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date: 22 July 2024

Muqarnas [Arab. muqarnas; muqarnaṣ; muqarbaṣ; Sp. mocárabes]free

Muqarnas [Arab. muqarnas; muqarnaṣ; muqarbaṣ; Sp. mocárabes]free

  • Yasser Tabbaa

Updated in this version

updated bibliography, 16 September 2010

Muqarnasvault in the so-called Abbasid palace, Baghdad, early 13th century; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

Three-dimensional decorative device used widely in Islamic architecture, in which tiers of individual elements, including niche-like cells, brackets and pendants, are projected over those below (see fig.). Muqarnas decoration, executed in stucco, brick, wood and stone, was consistently applied to cornices, squinches, pendentives, the inner surfaces of vaults and other parts of buildings throughout the Islamic world from the 12th century. Seen from below, the muqarnas presents a stunning visual effect as light plays over the deeply sculpted but regularly composed surface; this explains the comparison of muqarnas in European languages with ‘stalactite vaulting’ (Ger. Stalaktitengewölbe) or ‘honeycombs’ (Fr. alvéoles). The Arabic term muqarnas first appears in the 12th century, but a related verb had been used a century earlier to describe deeply carved and moulded stucco ornament on Islamic architecture. It has been suggested and widely accepted that the word derives from the Greek koronis (‘cornice’), although this derivation is not confirmed in any Arabic or Persian source. The Arabic lexicographer Firuzabadi (d 1415) defined muqarnas as a form with stepped or serrated edges and the related word qirnās as a projecting rock on a mountain. These two definitions encompass the most salient features of all muqarnas decoration, namely fragmentation and seemingly unsupported projection. Scholars have focused their attention on the history and development of this most characteristic feature of Islamic architecture, and some have seen muqarnas as a manifestation of basic principles in the formation of an Islamic aesthetic.

1. Before c 1100.

The earliest ensembles of muqarnas decoration survive on 11th-century buildings in Iran and western Central Asia, North Africa, Upper Egypt and Iraq, but the broad geographical distribution of these examples and their technical sophistication suggest that the form had evolved in one of these regions at least a century earlier and was then diffused to other Islamic lands. Such early scholars as Rosintal, Creswell and Marçais, however, interpreted the data as evidence of spontaneous and parallel developments in Iran, Egypt and North Africa.

The Friday Mosque, gateway entrance, vault of muqarnas (Masjid-i-Atiq, Shiraz, Iran); photo © 2010 Gerard Degeorge/Bridgeman Images

The earliest known evidence for muqarnas-like decoration consists of concave triangular pieces of stucco excavated at Nishapur in north-east Iran, datable to the 9th or 10th century, and tentatively reassembled by the excavators to form a tripartite squinch. This reconstruction remains conjectural, and the earliest tripartite squinch in situ is found at the Arab-Ata Mausoleum at Tim (977–8) in the Zarafshan Valley of Uzbekistan, where niche-like elements, built of brick but similar in form to those found at Nishapur, have been combined within a trefoil arch. This type of tripartite squinch was successfully utilized in several 11th-century Iranian buildings, such as the Gunbad-i Qabus (1006–7), where it appears over the portal, and the dome chamber of the Duvazdah Imam Mausoleum in Yazd (1037–8). The tripartite squinch was fully exploited in the two dome chambers added in the late 11th century to the Friday Mosque at Isfahan (see fig.). At the Friday Mosque (1105–18) at Golpayegan, the squinches in the dome chamber enclose heptafoil arches formed by four tiers of projecting elements, and five tiers, for example, are used over the portal to the Ghaffariyya tomb tower (14th century) at Maragha.

Niche-like elements were also combined in Iranian architecture to form cornices separating the roof from the shaft of a tomb tower and the storeys of a minaret. At the Gunbad-i ‛Ali (1056) in Abarquh, for example, three tiers of niche-like elements project above the inscription band to form a highly sculpted cornice, which contrasts sharply with the smooth surfaces of the octagonal shaft and hemispheric dome. The cornice at Abarquh is constructed of mortared rubble, but most Iranian examples, such as the tomb tower at Risgit (c. 1100), are built of brick, as are the deeply sculpted cornices on Iranian minarets, although that of the Muhammad Mosque (1081–2) at Baku in Azerbaijan is made of stone. The use of deeply sculpted cornices of niche-like elements to separate the parts of buildings may have developed from the local building tradition in which courses of shaped and angled bricks were corbelled to differentiate parts of buildings (e.g. Damghan, Pir-i ‛Alamdar tomb tower, 1026–7).

Excavations at the 11th-century site of Qal‛at Bani Hammad in Algeria yielded several, small, baked ceramic parallelepipeds (47×47×160 mm), fluted on three or four sides. Marçais reconstructed them in pendant clusters that would have hung from the juncture of a flat ceiling and a wall, but this reconstruction remains conjectural, and these elements stand outside the main development of muqarnas. Concave stucco cells grouped with brackets were also found at the site and dated to the mid-11th century. Golvin reconstructed them in corbelled tiers to show similarities to later muqarnas vaults in Iraq, North Africa and Sicily. It is quite unlikely, however, that such an important form originated in this remote North African site, and the technical sophistication of these fragmentary remains suggests that the form had an earlier history.

The earliest muqarnas cornice to survive in Egypt is found on the minaret of the Mashhad al-Juyushi (1085) in Cairo, where two (or perhaps three) tiers of niche-like elements separate the storeys of the shaft. Painted plaster muqarnas elements were found in the ruins of the bath of Abu’l-Su‛ud in Fustat (Old Cairo) and have been dated to the late 11th century. In several mausolea at Aswan in Upper Egypt and in Cairo, some of which date from the late 11th century, the zones of transition are variously elaborated, sometimes even approximating the appearance of muqarnas. They seem to reflect the now-lost architecture of the Hijaz, to which Upper Egypt was connected by the pilgrimage route across the Red Sea. The Hijaz, again, is an unlikely source for the origin of the form, and it was probably imported there as it was to central North Africa.

The earliest extant dome constructed entirely of muqarnas elements is the shrine of Imam Dur (1085–90), built by the ‛Uqaylid prince Muslim ibn Quraysh in the tiny village of Dur, some 20 km north of Samarra’ in Iraq. An elongated square (h. 12 m) topped by a vault of almost equal height, the chamber is transformed into an octagon by four squinches and four arches. The upper vault is composed of four eight-celled tiers of diminishing size, each rotated 45 degrees. The internal organization is reflected on the exterior by the tiered pyramid of alternating rounded and angular projections. The layering of increasingly small cells with multiple profiles makes the interior of the vault appear insubstantial, as the play of light on its intricate surfaces dissolves the mass. Such visual display is one of the novel characteristics of the muqarnas dome and distinguishes it from 11th-century Iranian domes, in which the use of muqarnas elements is restricted to the zone of transition. The sophisticated application of muqarnas in this small village shrine argues for the existence of earlier models elsewhere. The most likely place is the nearby capital of Baghdad, which underwent a cultural and political revival in the early 11th century under the stridently Sunni leadership of the Abbasid caliph al-Qadir (reg 991–1031), although none of its monuments from this period has survived. Tabbaa has suggested that during al-Qadir’s reign muqarnas elements were first combined to form a dome, a fragmented and ephemeral structure that was a suitable metaphor for the atomistic theology propagated by the caliph’s chief apologist, al-Baqillani. The relationship of the muqarnas dome to earlier elements, such as the tripartite squinch, the muqarnas cornice and the scattered fragments, is still unclear, but by the 12th century muqarnas had become a ubiquitous decorative device in Islamic architecture, used for a variety of purposes.

2. After c 1100.

Tomb of ‛Abd al-Samad, shrine complex, Natanz, Iran, muqarnas vault, 1307–8; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

The popularity of muqarnas from the 12th century on allows several distinct regional types to be delineated. The type used in southern Iraq follows the example of the shrine of Imam Dur and has tall conical brick vaults in which the inner articulation is reflected on the exterior, creating a pine-cone appearance. In the shrine of Zumurrud Khatun at Baghdad, built by the Abbasid caliph al-Nasir (reg 1180–1225), the vault springs from an octagonal base. The type used in northern Iraq and north-east Syria consists of a brick or stucco muqarnas vault covered by a pyramidal brick roof, which is sometimes glazed. The finest example in Mosul is the shrine of Imam ‛Awn al-Din (1245), in which the central vault rests on four little murqarnas vaults at the corners. The individual cells of the central vault are made of small rectangular strips of glazed brick, a colouristic effect that enhances the sumptuousness of the interior. This vault, or one like it, may have provided the model for a technically related muqarnas vault over the tomb of Shaykh ‛Abd al-Samad at Natanz (1307) in central Iran (see fig.). The stucco vault at Natanz epitomizes the variety and complexity of form and richness of decoration of such structures erected in Iran under the Ilkhanid dynasty (reg 1256–1353). The earliest muqarnas portal vaults to survive in Iran date from the same time, and their high degree of development presupposes the existence of earlier examples. An incised plaster plan for a muqarnas vault and stucco fragments were excavated from the ruins of the Ilkhanid palace (c. 1275) at Takht-i Sulayman in north-west Iran; they indicate that the precision and complexity of these vaults were achieved by sketching out the plan beforehand in order to facilitate construction. The popularity of the form in Iran is attested by the lyric poet Hafiz (d 1389), who often used the expression falak-i muqarnas to refer to the dome of heaven.

Some spectacular muqarnas vaults were erected in the eastern Islamic world under the Timurid dynasty (reg 1370–1506). At the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi at Turkestan, for example, the large central room, the mosque and the tomb have muqarnas vaults, but the radial organization and emphasis on the ribbed crown differentiate them from earlier examples. Tiers of muqarnas cells were also used on exteriors to make the transition between the tall cylindrical drum and the base of the ribbed dome, creating the characteristic swelling profile of Timurid buildings. Tiers of cells continued to be used to separate the stages of minarets. Under the Timurids a new type of ribbed vault was developed, in which muqarnas cells were sometimes used to fill the interstitial surfaces. Although muqarnas vaulting seems to have lost some of its appeal in this period, the earliest treatise on the muqarnas vault to survive, the Miftāḥ al-ḥisāb (‘Key to arithmetic’), was written by the Timurid mathematician Ghiyath al-Din al-Kashi in 1427. One chapter of his work presents a typology of muqarnas vaults known in his time and analyses them in terms of their individual elements and overall design.

Under the Safavid dynasty (reg 1501–1732) in Iran, muqarnas continued to be used for the vaults of large iwans, and the cells are often covered with tile mosaic, creating an unparalleled shimmering effect (e.g. Isfahan, Friday Mosque). Muqarnas vaults were, however, often eliminated from the interiors of religious buildings in favour of flat surfaces covered with brilliantly coloured tile mosaic, as in the mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah (1603–19), Isfahan. In the 18th century another stage in the evolution of muqarnas decoration in Iran began as the individual cells were covered with mirror glass (Pers. ā’ina-kārī). One of the earliest examples is the portal to the Chihil Sutun Palace (rest. 1706–7; see Isfahan, §3). Mirror-work muqarnas was often used for portals and vaults at the shrines of important Shi‛ite martyrs, such as that for Husayn in Karbala’ in southern Iraq, where they create an oppressive, hypnotic effect.

In Syria the pine-cone type of muqarnas vault used in Iraq was initially favoured in such buildings as the hospital at Damascus built by the Zangid ruler Nur al-Din (1154). The vestibule is covered by a muqarnas dome clearly modelled on Iraqi prototypes and is flanked by two niches covered with muqarnas vaults. Made of stucco and suspended from the load-bearing roof by a wooden framework, the vaults contain pendants and terminate in eight-pointed stars. Muqarnas is also used to decorate the shallow hood of the portal, the earliest extant example of a feature that became extremely popular in later times. The translation of the brick and stucco muqarnas tradition into stone was concomitant with the development of the vigorous stereotomic tradition in Aleppo that began in the last quarter of the 12th century, and stone muqarnas became one of the hallmarks of architecture in Syria and Egypt under the Ayyubid (reg 1169–1260) and Mamluk (reg 1250–1517) dynasties. Herzfeld differentiated muqarnas domes of the Ayyubid period into Western and Iranian types, depending on the support system used. The vault of the Western type rises from muqarnas pendentives, whereas the vault of the Iranian type rests on squinches themselves made of muqarnas cells; both end with a scalloped semi-dome. Visually, the Western type presents a smooth transition from pendentive to staggered rows of cells and brackets to the little dome; the Iranian type, with a more abrupt beginning, looks more like a suspended vault. The Western type seems to be the earlier of the two—the first example being the portal vault of the Shadbakhtiyya Madrasa (1193) in Aleppo—but both types were used simultaneously in Damascus and Aleppo from the beginning of the 13th century. All of the fully developed examples in the 13th century, such as the Firdaws Madrasa (1235) in Aleppo and the Zahiriyya Madrasa in Damascus (1274), are of the Iranian type. Muqarnas was also applied to capitals of columns; some of the earliest are the enormous stone capitals (late 12th century) from the Great Mosque of Harran, now in south-east Turkey. The earliest evolved muqarnas capitals known adorn the Firdaws Madrasa in Aleppo (1235–7), whence the innovation may have spread north to Anatolia.

Muqarnas decoration was introduced to Anatolia following its conquest in the late 11th century, and examples were executed in wood, stucco and stone following precedents from neighbouring Iran and Syria. The hoods of mihrabs were decorated with muqarnas in glazed tile (e.g. Konya, Sahib Ata Mosque, 1258); portals had muqarnas hoods sculpted in stone (e.g. Sivas, Çifte Minareli Madrasa, 1271); several tiers of muqarnas were used to mark the transition between shaft and roof on tomb towers (e.g. Kayseri, Döner Künbed, c. 1275); the capitals of columns were decorated with muqarnas (e.g. Afyon, Ulu Cami, 1273); and muqarnas supported the balconies of minarets (e.g. Konya, Ince Minareli Madrasa, 1260–65). It was not normally used for pendentives or squinches, as the transition from base to dome was typically effected with a belt of prismatic consoles (see Islamic art, §II, 6(ii)). Muqarnas continued to be used in buildings erected under the Ottoman dynasty (reg 1281–1924), but it was only one of many decorative devices used in classical Ottoman architecture of the 16th century (e.g. Istanbul, Süleymaniye Mosque, 1550–57). The use of muqarnas was gradually abandoned in the 18th century in favour of Europeanizing ornament.

In Egypt the first complete and sophisticated example of muqarnas is found on the Aqmar Mosque (1125) in Cairo, erected under the patronage of the Fatimid dynasty (reg 969–1171). A rectangular panel on the façade is carved with four tiers of muqarnas, and the chamfered corner of the building terminates in a hood with two tiers of inscribed muqarnas. This building was, however, exceptional, for muqarnas decoration became popular only in the mid-13th century. Muqarnas squinches in wood may have been used as early as 1211 for the original dome (rest.) over the tomb of Imam al-Shafi‛i in Cairo; they were indisputably used there for the dome over the tomb of the Ayyubid sultan al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (reg 1240–49). Stone domes carried on pendentives decorated with muqarnas were typical of funerary architecture of the Mamluks, as in the mausoleum of Sultan Qa’itbay (1472–4 and Cairo, §III, 10). The Mamluk sultan Baybars I (reg 1260–77) is credited with introducing the fashion for a stone portal with a muqarnas hood from Syria into Egypt, where it quickly became a major feature of architectural decoration. Stunning muqarnas hoods and vaults carved in stone were used to embellish the portals of religious buildings (e.g. complex of Sultan Hasan, 1356–62; see Cairo, §III, 9) and palaces (e.g. palace of Yashbak, 1337).

By the mid-12th century complete muqarnas domes and vaults were used in North Africa and Sicily. The lobed dome of the Barudiyyin cupola (1107–43) in Marrakesh, Morocco, rests on an octagon created by the intersecting ribs of two rotated squares. Little spaces in the corners are covered by muqarnas cupolas, and the transition to the central dome is so highly elaborated with lobed arches and vegetal ornament that the whole produces the insubstantial effect of a muqarnas dome. Although not a true muqarnas dome, it could not have been constructed without some knowledge of the type of muqarnas domes used in Iraq, such as that of Imam Dur. The filigree-stucco dome over the bay in front of the mihrab at the Great Mosque (1136) at Tlemcen, Algeria, rests on muqarnas squinches and is capped by a muqarnas cupola. A series of superbly crafted and varied muqarnas vaults, all made of carved stucco, was added to the axial nave of the Qarawiyyin Mosque at Fez, Morocco, when it was rebuilt in 1134–43. Muqarnas vaults are also found in 12th-century buildings erected under Norman patronage in Sicily, one of the few instances where muqarnas decoration was used in structures commissioned by non-Muslim patrons. Its use there confirms the continuing importance of North African models in Sicilian architecture of the period. The vault covering the nave of the Cappella Palatina (1131–53; see Palermo, §II, 2, (ii) and) is the largest and most famous example. Made of wood and worked on seven levels, the scheme comprises three rows of eleven cupolas separated by two rows of ten stellate octagons. The individual elements are superbly painted with figural, vegetal and epigraphic motifs. Other examples of muqarnas vaults at the Ziza Palace (c. 1165–7) in Palermo are executed in stucco or stone. The stone vault over the fountain there resembles a muqarnas vault of stucco, as it was not assembled from individually carved stone blocks but was carved after construction.

The tradition of muqarnas vaulting in the Muslim West attained its greatest sophistication in the vaults and domes of the Alhambra (see Granada, §III, 1). The muqarnas domes in the Sala de los Abencerrajes and the Sala de Dos Hermanas (1354–9) expand the concepts of fragmentation and ephemerality, already evident in the earliest muqarnas dome, beyond the limits of logic. A great number of tiny cells in a variety of shapes, including a high proportion of pendants, and brightly coloured in blue, ochre and gold, have been joined in intricate compositions. Carefully illuminated by modulated sources of lighting, these ever-changing domes appear to defy gravity, leading such scholars as Grabar to consider them architectural representations of the dome of heaven. The ubiquitous muqarnas passed into the architecture of Christian Spain (see Mudéjar), where it was used in such buildings as the Alcázar of Seville (1364–6), and it was occasionally imitated in European and North American Orientalist architecture (e.g. Columbus, OH, Ohio Theater, 1928). Modern architects in the Islamic world, such as Halim Abdelhalim, have experimented with new forms of the muqarnas (e.g. his 1981 entry for the ‛Uthman ibn ‛Affan Mosque competition in Doha, Qatar).


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  • Ghiyāth al-Dīn Jamshīd al-Kāshī (d 1429): Miftāh al-hisāb [‘Key to arithmetic’], ed. with Rus. trans. by B. A. Rosenfeld, V. S. Segal and A. P. Yushkevich (Moscow, 1951)
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  • A. Paccard: Le Maroc et l’artisanat traditionnel islamique dans l’architecture, 2 vols (St-Jorioz, 1979)
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  • C. K. Wilkinson: Nishapur: Some Early Islamic Buildings and their Decoration (New York, 1986)
  • J. M. Bloom: ‘The Introduction of the Muqarnas into Egypt’, Muqarnas, 5 (1988), pp. 21–8
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  • Y. Tabbaa: Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo (University Park, PA, 1997)
  • H. Laleh: ‘Les muqarnas et leur répresentation dans les panneaux à décor géometrique de brique de la mosquée de Haydariyya de Qazvin’, Mediaeval and Modern Persian Studies: 2 of Proceedings of the Third European Conference of Iranian Studies held in Cambridge, 11th to 15th September 1995, Beiträge zur Iranistik, 17 (Wiesbaden, 1999), pp. 419–33
  • R. Hillenbrand: Islamic Architecture: Form, Function and Meaning (Edinburgh, 2000)
  • B. Pavón Maldonado: ‘El maŷlis del Taifa al-Mu’taṣīm en la alcazaba de Almería: Muqarnas=muqarbas=“mucarnas”=almocárabes=mocárabes en el arte hispano-musulman’, Rev. Inst. Egipcio Estud. Islám. Madrid, 32 (2000), pp. 221–59
  • M. A. J. Yaghan: ‘Decoding the Two-dimensional Pattern Found at Takht-i Sulayman into Three-dimensional Muqarnas Forms’, Iran, 38 (2000), pp. 77–95
  • A. Ghazarian and R. Ousterhout: ‘A Muqarnas Drawing from Thirteenth-century Armenia and the Use of Architectural Drawings during the Middle Ages’, Muqarnas, 18 (2001), pp. 141–54
  • Y. Dold-Samplonius and S. L. Harmsen: ‘The Muqarnas Plate Found at Takht-i Sulayman: A New Interpretation’, Muqarnas, 22 (2005), pp. 85–94
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