Muqarnas: Geometrical and Stereotomic Techniques in Ancient Islamic Architectures: Ceilings and Domes of Mameluk Buildings in Old Cairo

Muqarnas: Geometrical and Stereotomic Techniques in Ancient Islamic Architectures: Ceilings and Domes of Mameluk Buildings in Old Cairo

Ubaldo Occhinegro (Politecnico di Bari, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0029-2.ch023
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The topic of this chapter is the geometry and the construction of vaulted and decorative systems called ‘muqarnas', one of the most typical elements of Islamic architecture. This way of ‘vaulting spaces' or building roof and decorations with a system of regular staircase-elements that break down the surface covering it with simple geometrical figures, so as to make up complex patterns, spreads throughout Arabic countries, leading to the development of several styles, deriving from different generative geometries, and from building techniques and used materials. The reason which accounts for the widespread development of this type of decoration is to be found in the prohibition of the Moslem religion to portray idols or anthropomorphic figures of God, in contrast with the decorative techniques of sculpture and painting characterizing Christian art. The geometrical study which is at the basis of the Islamic art of decorating is arousing new interest and attention as regards the new systems of parametric modeling in computer art, besides opening new perspectives in standardized building techniques with new materials.
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In the new Encyclopaedia of Islam, Doris Behrens-Abouseif (Behrens-Abouseif, 2015) defines muqarnas as: “a type of decoration typical for Islamic architecture all over the central and eastern parts of the Muslim world; for its counterpart in the Muslim West, see muqarbas”.

The term derives from the Greek korwnio, Latin coronis, Fr. corniche, Italian. cornice, (Germ. Karnies), and it is a popular term, or a mason’s technical term. Wolfhart Heinrichs (Heinrichs, 1997) has some doubts on this accepted etymology. The fact that there is a sin-sad-variation in this word means that the written tradition of its root is not very firm. The Greek word meaning everything that is curved’, can be used as an adjective meaning ‘crook-beaked’, ‘curved’ and as a noun referring to anything curved or bent. In the Lisan al-‘Arab, the architectural term muqnrnas is nowhere to be found. Various words are listed under both the sin and the sad form of the root q-r-n-s/s: it is the geographical morphological term qurnas (also qirnas) which is defined as “something like a nose projecting in a mountain.”. Accepting this, the Arabian verb qarnasa would mean:‘to furnish a structure with projecting overhanging elements’ and the past participle muqarnas, consequently, would originally have meant ‘(a structure) furnished with projecting overhanging elements.’ In the Persian lexicographical tradition the architectural meaning of muqarnas is well documented, as a structure which they used to make in the form of the qurnas, the latter being the nose of the mountain. It should be mentioned that in the Persian tradition the architectural term muqarnas often seems to have had a much meaning, covering any kind of cupola with paintings. Although the plausibility of the etymology qurnas - muqarnas cannot be denied, Heinrichs points out that it does have certain weaknesses. However, it also appears to have a number of advantages over its competitors.

The term muqarna refers to an often merely decorative element, but at times also a structural one, typical of Islamic architecture and composed of a series of niches embedded within an architectural frame, geometrically connected and forming a three-dimensional composition around a few basic axes of symmetry. This method of building vaults, developed around the middle of the 10th century in north-east Iran and later spread throughout the Arabic world.

Figure 1.

Leon Auguste Asselineau, 1853: the Hall of the Abencerrages, the Alhambra, Granada – Spain

The muqarnas vault is composed of three-dimensional geometrical elements with a multifaceted surface, called blocks, being assembled; juxtaposed in horizontal rows, projecting one on the other, so as to cover apses, domes, hackles, transitions between tambours and domes, minaret projections or wall discontinuities (gates, windows, corner solutions, etc.) mainly for aesthetic reasons, but also for structural purposes, creating, awesome spaces. They look like beehives and sometimes like a cave-like vault with stalactites (only in certain types of muqarnas in the Mamluk and Mozarabic areas, like the Alhambra in Granada. (see Figure 1).

The result is a three-dimensional geometric weave of complex multifaceted mesh with an ever-varying pattern strongly affecting the space of vaulted and domed settings, creating in this way extraordinary light/shade effects. At first sight muqarnas look more like sculpture equipment, almost inlay work in surfaces, rather than an architectural motif, although they are the result of a geometric and building process based on the standardization of blocks.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Thakht: Non-Regular Polygons (Pre fabricated muqarnas elements) Knotted shape (triangle and other repeated elements in Islamic patterns) Position: Almost Inclined.

Ablaq: (From turkish Iplik, “rope” or “wire”.) Construction technique of alternating appeals stone of two different colors (black and white or yellow-red).

Khané: The Persian name of a muqarnas cell.

Shaparak: (Pre fabricated muqarnas elements) A three-sided element, which connects other muqarnas components to each other. Angles between the sides of this form are highly flexible, depending on project needs. Inclined Between various elements.

Bab: Door – Portal of the city.

Qasr: Arabic term designating a castle, a fortress, a fortified palace.

Bahri: (Mamluks) relative to the Nile (Bahr al-). The name derives from Mamluks camps Bahri situated on Roda Island.

Sassanids: Reigning dynasty of pre-Islamic Persia from 224 to 651 AD.

Burji: Mamluks who got their name from having been formed in the Burj.

Caravanserai: Shelter located along the main roads, intended to accommodate travelers and store their goods.

Pabarik: (Pre fabricated muqarnas elements) A parallelogram in which two sides are equal and the axial symmetry is based on its long axis. Around Takht Inclined Around Shamssé.

Shamssé: (Pre fabricated muqarnas elements) is either one or one half of a multi sided star, however its sides and axes has to be more than those in Thakht. Inclined at first and terminating into a flat or horizontal plane. Always in the last (highest) tier. In the center of the Muqarnas when it is complete or tangent to the boundary (When it’s a half projection).

Tulunids: Dynasty founded by Amhed Ibn Tulun reigned until 905 AD.

Tass (Tassé): (Pre fabricated muqarnas elements) are curved triangular pieces or niche shape elements, which generate concaved spaces of Muqarnas. Vertical at first and terminating into inclined surface. Mostly between two Shaparak or two Pabarik. It can be found in all tiers but the last tier.

Takhmir: A full-scale working sketch of the two-dimensional plan, on a plaster or a wooden slab.

Rhomboid: (Pre fabricated muqarnas elements) This specific Thakht that is not as horizontal as others. Usually it is folded on either its short or long axis. Inclined locations of Takht are the designer’s choice. They should be projected in specific spots in order to facilitate synchronization of the Muqarnas on a hypothetical circle.

Qa'a: Noble hall for reception, located on the first floor or the ground floor, composed from two or four iwans durqa'a separated by a central, lowered by a step compared to Qa'a, it features a fountain.

Fatimids: Shia Ismaili dynasty of independent sovereign, is established in Egypt in 969 and reigned until all'1171 A.D.

Iwan: Persian term that indicates the throne room. In architecture, the iwan is a volume completely open on one side.

Mimar: Architect.

Vizier: Board member of the caliphs; Minister under the Ottoman Empire.

Regular Polygons: (Pre fabricated muqarnas elements) Triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon, Multi sided Stars n, etc. (Three Sided, Four Sided, Five Sided, etc…) Position: Completely Horizontal.

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