Countries and Regions

May 2022 by David Wade


Egypt was brought into the Islamic sphere in the first wave of conquests, in 639. With the Tulunid assumption of power (868-905 CE; 254–292 AH) it became an independent centre then, under the Fatimid dynasty (909-1171CE; 297-567 AH) it assumed its enduring role as the cultural focus of western Islam. The architecture of the Mameluk period (13th–16th. CE; 7th-10th. AH) saw a continuity of earlier Egyptian traditions, but it also incorporated aspects of Iraqi and Syrian styles. Most of the buildings of these periods are of stone; in fact the general feeling conveyed by medieval Cairene architecture is that of a sombre stolidity. This is reflected in the various forms of architectural decoration. Of particular interest are the massive carved masonry domes, the rich polychrome marble inlays and painted ceilings. The somewhat severe beauty of this architecture is frequently lightened by the exquisitely carved and inlaid wood-work of doors and minbars.


India was partially conquered by the Arabs as early as the 8thc. CE/2ndc. AH The influence of Islam was maintained over successive centuries until, by the end of the 16th century, the greater part of the Indian sub-continent was under the rule of the Islamic Mughal emperors. In its earlier periods Indo-Islamic art and architecture borrowed heavily from Hindu forms, but over time a distinctive Indian-Islamic cultural style was forged.

There is little that survives of early architecture, but the Qutab mosque and the extraordinary Qutab Minar in Delhi give some idea of these past glories. The majority of images here, however, are from the Mughal period (which lasted from the 16th-19thc. CE (10th-13th AH). Despite the fact that Indo-Islamic architecture represents, to a greater extent than in any other region, a fusion between the pre-existent tradition (Hindu) and Islamic style, all the classic forms of Islamic architectural decoration are all well represented here. The exquisite inlaid marble patterns of the Tomb of Itimud Ad Daula make it an architectural gem par excellence. The polychrome panels of the tombs of Humayun and Akbar are also of great interest, as are the many red sandstone decorative panels that grace the beautifully preserved city of Fatepur Sikri.


The Persian Empire succumbed to the newly islamicized Arabs in their early expansion (mid 7thc. CE / 1stH.E.), immediately after the conquest of the Byzantine Middle East. But this ancient culture, though subjugated, was never entirely assimilated, and in time the Persians came to influence and contribute more than any other race to the building of Islamic culture.

The Mongol, Timurid and Seljuk dynasties all left important monuments in Iran, but the greater number of the examples shown here date from the Muzzafarid (1314-1393 CE) and Safavid (1501-1786 C.E) periods (731-795; & 907-1200 AH). Glazed decoration was a feature of Persian architecture from the earliest times and is found in most periods, but it assumed an ever more important role under Muslim patronage, transforming the buildings to which it was applied. Muzzafarid and Safavid art revel in sumptuous decoration, their architectural decoration use brilliant colours and highly evolved decorative schemes to virtually 'dissolve' the buildings to which there are applied. Apart from their ceramic tiles and mosaics there are rich traditions here of decorative brickwork and carved stucco. The Mosques of Isfahan and Yazd show particularly fine examples of architectural decoration.


In the far west of the Islamic world, Morocco has always retained a certain national separateness. Its distinctive artistic and architectural styles evolved more or less independently of the countries of the Middle East, but are strongly connected to those of Islamic Spain. Five major dynasties have ruled Morocco during the past twelve hundred years, each leaving their own architectural legacy in their own capital city. The principle surviving monuments, from which the photo-images here are drawn, are in or near the towns of Fez, Meknes and Marrakesh.

In its typical forms, Moroccan architectural decoration uses complex geometric ceramic mosaics in combination with intricately carved stucco. Finely carved and painted woodwork (particularly doors) are another common feature. All three modes of the Islamic decorative canon (geometric, arabesque and calligraphy) are expressed in a characteristic, somewhat intense style. This is a decorative art that makes a powerful impression, but it is on a human scale. Some of the finest examples of this somewhat cerebral ornamentation can be found in the various medieval Medersas.


Spain had an Islamic presence for some eight centuries, and for the three of these it was important enough to have its own Caliph, based in the Umayyad capital at Cordova, quite independent of Baghdad. After the fall of the Umayyad dynasty (in mid-11th c. CE; mid-5th AH) a series of minor dynasties ruled, until the Nasrid dynasty re-established political and cultural unity. At their court in Granada the Nasrids created a magnificent culture that recaptured some of the earlier glories. But this last stronghold of Islam in Spain was itself finally overcome by the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 CE; 897 AH

Hispano-Islamic art and architecture, in both major periods, was marked by an extreme aesthetic refinement. Miraculously, enough has survived in the Nasrid palace of the Alhambra in Granada to give us some idea of this marvelous art. Here practically every surface is decorated. Each wall has a dado of intricate ceramic mosaic, displaying a dazzling range of geometric patterns; above this, every wall surface is covered with moulded and carved plaster, creating a seemingly endless variety of arabesque forms, all of the panels are interwoven with bands of calligraphy. Although there is a definite consistency in the decorative scheme the overall effect is far from repetitive; it is perhaps the most exquisite architecture in the world. The Alcazar in Seville, though of a later date, and the palace of a Christian King, still resonates with the taste and workmanship of Muslim artist/craftsmen.


Syria, with its deep Classical and Christian cultural heritage, was Islam's first encounter with an advanced, urban civilisation. In fact, the conquest of Byzantine Damascus (in 635 CE; 14 AH) was a defining moment in Islamic history, and the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads, soon made Damascus their capital. The Great Mosque in Damascus, the earliest mosque to have survived more or less intact, is interesting for precisely these reasons; the mosaic decorations are in the Byzantine tradition, but reflect a new Islamic artistic sensibility, and the same leavening influence on late-classical forms is evident in other architectural features, such as the tracery windows.

In 1401 Damascus was occupied by Tamerlane, suffering terrible destruction as a result, an event from which the city never really recovered. A century later Syria was conquered by the Turks, was absorbed into their empire and became an Ottoman province.

There are, nevertheless, many interesting monuments in Syria, particularly those dating from the medieval period - the Sabrinye madrassa and the mosque of Taynabiye in Damascus; the Umayyad mosque, the al-Otrush mosque, the madrassa al-Faradis and the mashad al-Hussein in Aleppo, are all impressive and important from an art-historical perspective.


The river Oxus in Central Asia, long before the region had become part of the Islamic world, had always been the traditional boundary between civilisation and barbarism. For the first three centuries of Islamic rule the barbarian nomads of the steppes beyond were held in check, as they had been for the Persians, and the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand prospered. But by the end of the 10th century (4thc AH) the infiltration of Turkish nomads, the 'Turkish Irruption', had began in earnest. This great movement of peoples, highly important for the future of Islam was, by turns, a highly destructive and an extremely creative force.

Very little architecture remains from the older Islamic civilisation of this region, but the Mausoleum of the Samanids (early-10thc.; 4thc. AH), whose surfaces, both internal and external, are entirely patterned with decorative brick-work, is an architectural masterwork. In fact this highly original building set an architectural style that was to be enormously influential throughout the eastern Islamic world.

Because of its geographical location the cities of this region were always in the front line of nomad incursions, and the two greatest of these, the Mongol and Timurid, had a devastating effect on the region. But there was a pattern of recovery; even these ferocious hordes were eventually civilised. In fact Timur made Samarkand his capital, and his descendants established a brilliant and influential culture. The majority of the surviving monuments in Transoxiana are in the style established by the Timurids, or their successors, the Shaybanids. This architecture is characterised by its monumental proportions and richness of their decoration, with entire surfaces being covered with ceramic tiles or glazed brick. Among the most impressive monuments are those of the Shakh-i-Zindeh and Registan complexes in Samarkand.


Anatolia was conquered and brought into the Islamic fold by the Seljuk Turks in 1077 CE (470 AH). In common with other dynasties with nomadic origins they brought a new vigour and originality to the arts and architecture They were the first in Islamic architecture to use ceramic decoration on a monumental scale and the style that they pioneered in the 12th and 13th centuries (6th- 7th c AH) became a source of inspiration, particularly in the eastern Islamic world, for centuries to come. As well as using ceramics on a grand scale the Seljuks made an extensive use of fine stone-carving to decorate their monuments. In both mediums they took the art of patterning to new levels of subtlety and intricacy.

Seljuk power declined at the end of the 13th (7th) century, and their successors the Ottomans introduced entirely new architectural and decorative forms rejecting much of the traditional notions, but some aspects of this tradition were retained, notably in their use of complex geometrical wood-inlay patterns in doors and other woodwork.

The stunning use of ceramic decoration in the Seljuk period is exemplified by the interior of the Karatay Mederse in their capital, Konya; the splendid tradition of carved relief can be seen in the extraordinary Ince Minare Medrese (also in Konya), and in the many caravanserais strung out across Antolia

Peripheral Material

There is no one Islamic style. Many forms of artistic expression have evolved in the extended Islamic world over the centuries, but there are certain aesthetic priorities that have affected artistic style wherever the influence of Islam itself was felt. The emphasis on the decorative arts, and the fondness for pattern was, of course, always part of this. This part of the collections is concerned with three artistic traditions that, whilst outside the mainstream of the Islamic current, were clearly caught up in its general flow.


The fortified desert town of Jaiselmere in Rajastan was founded in the 12th century. Occupying a strategic position on the camel train routes between north-west India and Central Asia it prospered as a major entrepot and trading centre. The wealth and confidence that it acquired over the centuries are reflected in the extraordinary local tradition of stone-carving that decorates most of the older houses, shops and Havelis. Although the Bhatti Rajputs managed to resist direct conquest by the Muslim rulers of Delhi the predominantly geometric style of architectural decoration here clearly shows a strong Islamic influence.


The sheikdom of Qatar on the Persian Gulf was too much of a backwater for most of its history to be able to boast of any splendid monuments of the kind found in the great urban centres, but in common with other Gulf States it does have a fine local tradition of carved plaster-work. The examples here are from the Old Amiri Palace complex and other public buildings


Sicily was conquered by the Arabs in the 9th c. (3rd AH), and was ruled by Muslims for two centuries before it was reclaimed for Christendom by Norman adventurers. In the years of Islamic dominance there were strong links with Fatimid Egypt, which contributed to Sicily's sophisticated urban culture, an influence that later penetrated deeply into Italy. The cultural mix inherited by the Normans, which included Byzantine Greek as well as Muslim Arab influences, allowed the different artistic traditions to blend together, to great effect. The results of the Islamic influence on the Byzantine-geometric tradition can still be seen on the walls and floors of several monuments in Sicily, notably in the Cappella Palatina in Palermo and the Cathedral and Cloisters at Monreale. It is also evident in the ornate 13th century stone-work on the façade of Palermo Cathedral.