Abbasid architecture

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Spiral minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra

Abbasid architecture developed in the Abbasid Caliphate between 750 and 945, primarily in its heartland of Mesopotamia. The Abbasids inherited Persian architectural traditions in Mesopotamia, and were later influenced by Central Asian styles. They evolved distinctive styles of their own, particularly in decoration of their buildings. While the Abbasids lost control of large parts of their empire after 850, their architecture continued to be copied by successor states in Iran, Egypt and North Africa.

Historical background[edit]

Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent, around 850

In 750 the Abbasids seized power from the Umayyad rulers of the Arab empire, who lost all their possessions apart from Spain.[1] The Abbasid caliphs based in what is now Iraq ruled over Iran, Mesopotamia, Arabia and the lands of the eastern and southern Mediterranean. The period between 750 and 900 has been described as the Islamic Golden Age.[2] Where the Umayyads had typically reused pre-Islamic buildings in the cities they had conquered, by the Abbasid era many of these structures required replacement. The spread of Muslim beliefs had also brought changes in needs. The Abbasids had to erect mosques and palaces, as well as fortifications, houses, commercial buildings and even facilities for racing and polo matches.[3] They upgraded the pilgrim road from Baghdad and Kufa to Mecca, levelled the surface and built walls and ditches in some areas, and built stations for the pilgrims with rooms and a mosque in which to pray.[3]

In 762 the caliph al-Mansur founded a new capital of Baghdad on the Tigris, which soon grew to one of the largest cities in the world. In 836 the caliph al-Mu'tasim transferred the capital to Samarra. The Abbasids began to lose control over the outlying parts of the empire, with local dynasties gaining effective independence in Khorasan (Samanids) in eastern Iran, Egypt (Tulunids) and Ifriqiya (Aghlabids). The caliph al-Mu'tamid, by now the effective ruler only of Iraq, moved his capital back to Baghdad in 889. In 945 the Buyids, followers of Shia Islam, became effective rulers as amirs, while the Abbasid caliphs retained their nominal title. With Caliph al-Nasir (1179-1225) the Abbasids once again gained control of Iraq, but the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 brought the Abbasid caliphate to an end.[1]


The city of Baghdad between 767 and 912 AD, growing out from the Round city of Baghdad built by the caliph al-Mansur

Early Abbasid architecture was very similar to the architecture of the Sassanid Empire, as exemplified by the Palace of Ukhaidhir. It used the same techniques, the same materials of mud brick, baked brick and rough stone blocks set in mortar, and followed Sassanian designs.[1] Stone is rare in the central and southern alluvial plains that formed the heartland of Abbasid territory, so many of the buildings were of mud-brick, faced with plaster and frequently repaired or rebuilt. Sometimes fired brick was used.[3] When the caliph al-Mansur built the round city of Baghdad, called Madinat al-Salam, which contained the court's palace, mosque and administrative buildings, he may have been following earlier traditions such as the round city of Gur built by Ardashir I (r. 224-241) at Firuzabad.[3]

With the conquest of Central Asia, the influence of Soghdian architecture increased. In Samarra the stucco and wall paintings are similar to that of the palaces of Panjakent in what is now Tajikistan. Later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, architecture in the lands ruled by the Abbasids became dominated by Seljuk architecture.[1]


Fragments of stucco from Samarra, including paintings, carvings and abstract patterns

Abbasid cities were laid out on huge sites. The palaces and mosques of Samarra sprawled along the shores of the Tigris for 40 kilometres (25 mi). To match the scale of the sites, monumental buildings were erected, such as the huge spiral minarets of the Abu Dulaf Mosque and the Great Mosque of Samarra, which had no counterparts elsewhere.[1] The two-centered pointed arch and vault had appeared before the Abbasids took power, but became standard in Abbasid architecture, with the point becoming more prominent.[3] The first fully developed example of the four-centered pointed arch was at the Qasr al-'Ashiq, built between 878 and 882.[4]

Three new types of stucco decoration were developed in Samarra and rapidly became popular elsewhere.[1] The first two styles may be seen as derivative from Late Antique or Umayyad decorative styles, but the third is entirely new. Style C used molds to create repeating patterns of curved lines, notches, slits, and other elements. The fluid designs make no use of traditional vegetal, geometric or animal themes.[5] The stucco work was sometimes colored in red or blue, and sometimes incorporated a glass mosaic.[6] The patterns cut into the stucco surface at an angle. This is the first and purest example of the arabesque.[5] It may represent a deliberate attempt to make an abstract form of decoration that avoids depiction of living things, and this may explain its rapid adoption throughout the Muslim world.[7]


Typical features of the more important buildings included massive round piers and smaller engaged columns.[8] 9th century Abbasid architecture had foliate decorations on arches, pendant vaults, muqarnas vaults and polychrome interlaced spandrels that became identified as typical of "Islamic" architecture, although these forms may have their origins in Sassanian architecture. Thus the fronting arch of the Arch of Ctesiphon was once decorated with a lobed molding, a form copied in the palace of al-Ukhaidar.[9]


Abbasid palace of Ukhaider near Karbala, Iraq

The earliest Abbasid palace, built around 775, is the al-Ukhaidir Fortress. It has a plan derived from earlier Sasanian and Umayyad palaces.[10] The palace lies in the desert about 180 kilometres (110 mi) to the south of Baghdad.[11] It is rectangular in shape, 175 by 169 metres (574 by 554 ft), with four gates. Three are in half-round towers that protrude from the wall, and one in a rectangular recess in the wall. Inside there is a vaulted entrance hall, a central court, an iwan (hall) open to the court opposite the entrance hall, and residential units.[10] Sasanian techniques persist in the construction of vaults with pointed curves using rubble and mortar faced with brick and stucco, blind arches as decorations for large wall surfaces, and long vaulted halls with recesses behind arches supported by heavy pillars. Verbal descriptions indicate that palaces in Baghdad had similar layout, although on a larger scale.[12]

Palaces at Samara such as al-'Ashiq and al-Jiss, built around 870, display polylobed moldings carved deeply into the intrados of the arches, giving the appearance of a foliate arch.[13] Floors were sometimes of marble, more often tiled.[4] The reception rooms of palaces at Samarra had carved or molded stucco dados decorating the lower part of the walls, and stucco also decorated door frames, wall-niches and arches, in three distinct styles.[4] Other palaces that have been excavated often have a domed central chamber surrounded by four iwans facing outward.[14]

The only Abbasid palace left in Baghdad is located in the Al-Maiden neighborhood overlooking the Tigris.[15] The palace was erected under Caliph Al-Nasir li-Din Allah (1179-1225). The palace stands two stories high and contains a central courtyard and an iwan with a brick ceiling and facade. Excavations and restoration efforts show that it most likely functioned as a school rather than a palace. Some scholars believe that it is the Sharabiya School, a school for Islamic theology built in the 12th century.[16] The palace structure and design shares close similarities with Al-Mustansiriya University. Certain parts of the palace were reconstructed by the State Establishment of Antiquities and Heritage, including restoration of the great Iwan and the adjacent facades.[17]


Entrance of the Great Mosque of Mahdiya in Tunisia

The Abbasid continued to follow the Umayyad rectangular hypostyle plan with arcaded courtyard and covered prayer hall. They built mosques on a monumental scale using brick construction, stucco ornament and architectural forms developed in Mesopotamia and other regions to the east.[18] The earliest mosque was built by Al-Mansur in Baghdad, since destroyed. The Great Mosque of Samarra built by al-Mutawakkil was 256 by 139 metres (840 by 456 ft). A flat wooden roof was supported by columns. The mosque was decorated with marble panels and glass mosaics.[10] The prayer hall of the Abu Dulaf mosque at Samarra had arcades on rectangular brick piers running at right angles to the qibla wall. Both of the Samarra mosques have spiral minarets, the only examples in Iraq.[10] A mosque at Balkh in what is now Afghanistan was about 20 by 20 metres (66 by 66 ft) square, with three rows of three square bays, supporting nine vaulted domes.[4] Other surviving Abbasid mosques are the late ninth-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, the Tarik Khane of Damghan (Iran) of between 750-89. and the ninth-century Masjid-I-Tarikh in Balkh, Afghanistan.[19]

Other buildings[edit]

Houses were often built in blocks.[14] Most houses seem to have been two story. The lower level was often sunken into the ground for coolness, and had vaulted ceilings. The upper level had a timber ceiling and a flat terraced roof that provided living space in summer nights. Houses were built around courtyards, and had featureless exteriors, although they were often elaborately decorated inside.[6] There are no traces of windcatchers, which later became common Islamic architectural features. Most of the houses had latrines and facilities for cold-water bathing.[14]

The Abbasids also undertook public works that included construction of canals in Samarra and of cisterns in Tunisia and Palestine. The Nilometer at Fustat, near modern Cairo, built in 861, has elaborate and ornate stonework and discharging arches.[20]

Decorative stucco panel from Abbasid Samarra, in Style C, or the "bevelled style", 9th century


The three types (Styles A, B, and C) of stucco decoration best exemplified, and perhaps developed, in Abbasid Samarra were quickly imitated elsewhere and Style C, which itself remained common in the Islamic world for centuries, was an important precursor to fully developed arabesque decoration.[21] The Tulinids in Egypt built copies of Abbasid buildings on Cairo.[2] The Ahmad ibn Tulun Mosque, built in Fustat near Cairo in 876-879, combines Umayyad and Abbasid structural and decorative features.[22] It is the only mosque outside Iraq to have a spiral minaret.[10]

The layout of the Fatimid city of Al-Mansuriya in Ifriqiya founded in 946 was circular, perhaps in imitation of Baghdad. The choice of layout may have been a deliberate challenge to the Abbasid Caliphate.[23] The Fatimid architecture of Ifriqiya and Egypt followed Abbasid styles, as shown by the Great Mosque of Mahdiya and the Azhar Mosque in Cairo.[24] Even Umayyad buildings of the Iberian peninsula show Abbasid influence.[2] Nine-domed mosques have been found in Spain, Tunisia, Egypt and Central Asia.[25] More recent buildings sometimes follow Abassid architectural styles, such as the 19th century Hamoudi Mosque in Djibouti.