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Architecture refers to the design and construction of buildings and other structures, such as tombs and gardens. It may characterize a particular time and place in history. Architecture not only defines functional spaces in which people can live, work, study, and worship, it also reflects their ties with particular religions, cultures, or dynasties. Traditional architecture providesimages of the past, enhancing a community's understanding of its origins. Contemporary architecture, on the other hand, reflects the present, expressing cultural changes or a break with the past. These roles of architecture are apparent throughout the Islamic world. Contemporary Islamic architecture reflects changes that have occurred in the Muslim world over the past two centuries.


Khaju bridge and dam

Bridgeman Art Library

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Traditional Islamic Architecture

In many ways, traditional Islamic architecture provides a visual overview of Islamic history. Master builders, rather than professional architects, designed and built the earliest Muslim structures. The most distinctive type of building was the mosque. Other traditional types of structures included grave markers, bathhouses, commercial buildings, and homes.

Mosques, Domes, and Minarets.

The form of the mosque generally follows one of three models. From the beginning of Islam in the 600s to about 1000, mosques were large enclosed areas that combined a flat-roofed room for worship with an open courtyard. Mosques of this type were built in the western Islamic world, from Spain to Central Asia. In the 1000s, a new style of mosque appeared. It had balconies on two or more sides of an unroofed central courtyard. This type was built from Egypt and Turkey eastward to India and Pakistan. A third model developed with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, beginning in the 1400s. Built in places from the Balkans to Saudi Arabia, it had a dome-covered central prayer space and a courtyard.

Today, as in the past, domes and minarets characteristically adorn mosques. Domes signal to the public a place of prayer and Islamic learning. Minarets are used to call the faithful to prayers. Both structures differ in shape, building materials, and other features depending on when and where they were built.

Domes throughout the Islamic world vary in style, according to the different ethnic or national identities they represent. Mamluk-style domes, for example, are associated with the dynasty that ruled Egypt in the 1300s and 1400s. They are still common throughout the country and are easily recognizable by their high sides, pointed top, and patterned surfaces. Originally made of stone, Mamluk-style domes are constructed today of reinforced concrete. Similar in style to the original domes, they provide a visual link with Egypt's past. Many Muslim communities in the United States and elsewhere have adopted Mamluk-style domes, perhaps reflecting Egypt's role as a major center of Islamic learning.

Another style of dome, which originated farther to the east in Uzbekistan, spread throughout much of the eastern Islamic world. Associated with the Timurid dynasty, which began in the 1300s, this dome has high sides, a rounded top slightly wider than the sides, and glazed tile surfaces. The Timurid-style dome can be seen as far south as India. Timurid-style domes adorn the world-famous Taj Mahal, built in Agra, India, in the 1600s.

The minaret is one of the most widespread symbols of Islam throughout the world. As with the dome, specific details of the minaret have come to reflect the architectural preferences of different dynasties and different regions. The most common and basic form of the minaret is a tapering, rounded shaft, found throughout Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

Various ruling dynasties modified the basic form of the minaret to reflect their own architectural style. One widespread modification is associated with the Ottoman Empire, which took over much of the central Islamic world starting in the mid-1400s and continued through the early 1900s. The Ottoman-style minaret is taller and more tapered than the basic form and has a cone-shaped top. As the Ottoman Turks expanded into areas that were predominantly Christian or ruled by other Muslim groups, the distinctive cone-topped minaret on the skyline clearly indicated the Ottoman presence in the region.

Mimar Koca Sinan was perhaps the greatest of the Ottomanarchitects. During his 50-year career, Sinan built or supervised more than 300 structures in Istanbul alone, including mosques, palaces, tombs, schools, and hospitals. His crowning achievement is the immense domed Selimiye Mosque at Edirne, in western Turkey.

Grave Markers.

Throughout the history of Islam, Muslims have marked the graves of their dead in various ways. As early as the mid-600s, tombstones became commonplace in Egypt and soon thereafter throughout the Islamic world. Masonry screens first shielded burial sites in the 700s. By the 1200s, they were made of wood, and today ornate metal screens often mark gravesites.

The most elaborate form of grave marker is the mausoleum, a small building-like structure where the remains of a person or family of special status were buried. In Islamic countries, it is a domed structure that stands alone in a cemetery outside the city, or it is part of a mosque or other palace within a city. Construction materials varied from mud bricks to marble, depending on the importance of the deceased. The shape of the mausoleum's dome and inner chamber reflect the time and place it was built. For example, the chamber of a Mamluk mausoleum was square; that of an Ottoman mausoleum was round or octagonal.


Prior to the 1900s, bathhouses were often constructed near mosques so that worshippers could cleanse themselves before prayers. A bathhouse usually contained changing rooms, chambers with hot and warm water, and a steam room. Steam, generated by heating water, flowed into the room through holes in the walls. The room was covered by a dome, which allowed the hot, moist air to circulate. Small windows in the dome let in daylight. Unless there were two separate bathhouses in a community, men and women used the same facility, but at different times.

Commercial Buildings.

Two types of commercial buildings were common in early Islamic architecture—structures for storage and lodging (such as the caravansary) and covered marketplaces. Caravansaries, usually a two-story structure, provided temporary lodging for traveling merchants and their animals. Travelers stabled their animals on the ground floor and slept and stored their goods on the second floor.

Most covered marketplaces consisted of shops that sold expensive goods, such as precious metals, silks, and jewels. The market had a formal entrance that could be closed at night and locked for security. Many Islamic cities have incorporated traditional marketplace features into today's modern shopping districts.


Traditional Islamic houses included separate spaces for public and private functions. Men generally occupied the public space, while women and children used the private space. Large homes not only had separate rooms for men and for women, but separate entrances as well. In small houses, people hung curtains to separate the spaces used by the men and the women in the family. Sometimes men and women used the same space. The men used the space for one part of the day, the women for another.

Contemporary Islamic Architecture

Beginning in the 1800s, professional architects gradually replaced traditional master builders in the Islamic world. The earliest professional architects to practice there were Westerners, primarily from Europe. Eventually, European-trained Muslim architects began to practice in Islamic countries, followed by locally trained Muslim architects.

Influence of the West.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, Western architects traveled to Islamic countries to work either for the local rulers or for colonial powers. Many of these architects influenced the architectural development of the regions in which they worked. For example, more than 120 French architects worked in Morocco during the 1920s when the country was a French protectorate. They were, in large part, responsible for the growth of modern Moroccan cities. Western architects also left their mark on the architecture of Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, India, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, where they designed palaces and mosques, as well as commercial and government buildings.

Development of Local Architecture in Islamic Countries.

Mehmet Vedad and Ahmet Kemalettin , among the earliest professional Islamic architects, came from Turkey. After studying architecture in Europe, they returned home to design numerous buildings for the Ottoman rulers during the early 1900s. Their work incorporated both European and traditional Ottoman elements and evolved into Turkey's first “national style.”

Another early professional architect was Sayyid Kurayyim , an Egyptian who trained in Switzerland. In the mid-1900s, he was the busiest architect in the Islamic world and founder of the first architecture journal in the Islamic world. The Muslim architect who received the most international recognition, Hassan Fathy , also came from Egypt. Fathy rejected Western architectural styles, favoring the use of traditional rural Egyptian architectural elements in his designs.

By the late 1900s, Islamic architects had begun to develop their own architectural styles and established design schools in their home countries. By the mid-1980s, more than 60 architecture schools existed in the Islamic world. More journals were being published and awards for architectural design had been established. The best known honor is the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which was established to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture. Judges award up to $500,000, the largest architectural award in the world, for architectural excellence that reflects contemporary design, community improvement, and a concern for environmental issues.

New Building Types and Styles.

Recent developments in Islamic architecture include the construction of nontraditional types of buildings and facilities. These include airports, museums, banks, university campuses, and apartment buildings. Large national mosques also have been built in countries such as Malaysia, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan.

Architectural styles have changed as well. During the colonial period, Western architects brought elements of classical and neo-Renaissance revivals to the structures they designed in Islamic regions. Based on much earlier styles of architecture, these revivals were eventually replaced by a return to a more traditional Islamic style.

By the 1950s, many Western architects and Western-trained Muslim architects had adopted the Modernist style, which emphasized technology over tradition. Modernist architects incorporated large expanses of concrete and glass into their designs. By the late 1900s, Islamic architects had again returned to traditional Islamic architecture for inspiration, due in large part to the rise in religious sentiment at that time.


Since the 1400s, Islamic gardens from India to Morocco have fascinated artists, historians, poets, and travelers. Gardens in courtyards, plantings along walkways, and landscaped parks and hunting preserves once enhanced the landscape of Muslim communities. With modern urban sprawl and explosive increases in population, especially in such large cities as Cairo, Tehran, and Istanbul, the space left for gardens has all but disappeared. Although the gardens that remain contain different plants, a sense of the original gardens can be felt in the layout of walkways leading to ornamental pools and fountains.

The use of water is one of the most striking elements of traditional Islamic gardens. Pools of water were strategically placed to reflect adjacent structures, such as pavilions. Often conducted from one pool to another, water ran in narrow channels alongside paved walkways.

The traditional Islamic garden layout usually followed one of two designs—linear or cross-axial. The linear plan probably originated in ancient Rome. It consists of a rectangular plot with two long, parallel walkways that run from one end of the garden to the other. The cross-axial plan may have come from ancient Persia. It is a rectangular plot with two perpendicular walkways, leading in four cardinal directions and intersecting at the center of the garden.

Architects used the linear garden plan more often in the eastern section of the Islamic world, the cross-axial plan more commonly in the western part. In many places, however, they adopted both forms, and contemporary landscape architects throughout the Islamic world continue to use them today. See also Ablution; Bazaar; Mamluk State; Modernism; Mosque; Ottoman Empire.

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