The myth of Gothic and Gothic-revival architecture — a style predominant in the West during the 12th-16th and 18th-19th centuries — as being pan-European is laid to rest in the 21st century, as it is really Middle Eastern and Islamic in origin.
Diana Darke’s Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe is a delightful, meticulously researched book and, with its compelling illustrations and documentations, it lays bare the roots of European landmark buildings — such as the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben in the United Kingdom, the Chartres Cathedral in France, and the Doge Palace and St Mark’s Basilica in Italy among many others — as directly based on early Islamic forms.
Darke dedicates her book to the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral and explains: “The catastrophic fire of 15 April 2019 was also the spark that ignited this book.”
The fire and consequent demolition of Notre Dame, a historic landmark set in the heart of Paris, sent the areligious French nation — which has outlawed the niqab [face veil] as a threat to its secular identity — into mass mourning. The country sanctifies the cathedral’s Gothic architecture as deeply European Catholic and, to correct this misconception, Darke tweeted: “Notre Dame’s architectural design, like all Gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from #Syria’s Qalb Lozeh 5th century church — Crusaders brought the ‘twin tower flanking the rose window concept’ back to Europe in the 12th century. It’s [in] #Idlib province, still standing...”
According to Darke, not only is the façade of the cathedral, with its pair of towers flanking the huge arched entrance, directly inspired from Arab and Islamic heritage, but so are the symmetrical clerestory windows, the ribbed vaults and the wide, central nave. Even the alchemy involved in crafting the stained glass windows, long associated with European Gothic architecture as we know it, owes its origins to the Middle East, rather than the Germanic Goths.
It seems the marauding hordes of Crusaders, who accompanied the habit-wearing monks — and whom 11th century Greek Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates writes about in his book O City of Byzantium, in which he provides an eyewitness account of the murders, rape, fires, plunder and pillage that forced him to declare the Crusaders forerunners of the Antichrist — not only looted the treasures of the cities, palaces, mosques and churches they conquered, but also appropriated the very architecture of the cities they burned and destroyed.
An engaging, eye-opening and meticulously researched book on architecture and politics lays bare how some of Europe’s most iconic architecture was borrowed from the Middle East and early Islam
The riches of the Hagia Sophia were looted; even the altar, made as it was of precious metals, was hacked into pieces and carted away. The stolen artefacts went on to adorn many a European church — one such treasure is the copper statue of four horses, contained within St Mark’s Basilica. Snatched from the city of Constantinople [Istanbul] in Turkey, it is now one of Venice’s prime tourist attractions.
The exchange of ideas between the East and the West — according to Darke, “mostly from the East to the West” — was not uncommon. However, the West has deliberately airbrushed a large part of this exchange out. Darke realised this after the overwhelming response to her tweet, and she set about to correct this misconception. She has chosen the title of her book deliberately, as “Saracen” was a pejorative word that means ‘thieves’ or ‘looters’ in Arabic and was commonly used by the invading European Crusaders to describe the Muslims, Arabs, Turks and Persians. But all along, it was the West stealing from the East.
She narrates an amusing anecdote from October 2019, when she went to the British Museum to see an exhibition titled ‘Inspired by the East’. There, proudly displayed for all to see, was the widely reprinted and influential 15th century pictorial map of Jerusalem showing all the Christian pilgrimage sites, carefully labelled in Latin. The mapmaker had scrupulously removed any evidence of Mamluk Muslim rule, but the central building on the map, dominating all else, was an enlarged representation of the Dome of the Rock, mislabelled as King Solomon’s biblical temple.
Darke writes in her book that so impressed had the Crusaders been by this domed, circular and supposedly Christian shrine, they based some of their own most important churches on it, going so far as to copying the decorative Arabic calligraphy — which, ironically, translates to a chastisement of the trinity, the core belief of the Christian faith.
Christopher Wren, one of the greatest British architects, is most famous for designing the St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Three centuries ago, he acknowledged the debt to Islamic architectural influence when, after much study and research, he wrote: “Modern Gothic, as it is called ... is distinguished by the lightness of its work, by the excessive boldness of its elevations ... by the delicacy, profusion and extravagant fancy of its ornaments ... Such productions, so airy, cannot admit the heavy Goths for their author ... it can only be attributed to the Moors; or what is the same thing, to the Arabian or Saracens. The Gothic style should, rightly be called the Saracen Style.”
Wren, too, stole from the Saracens — not their style, but their methods, specifically their more advanced vaulting techniques, all of which were based on their mastery of geometry. He clearly states that he used the superior Saracens method of vaulting at St Paul’s to support the colossal weight of the dome. Successful vaulting is all about high geometry, Darke explains, which is why she has used an image of the inside of the St Paul’s dome on the front cover of the book.
Darke painstakingly goes through iconic Islamic architecture from the eras of the Umayyads, to the Fatimids, to the Abbasids, and the contribution of Muslims in Spain, discussing at length the appropriation of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and the destruction of architectural evidence of 800 years of Muslim reign. She gives interesting examples of not just the architectural, but also the cultural and fashion influence of the Muslim world on Europe.
In Spain, even after the ethnic cleansing of the Muslims and Jews and attempts to purge any evidence of the Muslims, the language spoken today contains 4,000 words of Arabic origin, comprising eight percent of the Spanish dictionary. As for fashion, Venetian ladies had taken to veiling themselves from head to toe in black, including covering their faces, so that tourists of that era wondered how the women managed to see through all those face coverings.
Darke is a graduate of the University of Oxford, a Middle East expert and scholar of Arabic. She owns a home in Syria, a country which is her particular area of specialisation, and is deeply embedded in Syrian society. In Stealing from the Saracens, she tries to emphasise the cultural interdependency of the East and West in the face of rising Islamophobia.
However, the book is not just about pointed arches, trefoil arches, ribbed vaults, spires, double domes and stained glass. It is far more complex and nuanced, clearly pointing out that the Crusaders were mercenaries and soldiers of fortune and the West, not content with merely looting treasure and appropriating architecture, design, art and culture, was rebranding it as its own.
From Christopher Wren to John Ruskin, from Antoni Gaudi to Le Corbusier — all have acknowledged the influence of Islamic architecture. What Darke euphemistically terms “misinformation”, “misrepresentation” and “airbrushing”, is the imperial mindset of the Europeans she has exposed; a mindset inculcated in Western culture, schools, media and even innocuous video games — an early example being 1987’s Saracen, in which the player’s avatar is a Crusader who must chop off the Saracen King’s head to win the game.
This mindset is inspired by neither religion nor geography; it is racial in its construct. Former president of the United States, George Bush, declared a ‘crusade’ against terrorism and attacked Iraq as a consequence. Only a few weeks ago, on Aug 27, in his speech at the Republican National Convention, President Donald Trump declared a ‘crusade’ against “anarchists” — a euphemism for internally colonised American citizens of colour.
Imperial mindsets are state policies and Darke has challenged that in this most engaging, eye-opening book of architecture and politics. Her courageous narrative is commendable.
The reviewer is a physician, the granddaughter of Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai and author of the short story collection Her Mother’s Daughter and Other Stories
Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe
By Diana Darke
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 25th, 2020