The horseshoe arch (Arabic: قوس حدوة الحصان; Spanish: "arco de herradura"), also called the "Moorish arch" and the "keyhole arch", is the emblematic arch of Islamic architecture, especially Moorish architecture. Horseshoe arches can take rounded, pointed or lobed form.
Origins and early uses
The horseshoe arch is considered to be the first characteristic Muslim adaptation of the arch.[additional citation(s) needed] Its origins, however, are controversial. It appeared in pre-Islamic Sasanian architecture such as the Taq-i Kasra in present-day Iraq. It also appeared in Late Roman or Byzantine architecture in pre-Islamic Syria, where the form was used in the fourth century CE in the Baptistery of Mar Ya'qub (St. Jacob) at Nisibin and Qasr Ibn Wardan (564 CE). However, the horseshoe arch allowed more height than the classical (semi-circular) arch as well as better aesthetic and decorative use. Muslims used this arch to develop their famous ultra-semicircular arch, around which the whole of Islamic architecture evolved, thus more likely suggesting that the horseshoe arch was an Umayyad invention.
It was adopted immediately by the Islamic caliphates, with a form of it appearing in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Fustat (now Cairo).[better source needed] The first horseshoe arches were employed in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. At Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi (727 CE), it appears in friezes in the ruins of Qasr al-Qastal and on the walls of the Umayyad palace at the Amman Citadel in present-day Jordan. Horseshoe and semicircular arches are the predominant type of arch used in the Umayyad desert castles in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
According to Giovanni Teresio Rivoira, an archeologist writing in the early 20th century, the pointed variant of the horseshoe arch is of Islamic origin. This type of arch was first used in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in the 9th century.
Development in the western Islamic world
It was in Al-Andalus (Iberian Peninsula) and western North Africa that horseshoe arches developed their characteristic form. Prior to the Muslim invasion of Spain, the Visigoths of the Iberian Peninsula used them in their architecture. Horseshoe arches are found, for example, in of the Church of Santa Eulalia de Boveda near Lugo and the Church of Santa Maria de Melque near Toledo. Some tombstones from that period have been found in the north of Spain with horseshoe arches in them, with speculation about a pre-Roman local Celtic tradition. Although it is possible that Andalusi architecture borrowed the horseshoe arch from Umayyad Syria, these local precedents make it just as likely that it developed locally instead. The "Moorish" arch, however, was of a slightly different and more sophisticated form than the Visigothic arch, being less flat and more circular.: 163–164 : 43
The Umayyads of Al-Andalus, starting with the Emirate period, used horseshoe arches prominently and ubiquitously, often enclosing them in an alfiz to accentuate the effect of its shape. This can be seen at a large scale in their major work, the Great Mosque of Córdoba. Its most distinctive form, however, was consolidated in the 10th-century during the Caliphal period, as seen at Madinat al-Zahra, where the arches consist of about three quarters of a circle and are framed in an alfiz. The Mozarabs of the Iberian Peninsula also adopted horseshoe arches into their art, such as in illuminated manuscripts. This style of horseshoe arch then spread all over the Caliphate and adjacent areas, and was adopted by the successor Muslim emirates of the peninsula, the taifas, as well as by the architecture of the Maghreb under subsequent dynasties. Under the Almoravids, the first pointed horseshoe arches began to appear in the region and then became more widespread during the Almohad period. This pointed horseshoe arch is likely of North African influence, since pointed arches were present in earlier Fatimid architecture further east.: 234 Even as Muslim rule retreated in Al-Andalus, the Mudéjar style, developed from the 12th to the 17th centuries under Spanish Christian rule, continued the tradition of horseshoe arches in the Iberian Peninsula. Horseshoe arches also continued to be used for in the Maghreb, in the architecture of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Church of Santa Eulalia de Bóveda near Lugo, Spain (4th-5th century)
Prayer Hall of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain (late 8th century)
Horseshoe arches in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia (9th century)
Use in other parts of the Islamic world
Horseshoe arches, of a slightly pointed form, were also used in the Great Mosque of Kairouan (9th century) and in the Mosque of Muhammad ibn Khairun (866 CE), also in Kairouan. They were also common in Ghurid and Ghaznavid architecture (11th-13th centuries) in Central Asia, though in this region they had sharp pointed apexes, in contrast with those of the western Islamic world. Sometimes they were cusped or given multifoil flourishes. Around the same time or not long afterward, they begin to appear as far east as India, in Indo-Islamic architecture, such as in the Alai Darwaza gatehouse (dating from 1311) at the Qutb Complex in Delhi, though they were not a consistent feature in India. Some pointed arches with a slightly horseshoe shape appear in Ayyubid architecture in Syria. It appears, exceptionally, in some instances of Mamluk architecture. For example, it appears in some details of the Sultan Qalawun Complex in Cairo, built in 1285. Andalusi-style horseshoe arches are also found alongside the minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, probably dating from 13th-century renovations ordered by Sultan Lajin to the older 9th-century mosque.
Use in Moorish revival architecture
In addition to their use across the Islamic world, horseshoe arches became popular in Western countries in Moorish Revival architecture, which became fashionable in the 19th century. They were widely used in Moorish Revival synagogues. They are used in some forms of Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture, a 19th-century style associated with the British Raj.
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