A Historical Look at Islamic Geometric Design
Geometric patterns in Islamic architecture are made with circles and lines. Let’s look at the early history of this artistic tradition.
The Umayyads (661-750) were the first Islamic dynasty. The early Umayyad rulers, who established themselves in Damascus (the present-day capital of Syria), built summer palaces to escape the city’s heat. One of these palaces known as Khirbat al-Mafjar, or Hisham’s Palace, is near the present-day Palestinian city of Jericho in the West Bank. This 8th-century palace features a large architectural object that was once set into a wall. The massive architectural object features a large star-shaped form decorated with interlacing bands within a circle. The builders who designed and constructed this stone element drew upon the artistic traditions of Roman mosaic design. However, instead of using interweaving bands in a supporting role, as the Romans did, this architectural object made the geometrically interweaving bands the most important feature. Suddenly, geometric design was no longer in a supporting role, a starring role instead.
At another early Islamic palace referred to today as Qasr al-Mshatta, located in present-day Jordan, we again see the importance of geometric design in architectural decoration. Notice the way the triangular motif was used to adorn the palace’s exterior wall, as on the section of that wall now preserved in the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin.
Circles & Lines
In the early history of Islamic geometric design, craftsmen created patterns that showed straight lines and circles. Soon, this changed and only straight lines remained visible in the patterns. Why this is the case, we do not know. The Umayyad mosque in Damascus, built between 706 and 715, is the first monumental mosque in Islamic history. Geometric patterns decorate this building, which was renovated many times during the course of its history. Interestingly, early Umayyad stone window grilles survive with patterns that evidence the use of circles (or better: arcs) and lines. Here is an interesting 20th-century drawing of the window grilles’ patterns, where you can see how the circles create the basis for the design:
North African & Spanish Tiles
Artisans in North Africa and Spain hand cut ceramic tile mosaics known as zellij. Beautiful zellij panels can be found in the 16th-century courtyard of the Ben Youssef madrasa located in Marrakech, Morocco, as seen in the above photo. The patterns of these mosaics are geometrical and often based around complex star motifs.
Today, this design tradition continues to thrive in Moroccan cities, where you can visit workshops with artisans sitting on the floor in an assembly line, chiseling the zelligh shapes that are then later assembled. Zellij mosaic compositions are made by placing cut tiles face down on the ground and then pouring a layer of cement over the pieces. When the cement has dried, the panel is turned over. It is only at this final stage that the artisans can see if they had made any mistakes! Watch this video on how zellij are made!