Reading Mosques Meaning and Architecture in Islam

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  JALE NEJDET ERZEN Reading Mosques: Meaning and Architecture in Islam The expression ‘reading architecture’ should notseem too odd, as one of the best known exam-ples of architecture, the church, has often beenlikened to a book, and in entering, for example,the little Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, one feels asif one were leafing through the pages of a minia-ture novel that narrates a story one should notforget. This article applies the notion of readingarchitecture to mosques by offering a reading of this type of architecture that pays particular at-tention to the symbols and metaphors embodiedin most mosques. Although users of mosques maynot be conscious of these architectural symbols,I believe that the buildings they experience havesignificance and unique aesthetic value for themlargely because of these elements. The mosque isone of the most common types of building, andits presence in the diversity of cultures that par-ticipated in the complex historical developmentsof the Islamic world makes it difficult to producea general account. Nevertheless, this article willtry to analyze certain symbolic features that havebeen—and still continue to be—common in mostkinds of mosques. i. architecture and meaning The use of metaphors and other symbols inarchitectural design and interpretation is notpeculiar to Islam. Western architecture and archi-tectural discourse are full of examples of build-ings whose meaning is partially determined bysymbols. In relation to architecture, the terms‘representation’ or ‘symbol’ have been more com-monly used by philosophers, as in the case of Nel-son Goodman’s provocatively titled essay “HowBuildingsMean.” 1 Ontheotherhand,manyarchi-tects and architectural critics have couched theiranalyses of the meanings of buildings in termsof “metaphors.” For example, Denis Hollier hasdemonstrated how George Bataille uses the no-tion of metaphor to show the political nature of architecture. 2 Hugh Pearman, in his book  Con-temporary World Architecture , has stressed themetaphoric qualities of religious architecture invarious cultures. 3 Christian Norberg-Schulz, whotreats the history of architecture as a search formeaning, has also highlighted the use of symbolsin Western architecture, noting that Le Corbus-ier’s use of mechanical metaphors in his archi-tectural and urban designs and the cosmic impli-cations of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s projects arewell known. 4 Postmodern architects have usedsymbols and metaphors to render architecture so-ciallyandhistoricallysignificant,anddiscussionof these elements has constituted the main subjectof postmodern architectural discourse and criti-cism. Charles Jencks’s writings, for example, havefocused mainly on such issues. 5 Charles Moore’sPiazza d’Italia, Aldo Rossi’s architecture employ-ing the concept of the “analogical city,” and HansHollein’s projects that try to create “architecturallandscapes” can be cited as examples of projectsthat make use of symbols and metaphors. Even amore structurally oriented architect like NormanFosterhasusedmetaphorstodescribehiswork,asin the case of the Millau Viaduct, which he likensto a butterfly. 6 Interestingly, contemporary West-ern architects who have built mosques have madeuse of common Islamic metaphors. The postmod-ern architect Paolo Portoghesi’s mosque in Romeis a well-known example.Symbols and metaphors have been particu-larly attractive to Muslim scholars and writers,who have traditionally avoided precise literal c   2011 The American Society for Aesthetics  126 The Aesthetics of Architectureexpressions in any realm, believing that the hu-man mind could not fathom the infinite meaningsof the world. 7 This idea was based on a religiousunderstanding of the world that held that Godcannot be defined. This “medieval” disposition,seeing constant changes and multidimensionalityin what is observed, had a strong aesthetic aspectbecause it kept Islamic thinkers attentive to per-ceptual qualities. Moreover, the Islamic view of the world, within which the architecture of themosque developed  ,  is influenced by a sense of adoration for the creations of God. Such adora-tion renders everything with the emotion of love,leading to empathy and giving rise to an aestheticrelation to the world. Consequently, all Is-lamic artworks, including Islamic architecture andspecifically the architecture of mosques, need tobe understood and appraised in terms of the sym-bolsthatareembodiedtherein.Thishaslongbeenunderstood in the Muslim world. Indeed, some of the ideas I employ to explain the architecture of mosques were drawn from the dictated architec-turalrecordsofthegreatestofOttomanarchitects,Sinan, who was active in the Ottoman court dur-ing the sixteenth century. In these records, writtenmostly in poetic form, Sinan describes mosquesusing numerous metaphors and similes: “In everycorner is a rose garden of Paradise.  . . .  Those whoits marbles see would think (themselves) in a seaof elegance. . . . Each of those variegated archesresembles a rainbow.” 8 ii. history, use, meaning Islam,whichappearedintheseventhcentury,tookits initial artistic forms from existing Christianarchitecture and decorations. 9 The first Islamicreligious monument, The Dome of the Rock inJerusalem,inspiteofitssrcinalform,isneverthe-less decorated with mosaics inspired by Byzantinepatterns. 10 However, within a short period, sev-eral factors, such as social norms, structural ex-igencies, religious practices, and climate, createdthe possibility for various srcinal mosque config-urations around the Mediterranean, where Islamhad spread with great speed.Islamic prayer does not require a specific edi-fice, as prayer can be observed anywhere as longas one faces Mecca. Although the Prophet hadwarned against the futile show of riches and ma-teriality in this world, prayer in communion isimportant, since Islam claims to be a religion of equality and communality. Moreover, in Arabic,the word for beauty has the same root with thewords ‘wholeness’ or ‘community.’ Thus, large in-tensively decorated mosques were built in all Is-lamic lands. The first mosques are in the formof multicolumned (hypostyle) structures wherethe space in front of the Mihrab (a kind of altarpointing toward Mecca) was covered with a domewhoseinteriorsurfacewouldusuallybedecoratedwith plaster stalactites that created a play of light,symbolizing the heavens. 11 The mosque was not only a place for prayer,but, in its early phase, it also served as the com-munal meeting place and as a place for judiciarycourtmeetingsunderthesupervisionoftheimam.The hypostyle hall, which was usually a rectanglewiththeshortaxistowardthemihrab,wasenteredfrom an open courtyard surrounded by arcades.Thiscourtyardwouldalsobeusedforprayerwhenthe congregation was large. This type of mosqueis called “Great Mosque,” from which differentvarieties were to evolve in the sundry lands whereIslam spread.I discuss four types of symbols in my analy-sis of mosques. The most common, found in alltypes of mosques throughout history, refers to“paradise.” The second, what I refer to as “theheavenly theater,” is related to the unique func-tion of the mosque as the place for communalprayer. Except for the imam who performs theprayer with the community, there are no actorsor rituals for the faithful to watch. Thus, the in-terior of a mosque is an empty space, a stage forprayer which is performed through bodily move-ments of prostration. This turns the interior intoa space of performance. Third, mosques are oftenunderstood as “urban sculptures” that guide visi-tors through cities. “The cosmic spiral” is the finalsymbol that is common to many structures, forms,and decorations in the Islamic world and relatesto a medieval understanding of time and space. iii. paradise regained The image for the ideal place has usually been“paradise.” Although the notion of paradise iscommon to most religions, the sacred book of Is-lam,theKoran,andpopularMuslimculturestressthe idea of paradise almost beyond any other.All mosques have tried to create an atmosphere  Erzen  Reading Mosques  127that refers by analogy to a conception of paradise.Moreover, the Islamic world is considered by thefaithful to be the land of peace, “Dar-el-Islam,”as opposed to lands where anarchy and war reign,“Dar-el-Harp.” Consequently, the mosque shouldbe an ideal place where all tensions are brought toequilibrium and harmonized. An attempt is madeto reference this quality in mosques through theapparent equilibrium of structural forces. Ideally,in a mosque, all tensile forces are integrated tocreate an atmosphere of harmony. As AugustoRomano Burelli states in relation to the mosquesof Sinan, “the purpose of decoration is not themaking-explicitofchosenconstructivedetails,butrather [by] masking and blurring of the construc-tive procedure followed,  . . .  decoration tends tofunction as a reconciler of opposites.” 12 One canunderstand this better by comparing the structureof a mosque with that of a Christian monumentor church, where the dynamism and the constantmovement of contrary forces are singled out as anaesthetic quality. In the Western world, humanscreate their own destiny by opposing contraryforces with will and power. In the Islamic world,however, it is believed that humans are born intoa perfect world and that the mosque shouldrepre-sent this perfect world, while also referring to theafterlife that is promised to the faithful. A state-ment from Burelli perfectly illustrates this for themosques of Sinan: The space of the mosques of Sinan is [a] metaphor forIslamic paradise. In the 97 verses of the Koran in whichparadise is described, there is one which describes theenchantment of the paradisiacal space more strikinglythan the others. “But for those who follow their dutyto their God, for them there are lofty rooms with loftyhallsabovethem . . . beneathwhichriversflow. . . . [Therethey rest,] sojourning in gardens where they will.” (SuraXXXIX, 20-73-74) 13 According to Islam, humanity has destroyed theperfect world initially given by God. In mosques,an attempt is made to recreate this perfection ormake people remember it primarily through sym-bols and expressions such as calligraphy, deco-ration, and the structure of mosques, as well asthrough certain other aesthetic designs that referto the promised paradise.Besides the structural harmony attained bysolvingandconcealingtensionstocreateanatmo-sphereofpeacefulness,theuseoflighthasbeenanextremely important physical and spiritual refer-encetoheaven.Although,throughouthistory,dif-ferent mosque designs employed light differentlybecause of the restrictions of their structures,lighthas always—and in all cultures—referred to a sa-cred and spiritual force, often to God. It could bethat the most perfect and generous use of light inmosques belong to Ottoman mosques of the six-teenth century, which, like Gothic cathedrals, donot have load-bearing walls. The baldachin struc-ture of sixteenth-century Ottoman mosques al-lows for windows to be opened in its walls at allelevations. This is because the structure dependson columns and arches. There are also windowsaround the drum of the dome, allowing light toenter the interior from all sides and levels. In spiteof this profusion of light coming from all direc-tions, any directionality of light is avoided. At alltimes of day the quality of light is such that onenever knows where the sun is. The overall lighteffect is provided by double windows, by grateson the outside, and by stained glass. As Burellistates, “the internal space given over to prayersmust be perfectly visible in all its points, unsecretandrevealed . . . [while]conceal[ing]fromthewor-shipers the position of the sun in the heavens.” 14 Other features that are related to paradise arethe decorations on the mihrab and on the exteriorwall of the portico (the arcaded entrance sectionalso used by latecomers for prayer). As the faith-ful look toward the mihrab niche, they often facedecorationsthatsymbolizetheopeningtothepar-adise garden. In the portico of the R ¨ ustem Pas¸aMosque in Istanbul (c. 1560), tiles that depict agarden of flowers symbolize paradise. The GreenMosque in Bursa has a mihrab that is decoratedwith blue tiles on which yellow and gold flowershave been painted. We can extend these examplesindefinitely, from the early mosques in northernAfrica all the way to those in Andalusia in south-ern Spain.Two other types of symbols found in mosquesthat refer to paradise are the presence of waterand images of forests. In the Seljukid medreses,which also served for religious rituals and meet-ings, there used to be a small pool under theoculus of the dome, collecting rainwater and re-flecting the sky; often a spiral incision into thepavement near the pool would symbolize the uni-verse.IntheearlyOttomanmosquesinBursa,thefirsthallunderthedomewouldalsocontainalittlefountain with running water. The Great Mosque  128 The Aesthetics of Architecturein Bursa dating from 1300 has in its very centera large pool with sprinkling water, used also forablution. The famous mosque of Sinan in Edirne(Adrianopolis) also has a small fountain right inthe middle of the interior. Ablution fountains of the S ¨ uleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul (1557), builtby Sinan for Suleiman the Magnificent, are lo-cated in the exterior walls of the building, creat-ing a physical bond with the building and refer-ring to the rivers of paradise. It has often beensuggested that the Great Mosque type, with a hy-postyle hall boasting many columns, such as thewooden mosques built in Anatolia by the Seljuks(c. 1100–1300) or the Great Mosque of Cordoba(786–788)withitshundredsofcolumnsandsuper-imposed horseshoe arches, represents or symbol-izes the forest. For a culture that first developedin the desert lands of Arabia, both water and florahave special value. This is the reason why green isalmost a sacred color for Islam and why the pres-ence of water in the mosques is of special value.Thus, by the inclusion of many visual and sensoryreferences to paradise, the mosque is experiencedas a metaphor for it in every sense. iv. heavenly theater The ritual of prayer observed in congregation is aperformanceofadorationandprostrationtoGod,the “all-seeing.” The sight of prayer in a mosque,either of a single individual or of a group, willmake it obvious that the whole interior space, de-signed to be clearly visible and homogeneous inallofitsparts,isconceivedasastagefortheobser-vance of a performance. The interiors of mosqueshave no furnishings, except for carpets coveringthe floor and the minbar, a high platform or stair-case upon which the imam faces the congregation.Inthisbarespace,theproportionsofarchitecturalelements such as columns and arches and the dif-ferent scales of verticality are often calculated tocomplement the human body, which is picked outas an actor to be watched.In comparison to the conception of space con-figured through linear perspective, which createsa scene as if through a window, in a mosque thecongregation is placed at the center of the struc-ture so as to sense its space as if it revolves aroundthem. 15 The congregation is thus made part of theperformance, both watching and being watched.This reflects the idea that God is everywhere andis always watching. The whole world is there forthe enjoyment of God, who is to be adored andworshipped, and the main purpose of prayer isto represent this direct relation with God, to offeroneselftothegazeofGodasaworshipperofGod.In this performance, the bodily relationshipwith architecture becomes vital and physicallyreal. Before entering the mosque, a cleaning rit-ual is observed at the ablution fountains: The feet,the face, and the ears are washed and, before en-tering the mosque, the shoes are removed. Beforethe prayer, the body is prepared and cleansed.This practice readies the body for both active par-ticipation and heightened perception. One feelsthe floor under one’s feet, and during the prayertouches one’s forehead to the floor several times.In this bare interior the voice of the imam and thesounds of water (if there are fountains) are madeto be heard and appreciated in the best way. Inmany of the mosques of Sinan, water jugs havebeen placed in the domes to absorb echoes so thatthe call to prayer and the sounds of the prayersthemselves are heard in the clearest and most aes-thetically pleasing way possible. When the prayeris observed in congregation, the bodily presenceand perception become even more acute. In addi-tion, being close to the floor accentuates the per-ception of movements of the body and intensifiesthe perception of sounds.Great architects throughout the world havebeen especially sensitive to the fact that architec-turecanimposecertainphysicalandpsychologicalattitudes on the user. For example, ascending anddescending ceremonial staircases, as in the case of opera houses or palaces, demand a certain bodilyposition to adapt to this ceremonial atmosphere,while period furniture requires not only certainwaysofsittingandstandingbutappropriatelyhar-monious clothes to go with it. Louis XVI inte-riors are striking examples of this phenomenon.Similarly, changes in the disposition of the bodyoften occur when entering an interior from anopen space. This change can be accentuated ar-chitecturally. The very sensitive architect AlvarAalto made users conscious of this change bycreating special light conditions at the entrancesof his buildings. More generally, this shift in thechange of location from exterior to interior andthe many different implications it can have oftenhave been emphasized through specific designsapplied on gates and doors. In mosques, entrancesare designed, decorated, and even covered withspecial inscriptions to prepare people for the spe-cial experience of the heavenly theater that liesinside.
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