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Notes on DVDs watched - 4 Islam

Notes on DVD

14-05-2018 Glories of Islamic Art
The presenter Akbar Ahmed says that the roots of Islam go back before Mohammed; Muslims share beliefs with the other monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity, and many moral values such as the 10 commandments. He is dismayed at the current perception of Islam as having a violent culture, and wishes to show its true spririt of peace, as witnessed in its art and architecture; Muslims have a duty to enlighten others about their religion.

Part 1 - Umayyads & Ayyubids
After Mohammed and his followers conquered the Levant area, they made Damascus their capital, which one enters through a gate [Bab Kisan] which is now the Chapel of St Paul. The Christians welcomed them as loving Jesus; the Umayyads were rich traders from Mecca. Damascus became the first city of the caliphate, and the Umayyads' architectural achievements became widely recognised. The first one was the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which the presenter is frustrated at not being able to visit for political reasons. Jerusalem is important to Muslims, and the first Muslims prayed towards Jerusalem, not Mecca. One can see the site of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome, which was built at the end of the 7th century by Abd al-Malik. It is an octagon, 25m in diameter; this shape is not unusual and it was used in the Roman empire. It was covered in mosaics until the C16, when they fell off. The blue tiles were added by the Ottomans, as well as the window grilles, and the decoration was part of a long tradition of the Byzantines. The golden dome is not the original, which was made of wood; the current dome is made of gold leaf on a metal foundation set on a wooden frame. Inside is the bare rock, on which Abraham is said to have attempted to sacrifice Isaac. The interior has much calligraphy, originally a transcription from the Koran in Kufic script. This is a link between Christianity and Islam, [?because the early Christians would have spoken Aramaic, which was written in a script related to Kufic], and also emphasises the high status of Jesus and Mary in Islam. After Malik had conquered Jerusalem, he built the Dome in a spirit of benevolent triumphalism - he wished to impress rather than antagonise. [NB the Dome is a shrine rather than a mosque - the mosque of Al Aqsa was built slightly later]

In Damascus is the street near where St Paul saw a vision; this is the Via Recta, which led in Roman times to the Temple of Jupiter. This was converted [by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius] to the Church of John the Baptist. Then the first congregational mosque was built here [the Umayyad Mosque]; it contains a Roman pillar which has Arabic inscriptions, as it was adopted by Islam. The walls are the same shape as the temple and church, and it used the same stones and columns. It also used mosiacs, as the Byzantines did. The mosaic has been restored: it showed scenes of paradise, and is some of the oldest Islamic art. It might have shown scenes of birds and animals in earlier times - these would have been removed in later, more strict times. No depictions of the human form were allowed, because it distracts the worshipper and could become idol worship; at different times, there were different attitudes. There has been much restoration of the images, with a fire in 1893, which the mihrab survived. [Mihrab is a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla; that is, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and hence the direction that Muslims should face when praying]. The mosque also contains the Christian tomb of John the Baptist. Although it is a Sunni mosque it also has Shia connections, because it is thought that the head of Husayn ibn Ali is buried here. Pilgrims from Iran come to see the alleged burial place in the mosque; Shias believe that the true successor to Mohammed should be through his relatives: Husayn ibn Ali was the grandson of Mohammed . The Damascus mosque was the blueprint for subsequent mosques; it is built on 3 sides of a courtyard, and is based on the design of Mohammed's house. There is also a minaret, from where the call to prayer can be heard; this was the inspiration for mosques in other countries.

The Umayyad dynasty was eventually destroyed, with the family being massacred except for one man, who escaped to Spain. He and his descendants continued the artistic tradition which came from Syria and Palestine. It was not experimental, but based on experience, as epitomised at Cordoba. The Umayyads were also responsible for secular buildings: for example Abdul Malik's descendant, Hisham, built a palace just outside Jericho, where his allies were; it was used in winter as a pleasure garden. It is near the Mount of Temptation: a complex, two-storey palace, with colonnades, and a very large mosaic of 39 panels on the bath-house floor. Luxurious, it has 22 different colours of local stone, showing an apple tree and two gazelles, with a lion attacking a third gazelle. The palace was thought to be destroyed in an earthquake just before the Umayyad dynasty fell.

The Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem only has some Umayyad features. The Haram esh-Sharif [or Temple Mount] is holy because it is the site where Mohammed took the journey to heaven. The Muslims took Jerusalem early on, then the Crusades led to the mosque's damage. It was restored after them, when Saladin recaptured the mosque. He was the first of the Ayyubid dynasty, and made his capital at Damascus; his tomb is outside the mosque. He was called the just and also the victorious; he died poor because he gave all his wealth away.

Aleppo shows the influence of Saladin's son az-Zahir Ghazi; he restored the citadel after an earthquake. The Aleppo Citadel has a long history; it provided protection to its inhabitants from attack. Its courtyard has several long stones; the Ayyubids liked symmetry and it is austere and simple. It could not resist Tamerlane, whose troops took the castle. Aleppo later recovered and regained its importance as a city of trade, at the end of the Silk Road from China; it traded in silk, spices and crafts.

In Damascus, intricate jewellery was and is still being made; an example shown was a belt buckle worn by women in a ceremony, when their wealth was displayed; this one portrayed the evil eye, and some C19 coins. The Bedouin often attacked traders, so the traders formed caravans between cities. This led to the construction of caravanserai in cities, which are still used, with the camels exchanged for motor bikes. The ground floor are stores and the upper floors rest rooms. The madrasa is also central to society; there would be a fountain in the middle, its design showing familiarity with geometry, eg a six-pointed star. Comparing an Ayyubid with a Mamluk door, the Ayyubid is more sober, and the Mamluk more intricate, detailed and colourful. The madrasa also houses the mausoleum of Baybars. Damascus also has interesting secular architecture, with old houses set in a narrow street, with a dingy entrance, so the owners were not over-taxed. On opening the door, there is a sunlit scene with fountains. These houses need restoring; they have several layers of history, with various restorations and different styles; some show later European influence. There is a bent angle at the entrance way, so that visitors cannot see inside; the fisrt courtyard is for men only, with 2 steps up to the seating platform ; smoking and meals took place here. There would be 2 levels of decoration on the walls, with a gap between - later this might be filled with a European style in the C19. Mother of pearl decoration is prized in Damascus, and all the Middle East, with traditional workshops using the same techniques (apart from an electric grinder). Silver thread is a particular feature of Syria, which is not seen in Egypt. There is a rich heritage of art in Islam.

Part 2 - Fatimids & Mamluks
In Islam, respect for knowledge is important. In Cairo, everyone used material from earlier civilisations, and similarly their beliefs. Although Shias and Sunni struggled, they both contributed to Islamic civilisation. The first dynasty in Egypt was the Fatimids, who were Shias; they arrived in AD 969 from North Africa, claiming descent from Fatima, Mohammed's daughter. They both built and inherited buidings when they arrived. In Cairo is one of the oldest mosques in the Islamic world, where all came for knowledge. It has an arcade which stretches for 100m , and was built by Ibn Tulun, who ruled from Samarra in Iraq, loved art and buildings and brought the plan from Samarra. The mosque was constructed on a small hill; one local legend says that it is here that Noah's Ark came to rest after the Deluge, rather than at Mount Ararat. It was very expensive, with 128 windows in different designs; squinches join the walls and dome, and there was originally one prayer niche. He had to add 4 more to accommodate extra numbers. The minaret has a spiral staircase on the outside; it is said that the shape arose when Ibn Tulud was playing with a piece of paper which came out as a spiral, which gave him the inspiration. The mosque decayed, but 4 centuries later it was restored by a Mamluk prince [Lajin?]

The Fatimids ruled from North Africa to Syria, and had 2 palaces in Cairo which are now destroyed; the street between the two is central to the city; evidence of the Fatimids is dotted around Cairo. Ali's name and Mohammed's are given equal emphasis. Another mosque, the Al-Hakim, was built at the turn of the 11th century. Al Hakim was a legendarily cruel sultan, who would kill all the dogs in the city because some of them barked too much, so he was a controversial figure. He was considered cruel by the Sunnis, but still venerated by some Shias. The mosque has been heavily restored, and some think the restoration is out of keeping; the minaret still stands. Lustreware flourished; this was invented in 9th century Iraq. After disturbances there the artists fled to Cairo. It has a distinctive metallic sheen due to pigment painted onto the body which contains metal oxide. Many topics were painted - there were animals and humans as well as plants.

The Fatimids built a water dispenser and a school nearby. Water supply was very important - the Nile was the only source, and led to underground cisterns which had to be filled by much labour. One can see 18th century tile work surrounding 3 basins. Science was important, and one of the benefits was the use of water wheels. There are some left in Syria - they were very large, and lifted water up to aqueducts, which then led to the fields. The Nile also brought down silt when it flooded; it was necessary to know the flood levels, and there is a pit fed from the Nile, containing a marble pillar marked in cubits. If the height of the flood was known, one could predict the amount of irrigation needed.

There is a bazaar in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili, situated between the Al-Hakim and Al-Azhar mosques. The Al-Azhar mosque was begun by the first rulers, and has 300 marble columns supporting the roof of the prayer hall which were reused from sites extant at different times in Egyptian history. The different heights of the columns were made level by using bases of varying thickness. Education was very important and scholars studied at the university which developed at the mosque; it has been said that when the role of learning was great, Islam was all the greater.

The Fatimids ruled not just in the Middle East; Sicily in particular was inherited by the Fatimids, and the connection was kept even when the Fatimids no longer ruled there, with workmen continuing to build. The Normans were next in power, and they removed the religion, but re-used the architecture; in Palermo, the mosque became the cathedral. Roger I employed Arabic craftsmen to build a church with red domes, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, and some Byzantine motifs were also used. Another example is the Cappella Palatina, a chapel built by Roger II in 1132, above an earlier chapel constructed in 1072; it has a painted wooden muqarnas ceiling.

In Egypt, the Fatimids ruled for another 100 years. Saladin not only captured Jerusalem, which led to the Crusaders going, but also built mosques in Cairo. He had links with the Mamluks, and when the Mamluks took power they built more mosques. They were built much taller than was usual because of the crowded city. The Sultan Hasan mosque also had a hospital, and there were 4 schools, or madrasas, each reflecting the different theologies. These were not very different: for example the way the students held their hands during prayer differed. There was also accommodation for the students, but not much interior decoration, as Hasan was assassinated, and the money ran out. It has some marble inlay, and a pair of doors leading to his mausoleum, which were covered in silver and gold with decorations of Chinese lotuses. These ideas came from China via the Mongols: the motifs appeared in textiles. Eventually the Mongols and Mamluks made peace. After Hasan was assassinated, his body was never found, but his sons were buried there. Wood and ivory were used for decoration in Mamluk times, and glassware was important. Lamps were placed in the back streets, and they are still produced in the same way, by modern glassblowers. Archaeologists have found a glass factory dating form the 2nd millenium BC. The Mamluks ruled until the end of the 16th Century. Stone domes were characteristic of their architecture; there would often be a fountain next to the dome.

In Alexandria, there is a Mamluk fortress built on the site of the Pharos lighthouse, which used some of its stones. Alexandria is also home to a new library, which opened in 2002, very close to the site of the ancient library, which was part of the greatest centre of learning in the world. Aristarchus, who studied there, was the first to say that the earth moved round the sun. The new library cost £120 million, and has 4 art galleries, a planetarium and a digital library; the search for truth is still deemed important. There is also a collection of antique books; it is thought that the decline of Islam began when the scholars were marginalised.

Part 3 Seljuks & Ottomans
The Ottoman dynasty lasted for about 700 years, with its zenith in Istanbul. It was not just a religion, but also a way of life. It was not just a state but also for the individual. In Islam, some use music and dance to express their devotion, for example the Sufis, who believe they are then in direct communication with God. The mystic Rumi, one of the Sufi poets, is nowadays studied in the west. The dancers are known as whirling dervishes, and some orthodox Muslims disapprove of them.

The Seljuks were first invaders into Iran and then Anatolia. Some of their art survived in Turkey: some C13 carpets have found in a mosque in Konya which had been neglected. There were large doors with intricate metalwork, and dragons and lions protected gateways. In 1453 Mehmet II the Conqueror took Constantinople. He saw himself as being in the line of Roman rulers; the Golden Gate [built by Emperor Theodosius] is the only Roman relic left. As heir to the Byzantine empire he called himself the Sultan of Run, i.e. Rome. He saw that the fame of the Hagia Sophia cathedral had made it a trophy. He was impressed by the dome covering such a large space, and wanted to convert it into a mosque. He added a mihrab (prayer niche), but had a problem with the rich Byzantine mosaics, as he thought pictures were idolatrous. However when he created the mosque the mosaics were treated with respect: they were not destroyed but plastered over and so were preserved; the Hagia Sophia is now a museum [and the mosaics are now visible]. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, and Islam seemed unstoppable, but in 1492 the Spanish expelled the Muslims from Andalusia and Columbus sailed to America. The Nasrids had built the Alhambra, but were not very effective rulers; when they were expelled they went to Istanbul and re-energised the old Constantinople, as the Jews and the Christians also did. The Bazaar which Mehmet founded shows the prosperity which ensued. He forcibly re-settled people from other parts of the empire, some of whom were craftsmen. One of them, Sinan, was inspired by the dome of Hagia Sophia, which was done in stone, while all earlier ones were brick. Sinan had been born a Christian, but converted to Islam. He built the Suleymaniye mosque, the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque and the Rustem Pasha mosque, and buildings all over the Ottoman empire - 355 buildings, including 81 mosques.

The pilgrimage to Mecca from Damascus had great prestige; it was a long and dangerous journey, and the Bedouin might attack as the pilgrims might have treasure. They might all be killed, so there was great rejoicing on their successful return. Money from the pilgrimage enabled mosques to be built. For example the Suleymaniye mosque, which has domes, half-domes and quarter domes; the weight of the main dome forces the walls outwards, while the smaller domes make the force downwards; they also disguise the buttresses. There are thin minarets and many windows let the light in; there are hoops of lamps at night.There is also the tomb of Suleyman which reflects the shape of the main building, and also of Suleyman's wife Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana). In 1588 Sinan died and his own tomb in the complex is more modest. This was the largest building complex: the mosque is surrounded by colleges, a hospital, kitchens and a bathhouse. The dome dominates the complex, which dominates the hill overlooking the Bosphorus; also overlooking it is the Topkapi Palace, home of the court for 400 years. The palace has 4 courtyards, with the first entered by the Imperial Gate; it contains a hospital and a bakery. The Gate of Greeting led into the second court containing the council chamber; here the sultan could meet with his councillors if he wished. There was a grille behind which he could sit unseen, so it was not known whether he was there or not; in another room he would meet them and ask about the discussion, so they had to tell him the truth. The Gate of Felicity led to the third court, which only the sultan was allowed to pass through on horseback; everyone else had to go on foot. Here was the chamber of petitions, where you could be presented to the sultan, but he might not notice you. The palace was not just the seat of power but also of learning, a sort of university. There was a fire in the Old Palace,[Beyazıt Square] where the women lived, and the sultan's wife then moved into the Topkapi Palace and the harem building was added. The Tower of Justice towered over the harem, which contained the sultan's family and the eunuchs.

Tilework became typical of Islamic architecture in the Ottoman period; they covered the walls. Here a sixteenth century bath complex shows much luxury, with marble and gold.The harem became the prison for the young princes - originally the younger sons of the sultan were killed off, but later they were just imprisoned. They lived in luxury for years, and some of them when let out turned out to be quite mad. For example Ibrahim the Mad became sultan after having lived in the harem for 23 years, and tried to drown his concubine's son in a pool. Next to the pool he built a golden loggia so that he could look down on the Golden Horn; during Ramadam when one can eat only when the sun has set, he could see when the sun had set and start to eat.This was during the heyday of the Iznik tiles, which were initially blue and white, and then also red; such tiles also decorated the Baghdad kiosk,which was built to commemorate the Baghdad Campaign of Murad IV after 1638.

The Rustem Pasha mosque was built for the vizier, Rustem Pasha, who married Suleyman's daughter [Mihrimah Sultan], and has high quality tiles. The other mosque famed for its tiles was built later [by Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa]; the Sultan Ahmed mosque was later known by westerners as the Blue Mosque [from the colour of the paint and the tiles]; its tiles are not quite such high quality. Some also criticise the size of its pillars as being too big, compared with Sinan's; it also has 6 minarets. Tradtionally only Mecca's mosque has 6 minarets, so this could be seen as a challenge.

Western influence on art became greater later, for example the fashion for Chinese decoration. In 1729, during the Tulip Period, the fountain outside the Hagia Sophia was built in Turkish rococco style. There is a mix of eclectic styles in later houses. One style that has maintained its importance is that of calligraphy; this has rules to make it beautiful as well as legible, and is still practiced. Many of the sultans were trained in its practice as princes; then they used tughras, or calligraphic signatures, on their documents.