Architecture under Abbassid Patronage (750-892)

The Abbassids became patrons of a number of gigantic construction projects extending from large mosques and complex palaces to large-scale urban design and city planning, and consequently played a fundamental role in the city planning.

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Muslim Architecture under The Abbassid Patronage (750-892AD) by Rabah Saoud

Descending from Al-Abbass, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), these Abbassid emirs (leaders) established the second major Islamic dynasty under which Muslim Caliphate reached its highest development. These Emirs embarked on an enlightenment mission consisting essentially of the spread of knowledge and elaboration of technical and artistic works.

The Abbassids became patrons of a number of gigantic construction projects extending from large mosques and complex palaces to large-scale urban design and city planning, and consequently they played a fundamental role in the development of city planning and its architecture.

Introduction

The arrival of the Abbassids to the throne of Caliphate introduced upheaval in the socio-economic and political life of the Muslim world. That period was renowned for the establishment of intellectual base as Abbassid Emirs nurtured education and learning and founded numerous libraries(endnote 1).

Translation from other languages into Arabic reached its zenith as Muslims embarked on an unprecedented intellectual mission, first through a learning process based on acquiring existing knowledge from other cultures which played a significant role in the making of Muslim knowledge. This period brought to us great translators such as Ibn-al-Muqaffa (d.756), of Persian origin, translated the book of fables "Kalila wa Dimna" from Pahlevi into Arabic, and the biographies of Persian kings (Sirat Muluk al-Ajiam). Al-Fazari (c.771) translated the Hindu treatise on astronomy the "Siddhanta" (Sind Hind). He also compiled the Sassanid astronomical tables (al-Zij), and was the first Muslim to construct an astrolabe.

The famous Hunayn Ibn Ishaq translated most of Greek works in medicine, philosophy and mathematics, namely works of Aristotle and Galen. Thabet Ibn Qurra (825-901) translated, among numerous works, "Archimedes" and "Apollonius" of Parga who was famous in geometry and mechanics. He also translated "Almagest" of Ptolemy, "Elements" of Euclid as well as other works of Theodosius.

The result of such enormous efforts generated vast academic wealth which enriched the Muslim library, eventually reaching Spain up to 400,000 volumes at the time of the Caliph Al-Hakem II (961-976). By mid tenth century most of existing Greek and Hellenic works were translated into Arabic. These efforts had influenced the scientific attainment of Muslims which reached its apogee in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Stucco decoration (Samara) showing a
stucco panel of 6 lobed rosette.

In political terms, the Abbassids' closer connection with Persia broke the traditional link with Syria (the culture of Ummayat Caliphate), giving the former more influence in shaping various aspects of Muslim life. Persia contributed militarily to the succession of the Abbassids especially under the leadership of Abu Muslim, later al-Ma'mun(endnote 2) led the coup d'etat against his brother al-Amin (in 813) from his residence in Merv (Persia). With such conditions, one can understand why the Muslim capital was moved from Damascus to Baghdad; being closer to Persia.

A more realistic explanation is the strategic location of Baghdad being in the midst of the rich and populated Mesopotamia and as a crossroads of the ancient trade routes between Africa, Asia and Europe. This must have been a decisive factor for its choice as the new capital.

Consequently, wealth was accumulated in this city providing an opportunity for the Abbassid Caliphs to develop a lavish taste and lifestyle which reached its peak under Harun Al-Rashid(endnote 3). This was so impressive that Abbassid's religious and political rival in Byzantium tried to emulate such elegance. Historic sources show that in 830 a Byzantine envoy went to Baghdad where he was so impressed by the splendour of Abbassid architecture that on his return to Constantinople he persuaded the Emperor Theophilos (829-842) to build a palace exactly like the ones he had seen. The palace was built at Bryas, now Maltepe (Hattstein and Delius, 2000).

It is interesting to note that Ziryab (789-857), the famous musician who spread the high culture in Cordoba, and later in "Europe", setting the standard of dress, table manners, protocol, etiquette and even the coiffures of men and women was an Abbassid migrant from Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the closeness to Persia increased the influence of Persian and Sassanian Royal architecture leaving strong fingerprints on much of the character of princial palaces and buildings and later extending to the general art of that period.

Abbassid architectural contribution

The full article, see resources below, from which this brief outline was extracted attempts to describe the architectural changes developed by the Abbassids. These which can be grouped in a number of key elements including the following.

    • The pier was first introduced in the Great Mosque of Al-Mutawakkil (Samara) and later spread through Ibn Tulun Mosque. The rejection of the traditional column was due to the shortage of columns as Muslim constructions stretched over an area involving three continents. The cost and effort involved in the transport of these columns was also another motivator for the invention of the pier. Sources indicate that first European adoption of the pier was in the beginning of the tenth century, inspired by Ibn Tulun.
       
    • The extensive use of the pointed arch as well as the pointed vault as found in Ukhaidir was another major development. In case of Baghdad Gate at Raqqa, the introduction of the four centred pointed arch made of two rings one inside the other was a technical innovation. The introduction of the pointed arch to Europe did not take place until the 11th century when some Amalfitans familiar with Muslim architecture rebuilt Monte Cassimo in Italy.
       
    • The Al-Malwiya "helical" type of minaret symbolised a wish to desire to pry into the secrets of heaven. A sign of Muslim quest for knowledge which intensified under the Abbassid patronage.
       
    • The polilobed form of archs appeared in the Abbasside Caliphate, in Samara, and largely in North Africa and Andalusia where it decorated most Moorish buildings especially Cordoba Mosque. Since the tenth century, Europeans fell in love with this form of arches and adopted it in their buildings, plans, and arts. The inspiration of Cordoba in this respect is well maintained.
       
    • The extensive use of Umayyad six and eight lobed rosettes resulting in their dissemination in the Muslim world and later reached Europe in the form of six or eight lobed rosettes windows decorating the facades of most Christian churches.
       
    • Finally Samara decorative styles which incorporated vegetal forms (especially vines) and abstract geometry paved the way for the development of Muslim arabesque.
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