order to defend their cities. The Muslim military art reached prodigious works in India, like the walls of Benares (or Varanasi), the holy city of the ancient Hindus, the towers and gates of Delhi with the famous Red Fort built in 1650 by the Shah Jahan to protect a group of marble palaces, and the castle of Gwalior.

Top Left: A partial view of the defensive walls of Benares, a city on the banks of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India. Top Right: Partial view of the Gwalior Fort (Gwalior, State of Madhya Pradesh, India), ca. 8th to 14th centuries. The present-day fort consists of a defensive structure and two main palaces, Gujari Mahal and Man Mandir. Bottom: The Red Fort in the city of Delhi (India) was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty for nearly 200 years. Built in 1639, it is named for its massive enclosing walls of red sandstone. The Red Fort’s innovative architectural style, including its garden design, influenced later buildings and gardens in Delhi and elsewhere.


Chhatri: (From the Indian meaning “canopy” or “umbrella”). Elevated, dome-shaped pavilions used typical of Indian architecture. In architecture, the word is used in two different ways. The most widely used meaning is of a memorial, usually very ornate, built over the site where the funeral (cremation) of an important personage was performed. Such memorials usually consist of a platform girded by a set of ornate pillars which hold up a stone canopy. Chhatri also refers to the small pavilions that mark the corners and roof of the entrance of a major building. These pavilions are purely decorative and have no utility, but are a classic display of wealth. The most notable surviving examples of Chhatris today are at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Dado: In architecture, the lower part of a wall, below the dado rail, or molding fixed horizontally to the wall around the perimeter of a room, and above the skirting board or baseboard covering the lowest part of an interior wall whose purpose is to cover the joint between the wall surface and the floor.


Finial: (Or hip-knob). An element marking the top or end of some object, often formed to be a decorative feature. In architecture it is a decorative device, typically carved in stone, employed to emphasize the apex of a dome, spire, tower, roof, or gable or any of various distinctive ornaments at the top, end, or corner of a building or structure.


Iwan: A rectangular hall or space, usually vaulted, walled on three sides, with one end entirely open. The formal gateway to the iwan is called pishtaq, a Persian term for a portal projecting from the facade of a building, usually decorated with calligraphy bands, glazed tilework, and geometric designs. Iwans are most commonly associated with Islamic architecture; however, the form is Iranian in origin and was invented much earlier and fully developed in Mesopotamia around the third century CE, during the Parthian period of Persia.

Muqarnas: A type of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture. It involves the geometric subdivision of a squinch, or cupola, or corbel, into a large number of miniature squinches, producing a cellular structure, sometimes also called a “honeycomb” vault. It is used for domes, and especially half-domes in entrances, iwans and apses, mostly in traditional Persian architecture.  Muqarnas developed around the middle of the 10th century in northeastern Iran and almost simultaneously, but apparently independently, in North Africa.

Mughal Empire: The Mughal Empire or Mogul Empire was an empire in the Indian subcontinent, founded in 1526. It was established and ruled by a Muslim dynasty with Turco-Mongol Chagatai roots from Central Asia, but with significant Indian Rajput and Persian ancestry through marriage alliances; only the first two Mughal emperors were fully Central Asian, while successive emperors were of predominantly Rajput and Persian ancestry.

Pietra dura:  Also called “parchin kari” or “parchinkari” in the Indian Subcontinent. A type of decorative art that involves an inlay technique that uses cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones to create images. The stonework, after the work is assembled loosely, is glued stone-by-stone to a substrate so precisely that the contact between each piece is practically invisible. In their production, many different colored stones, particularly marbles, were used, along with semiprecious, and or precious stones. It first appeared in Rome in the 16th century, reaching its full maturity in Florence.

Vihara:  A Buddhist bhikkhu monastery. The architectural concept refers to living quarters for monks with an open shared space or courtyard, particularly in Buddhism. The term is also found in Ajivika, Hindu and Jain monastic literature, usually referring to temporary refuge for wandering monks or nuns during the annual Indian monsoons. In Indian architecture, especially ancient Indian rock-cut architecture, refers to a central hall, with small cells connected to it sometimes with beds carved from the stone. Some have a shrine cell set back at the center of the back wall, containing a stupa in early examples, or a Buddha statue later.