Those of us who grew up during the last years of the British Raj had little choice if we wanted a decent education but to go to Christian schools with such names as St Francis Xavier, run by Catholic priests.
There, by the time we matriculated, we were brainwashed to be in awe of the religion of our rulers and to think of all things English as superior. Of the textbooks we were obliged to buy, the major ones were imported from Britain, beautifully illustrated with portraits of English kings and queens, all shown to be remarkable souls.
We knew all about the British Queen Elizabeth and nothing about the Indian Emperor Asoka. Their religion produced adorable saints and a noble aristocracy, ours a bunch of barbarians who were invaders and looters. They ennobled their military aggression, calling it a holy Crusade, led not by cruel murderers but by “defenders of the faith”, with such endearing names as Richard the Lionheart.
They presented the Muslim defenders as raiding thieves, labelling them “Saracens” — a word meant to instil in the public imagination the idea that they were pagan infidels who plundered the land of others. For the Christian nations, their cathedrals — from England to all the way to the contested Middle East — were tributes of original architectural grandeur, unlike any seen before, while the more ancient non-European houses of prayer, though prefiguring Christian design, were dismissively neglected.
The Christian Crusaders’ label “Saracens”, projecting the idea of Muslims as looters, was the old ideological perversion whereby one political power sticks upon its opponent the evils of which it is itself guilty. History provides us with any number of such examples; happily, history also provides us with a re-establishing of truth. And here is one: the historian Diana Darke telling the truth in her book, ironically titled Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe.
In her ‘Introduction’, Darke states how the 2019 fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France, inspired her to write her book. The Notre Dame fire aroused the flames of the Christian faith in the heart of the country: the old cathedral was the grandest symbol of the Catholic faith and, like all the great Gothic cathedrals, proclaimed Christian superiority. However, Darke asks: “Are we ready ... to acknowledge that a style so closely identified with our European Christian identity owes its origins to Islamic architecture?”
Her challenging question makes the reader sit up with its implied declaration of her thesis. Hence, the subtle irony in the title Stealing from the Saracens: it was the Christians who were the “thieves and looters”, stealing from the nations they had branded as such.
The European Christian invaders of the New World following Christopher Columbus’s discovery, together with their conquests in Asia and Africa, made the world a European colony, where they suppressed native beliefs while asserting the hegemony of their own. Darke recounts how she was shocked to see in a 2019 exhibition, at the British Museum, “the widely reprinted and influential 15th century pictorial map of Jerusalem showing all the Christian pilgrimage sites carefully labelled in Latin”, which perpetuated the suppression of the established truth that all those sites were of Muslim origin.
The central image in that map labelled the Dome of the Rock as “King Solomon’s biblical temple” when, in fact, “the structure was a Muslim shrine built in 691 by the ruler of Islam’s first empire.” As a result of the European belief in that untruth, states Darke, “many European churches were modelled on a Muslim shrine.” She adds, “A profound Islamic influence can be seen in many of Europe’s most iconic buildings.”
She has a very instructive opening chapter on Christopher Wren, the British architect who designed St Paul’s cathedral with its amazing dome that, though in the crowded heart of London, is still a marvel to be seen from the city’s many distant perspectives. For the dome to be built and for its enormous weight to be held by the building’s structure required complicated calculations and an unprecedented style. The design required new thinking and, as in all the arts, original form was to be discovered from a wide knowledge of traditional forms. Wren, states Darke, “took ideas from mosques in Istanbul.” He praised, as we know from his correspondence, what he refers to as “the Saracen style” without implying any pejorative designation, but simply as a substitute for “Islamic.”
Darke points out that Wren and his intellectual friends knew that the knowledge to which Europe had awakened after the Dark Ages had, centuries earlier, been pioneered by the Arabs. The most eminent of these intellectuals was William Laud, who served as the chancellor of the University of Oxford and the archbishop of Canterbury. Laud avidly collected Arabic manuscripts, depositing them in the Bodleian Library. He endowed a chair, the “Laudian Professor of Arabic.”
Another friend, Edward Pococke, whom Darke calls “the West’s greatest Arabic scholar of his day”, had worked for six years as a chaplain in Aleppo, Syria, where he collected “many magnificent Arabic manuscripts” and his scholarly mind was open to Islamic learning. Here, then, were the greatest scholars of the age, working in the service of Christianity, who eagerly accessed Islamic learning and brought it to England, and with St Paul’s cathedral the physical symbol of how a Christian church should look took its shape from Islamic mosques.
Having established the principal point of her thesis with that conspicuous symbol, Darke then presents a lengthy architectural study of Europe’s great cathedrals and other monumental sites, and demonstrates — leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind — how dependent they were on Arabic solutions to complex architectural problems, as demonstrated in the construction of ancient Islamic monuments.
It is all there for modern tourists to see, not only in such obvious locations as Córdoba, Toledo and Granada in Spain, or the mosques in Istanbul, but also in cities such as Venice, with their ancient history of trading with eastern Islamic nations, and even in the great vaulting interiors and high arches first developed with geometrical precision by Islamic architects that appear so impressive in such iconic Christian cathedrals as Notre Dame and Chartres in France.
The columnist is a literary critic, Professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions Veronica and the Góngora Passion
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 17th, 2021