Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
Creative Commons License/Flickr/askii Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

One of the first lessons I learned in architecture school was: “If you like it, steal it.” Architecture at its best does not necessarily involve the invention of new forms, and it is practically impossible to create something entirely without precedent. Rather, most of the discipline (at least when it is practiced well) consists of the thoughtful deformation and reassembly of existing building elements and combinations thereof. There are few better examples of how that process works than the many ways in which Western European architecture developed as a continually changing collage of elements borrowed—or stolen—not only from the Romans and the Greeks, and from Neolithic monuments and settlements, but also from various sources in the Arab world. From Gothic architecture to the domes of St. Paul’s, much of what we take for granted as central to the Western architecture tradition is based on Arabic design and construction elements, principles, and types.

That point is driven home in a new book by the cultural writer, Arabist, and part-time resident of Damascus, Diana Darke. The title alone, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (Hurst Publishers, 2020), is meant to provoke, and even before its publication it caused something of a stir in England. The book is based on Darke’s obsession with proving that Syria is the heart of civilization, a thesis she develops with shards of arguments and rehearsals of well-known bits of architecture history, leavened with footnotes citing television shows and eccentric authors, along with avowals that buildings must be important solely because they have UNESCO World Heritage status. In other words, I found the book to be a bit of a mess. Its argument, however, is worth rehashing.

St. Paul's Cathedral in London
Wikimedia Commons St. Paul's Cathedral in London
Detail from the Palace of Westminster in London
Wikimedia Commons Detail from the Palace of Westminster in London

The title comes from a text by the architect Sir Christopher Wren, who is one of Darke’s other obsessions. Wren wrote that the Gothic style “should with more reason be called the Saracen style, for those people wanted neither arts nor learning: and after we in the West lost both, we borrowed again from them, out of their Arabic books, what they with great diligence had translated from the Greeks.”

In citing Wren’s reference, Darke makes it clear that we are not talking about one-to-one borrowing, but rather what she describes as “a creative combination, [a] synthesis.” Certain structural innovations, decorative motifs, or layouts of plans developed in Syria, present-day Iraq, and Persia, spread throughout the Arab world and then, starting in the early Middle Ages, through Western Europe. This happened both through various conquests of Spain by Islamic regimes and through commerce, trade, and scholarly publications. These elements—which were themselves sometimes inspired by prototypes from earlier cultures elsewhere—include, above all else, the pointed arch that is such a central characteristic of Gothic architecture, but also the trefoil arch, ablaq, and building motifs like alternating bands of white and black or colored stone. Arabic techniques for creating stained glass windows, engineering innovations, and decorative elements also inspired Western architecture.

Hurst Publishers

A second wave of innovations that came to us from the Arab world (at least partially) occurred a few centuries later. These included a new version of the dome, and especially the double dome and the use of pendentives to create a transition between the vertical walls and the central spanning device. The domes of St. Mark’s in Venice were clearly inspired by examples in Constantinople and even older ones in what became the Ottoman empire. But Darke perhaps goes a bit far when she hints that Brunelleschi might have stolen his ideas for the Duomo in Florence from Arab texts.

The important point Darke does make, and that sharpens what is by now a well-known story (at least to architecture historians), is that these so-called “stylistic influences” needed “the right combination of wealth and faith” to bring them about. As she points out in her discussion of how Venice’s architecture was shaped by the countries on the Arab peninsula and beyond: “Not only, one could argue, were these Gothic buildings imbued with Islamic decorative detailing and built according to Islamic vaulting and arch techniques, they were also paid for with riches acquired through trade with the Islamic world, or, even more ironically perhaps, through the 1204 sack of Greek Orthodox Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.” In other words, we are not talking about borrowing but rather about appropriation and expropriation. That architects did some pretty amazing things with what they stole does not wipe out that original sin.

What to me is the most interesting part of the book, however, is a short passage Darke inserts about the difference between how architects in Andalusia laid out buildings such as the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the manner in which Gothic cathedrals and churches developed. “In the northern Gothic cathedrals, the vaulting, the pointed arches and the interlocking arches of the upper level all contribute to a sense of spatial hierarchy, division into separate areas used for specific purposes by certain people, while in the Islamic context it was the opposite. In the Córdoba Mezquita the aim was to create an organic web, a complex vision of infinity, from no matter where in the prayer hall the viewer was standing.”

The Córdoba Mezquita in Spain, a mosque converted into a Catholic church in 1236
Creative Commons License/Flickr/Paul VanDerWerf The Córdoba Mezquita in Spain, a mosque converted into a Catholic church in 1236
The vaulted maqsura inside the Córdoba Mezquita
Wikimedia Commons The vaulted maqsura inside the Córdoba Mezquita

This to me has always been one of the most interesting aspects of mosque design: its emphasis on the community gathered together, sitting shoulder to shoulder, rather than arranged in long rows facing a central celebrant. Here Darke connects that social convention with the advances in geometry developed in Arab countries that led to a completely different way of thinking about building relations—namely, as an overall system rather than as discreet relations between rooms. For all the wonderful things Western architects did with the motifs and building elements they stole from the East, they also buried them in hierarchies of form, and between structure and ornament, that were largely absent from the models in present-day Turkey, Syria, Jerusalem, and Spain. They also pretty much forgot about the overall geometric ordering principles until the 18th century.

The cloister at Westminster Abbey in London
Wikimedia Commons The cloister at Westminster Abbey in London
The Chapter House in Westminster Abbey
Wikimedia Commons The Chapter House in Westminster Abbey

Darke chooses to concentrate on how both Christian and Muslim architects sought to glorify light, and how in both religions (she claims) the dome represents nothing more or less than the vault of heaven. I wish she would have instead talked about what happens when you steal an idea or a form and use it for another purpose, or within another system of thought, belief, or even construction. I do not think there has ever been a conspiracy to hide the Arabic sources of much Western European architecture. What there has been is a suppression of some of the ideas and ideals out of which this architecture came. It is those ideas and ideals, whether they have to do with forms of worship, notions of organic form, the importance of light, or the unifying realm of the spirit, that are worth exploring and discussing today.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.