A glossary of terms necessary for the study of the history of Islamic art and architecture.
Abbasids (749-1258 A.D.)
This second major Muslim dynasty took their name from their ancestor, al-‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Mutallib, who was the Prophet's uncle. After succeeding the Umayyads in 749 A.D., they ruled for the next 500 years, although in reality their effective power declined after around 900 A.D. The Abbasids moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, building al-Mansur's famous round city in 762 A.D. It was during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809 A.D.) that the Abbasid caliphate reached its peak, a time of prosperity, peace and communal unity. After that, the decline started, with clashes between the population and troops stimulating the construction of Samarra in 865 A.D. as a city for the troops. In 945 A.D. the Buwayhids replaced Abbasid power in Iran and Iraq, although they continued to be the nominal caliphs. By the time of the Mongol occupation of Baghdad in 1258 A.D. their reign was completely reduced to being a mere figurehead. Abbasid architecture was influenced by Sassanian, Central Asian, and later twelfth and thirteenth century A.D. Saljuk prototypes. Despite the breadth of the Abbasid territories, the majority of remaining monuments are in the Abbasid homeland of Iraq. Abbasid architecture is noted for the vastness of the scale used for their cities, as well as the Samarra stucco decoration that spread and continued to be used elsewhere for a long time.
The order used in the traditional system of calculation, wherein each letter signifies a numerical value. Abjad order is derived from the same source of the Greek, Hebrew and other alphabets (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) and differs from the current order used in Arabic dictionaries. In many examples of Ottoman architecture we find the date of the building by deciphering the last verse of a poem inscribed on any of the elements of the building using the abjad values.
A decorative technique, popular during the Mamluk period, based on alternating courses of black and white masonry. The term is derived from the Turkish iplik, meaning rope or thread.
Fountain found in mosques and used for ritual washing before prayers.
Derived from Persian, it means a small basin found in hammams (baths) for washing feet.
Derived from the Greek akanthos. A plant with serrated leaves commonly used in Greek architecture and was continued in Islamic architecture, in both natural and abstract forms.
The daily call to prayer that is carried out mostly from the tops of minarets, and sometimes from the rooftops or the doors of places of worship.
Literally means ‘songs’. In Mamluk architecture there are long corridors lined with seats and walled by mashrabiyyas. The aghani are usually galleries on upper floors overlooking the main reception areas of houses; the durqa‘a or the sahn. An alternative term is maq‘ad aghani.
Aghlabids (800-909 A.D.)
This dynasty was established in 800 A.D. by Ibrahim ibn Aghlab, who was the governor sent by the Abassid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, to suppress the unrest caused by the Berber tribes in North Africa. Following Ibn Aghlab's success with the tribes, Harun al-Rashid rewarded him by granting him relative independence in Ifriqiyya in return for an annual tribute. Aghlabid rule centered in Qayrawan, controlled what is now eastern Algeria and Tunisia, and expanded into Sicily, Malta and Southern Italy. Their power ended at the hands of al-Mahdi and a coalition of Berber tribes in 909 A.D. The Aghlabids were the most important and most powerful of the three dynasties that ruled North Africa in the ninth century. They founded Qayrawan, the city which became the nerve-center for the entire Maghrib. The contributed greatly to the infrastructure of Ifriqiyya, and built many waterways and forts. The Great Mosque of Qayrawan was enlarged and those in Susa and Tunis were repaired. The Great Mosque of Qayrawan, the oldest surviving mosque built by the Arabs in North Africa, was originally by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi‘. The Aghlabid Ziyadat Allah rebuilt the entire structure during the 9th century, where only the minaret and the mihrab were from previous periods.
Literally means 'family of the house' and refers to the family of the Prophet.
Anything that is non-Arab is a‘jami. In Mamluk documents that term is used to describe non-Arab style of decoration.
Clay baked brick.
Almohads (1130-1269 A.D.)
Almohads, also known as al-Muwahhidun, literally means 'adherents of divine unicity'. This was a Berber dynasty founded by Mahdi ibn Tumart, who had studied in the east and then came back to claim himself the mahdi. He had a lot of followers and his dynasty was established with the eradication of Almoravid’s rule, yet the military occupation of both North Africa and Spain only took place after his death. The city of Marrakesh continued to flourish under their rule, especially the artistic and intellectual milieus. Monumental construction was at its peak during the first fifty years of their rule, as evident from the mosques at Taza, Marrakesh, Tinmallal, Seville, Rabat, Fez and the fortresses and citadels in Marrakesh and Rabat.
Almoravids (1046-1157 A.D.)
A dynasty of Berber origin that ruled North Africa and Spain. Also known as al-Murabitun, their name literally means those who lived in a ribat. In the case of Almoravids, it was those who lived in a ribat at the mouth of the Senegal River. They were instigated by Abdallah ibn Yasin, a noted Moroccan scholar, and then led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin who founded Marrakesh as his capital in 1062 A.D. Their position in North Africa weakened with the rise of a new power, that of Almohads in the early years of the twelfth century A.D. The descendants of Yusuf ibn Tashfin succeeded him to the throne one after the other until the dynasty of Almohads overruled them. Almoravids are responsible for the unification of Morocco and the rapid assimilation of the Andalusian culture through their patronage of architecture, poetry and philosophy. During their rule they spread a simple and fundamentalist form of Islam, advocating close adherence to Islamic law, and were opposed to theology and Sufism.
Prince or dignitary.
A Mamluk post; the prince responsible for the royal stables. The blazon for this position is symbolized by a polo stick.
Caliphal title meaning 'Commander of the Faithful.' This title was first given to 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-644 A.D.), the second caliph, who was known for his strength of character, candor and incredible justice. This title was later assumed by several Muslim leaders until its use faded out in the thirteenth century A.D. following the Mongol invasion. Nevertheless, this title was used through the early nineteenth century A.D. by West African Muslim communities.
A Mamluk post; the prince responsible for arms.
See Saljuks of Rum.
Aqqoyunlu (1467-1502 A.D.)
Literally meaning 'Tribes of the White Sheep', this was a Turkish dynasty that ruled eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Persia, Iraq, Afganistan and Turkestan. Originally Turkic tribes, they began raiding Syria, Mesopotamia and Byzantium c.1340 A.D., shortly taking over Diyarbakir. Their initial advances were by Qara Yuluk Uthman (1389-1435 A.D.) who was appointed by Tamerlane as governor of Diyarbakir in 1402 A.D. After 1435 A.D. they lost some territories to their rival Qaraqoyunlo. Uzun Hasan (1453-1478 A.D.) however defeated the Qaraqoyunlus in 1467 A.D., taking over their territories in 1469 A.D. Turkoman culture flourished under the rule of Hasan and his son Yaqub (1478-1490 A.D.). They were eventually defeated by the Safavids who took over Tabriz in 1501 A.D. and annihalted the Aqqoyunlu political power in 1502 A.D. The last Aqqoyunlu ruler was sacked from Mardin in 1507 A.D.
One of the main decorative elements in Islamic art. It is basically a scroll of leaf and stems where the intertwining elements create an interlacing geometric system. This vegetal scroll appears to whirl in circles and interlope with its own indefinite blossoms.
A decorative motif used in illuminating Qur’ans, to tell where the end of each tenth aya is.
A term used for both lintel and doorstep. There are different descriptions of lintels found in the Mamluk documents, one of which is ‘atab musfan to mean joggled voussiors.
Young prince's guardian, who is often a governor. Can also refer to the commander in chief of an army.
Literally meaning 'citrus fruit'. This refers to a recurring motif in Islamic architecture, resembling a lemon, often adorned by a three trilobed chalice at the top.
Literally means 'children of people' and was the term given to the children of the Mamluks who were born in Egypt. A Mamluk could only be a Turkic slave, and this title did not extend to their offspring born in Egypt.
Ayyubids (1171-1250 A.D.)
The dynasty was founded by the Kurdish general Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (d.1193 A.D.), also known as Saladin, who was celebrated for his recovery of Jerusalem. In the name of Sunni Islam, Salah al-Din established the Ayyubid dynasty (1169 A.D.) and eradicated the Shi‘i influences of the previous Fatimid rule in Egypt and Syria. Despite building the walls and enormous citadel of Cairo, he actually only spent eight years in his capital. As well as his victory in Jersualem, Salah al-Din also conquered parts of Yemen and Diyarbakir. The last Ayyubid Sultan was Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub who built a huge corpus of slave soldiers and stationed them on the island of Roda (Bahri Mamluks). Most Ayyubid building activity concentrated on two main aspects, military architecture, including walls and citadels, to combat Crusade invasions, and madrasas.
In Mamluk architecture this term is used to denote the wooden band beneath the ceiling of rooms. This band is used structurally for support and is usually inscribed with Qur’anic verses and the foundation text. The script used in most cases is thuluth on an arabesque background.
Spanish for glazed tiles. The term was derived from zilij, Maghribi Arabic for tiles. Important production centres in Spain were Paterna, Valencia and Seville.