By the fall of the Umayyad dynasty in 750AD (after the defeat of Marwan) the Abbasids, led by of Abu Jaafer al-Mansour, moved the seat of government to Baghdad in 762AD.
This event marked a new era in Islamic architecture greatly impacted by the Persian influence.
With it famous circular form, Baghdad reached a high cultural, artistic and industrial positions, especially under the reign of the Caliph Harun Al-Rachid (786-809).
It became the focus of many medieval tales including the Arabian nights. Unfortunately, no remains left of its splendour as it was entirely erased by the Moguls in 1258AD.
The ruins of Samara, however, provide the main source of information of early Abbasid architecture which marks the third phase in the chronology of construction of mosques1.
The city was founded by the Caliph Mutassim in the first half of the 8th century AD. It had the form of a compound consisting of barracks for his dominantly Turkish army. At its centre, a huge mosque was erected, between 848 and 849, by Mutassim's successor Al-Mutawakkil2.
The mosque made substantial contribution to the development of Islamic architecture. Until the erection of the Mosque of Al-Hassan II (Morocco, 1992), it remained the world's largest mosque with a rectangular shape of 787ft x 517 ft, and an area of ten acres. Some sources estimated that it could hold up to eighty thousand worshipers.
The Plan in Brief
The plan consisted of a large sanctuary located in the southern end encompassing a total of 25 aisles "riwaqs". These were separated by octagonal piers running from north to south. Historically, this is the third instance of the use of piers in Muslim architecture, after the Ribat of Sussa (Tunisia 821) and Jusaq Al-Khaqani (Samarra 836). However, Ibn Tulun Mosque (Cairo 879) remains the first example of their systematic formal and functional adoption (see Ibn Tulun Mosque).
At the Qibla wall, a wider aisle running parallel to it was added to intersect with the remaining aisles at a right angle in the same fashion as found in Al-Aqsa Mosque. In the middle of this wall, a mihrab was fixed between two doors in an unusual fashion. Arched porticoes surrounded the courtyard providing extra sheltered space in northern, eastern and western sides (figure 2). The mosque was accessed by 23 doors distributed around the four walls, five of which are in the northern corner and eight in the eastern and western corners with two doors open in the niche wall. Its brick walls surround a rectangular area about 240 meter in length, 158 meters in width and 10 meters in height.
Architectural Qualities of the Mosque
The uniqueness of this mosque reveals a new design and architectural techniques showing a great deal of ingenuity and innovation. Among its innovative aspects one can include the following:
- Peculiar absence of the normal form of Mihrab which was planted between two arched openings (doors) in the middle distance of the Qibla wall (figure 3).
- The robust ramparts which enclosed the mosque were made of baked brick and decorated with square panels and circular medallions in their centre. They were enforced by circular buttresses, a feature widely used by Umayyad palaces.
- A number of windows were carefully placed high on the walls and spanned by three and cinqfoil arches (figure 5). This marks the first appearance of this motif which afterwards reached Muslim Cordoba and from there entered Europe where it became a predominant feature in Gothic architecture. Rivoira thought that these multifoil arches appeared first in India, then transmitted to Samarra, and later to the rest of Muslim land including Spain and Sicily. The appearance of this shape of arch in India (of which no proof was given) in the form of a sketched drawing can by no means equal its proper functional use which was only achieved by the Muslims.
- The helical minaret al-Malwiya, as it became known, consisted of spiral tower, which stood on its own on the north outside the enclosure wall. This is also the first recorded instance of Malwiya shaped minaret and first known example of detached minaret located outside the mosque perimeter. Some scholars compared it to Mesopotamian Ziggurats. Creswell (1958) claimed that it was inspired from towers of Babylon which consisted of a square shape made of 8 levels, attaining a height of 50 meters and having an external stair case. Notwithstanding, the truth in this, Al-Malwiya remains unique in its circular shape gradually thinning towards the top and its spiral external stair case. Both features had no precedents.
- The substitution of antique columns to carry arcades with brick piers in this Mosque was also the first recorded instance at least 150 years before its adoption in Europe . These were octagonal in form on a square base, and have four circular or octagonal marble shafts to each pier. The shafts were joined with metal dowels and had bell shaped capitals.
1 The first two phases are the righteous Caliphs and the Umayyads.
2 Reigned between 847 and 861.
by: FSTC Limited, Sun 02 March, 2003