Worldbuilding Magazine: Architecture & Cultural Assimilation in Art
This article was first featured in Worldbuilding Magazine, a volunteer-run and free-to-download magazine filled with tips, interviews, and inspiration for worldbuilders of all kinds.
Alongside the expansion of a people, so too is there an expansion — and altering — of their art. In c.640 CE, Muslims ruled Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. Two years later, the Byzantine army abandoned Alexandria, leaving Egypt to the Muslims. In 651, they took Iran from the Sassanids, thus ending more than 400 years of Sassanid rule. By 710, all of North Africa was under Muslim control with later advances into Spain and France. The Franks repelled their invaders, but in Spain, the Muslim rulers of Córdoba remained in power until 1031. Even then, Muslim influence and power didn’t leave the Iberian Peninsula until much later.
It was not military might alone that was so impressive about the expansion of Islam. Muslims converted millions as the expansion spread, and Islam remains one of the world’s largest religions today. In addition, they taught the foundations for algebra and arithmetic to much of the world. Many Muslims went on to make significant contributions which advanced the fields of medicine, astronomy, and science. Several Christian scholars studied Arabic translations of ancient Greek writers such as Aristotle, and Arabic lyrics later inspired French troubadours. All of this is to say that the expansion of Islam, though militaristic at times, also spread new ideas that overall benefitted many people. Of course, with this expansion, the conquered peoples had a bit of influence on the Arabs as well.
We’re going to take a look at some pieces of architecture from around the Islamic world and then consider how we might use them as inspiration for our worldbuilding projects. Each structure comes with an element of mystery or a grand story and remains standing today — a testament to the builders who created them.
Dome of the Rock
“Islam is not only a religion, but a way of life.” This major tenant is how the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the faith. They go on to state that “the lands conquered by the Muslims had their own preexisting artistic traditions and…those artists who had worked under Byzantine or Sassanian patronage continued to work in their own indigenous styles but for Muslim patrons [after the conquest].” This blending of ideas and art forms didn’t begin to unify into a definitely Islamic art style until during the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 CE). It was a gradual shift, but during this period, art and architecture slowly began to form around four components: calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, and figural representation.
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem may be the first great piece of Islamic architecture. It was erected c.687–692 by Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik after they took the city from the Byzantine Empire. It is, without a doubt, one of those buildings constructed during the aforementioned phase of mixing ideas. The Dome of the Rock was constructed for Islamic functions but displays an amalgam of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Sassanian elements in its artistry and construction. It is an octagonal building with a large golden dome at the top, a layout likely inspired by Late-Antique Mediterranian structures such as the San Vitale or Hagia Sophia. The interior was beautifully decorated in vegetal and geometric mosaic patterns, featuring images of crowns, jewels, chalices, and other royal motifs. This may have been a reference to the caliphate’s triumph over the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. Calligraphic inscriptions, most from the Koran, suggest Islam is the new superior monotheistic faith. At the center of the building is an exposed rock. It’s not mentioned in any of the writing on the walls, but has since become known as the place where the Prophet Muhammed may have begun “his miraculous journey to Heaven (the Miraj) and then in the same night, returned to his home in Mecca.”
The Dome of the Rock is also somewhat mysterious in its intent. Several clues were left for us; however, history is messy, and the structure has been interpreted to be many things. Christians and Muslims during the Middle Ages thought it was the site of the Temple of Solomon. Later it gained significance as the burial place of Adam (the first man) and also as the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. As such, the Dome of the Rock has cemented its place as a religious destination for several major world religions that each persist to this day.
One major takeaway here is that it took years for an Islamic art style to develop, and one of its most important buildings still hadn’t found that style when it was made. Additionally, the intent of the building is unclear. It can be enticing, even comforting, to detail our worlds to the letter and guarantee with certainty what each aspect is for. However, it is important to remember that sometimes things can be confused, lost, or forgotten over time.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba
After approximately 115 years of Islamic rule, the Abbasids revolted and either killed or forced the Umayyad caliphate out of Syria in 750 CE. A few of the Umayyad fled west to Spain and founded a new dynasty. They ruled from their capital of Córdoba, located at the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula. This new Muslim state rivaled that of the Abbasids and exerted a significant influence over the Christian states of Western Europe.
The jewel of Córdoba was, of course, its Great Mosque. Mosques are places of Muslim worship, a wall always facing Mecca — the direction all must face when practicing Islamic prayer. The construction of the Great Mosque at Córdoba began in 784 by Abd al-Rahman I and later enlarged during the ninth and tenth centuries. When it was finished, the building boasted an impressive 514 columns, all topped by a unique double-tiered system of arches. This style was done because the original builders used short columns, and the aforementioned revisions demanded that the roof be raised higher.
The original structure contained beautiful geometric patterns. It wasn’t until the tenth century revisions under Caliph Al-Hakam that the mosque gained more detailed designs. The new caliph sought to imitate the structures built by the Umayyads centuries before, and covered the walls with marbles and mosaics.
Caliph Al-Hakam accomplished his goal. The finished Great Mosque at Córdoba stands proudly to this day, boasting intricate mosaics that remind one of structures such as the Dome of the Rock while also retaining a strong sense of uniqueness due to the double-tiered arches and airy halls. Again, we see a clear mixing of cultures. Caliph Al-Hakam may have sought to imitate the Umayyads with the expansion, but his work resulted in a new style of Western Muslim architecture that was similar, yet distinct, from the other forms.
The Mosque of Selim II
In the late twelfth century, the Seljuk Turks fell from power, creating an opportunity for the smaller dynasties they once ruled to rise up in Anatolia. Among those groups, Osman I founded the Ottoman Empire, which his successors brought to great heights. By the fifteenth century, the young empire became one of the world’s greatest powers.
Sinan the Great has gone into many history books as the greatest Ottoman architect, credited with perfecting the Ottoman style. Employed by Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled as sultan through much of the sixteenth century, Sinan was at the center of several major construction projects. One of his masterpieces was the Mosque of Selim II.
Before delving into Sinan and the mosque, it is important to first note the significance of the Hagia Sophia. The Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, and with it gained the infamous cathedral. Of course, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque, and today the building functions as a museum. It is a marvel of architectural engineering and art that has stood since its construction c.535 CE. Recalling how Byzantine craftsmen helped construct the Dome of the Rock, we can imagine how the Ottomans must have seen familiar themes in the old cathedral when they visited it for the first time. However, mosques require a wall facing Mecca, and the Hagia Sophia did not quite fit that mold. Plus, this was a Christian building, made by Christians — and nothing could rival its magnificence.
So, when Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned a mosque made in his son’s name, he and his brilliant architect Sinan set their goals high to compete with the old Byzantine cathedral. They built the mosque in Edirne, approximately 147 miles west of the Hagia Sophia. It was an ideal place to show the world the might of the Ottoman Empire and Muslim craft — Edirne was the first major city that Europeans reached as they traveled into the empire.
The Mosque of Selim II, completed c.1568–1575, was built in the shape of an octagon with a dome over the center. Four slender minarets adorn its four corners, each reaching more than 200 ft. into the sky. The entire structure was engineered to keep strict mathematical ratios. The mosque’s height, width, and masses relate to one another in a 1:2 ratio, tying the structure together in a precise visual harmony. It is no wonder, then, that Sinan the Great proclaimed this building his masterpiece.
However, the dome on the Mosque of Selim II doesn’t quite reach the height that the Hagia Sophia does, but the land in Edirne is higher than that in Istanbul. Therefore, the total height above sea level is higher than the Hagia Sophia. Regardless, the Ottomans believed that the mosque’s completion finally proved they had outdone the Byzantine cathedral, as well as Christendom itself.
The spirit of competition here is of particular interest. The previous buildings we’ve looked at have been the assimilation of ideas, and while the Mosque of Selim II is not an exception to that case, it is certainly made in competition with the Hagia Sophia. An interesting exercise might be to consider rivalries in your world and see if they might compete by trying to outdo one another’s artistic or architectural accomplishments. In the same way people attempt to top one another’s records, they might strive for the tallest buildings, most realistic statues, or most numerous columns.
Throughout this brief history of Islamic architecture, one thing has remained ever-present: the influence of outside cultures. The Dome of the Rock was built with heavy Byzantine and Sassanid influences, perhaps even by architects and craftsmen from those empires. The Great Mosque at Córdoba was influenced by either Mediterranean or Visigothic cultures, then took on those horseshoe-shaped arches as a major theme in Western Islamic architecture. The Mosque of Selim II, of course, was directly influenced by the Hagia Sophia. A meeting of peoples will always create influences on one another. The United States has a network of roads (the interstate system) in part because of President Eisenhower’s experience mapping the roads of France for the military during World War II as well as his knowledge of Germany’s autobahn which was enormously helpful in transporting people as well as equipment.
When worldbuilding, keep in mind how your cultures come into contact with one another.
When worldbuilding, keep in mind how your cultures come into contact with one another. Those who conquer will take structures and resources from the people they defeated. Those who trade will exchange ideas. It is easy to be building a new world of your own and forget this simple fact, but having a bit of mingling between groups — be they allies or enemies — will add a great amount of depth to the world.
For example, let’s assume a scenario akin to the expansion of Islam we discussed earlier. If a nation expands their empire, what will they encounter for the first time? Might there be exotic materials, strange carvings, or towering buildings unlike what they’re used to? It’s important to consider how they might react to these new experiences. Any answer is valid, so long as you can justify it. Many conquerors throughout history have destroyed that which lay in their path. Others, like the Ottoman Empire, instead assimilated much of what they encountered. What will come of your peoples meeting?
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Department of Islamic Art. “The Nature of Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna/hd_orna.htm. Accessed December 18, 2019.
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Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: a Global History. 14th ed., book C, Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2013, p 284–299.
Macauley-Lewis, Elizabeth. “Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/ap-art-islamic-world-medieval/a/mosque-edirne. Accessed December 18, 2019.
“Seljuq.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/Seljuq. Accessed December 18, 2019.