Introducing Islamic Architecture And Its Decoration

As students of architecture, many of us will have wince-worthy memories of jurors criticizing the focus on the more aesthetic sphere of design alone. Here we have found an ally in Derek Hill and Oleg Graber in ascertaining that decoration is not only vital but the ‘life blood’ of architecture in the book,” Islamic Architecture and its decoration” (small victories given far too late). Jests aside, the volume follows the journey of Mr. Hill (an avid painter and photographer) and Professor Grabar of the University of Michigan, as they attempt to reconstruct a concise and scholarly introduction to ornamentation across the Muslim world set against the lively framework of Turko-Iranian history (Samanids 9/10th century to the 15th century Timurids). Mr. Hill serves as our primary narrator, for the most part, he produces a surprisingly compelling argument advocating for a greater need to look towards the past to understand better techniques and ideas today and renews a sense of wonder in the boundless possibilities a blank wall has to offer. Together, they render a beautiful rendition of the splendor of Islamic ornamentation and its significance today.

Book in Focus: Islamic Architecture and it's decoration by Derek hill and Oleg Grabar - Sheet1
Bibi Khanum Mosque Interior Ornamentation Detail_©Giacobbe Giusti

Orientalist Narrative

It is crucial to consider that this book is, first and foremost, an orientalist account of Islamic Architecture. As a result, the modern reader will often find themselves at unease with the cavalier attitude with which architecture under Islamic influence is shelved under one generic umbrella term and compared and assessed in a way that caters majorly to classical white scholars alone. In particular, the letter from a singular Bernard Berenson serving as a foreword serves as a questionable piece to set the tone of the volume. With Berenson extolling the wonders of Seljuk architecture and in the very same breath pinning down their achievements as a direct result of challenging the Islamic clergy and intermarriages with the court of Constantinople that connected them to Germanic influences (clearly white European influence is a prerequisite for any innovative endeavor). The rest of the letter follows suit with similar statements that seem insensitive at best, trivializing the crusades as “continuous tournaments between Christian and Muslim” and describing a white fantasy projection of the Islamic world as represented by the tale of Sharkan and Abriza. As a result, his attempts at likening the brilliance of the ornamentation found in the Islamic world to that of prominent Italian and Crusader monuments serve as a poor consolatory prize and rather as a stamp of white approval. 

Book in Focus: Islamic Architecture and it's decoration by Derek hill and Oleg Grabar - Sheet2
Northern Entrance Portal of Divrigi Mosque as an example of Seljuk Architecture_©CC By-SA4.0

Titular Tall Tales

This orientalist approach, coupled with limitations of time and space renders the title of the book a misnomer. The spotlight on the ornamentation visited homes in Anatolia and from it to Iran and Afghanistan, allowing a small concession to Uzbek architecture to represent Central Asia, Syria and finally ending on an unsubstantial note to depict pre–Mughal India. Only four pictures are selected to represent the magnificence of pre-Mughal architecture, which is a great shame when one considers the excellent work done under the Khilji’s, Tughlaq’s, Lodi’s, and even Sher Shah Suri. Since yours truly is more familiar with the architecture of the subcontinent, I will refrain from making similar statements about the portion allocated to Central Asian and Southwest Asian architecture, but I believe readers hailing from those areas with a sounder grasp on local history will be inclined to agree with my disappointment to chapter allocation in this regard. 

Book in Focus: Islamic Architecture and it's decoration by Derek hill and Oleg Grabar - Sheet3
Qutub-Minar, Slave Dynasty, India. Ornamentation Detail_©Aparna

Writing Style And Ornamentation Overview

Despite the restrictions, the book details the ornamentation it covers very well and documents many of the pieces that would be considered the staple of classical functional and decorative pieces of Islamic art. Classification by period includes the Seljuks and other Amirates in Anatolia and Iran, Timur and his successors in Samarkand, Bukhara, Meshed and Iraq, the Ottomans(Umayyads In Syria, Abbasids in Baghdad), the Ghaznavid and early Slave Dynasty in India, and the Afghans to name a few. This book is a must for any architecture enthusiast looking to dip into a basic overview of early Islamic architecture in written prose that is clear and easy to follow (particularly when you consider other orientalist works). It gives a good overview of the balance between architectonic concepts of space and volume with decorative members in stone, brick, and ceramics with a particularly detailed analysis on Muqqarnas(stalactite honeycombed vaulting under arches and niches). 

Book in Focus: Islamic Architecture and it's decoration by Derek hill and Oleg Grabar - Sheet4
Muqarnas: a staple of Islamic architecture_©Derek Hill

The decoration is more than a matter of aesthetics: logic and symmetry within Islamic motifs reflect ideas of culture, empowerment, contextual glimpses, and designing for the seventh sense of spirituality-when design transcends towards the divine. The author acknowledges cultural diversity within the Islamic world (despite the focus on orientalist narration) and Professor Graber takes great pains to detail the context, describing the technique, thematic subject, motif patterns, calligraphic styles, and inspiration behind each piece. For instance, earlier geometric tilework interlaced with Kufic calligraphy in central Asia is described to give the impression of thorny desert succulents which in turn reflects roots as far back as the first nomadic tribes migrating across the deserts. The succulents, in this case, are a beacon of life and reflect the feeling of rejuvenation that these migrants felt upon seeing the first signs of vegetation across the arid expanses. In this way, decoration elevates to a narrative art as well as functional.

Book in Focus: Islamic Architecture and it's decoration by Derek hill and Oleg Grabar - Sheet5
Decoration on walled archway and its natural inspiration at Nisibin_©Derek Hill

The Fault In Our Décor

The authors tend to overelaborate upon decorative effects on wall surfaces and therefore can not give enough due consideration to other structural details which function as decorative elements including domes, aivans, pishtaq’s, and much more. It is also not an unreasonable expectation to desire some colored photographs to see for ourselves exactly how much weight there is in Professor Graber’s segment on pigmentation and decorative coloring techniques, particularly in ceramics. Understandably printing plates was more expensive in 1965, but according to another review within the same year of publication, Olaf Caroe, the expense of a few colored plates could have been borne with ease. The authors also tend to be too overtly critical of modern architecture to reconcile the reader to look towards the past and our dismissive of the role of empty spaces, voids, scaling, and minimalism in elevating design and giving its sense of character.

Book in Focus: Islamic Architecture and it's decoration by Derek hill and Oleg Grabar - Sheet6
Gur I Amir, Samarkand _©Derek Hill
Book in Focus: Islamic Architecture and it's decoration by Derek hill and Oleg Grabar - Sheet7
Gur I Amir colored picture today_©ShahinaBusiness Travel-Tripadvisor

Last Word

Islamic Architecture and Its Decoration is a book relevant to architecture enthusiasts across all religions, regions, and races (despite its occasional biases). It is an orientalist piece that is easy to forgive for its faults due to the sincerity with which the authors tackle the vast subject while making sure that it remains a merger of both scholarly and understandability. It is a difficult volume to find in publication but is easily available on archive.org online. It is a relatable lesson in overlooked facets of architecture and one that is particularly relevant as we embark on the race for sleek modernity today. 

Tile work of the so-called blue mosque, Tabriz, A.D. 1465_©Derek Hill

References

Arabian Nights Wiki. 2021. The Tale of King Omar bin al-Nu’uman and His Sons Sharrkan and Zau al-Makan, and What Befel Them of Things Seld-Seen and Peregrine. [online] Available at: <https://arabiannights.fandom.com/wiki/The_Tale_of_King_Omar_bin_al-Nu%27uman_and_His_Sons_Sharrkan_and_Zau_al-Makan,_and_What_Befel_Them_of_Things_Seld-Seen_and_Peregrine> [Accessed 22 November 2021].

Caroe, O., 2021. Z-Library. [online] Available at: <https://ur.booksc.eu/book/28728929/484b74> [Accessed 22 November 2021].

Hill, D. and Grabar, O., 1967. Islamic architecture and its decoration, A.D. 800-1500/A photo.survey by D. Hill ; with an introd.text by O. Grabar. London: Faber and Faber.

Author

A self proclaimed literary geek, Aiman Shahid has a soft spot for all things archeological. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she is currently surviving her third year as a student of architecture at N.C.A. She hopes to make her fellow architects feel less at sea ,one article at a time.

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