Islamic Architecture and Interior Design – Part II

Part 2 – Arches, Lattices, Calligraphy, and Mosaics.



The arch, another common feature of Islamic space, is a loadbearing or decorative composite structural frame, whose vessoirs are disposed radially and held together by compressive force, usually found in large openings where brick is used (Graves, 2006, Edwards and Edwards, 1999). It was used as a lintel in buildings made of brick, wood, marble, and sandstone, where large spans could not be accommodated across openings without structural support.

The arch acts as a triumvirate alongside the dome and the squinch to interrupt solid cubic spatial masses and increase verticality in space. Symbolically, the arch is regarded as a gateway to Paradise (Rodrigues, 2008).

The Muslims adapted the arch from existing Roman architecture during the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. Some of the main types of arches include blind arches, pointed arches, shouldered arches, horseshoe arches, keel arches, and arcades. Simple round arches and shouldered arches were the most prevalent forms in Roman and Sassanian architecture from 600-900A.D. (Edwards and Edwards 1999).

One of the first examples of a pointed arch is found in the Dome of the Rock temple, where the cubic volume breaks up to transform into the dome. This set the tradition for other Muslim buildings in the following centuries.

A semi-circular arch above columns is found at the entrance to the Prayer Hall in the Great Mosque of Damascus, also built by the Umayyads (Graves, 2006). Because of the Umayyads’ constant technical experimentation with the arch-squinch-dome combination lead to the diversification and elaboration of arch design, and so the simple round arch soon disappeared from Islamic architecture (Edwards and Edwards, 1999).


Great Mosque of Damascus arches
Interlaced and joggled arches, Great Mosque of Damascus.


When the Islamic empire spread to Spain, and the Nasrids established Alhambra Citadel, they had to deal with extremes in weather; temperatures ranging from -13 to +43 degree Celsius. The summer heat waves made outdoor gardens and courtyards extremely important. One of their solutions to allow fresh air into the rooms surrounding the courtyards was to have a series of arcades of horseshoe and keel arches around the courtyards. In these, the shape of the corbel differentiated it from the Roman arch, while still allowing maximum air and sunlight into the spaces within. (Willmert, 2010).

The best repository of arches in Spain is the Great Mosque in Cordoba (785-987). These include near-straight-sided arches, trefoil and interlaced and joggled arches (Graves, 2006). (Fig. 2)

The arch was first used in India more 2000 years ago. Despite this, and the widespread use of arches in the West and Middle East, it was not commonly used in Islamic buildings in the Indian subcontinent until the twelfth century (Graves, 2006), mainly due to the absence of regular round and pointed arches as an important architectural element in Hindu and Buddhist buildings, which were the predominant buildings at the time, and mainly built of either stone or sandstone. (Lambourne, 2010).

The Mughals preferred lobed and ogee arches, as it set their buildings apart from the existing subcontinental architecture, and from other Muslim buildings. Post and lintel construction methods were commonly used where the arch had a functional duty (Edwards and Edwards, 1999), but blind arches, which were for decorative purposes only, were used on the periphery walls of the Taj Mahal (Alfieri, 2000), after its predecessor, the Tomb of Timur at Samarkand.


Alhambra arches
Horseshoe, keel and lobed arches at Alhambra Citadel.


Most modern Islamic buildings also conform to the standard arch shapes, as they are synonymous with Islamic architecture, but the Chadgoan mosque has broken the mould – literally. Chowdhury has designed arches that retain their symbolism as entrances to a simpler, spiritual path and portals of light, but has changed their form to straightforward apertures that span the concrete walls.



Lattices, calligraphy and mosaics and other decorative patterns are iconic features of Islamic interior design. Lattices were first seen in Arabian and Syrian housing to keep out the hot sun and provide shade and coolness to the rooms inside (Blair Moore, 2010). In basic form, they were screens made of wood with horizontal and vertical grids carved into them. Later, they were developed by Sassanid and Byzantine church builders, and these in turn were adapted by the Umayyads and Abbasids in their designs for the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus (Avner, 2010).

Islam’s emphasis on geometric patterns and stylised floral designs resulted in heavily decorated lattices. An example is the lattices in the courtyard rooms at the Alhambra palace. In addition to being an attractive decorative element, the lattices kept out the oppressive Spanish summer heat (Willmert, 2010).

Lattices did not gain prominence in Indian architecture until the British colonisation (Preston and Preston, 2007), but basic lattice forms are seen in the Taj Mahal. Modern mosques and secular buildings have simplified geometric lattices unless they are built after traditional designs. The Chadgoan Mosque forgoes all such decoration all together, concentrating on creating atmosphere with the form of the building instead.

Calligraphy and mosaics have a special place in Islamic architecture. Although they are found in many cultures and religions starting with the Chinese and Japanese (Ahouja and Loeb, 1995), they are at their richest and most beautiful in Islamic buildings. Calligraphy is the art of lettering, and engraving is the art of carving pictures and patterns into building materials (Ching, Jarzombek and Prakash 2007).  For example, Taj Mahal’s lower tomb chamber has mosaics and inlaid Quran inscriptions promising God’s mercy and forgiveness on the walls and roof. Tiny cartouches containing the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah are placed on the cenotaphs and tombstones – a Mughal peculiarity not found on other tombstones (Koch, 2006).

Engravings and mosaics of flowers are done on the walls of the inner chambers of the Taj Mahal; these are example of botanical species and flowering plants blended together, to create hybrids which represented otherworldly species outside the laws of nature (Koch, 1991).


 Mosaics of flowers and botany influenced by Islamic culture – Taj Mahal.


It is a popular sentiment that Islamic laws stated in the Koran forbid the depiction of naturalised human figures and botanical species, which led to ingenuity in exploring geometric forms and designs as representations of the divine. However, Omer (2016) says that mosque and home decoration was permitted within rational boundaries as long as it did not interfere with prayer or spiritual strengthening; laws prohibiting decoration were passed by caliphates and councils through the years.

Tessellations are related to calligraphy – it is a single word or phrase written out in mathematical proportions, often in shapes such as octagons and hexagons, using calligraphy – and are also common in mosques and citadels. Not all words can be tessellated; “Ali” is the most successfully tessellated word in an octagon (Ahouja and Loeb, 1995).

Next up: Part III – Grids, Courtyards, Gardens, and the conclusion.


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