When Umayyad Caliph al-Hakam II decided to expand the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, in 965, he faced a problem: mosaic-making knowhow had disappeared from this part of southwestern Europe half a millennium before, when the Romans were driven out of Hispania. Without it, al-Hakam II’s prospects of emulating his ancestors and recreating the kind of splendid, Byzantine-style mosaics attained in Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque were slim. So he sent a message East to Constantinople and Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II, asking for a little capacity-building support in order that he might create, in his dynasty’s Andalusian exile, a reminder of its Syrian homeland.
The emperor of Byzantium complied, sending over a skilled mosaicist, several Syrian apprentices and assistants, and several sackfuls of gold cubes. The resulting delicate mosaics survived the mosque’s conversion into a cathedral and remain incrusted to this day on the Mezquita’s mihrab.
Muslim caliphs in western Europe sending aid requests to Christian emperors living within Asia’s sight line is the kind of heretical anecdote relished by Diana Darke, and heavily populate Stealing from the Saracens. Her book traces an iconoclastic architectural narrative across time and space, pausing at exotic buildings, vanished and extant: desert palaces, Crusader and Ayyubid castles, and the Nilometer. But most of all, she uses religious architecture, churches, monasteries and mosques, to summon up a geography of architectural influence drifting westwards from the Christian and Muslim East, to evolve creatively in the cosmopolitan Mediterranean ports remaining immune to orthodoxy.
From a simple third-century house-church in Mesopotamia’s Dura Europos to Antioch’s long-lost Domus Aurea (Golden House) cathedral, and from St Simeon’s elaborate basilica in northern Syria to the glittering mosaics of Ravenna’s San Vitale and Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, the Abbey of Cluny and the onion-domed and Islamically-ornamented St Mark’s in Venice, Darke weaves a narrative of how ‘the history of Western medieval architecture, like that of Western culture in general, cannot be written without reference to the lessons learnt from Islamic culture, whereas the history of Islamic medieval architecture can be written largely without reference to the West.’ Combative, compelling and occasionally reductionist, Stealing from the Saracens is very much a product of its polarised time. It began life as a tweet even as Paris’ Notre Dame smouldered, then detonated into a viral social media sphere blogpost, before reaching us in final book form to shed light on our blind spot about just how much Western architecture owes to Eastern wisdom.
Diana Darke, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, Hurst, London, 2020.