Stealing From The Saracens — how Islam built Europe

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Diana Darke explores how western architecture owes a great debt to eastern inspiration

The basilica in the Syrian village of Qalb Lozeh, which is well-known for its Byzantine-era ruins

Architecture has recently become the unlikely battle space for the culture wars waged by the alt right. Innocuous seeming pictures of Gothic cathedrals, winding medieval streets and classical architecture pop up on social media like oversaturated tourist postcards, fishing for cutesy likes. Who doesn’t love a Gothic cathedral? In these posts, architecture is used as a cipher for western civilisation, the sort of thing that is somehow under some unspecified threat from immigration, multiculturalism and liberal elites. The irony is that so much of this architecture held up as the birthright of white Europeans was inspired by Islam and the Occident.

Even gothic, that most emblematic of northern European styles derives its most characteristic features, the spire, the pointed windows and arches, stained glass and ribbed vaults, from the Saracens. Or at least that is the contention of Diana Darke, a writer, Arabist and one-time resident of Damascus. Not much in Stealing From The Saracens is particularly new and the author acknowledges that, pointing to other sources and scholars.

It has long been conceded, for instance, that the pointed arch so characteristic of gothic was an eastern import, something thought to have been brought back by the Crusaders imitating the buildings they ransacked on their raids, though Darke traces the roots of exchange to before the crusades, through trade routes with Sicily and Amalfi. The author establishes Christopher Wren as her centre of gravity, using his reflections about the architecture of the Saracens to punctuate the text. Wren is an odd choice as interlocutor. He rebuilt St Paul’s in a classical Baroque, against the wishes of churchmen who longed to have the gothic of the old, burnt-out cathedral back.

The English architect dismissed medieval buildings as shoddy and illogical. Nevertheless, as Darke explains, he was happy to employ a little gothic when it suited him, as at Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, or using Ottoman ingenuity and engineering in the designs for his great dome of St Paul’s. We know, of course, that during Europe’s so-called Dark Ages following the decline of Rome, cities like Baghdad were tolerant centres of learning with fresh running water and street lighting. We know that the real barbarians were the crusaders who looted and sacked their way through the Middle East.

But Darke’s contention is that we might not know that the influence of the Islamic world (which all fell under the label Saracen) went far further than their translations of Ancient Greek philosophy and mathematics and shaped our world. Gothic church steeples, she suggests, were inspired by minarets, gothic arches by the pointed windows and arcades of Islamic places and mosques. Even the architectural form of the great gothic cathedrals like Notre-Dame and Durham were, she suggests, inspired by the twin-towered from of Qalb Lozeh, a Syrian church from around 450. But she contends the influence was all one way. Certainly the Muslims built on the foundations of classical architecture, the legacy left by the Romans but they weren’t interested in anything after that. The early modernists deeply admired the simplicity of the white cube houses of north Africa What is both intriguing and depressing is how pivotal Syria was to the story.

The first mighty churches, the stonemasons that later travelled across Europe helping to build the cathedrals, the tower of the Great Mosque at Aleppo (1090), which Darke crisply compares to St Stephen’s Tower, or Big Ben, at Westminster. So many monuments, such an influence on western culture and now so much destruction. There is one trick Darke rather surprisingly misses, perhaps the biggest of all. The early modernists, notably Le Corbusier and Bruno Taut, deeply admired the simplicity of the white cube houses of north Africa. In those flat-roofed, white walled houses with their terraces and courtyards was to be found the germ of the modernist house, that cubic, stripped-down architecture of plain white walls that became the default avant-garde architecture of 20th century and the blueprint for the Bauhaus. In architecture, at least, the Saracens abide.

Stealing From The Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, by Diana Darke, Hurst, RRP£25, 480 pages Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

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