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Mosque Art, Architecture & Decoration

The mosques of Cairo are amongst the most beautiful buildings in the world. They are remarkable at the same time for the grandeur and simplicity of their general forms, and for the refinement and elegance which the decoration of these forms displays.

This elegance of ornamentation appears to have been derived from the Persians, from whom the Arabs are supposed to have derived many of their arts. It is more than probable that this influence reached them by a double process. The art of Byzantium already displays an Asiatic influence. The remains at Bi-Sutoun, published by Flandin and Coste, are either Persian under Byzantine influence, or, if of earlier date, there must be much of Byzantine art which was derived from Persian sources, so similar are they in general character of outline.

Carved Ornaments from Persepolis, and Sassanian Ornaments from Ispahan and Bi-Sutoun
Carved Ornaments from Persepolis, and Sassanian Ornaments from Ispahan and Bi-Sutoun, Plate XIV.

We have already, in Assyrian art, referred to an ornament on a Sassanian capital, No. 16, Plate XIV., above, which appears to be the type of the Arabian diapers; and on the spandril of the arch which we here introduce from Salzenberg's work on Sta. Sofia, will be seen a system of decoration totally at variance with much of the Graeco-Roman features of that building, and which it may not be impossible are the result of some Asiatic influence. Be that as it may, this spandril is itself the foundation of the surface decoration of the Arabs and Moors. It will be observed that, although the leafage which surrounds the centre is still a reminiscence of the acanthus leaf, it is the first attempt at throwing off the principle of leafage growing out one from the other: the scroll is continuous without break. The pattern is distributed all over the spandril, so as to produce one even tint, which was ever the aim of the Arabs and Moors. There is also another feature connected with it, the mouldings on the edge of the arch are ornamented from the surface, and the soffit of the arch is decorated in the same way as the soffits of Arabian and Moresque arches.

Arabian Ornaments of the Ninth Century from Cairo
Arabian Ornaments of the Ninth Century from Cairo, Plate XXXI.

The collection of ornaments from the Mosque of Tooloon, on Plate XXXI., are very remarkable, as exhibiting in this early stage of Arabian art the types of all those arrangements of form which reach their culminating point in the Alhambra. The differences which exist result from the less perfection of the distribution of the forms, the leading principles are the same. They represent the first stage of surface decoration. They are of plaster, and the surface of the part to be decorated being first brought to an even face, the patterns were either stamped or traced upon the material, whilst still in a plastic state, with a blunt instrument, which in making the incisions slightly rounded the edges. We at once recognised that the principles of the radiation of the lines from a parent stem and the tangential curvature of those lines had been either retained by Graeco-Roman tradition, or was felt by them from observation of nature.

Many of the patterns, such as 2, 3, 4, 5, 12, 13, 32, 38, still retain traces of this Greek origin: two flowers, or a flower turned upwards and another downwards, from either end of a stalk; but there was this difference, that with the Greeks the flowers or leaves do not form part of the scroll, but grow out of it, whilst with the Arabs the scroll was transformed into an intermediate leaf. No. 37 shows the continuous scroll derived from the Romans, with the division at each turn of the scroll, so, characteristic of Roman ornament, omitted. The ornament we engrave here from Sta. Sophia would seem to be one of the earliest examples of the change.

Arab Patterns
Arab Patterns.

Greek Ornamental Pattern
Greek Ornamental Pattern.

Moresque Ornament
Moresque Ornament.

The upright patterns on this Plate, chiefly from the soffits of windows, and therefore having all an upright tendency in their lines, may be considered as the germs of all those exquisitely-designed patterns of this class, where the repetition of the same patterns side by side produces another or several others. Many of the patterns on this Plate should be double in the lateral direction: our anxiety to exhibit as many varieties as possible preventing the engraving of the repeat.

Decorative Arab Pattern
Decorative Arab Pattern.

With the exception of the centre ornament on Plate XXXII., which is from the same mosque as the ornament on the last plate, the whole of the ornaments on Plates XXXIII. and XXXIV. are of the thirteenth century, i.e. four hundred years later than those of the Mosque of Tooloon. The progress which the style had made in this period may be seen at a glance.

Arabian Ornaments of the Thirteenth Century from Cairo
Arabian Ornaments of the Thirteenth Century from Cairo, Plate XXXII.

Arabian Ornaments of the Thirteenth Century from Cairo
Arabian Ornaments of the Thirteenth Century from Cairo, Plate XXXIII.

Portion of an Illuminated Copy of the Koran
Portion of an Illuminated Copy of the Koran, Plate XXXIV.

As compared, however, with the Alhambra, which is of the same period, they are very inferior. The Arabs never arrived at that state of perfection in the distribution of the masses, or in the ornamenting of the surfaces of the ornaments, in which the Moors so excelled. The guiding instinct is the same, but the execution is very inferior. In Moresque ornament the relation of the areas of the ornament to the ground is always perfect; there are never any gaps or holes; in the decoration of the surfaces of the ornaments also they exhibited much greater skill, there was less monotony. To exhibit clearly the difference, we repeat the Arabian ornament, No. 12, from Plate XXXIII., compared with two varieties of lozenge diapers from the Alhambra.

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