SAH Blog

  • Istanbul: Sultans' Mosques and Urban Expansion

    Patricia Blessing, 2014 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Jan 25, 2016
    In the first of two blogs that I plan to write about Istanbul, a main topic will be Ottoman architecture in the city and current restoration projects. In a city with currently about 15 million inhabitants, expanding highway and public transportation systems, ongoing construction for a third bridge across the Bosporus, and a new airport near the Black Sea, monument preservation is a constant, pressing issue. In addition, impacts on the environment are growing and palpable: wild boars have been seen swimming across the Bosporus fleeing bridge construction, and the controversial airport project poses a threat to migratory birds, including the storks who rest in Sariyer, every spring (Figure 1a). 

    Figure 1a: Migrating storks in Sariyer, in the northern section of Istanbul’s European side, in March 2015 (P. Blessing) 

    Within the city, increasing population, traffic, and construction poses constant challenges to the preservation of historical monuments such as Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the many Ottoman mosques, including those founded by Ottoman sultans over the centuries and whose presence in the city’s urban space is undeniable. A few views of the first monument that I will discuss, the Süleymaniye Mosque, confirms this observation. Seen from the Galata Bridge the mosque, built by master architect Sinan in 1550–58 under the patronage of Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), the mosque towers above the Golden Horn (Figure 1b). Moving away further, the mosque founded in 1561 by Rüstem Pasha, one of sultan Süleyman’s grand viziers and his son-in-law, appears to sit humbly at the feet of the ruler’s much larger mosque (Figure 2a). The rich interior tile decoration of the interior of course required an amount of wealth that betrays this pretense (Figure 2b). Zooming in further—the dome and minaret of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque to the left, the mausolea behind the Süleymaniye Mosque at the center (Figure 3)—it becomes clear how many new buildings are interspersed with the historical construction that includes subsidiary buildings for both mosques. More on this point below.

    Figure 1b: Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, seen from the Galata Bridge (P. Blessing)

    Figure 2a: Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul, with Süleymaniye Mosque in the background (P. Blessing)

    Figure 2b: Interior, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul (P. Blessing, June 2014)

    Figure 3: Figure 2a: Dome and minaret of Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul, with mausolea and cemetery of Süleymaniye Mosque in the background (P. Blessing)

    Approaching the Süleymaniye Mosque in its central axis, the viewer first catches a glimpse through the central portal leading into the courtyard; the floor plan of the complex is useful to grasps the site’s complexity. From the bottom of the stairs, a carefully planned viewpoint allows one to see the inscription panels on the exterior of the courtyard, on the mosque’s porch, and move its main door (Figure 4). Approaching further, the monumental dome emerges, in what is of course by now a classical view of the monument – yet it never fails to stun (Figure 5). The system of the central dome, built upon subsidiary half- and quarter domes allows for the expansive interior space with its four massive pillars (Figure 6). The interior of the dome, recently restored together with the building as a whole shows a nineteenth-century neo-Baroque design (Figure 7), the result of an earlier restoration. Recovered as the oldest fully preserved layer in the recent restoration, this was privileged over the previous reconstruction of what the sixteenth-century decoration might have looked like. 

    Figure 4: View from courtyard entrance towards mosque portal, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 5: View from courtyard, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 6: Interior, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul (P. Blessing, June 2014)

    Figure 7: Interior view of dome, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul (P. Blessing, June 2014)

    Behind the qibla wall of the mosque, among gravestones from several centuries, the mausolea of sultan Süleyman (Figures 8 and 9) and his wife, Hürrem Sultan (Figure 10, at left), are to be found. In the interior of the sultan’s mausoleum, his oversized cenotaph emerges in front of a backdrop of İznik tiles (Figure 11). These are only two of the many royal mausolea in Istanbul, which create a dynastic imprint on the city’s landscape, as historian of Ottoman architecture, Gülru Necipoğlu, has argued.


    Figures 8 and 9: Mausoleum of Süleyman the Magnificent, Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 10: Mausoleum of Hürrem Sultan, Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 11: Interior, mausoleum of Süleyman the Magnificent, Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Seen from the terrace behind the mosque, a view of the Bosporus emerges over the domes of the third of four madrasas that belong to the complex (Figure 12a). Shifting the view slightly to the left, the foreground remains very similar yet the background changes: the skyscrapers of the business centers and malls in Maslak and Levent emerge in the back, and the new metro bridge cutting across the Golden Horn is seen at left (Figure 12b). The changes in the sightlines caused by such construction are considerable, as historian Cemal Kafadar poignantly described; the bridge across the Golden Horn was the subject of much criticism before and during its construction, to little avail. 


    Figures 12a and 12b: Views from the terrace of the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul, towards the Bosphorus and Golden Horn (P. Blessing)

    Below the supporting wall of the terrace, a street is lined with a series of restaurants and and residential buildings (Figure 13), a great contrast to the perfectly planned views that architect Sinan created in the mosque complex, for instance through a side door to the courtyard that frames the small domes of the courtyard arcades (Figure 14) or even the wall of the cemetery and a glimpse of the mosque on approach (Figure 15). 

    Figure 13: View from terrace, Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 14: View into courtyard, Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 15: View of surroundings, Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Meanwhile restoration work continues on subsidiary buildings such as the guesthouse (Figures 16 and 17). Tarps such as the one in Figure 16, with drawings of the restoration projects and “before and after” photographs of the monuments are familiar sights in Istanbul. Almost continuously, projects are begun while others end, and so one can never quite know what surprising view may emerge on a walk even through the historical peninsula. Currently, the Mosque of Sultan Bayezid II, built in 1501–07, is being restored and offers a sight of scaffoldings, fences, and rather disconcertingly given the cold and wet winter, tarps over some of its courtyard domes (Figure 18). Proceeding further along the Divanyolu (Figure 19), now home to tram tracks but originally a main road from the Byzantine Great Palace to the Golden Gate, similar views emerge for instance at the mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–39), now hidden from view (Figure 20). 


    Figures 16 and 17: Guesthouse (tabhane) during restoration Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 18: Mosque of Sultan Bayezid II, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 19: Divanyolu near Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 20: Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II during restoration (P. Blessing)

    Figure 21: Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşı) during restoration (P. Blessing)

    Walking from the mausoleum of Mahmud II further along the Divanyolu, monuments such as the mosque of Sultan Ahmed I (better known as the Blue Mosque), Hagia Sophia, and Topkapı Palace are of course some of Istanbul’s most well-known sites. I will include Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace in February’s post about the fifteenth-century transformation of Byzantine Constantinople to Ottoman Istanbul, yet for now let us move on to Eminönü. Here, the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşı, Figure 21) and surrounding maze of stores offer a great amount of spices and food while in front, road, ferry landings, and tram line make the area a busy transportation hub. Just next to it, the complex of the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) or Yeni Valide Cami expands. First commissioned in 1579 by Safiye Sultan, the mother of Sultan Mehmed III and completed in 1663 by Hadice Turhan Sultan, the mother of Mehmed IV, after nearly fifty years of interruption, the complex today consists of mosque, mausoleum, sultan’s kiosk (hünkar kasrı) and fountain while additional buildings have not survived (Figures 22 to 25). The building complex, while not as closely connected and symmetrically structured as the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, nevertheless made use of spatial connections and sightlines between the structures, as Lucienne Thys-Şenocak has discussed in detail. Moreover, the relationship between the mosque and the water is important (Figure 26), even though the shoreline has greatly changed due to road construction. 

    Figure 22: Mausoleum of Hadice Turhan Sultan during restoration (P. Blessing)

    Figure 23: Roof of fountain of Yeni Cami Complex, with mosque in the background (P. Blessing)

    Figure 24: Yeni Cami, Istanbul, view from south-east (P. Blessing)

    Figure 25: Sultan’s kiosk (hünkar kasrı) Yeni Cami, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 26: Yeni Cami, Istanbul, view from Golden Horn (P. Blessing, June 2014)

    I will leave the reader with a view of the shore just across from the mosque, where the Galata Tower stands out above the maze of buildings and construction sites below (Figure 27). Istanbul is striking for just that, the constant combination of old and new, of beautiful and ugly, and for the resulting tensions. 

    Figure 27: Galata and Karaköy, Istanbul, seen from Galata Bridge (P. Blessing)
    Recommended Readings:

    Gülru Necipoğlu, “The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: An Interpretation,” Muqarnas 3 (1986): 92–117.

    Gülru Necipoğlu, The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005; paperback London: Reaktion Books, 2010).

    Lucienne Thys-Şenocak, Ottoman Women Builders: The Architectural Patronage of Hadice Turhan Sultan (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).
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  • Mirrors of the Orient: Exhibitions of Islamic Art in Europe

    Patricia Blessing, 2014 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Jan 4, 2016
    As the year winds down, I would like to take the opportunity to write about a number of museum collections that I have visited since my travels began in July. Specifically, I would like to discuss exhibitions of Islamic art within Europe, several of which have been rearranged in the last few years. Considering the political situation in much of the Middle East, museum collections are becoming more and more important as resources for research and preservation. As for any type of research project that relies on fieldwork, studies of architectural history are strongly affected by conditions of travel, and places that can no longer be visited risk moving to the margins of research. This in turn is a major issue when sites are subsequently destroyed—consider the twelfth-century minaret of the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, reduced to a pile of rubble in spring 2013, and the historical covered market of the same city. Initiatives to document monuments have begun to emerge; they include UT Antiquities Action, yet it is hard to image what could be rebuilt if the war in Syria were to end. 

    Over the last ten years, several collections of Islamic art in major collections around the globe received new displays; these include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul that I will discuss in my next post. The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin is scheduled to move to a new space within the larger renovation project of the Museum Island and particularly the Pergamon Museum, to be completed by 2025. Admittedly, I have not yet had a chance to visit the David Collection in Copenhagen, which has a strong focus on Islamic art. New museums, such as the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, opened in 2014, have sprung up as well. At the same time, collections containing large numbers of Islamic objects, such as that of the Musée des Tissus in Lyon, France, are at peril: the museum may close if new options for funding are not found. In this context, the dynamic world of museum collections is closely tied to politics, both at the level of spending cuts for culture, and in the connection to the antiques trade and preservation of cultural heritage from conflict regions. 

    Today, I will focus on collections in Italy, France, and the United Kingdom that I visited in the last few months. Of the collections mentioned above, I am also familiar with the Metropolitan Museum and the Berlin collection. The latter is left out here, because it will reinstalled at a later point; I would, however, like to point to the excellent special exhibition about former director and historian of Islamic art, Friedrich Sarre (1865–1945), on view until January 24, 2016. As I visited the exhibits and later discussed some of them with colleagues, I became more and more aware of the biases of an art historian inherent in my view on these displays. Thus, I find it hard to assess the view of the general public going into the galleries without prior knowledge of Islamic art, and can’t help looking out for the major pieces I know to be located in each collection. 

    This summer, in Rome, I visited for the first time the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, home to one of the largest collections of Islamic art in Italy. Within this collection, a main focus are objects from the excavations at Ghazni, Afghanistan, the capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty that ruled over present-day Afghanistan, north-eastern Iran, and northern India from the late tenth to the mid-twelfth centuries. Excavations at the sites were conducted by the now-defunct Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente (ISIAO) in the late 1950s and the 1960s (Figure 1). The excavations mostly investigated the palace of Ghaznavid sultan Masud III (r. 1099–1115); major finds include carved marble panels that served as wall decoration (Figure 2). Overall, the collection unfortunately remains on the margins of Rome’s museum circuit, with its masses of visitors streaming into sites such as the Vatican Museums, but bypassing other exhibits such as this. In addition to Islamic art, the collection also has a strong focus on East Asia, including China, Japan, and Korea; the building itself is worth a visit, too (Figure 3). 

    Figure 1: Panel describing the history of the Ghazni excavations, Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, Rome (P. Blessing)

    Figure 2: Detail of marble panel from the Ghazni excavations, Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, Rome (P. Blessing)

    Figure 3: Nineteenth-century chandelier, Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, Rome (P. Blessing)

    Walking through Rome, I came across numerous posters of another exhibition (Figure 4). Objects from the al-Sabah collection of Islamic art, based in the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya in Kuwait, happened to be in view in the Scuderie del Quirinale. This traveling exhibition was a chance to see objects that are not often easily accessible; even though photography was not permitted in the show, some of the objects and others from the collection can be viewed on the Google Art Project, although item information on the site, unfortunately, is very limited.

    Figure 4: Poster for the exhibition of the al-Sabah collection in Rome (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 5: Roof over Islamic galleries, Louvre, Paris, seen from above (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 6: Upper floor of Islamic galleries, Louvre, Paris, with eleventh-century stucco inscription frieze from Saveh, Iran (P. Blessing)

    Moving on to Paris, the Louvre opened its new permanent exhibition of Islamic art in fall 2012. A courtyard received a new roof (Figure 5), and two floors of exhibition space were built into it (Figure 6). The space is a first rather overwhelming, and one needs several visits to form a better view of the exhibit. On the upper floor, seen in figure 6, light flows through the roof structure while the lower floor is quite dark. The narrative is largely chronological, beginning with early Islam on the first floor. Thematic cases include the role of calligraphy in Islamic art and the influence of Chinese ceramics on the early Islamic production. Pieces from major sites such as the ninth-century Abbasid palaces of Samarra, and well-known objects such as the tenth-century ivory pyxis of Mughira from Umayyad Spain are shown alongside extensive exhibits from the site of Siraf on the Persian Gulf, including ceramics influenced by Chinese examples. The lower level is harder to navigate, as the trajectory is not quite clear from the start. In effect, it is largely chronological, with the continuation of the medieval exhibits in the room at the far end, and the early modern display—the collection ends at 1800—in the center. Coming down the stairs from the upper floor, however, the visitor is not clearly guided in one or the other direction. The cases with book paintings, placed quite understandably in a little-lit spot, are unfortunately easy to miss due to their location underneath the stairs. Other displays, however, are well presented, such as the selection of images of royal figures on ceramics. A fifteenth-century Mamluk stone porch, taken to Paris from Cairo for the 1889 World Fair and not on view for over a century, was restored and reassembled for the new display as an instructive video explains. Overall, several short videos about production processes—of, for instance, ceramics and inlaid metalwork—are worth the time for their simple and well-designed explanations of techniques. Additionally, replicas of several objects are available to touch. While these displays, featuring labels in Braille writing, are primarily intended for visitors with impaired vision, they are attractive for all. Although the pieces are all made of the same material and don’t provide a sense of texture, small samples of materials are added for that purpose. 

    The Institut du Monde Arabe, research center, library and museum all in one has a permanent exhibit focusing on Islamic art. The narrative here, rather than focusing on the historical trajectory of dynasties, revolves around themes such as medicine and astronomy, in addition to some chronological displays. Highlights are fragments of wall-paintings (Figure 7) from the seventh-century desert castle of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi in Syria, and pieces of mosaic from the Great Mosque of Damascus, on loan from the National Museum in Damascus. While it is wonderful to see these objects in Paris, this does little to distract from the fact that both monuments and the large number of finds from Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi in Syria are out of reach. In a recent interview with Swiss newspaper Der Bund, Mohamed Fakhro, deputy director of the National Museum in Aleppo and now living in Germany where he pursues research, pointed out the extent to which the destruction of cultural heritage adds to the human suffering caused by the conflict. 

    Figure 7: Fragment of wall painting from Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, Syria, on loan to the Institut to Monde Arabe, Paris (P. Blessing)

    In the UK, several museums have new displays of Islamic art, while the British Museum recently announced that new Islamic galleries would open in 2018. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London opened its Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in 2008 (Figure 8). The center of the room is dominated by the Ardabil carpet, a very large (10.51m x 5.34m) sixteenth-century piece that comes from the ancestral shrine of the Safavid dynasty in northern Iran. The other exhibits are arranged around the room, both along the walls (Figure 9) and in cases that separate the central space from the circuit around.

    Figure 8: Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P. Blessing)

    Figure 9: Tiles in carved terracotta technique from tomb of Buyanquli Khan, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, built in 1358; preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P. Blessing)

    The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, in its current state, is the result of an extensive refurbishment that ended in 2009. The galleries for the Islamic Middle East are near the rooms of the Mediterranean World, Medieval Cyprus, and Mughal India. A strong focus lies on ceramics: displays include a range of medieval to early modern ceramics, such as these examples (Figure 10). One particularly interesting case focuses on fake ceramics: some were made in the nineteenth century, such as this Iranian imitation of a sixteenth-century Ottoman Iznik plate (Figure 11), while the date of this thirteenth-century Kashan plate composed of several fragmentary pieces is of an unknown date (Figure 12).

    Figure 10: Examples of Islamic ceramics shown at the Ashmolean Museum. The plate at the center was probably made in Fustat, Cairo, 10th to 12th c., EA1978.2161 (P. Blessing)

    Figure 11: Fake Iznik plate, Iran, 1890s, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, EA 1978.1483 (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 12: Composite Kashan plate, original pieces dated 1206–07 CE (604 AH) with addition of other fragments (some removed after museum acquisition), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, EA1978.2320 (P. Blessing) 

    And, last but not least, in the exhibit devoted to textiles, robes made in Saudi Arabia around 1916 and given to T.E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—are shown (Figure 13).

    Figure 13: Robe, shirt, headdress, sandals, ring and dagger, given to T.E. Lawrence in 1916, on loan from All Souls College, Oxford University, shown as Ashmolean Museum (P. Blessing) 

    Suggested Readings: 

    Demerdash, Nancy. “Review: ‘Arts de l’Islam’ at the Musée du Louvre,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 2, no. 1 (January, 2013): 226–230. 

    Roxburgh, David. “'Open Sesame!' David J. Roxburgh on the Musee du Louvre's Galleries of Islamic Art,” Art Forum 51, no. 5 (2013): 61–64. 

    Roxburgh, David. “The New Galleries for ‘The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia,’ Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,” Art Bulletin 94, no. 4 (December 2012): 643–646.
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  • Morocco: Reflections on Remembering Andalusia and the Absence of Ottomans

    Patricia Blessing, 2014 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Nov 23, 2015

    After my journey through southern Spain, this month finds me on the other side of the Straits of Gibraltar, in Morocco. Despite the fact that I am on a different continent, in a different country and surrounded by a different culture, the medieval and early modern Islamic architecture encountered here are every step evokes the monuments of Andalusia. Therefore, I will include some additional images from Spain that did not find their place in last month’s blog.

    Figure 1: Minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque, Marrakesh (P. Blessing)

    Figure 2: Ruins of the first Kutubiyya Mosque, Marrakesh (P. Blessing)

    In Marrakesh, on the outskirts of the medina, the old city, one cannot miss the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque (Figure 1), towering over the low roofs of the prayer hall visible on the left. As with all mosques in Morocco, access to the Kutubiyya is restricted to Muslims. Strictly enforced, this prohibition has its roots in the colonial period; it was instituted by resident general (head of the French colonial administration) Hubert Lyautey, in 1912, and maintained after Morocco’s independence in 1956. Hence, no chance to view the mosque space inside, except for the rare glimpse through an open door. Returning to the Kutubiyya, an importance aspect of this building is that it was built twice within the space of a few years. Following the conquest of Marrakech in 1147, inflicting a final defeat on the Almoravid dynasty, Almohad sultan Abd al-Mu’min commissioned the construction of the first Kutubiyya (Figure 2). Construction of the first mosque began between 1147 and 1154, and was completed by 1157; the second mosque was probably built between 1154 and 1162, although sources vary on this. Motives for the construction of two adjoining mosques within a few years are unclear; clear is, however, that both buildings remained in use jointly, and that the first mosque only arrived in its ruined state long after. The minbar of the Kutubiyya, now preserved in the ruined sixteenth-century Badi Palace in Marrakesh, was produced in Cordoba in 1137 for the Almoravid sultan, who had it destined for the mosque he founded in his capital. That building was destroyed by the Almohads, but the minbar (pulpit used during Friday prayers) remained in use in the Kutubiyya until 1962; it was carefully restored in the 1990s. This object, produced in Andalusia for a site in Morocco in the twelfth century is a direct testimony to the fact that these regions were closely connected in the Middle Ages.

    Figure 3: Detail of top, minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque, Marrakesh (P. Blessing)

    Figure 4: Giralda, formerly minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville, Spain (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 5: Tower of Hasan, Rabat (P. Blessing) 

    The minaret of the Kutubiyya, built at the end of construction of the first mosque (hence, roughly around 1154–55) is monumental to the same extent as the Giralda, the minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville, built by Almohad patrons in 1184. The top of the Kutubiyya minaret (Figure 3) allows in fact for a reconstruction of the original state of the Giralda (Figure 4) that now finishes as a bell tower, added in the sixteenth century. The largest of Almohad minarets, that of the so-called Hasan Mosque (Figure 5) in Rabat, begun under the auspices of Ya’qub al-Mansur in 1195, was never finished: construction was abandoned at the sultan’s death in 1199. Standing at 44m in its incomplete state, it was likely to have been planned at twice that height. Currently, the minaret is being restored, and hence I was not able to take detailed photographs of its decoration. Neither of these minarets is accessible, so I am not able to offer the overall views that I had for the remains of the Seville mosque. 

    Figure 6: Qayrawiyin Mosque, Fes, minaret and room seen at center of city view (P. Blessing)

    Figure 7: Qayrawiyin Mosque, Fes, view through portal on Talaa Kabira (P. Blessing) 

    Of the few glimpses of mosques that I can offer, one is of the Qayrawiyin Mosque in Fes (Figures 6 and 7). One of the oldest mosques in Fes, it was founded in 859 and expanded multiple times, particularly under Almoravid rule in the twelfth century; the current form goes back to the fourteenth century. The mosque is located in the middle of the medina of Fes, a living space that is very much inhabited by the local population, full of stores and artisans’ workshops, rather than a tourist site (Figure 8). 

    Figure 8: View of Talaa Kabira street in the medina of Fes, with Bou Inaniya Clock at left (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 9: Bu Inaniya Madrasa, view of courtyard (P. Blessing)

    Figure 10: Bu Inaniya Madrasa, view of prayer hall (P. Blessing)

    This same street view also show what remains of the fourteenth-century water clock that belonged to the Bu Inaniya Madrasa, founded by Merinid sultan Faris ibn Ali Abu Inan al-Mutawakkil in 1350. While the clock no longer functions, the madrasa is still in use, even though it can be visited. Entering into the monument, one is faced with a large courtyard, paved with marble (Figure 9). At the far end, and arcade divides the mosque space from the madrasa; access is restricted to Muslims, yet the open arches allow for a view into this small prayer hall (Figure 10). The decoration of the courtyard is one that is repeated in contemporary and later monuments in Morocco: tiled dadoes, stucco decoration with inscriptions and floral motifs, and carved wood under the eaves (Figures 11, 12, 13). 

    Figure 11: Bu Inaniya Madrasa, tiled dado (P. Blessing)

    Figure 12: Bu Inaniya Madrasa, detail of stucco decoration with founder’s name (P. Blessing)

    Figure 13: Bu Inaniya Madrasa, detail of carved wood under the eaves (P. Blessing)

    At the center of the courtyard, the reflection of the building is caught in a pool (Figure 14); this recalls the intricate visual effects that I observed in the Alhambra last month. Since the madrasa also serves as a mosque, it has a minaret—visible from the courtyard, but not from the covered street outside (Figure 15). It is useful to remember here that this madrasa, along with the Madrasa al-Attarin that I will discuss next, is a close contemporary to the Nasrid palace complex in the Alhambra. The difference is in context: the abundance of decoration and different materials used for the sultan’s residence in Granada is here transposed into a religious monument. The only base for comparison to a religious monument in Nasrid Spain is the remaining prayer room of the Madrasa in Granada, where stucco decoration abounds but the tiles and wood used in exterior courtyard facades do not exists. This observation makes me think about the fluid nature of an architectural decoration that can serve multiple purposes; of inscription panels that can bear poetry just as well as Qur’an passages. 

    Figure 14: Bu Inaniya Madrasa, reflection of courtyard façade in pool (P. Blessing)

    Figure 15: Bu Inaniya Madrasa, minaret, seen from courtyard (P. Blessing)

    Built slightly earlier, in 1323–25, the smaller Madrasa al-Attarin has a narrow courtyard that is difficult to capture in an overall view (Figure 16). The decorative scheme closely resembles the one in the Bu Inaniya Madrasa: from bottom to top—tiles, stucco, carved wood. The variations lies in the details, in the motifs used for the tiles, especially (Figure 17). In the small prayer room, a bronze chandelier (Figure 18) offers an example of fourteenth-century metalwork, even though it now comes with electrical wires and light bulbs. The entrance (Figure 19) of the madrasa is located that the end of the Talaa Kabira, one of the main streets of the medina; like the other madrasas in Fes, this monument does not strike with a monumental portal, but rather with the splendor of its courtyard. 

    Figure 16: Madrasa al-Attarin, view of courtyard (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 17: Madrasa al-Attarin, detail of tile decoration (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 18: Madrasa al-Attarin, chandelier (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 19: Madrasa al-Attarin, entrance (P. Blessing) 

    This decorative vocabulary neither stopped in the fourteenth century, nor with the end of Merinid rule. It continued to be used into the eighteenth century, and even the nineteenth-century mansions that now often serve as hotels still have recourse to rich tile and stucco decoration. One of the most pertinent examples, since it is also a madrasa like the two monuments just discussed, is the  Ben Youssef (Ibn Yusuf) Madrasa in Marrakesh (Figures 20 and 21). Even though it carries the name of a fifteenth-century Merinid governor, the current monument was built for Saadian sultan Sidi Abdallah al-Ghalib in the mid-sixteenth century. Striking at first sight is its monumental scale, much larger than the Madrasa al-Attarin and the Bu Inaniya. 

    Figure 20: Ben Youssef Madrasa, entrance (P. Blessing)

    Figure 21: Ben Youssef Madrasa, view of courtyard (P. Blessing)

    Considering the date of this structure, and the fact that its decoration is so closely continuing that of monuments built two hundred years earlier, I all of a sudden came to a realization. This was the first time in my travels in the Arab world that I was in a region never conquered by the Ottomans. With the conquest of Greater Syria and Egypt in the winter of 1516–17, these regions were integrated into the Ottoman Empire. Even though local architectural and artistic cultures remained strong, everything was progressively covered, to various degrees, with a layer of Ottoman visual culture. The pencil minarets and large round domes immediately click “Ottoman.” Even when a local technique like ablaq, the striped black-and-white stone technique typical of Ayyubid and Mamluk architecture in Syria, continues to be used, monuments like theDarwishiya Mosque in Damascus, built in 1574 (Figure 22) betray their Ottoman pedigree. 

    Figure 22: Darwishiya Mosque, Damascus, Syria, in a photograph taken in 2005 (P. Blessing)

    I could have used many more examples of Ottoman monuments in the Syria or Egypt, yet this one will stand in here for the ways in which the Ottoman conquest transformed architecture. In Morocco, however, we are faced with—in the words of my friend and colleague Heather Ferguson—non-Ottomanized space. This is a new direction of thinking that I will need to pursue. This is exactly the type of insight emerging from travel in places beyond one’s research focus that the Brooks Fellowship makes possible. 

    Returning to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, the details of the decoration enchant once more with the combination of tile, stucco, and woodcarving. The mosque, located in the axis of the monument, is here a relatively large space. The mihrab, deeply recessed, is covered with a muqarnas dome; the stucco retains some of its original polychromy (Figure 23). 

    Figure 23: Ben Youssef Madrasa, dome over mihrab (P. Blessing)

    Several other monuments also show the continued use of the type of decoration developed in Nasrid Andalusia and Merinid Morocco. Since I have not had the opportunity to write about funerary architecture in my post on Andalusia (where no such monuments remain), let me now turn to two examples. The first is the so-called Saadian Tombs (Figure 24) in Marrakech, the burials of several rulers of dynasty of the Saadians in the second half of the sixteenth century. Hidden behind a large mosque, this funerary garden was closed up in the eighteenth century and, according to local and guidebook lore, not rediscovered until 1917. Numerous burials are placed under slabs decorated with tile mosaic devoid of inscriptions, while others have marble steles embedded in them (Figure 25). Several mausolea—in shape reminiscent of the fourteenth-century pavilions of the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra—are also part of the site (Figures 26 and 27). 

    Figure 24: Saadian Tombs, Marrakesh, entrance (P. Blessing)

    Figure 25: Saadian Tombs, Marrakesh, tomb slabs (P. Blessing)

    Figure 26: Saadian Tombs, Marrakesh, view of small mausoleum (P. Blessing)

    Figure 27: Saadian Tombs, Marrakesh, interior of large mausoleum (P. Blessing)

    A very different view presents itself at the fortified necropolis of Chellah, just outside the walls of Marrakesh (Figure 28). Here, the ruined burials of several Merinid rulers are placed next to a Roman site, dotted with marabouts, the tombs of saints (Figure 29). The Merinid remains consist of the ruins of a mosque, madrasa, bathhouse, and mausoleum, all built in close proximity to each other. On a decidedly un-architectural note, the site is home to a large colony of sedentary storks who have built theirs nests on the minaret (Figure 30) and atop the ruins of the madrasa (Figure 31). I will leave the reader with these images, given the abundance of other sites that could be discussed, and the little space that remains. 

    Figure 28: Necropolis of Chellah, Rabat, portal (P. Blessing)

    Figure 29: Necropolis of Chellah, Rabat, view: Roman ruins in foreground, Merinid mosque at far left, marabout at far right (P. Blessing)

    Figure 30: Necropolis of Chellah, Rabat, Merinid Minaret (P. Blessing)

    Figure 31: Necropolis of Chellah, Rabat, courtyard of madrasa (P. Blessing)

    Recommended Readings

    Alaoui, Amina El Alami. Ombres sur l’amandier (Rabat: Casa Express, 2013).

    Andalusian Morocco: A Discovery in Living Art, Museum with no Frontiers Series (Rabat: Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco and Vienna: INGO Museum with no Frontiers, 2002). 

    Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Egypt's Adjustment to Ottoman Rule: Institutions, Waqf and Architecture in Cairo, 16th and 17th Centuries (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1994)

    Bloom, Jonathan M., Ahmed Toufiq et al. The Minbar from the Kutubiyya (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), out of print, pdf available at: (accessed 18 November 2015) 

    Ghouirgate, Mehdi. L’ordre almohade (1120-1269): Une nouvelle lecture anthropologique (Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Mirail, 2014). 

    Lintz, Yannick, Claire Déléry and Bulle Tuil Leonetti, eds., Le Maroc médiéval: Un empire de l’Afrique à l’Espagne, exhibition catalog, Paris: Musée du Louvre and Hazan, 2014.

    Rivet, Daniel. Histoire du Maroc (Paris: Fayard, 2012). 

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