How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe

They didn’t teach us this in school!

In the West, many of us were taught in school about the famous architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren. What we weren’t told by our teachers, however, was that Wren mentioned on several occasions in his memoirs how European architecture was influenced by Islamic design.

In her recent book, entitled Stealing from the Saracens, Diana Darke writes:

“Wren acknowledges the European debt to what he calls ‘Saracen’ architecture twelve times…he explains how his study of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals had led him to believe that Gothic architecture was a style invented by the Arabs, imported by the returning Crusaders, and before that via Muslim Spain. ‘Such buildings,’ he concludes, ‘have been vulgarly called Modern Gothick, but their true appellation is Arabic, Saracenic, or Moresque.’ [Christoper Wren, Parentalta, p. 172]

The first mention of this theory comes in 1713, towards the end of Wren’s life when he was aged eighty-one, and thus based on a lifetime’s study and experience. In a letter to the bishop of Rochester, talking about Westminster Abbey, which he had been asked by the king to repair, Wren refers to the abbey’s Gothic style as:

the mode which came into fashion after the Holy War. This we now call the Gothick manner of architecture (so the Italians called what was not after the Roman style) tho’ the Goths were rather destroyers than builders; I think it should be with more reason called the Saracen style; for those people wanted neither arts nor learning; and after we in the West had lost both, we borrowed again from them, out of their Arabick books, what they with great diligence had translated from the Greeks.

Ibid., p. 160

Evidently Wren, who attended Oxford during the peak of Arabic studies in the mid-seventeenth century under Chancellor Laud, had a clear understanding that while Europe was in its Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, the Muslim world was in its Golden Age, especially in Spain and in Sicily. For centuries our Eurocentric view of the world helped us to airbrush this inconvenient truth out of history, and only recent TV documentaries like Jim Al-Khalili’s Science and Islam and Rageh Omaar’s An Islamic History of Europe, both shown on the BBC in 2009, have helped bring this into the popular consciousness. In Spain,  Toledo was the first Spanish city to be retaken by Christian forces in the Reconquista in 1085. It was made capital of Castille and became a famous centre of translation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, after its Christian rulers realised the importance of its notable Arabic manuscript collections.

The works of Greek philosophers and scientists, lost to Europe for centuries, were translated from the Arabic, into Castilian Spanish (forming the foundation of modern Spanish) and into Latin (the official church language). The translators were Christians, Muslims and Jews all working together on hundreds of Arabic manuscripts, many of which had been translated from Greek during the Islamic Golden Age in the East (chiefly Iraq).  Examining the features of Europe’s Gothic architecture, Wren calls to attention the contradictions of naming such a light, slender and delicately ornamented style after the heavy, rampaging Goths:

Modern Gothic, as it is called … is distinguished by the lightness of its work, by the excessive boldness of its elevations, and of its sections; by the delicacy,  profusion, and extravagant fancy of its ornaments. The pillars of this kind are as slender as those of the ancient Gothic are massive: such productions, so airy,  cannot admit the heavy Goths for their author

Ibid., p. 172

He goes on to wonder at the coincidence of timing in the sudden appearance of Gothic architecture. This, he believes, provides even more reason to associate it with the Saracens:

How can be attributed to [the Goths] a style of architecture, which was only introduced in the tenth century of our era? Several years after the destruction of all those kingdoms which the Goths had raised upon the ruins of the Roman empire, and a time when the very name of Goth was entirely forgotten: from all the marks of the new architecture it can only be attributed to the Moors; or what is the same thing, to the Arabians or Saracens.

Ibid.

In his letter to the bishop of Rochester in 1713, Wren writes:

The Saracen mode of building, seen in the East, soon spread over Europe, and particularly in France; the fashions of which nation we affected to imitate in all ages, even when we were at enmity with it…

Ibid., p. 162

[Diana Darke, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, C. Hurst and Co., London, 2020, pp. 31-33, 35]

2 thoughts on “How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: