What is Islamic Architecture?
Islamic architecture can be referred to as the building traditions of Muslim populations of the Middle East and elsewhere from the 7th century on. Islamic architecture finds its highest expression in religious buildings such as the mosque and madrasah.
Early Islamic religious architecture is exemplified by Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock (AD 691) and the Great Mosque (AD 705) in Damascus. These two buildings drew on Christian architectural features such as domes, columnar arches, and mosaics but also included large courts for congregational prayer and a mihrab. From early times, the characteristic semicircular horseshoe arch and rich, non-representational decoration of surfaces were employed.
The influence of Islam on African architecture is difficult to categorize because few examples of pre-Islamic architecture survive. The clearest influence is seen in the building of mosques, because they are characteristic structures in Islam, and in many areas of Africa there were no large religious structures before Islam. The way in which Islam influenced African architecture also depends on how Islam was introduced to a particular region. In places conquered by military force, the architecture became essentially Arabian; in places that gradually shifted to Islam through trade, the local influence on mosque design is more pronounced.
Conquering Muslim forces entered Egypt in 641 and established a new capital city, called Al-Fustat, outside the city of Alexandria. There they built a mosque that is one of the oldest and most renowned in Egypt today. The mosque is called by several names, among them the Amr Mosque and the Crown of Mosques. The buildings in Egypt were constructed along the same lines as those found in the conquerors’’ native lands of Arabia, although a few surviving remnants of the original structures show some influence of Ptolemaic patterns. Like the Amr Mosque, Islamic buildings in East Africa were mainly an extension of Arabian architecture.
Unlike in Egypt, Islam spread into West Africa gradually through trade. Because of this, countries like Mali and Mauritania developed a unique style of architecture called Sudano-Sahelian, which combines traditional building techniques with Islamic uses. One of the most famous examples of the Sudano-Sahelian building style is the Great Mosque at Djenne in Mali. Like many buildings in the Sudan, this mosque is made with mud bricks, buttresses and parapets called toron. The walls are smoothed with clay, much like adobe, and the wood torons stick out of the walls, providing a bare minimum of pattern on the otherwise elegantly minimal building. Before Islam, this type of construction was used only for private homes.
In North Africa, mosques are largely made of stone. The Grand Mosque of Kairouan is a good example of the mosque style adopted here, known for its large square minarets that are more similar to guard towers than the tall spire minarets familiar in Arabian mosques. In fact, the whole facade of the building resembles a fortress. Inside, patterns of diamonds and curving vines and flowers are clearly derived from African traditions of textiles. Some patterns are painted, while others are made with lustre tiles, an import from Arabia.
Architectural styles and techniques continue to evolve in Africa, influenced by modern materials like concrete. Today, most mosques that are constructed look similar to the modern buildings that surround them and may retain very little “traditional” style, whether Islamic or native African. For example, a mosque in a city like Bamako, Mali, might look like any other office building on the street aside from its brightly painted surface of ochre, green and pink, and two bright green onion domes.