As striking as the title seems, it is true that Islamic architecture has shaped Europe very effectively throughout history. On the other hand, most people are unaware of this reality and the contemporary populace mistakenly considers Islamic influence to be a downgrading agent. Historians prove the exact opposite, however, and suggest that Islamic architecture was in fact well-known and envied! Let’s shed some light on this topic.
“Stealing from the Saracens”
We’re going to explore the recently published book “Stealing from the Saracens“ by Diana Darke: author, Middle East culture specialist, Arabist, and occasional BBC broadcaster. The motivation behind the authoring of this book was basically the fire at Notre Dame. When the gothic masterpiece got severely damaged, its historical background became a hot topic that unfortunately was misinterpreted by many. To be more precise, people disregarded the influence of the Saracens on the majestic cathedral’s architecture. So she wanted to clarify what was already clear to her: the fact that gothic architecture is actually intertwined with the architecture of the Saracens.
In fact, the name of the book also includes a very significant irony which is an eye-catching detail: The word Saracens (Muslims as referred to by Christian writings in Europe during the middle age) originates from the Arabic word “saraqa“ which translates into “to steal“. The title emphasizes the irony of labeling the other as “the stealer”, considering the neglect of Muslim influence on European architecture.
How Islam Reached Europe in the Middle Ages
It was the architecture of the Umayyads in Syria and in Spain (Al-Andalus) that influenced the gothic movement. The main reason was their location being close to the borders and gateways through which Islamic architectural styles reached Europe. In this way, Christian Europe accessed and assimilated into Islamic styles like hypostyle halls, horseshoe arches, mosaics, and many more concepts. Moreover, the skills of Muslim craftsmen as well as those of other religions were utilized in the middle ages. Famous architects like Christopher Wren who was the co-founder of the Royal Society in Great Britain was heavily inspired by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan as well.
There are many examples other than Notre Dame. Charles Church in Vienna, for instance, was influenced by Roman architecture, resembling Hagia Sofia of Anatolia at the same time. The purpose of such a mixture is to imply cultural superiority by adapting diverse architectural styles.
Find out more information on sacredfootsteps.org and their podcast with the author speaking about the book herself!
A lifelong student passionate about visual arts and social sciences.