Thoughts about Orientalism and Architecture
In Orient, Orientalism is a subject of many mixed feeling and variable viewpoints, viewpoints that spread from being considered “The Cultural Side of Western Colonization” till being made “The Most Neutral and Reliable Sources for Understanding Oriental Cultures”. And many of those who take these two points or any in between do so from their own political, social and cultural stands (ex. Liberals against Conservatives) something is not restricted to Orientalism but also to Politic, Economic, Sociology or any subject where West is involved, beside all and just to justify their points they pragmatically switch between them (sometimes West is a good source and sometimes it is not); examples are many from silly as “modern western haircuts are bad and suits are good”, till extremist: “some Islamist Jihadist movements do forbid all western products like democracy or even refrigerators but allow all kinds of western weapons”.
Some of Orientalism milestones:
I believe that the major problem regarding Orientalism and East (Near and Middle) is that Oriental (Eastern) researchers didn’t face the Westerns’ milestones of Orientalism but actually accepted them without any discussion and even considered them in their positions against West:
I- The Geographical and Historical Limits of Europe and Orient:
Western Geographers defined Ural and Caucasus Mountains beside Black, Aegean and Marmara Seas as Europe Eastern Limits that separate it from Asia and Orient. This definition is geographically logic especially regarding the present European Culture but historically it is not; Greece and Rome were more related to eastern and southern coastal areas of the Mediterranean (Orient) than other parts of Europe, something can easily traced in their mythologies and the development of their Art and Architecture, also by the concept of calling Europeans outside the limits of Italy and Greece; Barbarians, something never used to call Anatolians, Syrians and Egyptians. Therefore we can say that Ancient Greek and Roman (and more or less all Eastern Europe) Civilizations were more related to the East than Western Europe.
II- The East was Not the West (Western Europe):
One of the major characters of East was its diversity in every single detail and since the dawn of humanity. This was totally reflected in Architecture, Art, Food, Costumes…etc:
The Great Umayyad Mosques in Damascus and Aleppo, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosques in Jerusalem all have been built in the same period and in geographically limited area, but they have more differences than all middle-aged Gothic Cathedrals in all Western and Central Europe.
East’s figures can’t be categorized the same of the West, East was the center between several cultures in India, Africa, China, Eastern and Western Europe, all these cultures affected the East all together, the West and particularly Western Europe had more or less one colored culture as the same of China, India and other areas that located in the edges of the Ancient World. Therefore trying to view the East from the same perspectives used to the West was a big mistake led to many wrong analyses and misunderstanding in Orientalism; basically during history and unlike the West there was no rule that can govern any element in the entire East.
III- Neither Islam nor Islamic Civilization Started With Prophet Muhammad:
One of the most affective “wrong analyzing and misunderstanding of the East” is considering Prophet Muhammad as the beginning of Islam and Islamic Civilization something that is even against Quran itself where many verses insisted to clarify that Islam is a continuation of Monotheism that “started by Prophet Adam the father of Humanity”. So basically it is a huge misunderstanding to try to refer all the elements in Islamic Civilization and Faith to the period of Prophet Muhammad especially regarding the fact that Islam gave Muslims the freedom to consider every strange or new aspect and to develop Islamic awareness regarding it (unfortunately this has been totally restricted since the 10th Century B.C, by Muslim clerics and politicians). Also a major misunderstanding has been caused by considering only the aspects created after Prophet Muhammad as Islamic and aliening any older.
IV- Islam is only one of many elements that characterized Islamic civilization:
Unlike Orient, Western Europe in Middle Ages has been socially, politically, economically, artistically and architecturally heavily characterized by the Catholic Church, where every single element should be adhere to Church’s principles or it will subjected to suppression or even total elimination. Orient at the other hand and because of its diversity and because of the fact that Muslims never considered (at least in the Rising period of Islamic Civilization) previous or other Cultures as outsiders that should be excluded, nor they hold any kind of fanaticism toward them (a simple overview to Islamic resources will prove this). So it is more accurate to consider Islamic Civilization as a development resulted from mixing Ancient Oriental, Classic and Byzantium Civilizations with Persian’s and Indian’s that flourished by the massive economy constructed by Islamic Empire, than to consider it a direct result of Islam itself.
Orientalists by considering these milestones have started a very long-lived and wrong prototyping of Orient, and unlike many who considered this prototyping as evidence of the western colonizing I believe that Orientalists did that from purely western perspective or based on Western background, simply they thought about the East the same about the West; a specified geographic area that has totally distinguish harmonized culture, started by the rise of Greek and Romans and characterized by one religion. They never understood that Islam is a phase of a continuance development of oriental spirituality, and although it is a main part of Oriental Culture but it is only a part.
Regarding those milestones and with a little inspection through many concepts in Orientalism I found many wide-spread theories that have absolutely no bases at all, and actually are very silly and rumors-alike to be recognized as solid theories, I like to call this phenomenon after the name of what I think is the most famous and the silliest one of them “The Persian Carpet Phenomenon”.
The Persian Carpet:
“The Persian Carpet is not totally symmetric, there is always something wrong: changing in color or shape, and craftsmen who fabricated them did that intentionally because only God can do perfection, and symmetric is perfection so it is against God”. From this “theory” a lot of analyzes have been done to explain the dissymmetry in many patterns in Oriental Architecture, Urban and Art…etc. and it has become a base to explain the effect of Islamic Faith as a reason for the dissymmetry in Islamic monuments, although many of them are actually symmetric and those who don’t, have very pragmatic reasons (geographical location, surrounding urban, function …etc.) but absolutely not because of the fear of copying God which is an impossible thing regarding Islam as man can try but he will never succeed because he has been created incomplete.
Unfortunately this absurd “theory” has found its way to be considered even by Eastern researches who for some reasons didn’t notice here the great ignorance of the fabrication method of carpets that this concept reflects; several craftsmen working together and knitting the carpet row by row so obviously there is no way for total accurate, and mistakes are going to happen anyway, and if we put in mind that carpets are (unlike the western consideration as peace of arts) designed to be the finishing of traditional floors and they are going to be covered by furniture; then those mistakes wouldn’t be something to consider.
It looks like that some tourists/orientalists wanted to buy carpets and found those “mistakes” and when they objected to the sellers they’ve got the traditional answer of “Perfection can only made by God” which is very obvious for someone who knows how almost impossible to produce a carpet with total symmetry, at the other hand those tourists/orientalists toke it like some principles that Catholic Church used to govern Medieval Europe by. And then they built the whole concept of Symmetry and Dissymmetry in Islam and Orient by using the Persian Carpet as an example.
God, Divinity and Islamic Decorations:
“There are no decorations on the floors of Islamic buildings, because Muslims considered them holy like the name of Allah, and no one should step on them”. Believe it or not but I think this “theory” also connected to carpets:
If anyone familiar with Damascus traditional houses, he will notice a special design of their rooms in ground floors; two levels with a difference of about 60cm where the lowers are at the doors area and have the same levels of the courtyards. And although the upper levels have no decorations at all, the lower levels are well decorated and in rich houses have fountains. The reason is very simple; the upper levels which were the seating areas traditionally covered by carpets so there is no need to decorate them as carpets were the permanent finishing of floors.
It looks like that when tourists/orientalists entered the mosques of Andalusia or Sicily and amazed by the astonished decorations on walls and ceilings wondered about the reason of having blank floors where carpets have been stolen since the conquer period, so they came up with such “theory”.
Domes, Arcs and Islamic Architecture:
“Domes and Arcs are not characters of Islamic Architecture, Muslims obtained them from Romans or from more ancient Civilizations, and they are structural elements that mean nothing regarding Islamic Faith”. OK this “theory” is partially correct; Domes and Arcs are not Islamic they are much older and probably developed in Ancient Syria or Mesopotamia (as the oldest patterns have been found there), but they are not just structural elements; stone-made arcs don’t produce more spans than those produced by large pieces of stone or beams of wood especially when roofs are made by beams of wood (as always), also the spans between columns in the main roads of Roman cities are sometimes wider than those of the gates’ arcs.
Regarding Domes there is no logic of considering them structural elements when they are related to square-plan structures (because of their circular-plan) which is the case of all Islamic examples, it will be more logic to have square-plan vaults especially that complicated procedures need to be taken to transfer the loads from the circular-plan dome to the square-plan structure, also all famous mosques in Islamic world (with the exception of the dome of the Rock) have no structural need for domes but actually they have been provided with extra structures to accomplish them, so unless there are some symbolic reasons domes have no structural explanation for being in almost every mosque in the Islamic World.
To find why arcs and domes have been widely used in Islamic Architecture we need to free ourselves from the wrong ideas of the beginning of Islamic Civilization and that every Islamic element resulted from Islamic Faith, arcs and domes have been used before Islam in the two Cathedrals of Bosra (Syria) and in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople with the same treatment (circular-plan domes on square-plan structures) which could indicate to the symbolism that been later presented in the philosophy of Al Mouetazeleh and more later in Sufism; domes in this area always had apogees that represent Allah as the centre of everything and the surrounding circular shape of the dome represents the Spiritual World that is transferring to the four elements of the Material World; Air, Water, Fire and Dust. So the whole structure of domes is an important symbol of Monotheism and arcs are a two dimensions symbol of the same idea, this is why crossing under arcs represents victory (Arcs of Victories), blessing (the arc of roses on the door of the new married couple) and human (the Arc with its columns draws the outer lines of standing person).
So in this case domes and arcs have been used because of faith and they are architectural representations of Orient Monotheism.
Minarets are symbols of Monotheism:
As Orientalists didn’t recognize domes to be symbols of Monotheism they claimed that minarets are; they thought that this high tower expanding toward heaven is an attempt to reach God up there. All this explanations can’t stand against the basic knowledge of Islam where being proud toward God is forbidden, also not all mosques have one minaret and major mosques have many, so how could multi Minarets represent Monotheism in these cases? And finally minarets have been used in the Cathedral of Johan the Baptist (the same site of the Omayyad Mosque) before building the Mosque and they are the lower parts of the Mosque’s minarets also the bases of those towers were even more ancient and part of the Aramaic Temple of Hudod (as there is no Monotheism here). Beside all in souks mosques didn’t have minarets but only balconies for rising Azan.
So minaret was the architectural solution for the acoustic problem of sound reaching all the attached houses in eastern cities where it used to get lost in the narrow roads, so the only solution was to reach them from up through the courtyards.
Rain, Snow and “Islamic or Oriental” Flat Roofs:
“In a response to the lack of rain and snow, Oriental houses had flat roofs”. This is not the case of Syrian cities where they have their share of rain and snow and even if they are not as heavy as in Europe but flat roofs are not suitable for them and needed regular hard restorations, also mosques and many public buildings used to have gables covered by led, so the lack of rain is not the main reason of using flat roofs but the fact that those roofs used during summer nights when the climate is suitable as sleeping areas.
Islamic Geometrical Decorations and Calligraphy against Sculpturing and paintings of humans and animals:
“Muslims have developed a very sophisticated geometrical decoration and beautiful calligraphy because Islam forbids sculpturing and drawing especially for human and animals” Muslims didn’t allow sculpturing or painting humans and animals in mosques, as they didn’t want to resample heathenism, also in the beginning of Islam they didn’t encourage any decoration of mosques because they liked them to be pure for Allah. In Umayyad Palaces and many other civil areas like in Al Hyer Palace (nowadays it is in the National Museum of Damascus) sculpturing and painting humans were more than familiar, also painting in Islamic books was an important art that never been effected by the Islamic later fanaticism against drawings. Also regarding the Syrian Historian Muhammad Muhaffel the refusal of sculpturing and painting in Islam appeared only after the period of Seljuk’s conquer of Anatolia because the effect of a myth used to claim so in Byzantium.
So Geometrical Decorations and Calligraphy have been developed that much because the vast development of mathematics and esthetics in Islamic Medieval World and the fascination of artists and architects toward them.
Finally, I want to insure here that I don’t blame Orientalists for all these false concepts regarding Orient, but I do blame Eastern researchers because in their battle either with or against Orientalism they didn’t face these milestones and their results as much as they accepted them as facts and only considered clarifying the misunderstanding of the general perspective of Orient in the West.