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Diana Darke’s magnificent study of the eastern origins of western Europe’s architectural heritage reveals a history suppressed by imperialist prejudice, finds Dominic Alexander

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Diana Darke, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (Hurst 2020), viii, 480pp.

Why is it ‘Eurasia’? The continent might just as plausibly be termed Indo-Asia, but it is of course Eurocentric imperialism which has left us with that formulation. There is nothing necessary about the conception of Europe as a distinct geographical unit and a natural civilisational entity, but it is rather an ideological construction of some lineage. There is an artificial edifice called Europe that purports to represent common-sense truths about history and the present, but which turns out to be untenable in the face of serious examination.

The way this ideological version of Europe works is revealed very clearly in the field of architecture, particularly the infrastructure of churches of the medieval and early modern periods, which have become, among other things, the centre of a ‘heritage’ tourist industry across the continent. Diana Darke in Stealing from the Saracens points out that the cathedrals of many countries are presented as central to the identity of national history and culture, and she focuses on Notre-Dame in Paris and St. Paul’s in London to introduce her argument. In general, the medieval Gothic style of architecture has become synonymous with western European medieval culture, and yet, as she shows in splendid and fascinating detail, this and other architectural fashions, were almost wholly borrowed from eastern, and often specifically Islamic architecture.

It is also important that Darke’s discussion shows plainly how well known it has been among specialists that Western Christendom borrowed so much of its repertoire of medieval church building and decoration from the Islamic world, while all this is virtually unknown outside the academy. Indeed, the origins of all of the key elements of the Gothic style in the Islamic world are just not mentioned in cathedral guidebooks or other introductions. One writer of a standard work quotes the doyen of English architectural history, Nicolas Pevsner, as saying of the Abbey Church of St Denis (near Paris) that ‘its unknown architect, “one can safely say, invented the Gothic style.”’i Like Athena from the head of Zeus, this major European tradition springs fully formed, without antecedents, from the moment of its birth.

The common ignorance of the real history is therefore a manufactured one, that is to say it is ideological. Darke’s main purpose in the book is to trace, and delight in, the origins and development of the various architectural styles, east and west, through Antiquity to the early modern period. She does however spend considerable time on the architect of the present, Classical rather than Gothic, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Christopher Wren (1632-1723). He was certainly under no illusions on the matter, stating, after thorough study that: ‘The Gothic style should more rightly be called the Saracen style’ (p.3).

Europe’s Islamic inheritance

Wren himself broke from Gothic, but in fashioning a new Classical style, he also openly learnt and borrowed from Islamic architecture, in particular using more advanced techniques from his study of mosques in Istanbul to build St. Paul’s great dome (p.15). Even in his time, during the ‘Scientific Revolution’, Western Europe had much to learn from the east. That there was a ‘treasure trove of lost knowledge’ held by Arab civilisation was well-known in the intellectual circles of seventeenth-century England, to the extent that active measures were taken to import Arab manuscripts (p.18). So this story is not just about a style of architecture, or aesthetics, but about technological advancement as well, and in that area it also undermines simple stories of European superiority.

The origin of our present ignorance is clear enough:

‘Most writers on Western medieval architecture over the last fifty years have accepted that the pointed arch [a signature characteristic of Gothic] was imported into Europe from Islamic architecture. But when the Gothic revival fashion of the nineteenth century suddenly made it necessary to rediscover the origin of the pointed arch, many Western historians found ways of attributing it to northern Europe’ (p.207).

Certain writers of the nineteenth century tried to claim Gothic for a mystical notion of a primaeval European spirit, untainted by modernity. In so doing, they were rejecting an earlier acceptance of Islamic influence, for example by the eighteenth-century French architect Jacques-François Blondel who extolled ‘“the ingenious structures of the Arabs”’ while ‘Chateaubriand and Goethe fiercely resisted any suggestion of an Eastern origin, insisting that the source of Gothic was their own forests’ (p.310).

The Romantic recoil from the Industrial Revolution in this instance went hand in glove with the construction of racist Eurocentric myths. This is not to say, by any means, that such ideas, justifying imperialist aggression, did not exist beforehand. Far from it, and indeed Darke points out that an ‘imperialist mentality’ during the Renaissance created the modern conception of Europe (p.382). However, all this became more systematic in the nineteenth century, and dissent from it increasingly suppressed.

The key lesson to take from this intellectual regression, therefore, is that a fairly well understood history was deliberately pushed aside, in favour of an ideologically constructed assumption of superiority. The important role these distortions of culture would have in the justification and acceleration of imperialism in the nineteenth century explains why they gained general traction. Reactionaries presently complain that anti-racism is erasing ‘our’ history, yet the erasure happened long before: the past that has been actively erased by their kind is that of the Eastern influences on Western culture, not Europe’s real history.

Sources of architectural influence

There were in fact multiple vectors through which Islamic styles and techniques found their way into western Europe, with the Mosques of Muslim Spain being a major source, and Italy another with its proximity to Islamic cultures, notably in Sicily, and its extensive and varied trade networks. The impact of the Crusades after 1099 certainly brought some famous influences, such as the few round churches like the Temple in London (p.235), but was probably less significant than the former factors. It was also not new in the eleventh and twelfth centuries for Western Christendom to be subject to eastern influence. It was a continuous process dating back to the earliest forms of Christian architecture in the west.

The major form of ecclesiastical architecture predating the Gothic style, which only emerged in the course of the twelfth century, was that known generally as Romanesque. This is often called ‘Norman’ in Britain, as in the eleventh century it replaced the somewhat different styles of Anglo-Saxon architecture in this country. The most obvious distinction between the Romanesque and Gothic is the rounded arch of the former, and the various types of pointed arch of the latter. Additionally, Romanesque architecture is heavier looking; columns are thicker, windows are smaller, giving less light, and they are less ambitious in scale than some of the grander Gothic constructions. Gothic was able to build higher, with more slender columns, and wider windows creating the effect of much more light within churches. Darke is able to show that Christian Gothic in this respect was influenced not only by the techniques of Islamic architecture, but was also following a theological conception of the importance of light (p.171, pp.178-9).

In respect of Romanesque arches, there was certainly an inheritance from Classical Roman architecture, but Romanesque buildings were not simply a continuation of the older style, but themselves show influence from early Syrian churches (p.77). Thus, there was a continuous flow of styles and technology from east to west that persisted across the divide of the Islamic conquests. Islamic architecture itself drew on a wide variety of ancient influences, while creatively developing its own new styles.

The iconic late-seventh-century Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was not merely influenced by Byzantine forms, Darke argues, but developed its own innovations into sacred architecture (p.102). Examples of pointed arches can be found in Syria and Persia which predate those in the interior of the Dome of the Rock, but Muslim architects were to use it systematically throughout the region in a way that had not been done before (pp.105-6). With its pointed and trefoil arches, the Dome of the Rock is one major influence on western Gothic style, the Crusaders who seized Jerusalem in 1099 managing to misinterpret it as King Solomon’s temple.

However, apart from vicious and ignorant Crusaders, there were other interesting ways in which Islamic architecture influenced western Christendom. Vaulting techniques first developed in Muslim Spain became a signature feature of Gothic, reaching a height in the fifteenth-century fan vaulting of King’s College, Cambridge, for example (p.184). There are many examples of early borrowings from Islamic architecture in Italy, which along with the Spanish influences, all fed into the style that coalesced into ‘Gothic’ later in northern France.

The city of Venice is one important example where a distinctive architecture developed clearly through its sustained trading relations with eastern Mediterranean civilisation, so that Darke argues that ‘the Venetian adoption of Islamic styles was a deliberate and willing choice’ (p.226). This is to the point that the domes of San Marco resembled ‘their Egyptian prototypes in construction as well as form,’ says Darke quoting a recent definitive study (p.229).

This is particularly ironic since one of the great Victorian authorities on Venetian Gothic, John Ruskin, harboured some notably racist views about the Arabic world, and was forced into some tortuous reasoning to explain away the Islamic sources of Venice’s architecture (pp.319-21). This, again, is an important example of how an ideological framework can completely obscure facts that are in plain view, even in the mind of an otherwise careful and admired scholar. This is why all this history needs to be rescued from the inherited imperialist filters which had to see Western Europe as a novel culture, superior to, and distinct from, other civilisations.

Science and civilisation

Further key to the imperialist version of the rise of the West is the notion that it possessed a more progressive drive towards developing technology, while other societies were in some way ‘stagnant’. The history of architecture does give the lie to this view, but of course since many of the facts have been well known, it is all about how these are packaged into a deceptive and partial narrative. Thus there are a host of technologies and techniques which are demonstrably of Islamic origin, such as the fact that it was Arab mosques that pioneered the use of smaller stones to enable building to achieve greater heights (p.39). Techniques such as these were essential to the transition from the somewhat stockier Romanesque cathedrals to their soaring Gothic successors. Yet, such a fact can be side-lined in a wider narrative if taken simply in isolation, as so many of these details of technological advance often are.

It is necessary to see particular inventions and innovations in a wider perspective. Thus, recent research concludes that:

‘in tenth-century Cordoba [Islamic Spain] an entirely new mathematical approach to architecture was developed and put into practice … this approach [contrasts] with the standard Roman approach of architects like Vitruvius [81-15 BCE], who used mathematics to take measurements inside each separate element of a building – be it a courtyard or a hall or a large main room. The Roman approach was to then move to the next room and repeat the process to achieve symmetry within each separate space. In Cordoba, on the other hand, the architects used equilateral triangles and geometry to create a spatial web where all parts are equal and simultaneously part of a single, unified space … this almost revolutionary approach [is credited] to the huge advances made in the field of mathematics in the Court of Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, where the Abbasid caliphs had encouraged scholarship under their patronage, attracting scientists and philosophers from the entire region, irrespective of ethnicity or religion’ (pp.164-5).

Gothic buildings were constructed not just out of a palette of different types of arches and vaulting techniques taken from the Islamic world, but using a complete scientific-artistic complex that originated wholly elsewhere. This is not to say that Gothic was just a copy, but the major architectural innovations did not belong to Western Christendom, and the style was an adaptation of something invented outside of it.

The next line of defence for the Eurocentric position would be to admit the backwardness of medieval Europe, but then claim that the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution changed all that, and allowed the West to surge ahead of its contemporary civilisations. The example of Wren and the post-Great-Fire St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its distinctive dome, is therefore a crucial bookend to Darke’s argument. She compares him to the great Ottoman architect Sinan, like Wren a chief royal architect for exactly 49 years, from 1539-88 in Sinan’s case (p.277):

‘Sinan was the architect of several hundred known monuments, and his ingenious experimentation with centralised domes pushed the boundaries of geometric structure, space and light to new limits. He was hailed as the Euclid of his time and the greatest engineer. His contribution to the advancement of dome technology was of huge direct relevance to European architecture, since it went on not only to inform the techniques of Christopher Wren in building the dome of St Paul’s, but also to influence aspects of Italian Renaissance architecture’ (p.278).

The technical lead of Western European economies over other parts of the world was a late and much more limited development than we are usually given to understand. It was accompanied by an assertion of superiority which required a denial of inspirations and precedents freely admitted by people such as Christopher Wren only a short while beforehand. Darke rightly points back to the violence of the Crusades in Spain and the eastern Mediterranean as being at the origins of modern Islamophobia, but that history is still only an ingredient in the imperialism that matured in the course of the nineteenth century.

As well as laying down an important challenge to a chauvinism that should have long since been cast aside, Darke’s book is simply a great pleasure to read. There is enormous fascination to be found in her account of the ancient roots, and medieval to early modern development, of architectural styles across east and west. The Gothic revival of the nineteenth century is thus also put into a fresh perspective. Darke’s ability to evoke the character and presence of the buildings is well complemented by a generous number of excellent photographs which bring out the character of the buildings very clearly.

Again, apart from the political importance of the arguments here, the book fuels a fuller understanding of the architecture of Europe’s past, which remains its present also. Seeing the familiar in this new light is to the enrichment of our history, and not at all to its detriment. A view of the past which suppresses and denies clear facts, in the name of valuing some notion of heritage, is in fact the enemy of history.

i Florens Deuchler, Gothic (The Herbert History of Art and Architecture, London 1973), p.7.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).

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