The Architecture of the Muslim Caliphate in Spain and North Africa (756-1500).

The Architecture of the Muslim Caliphate in Spain and North Africa (756-1500).

Dr Rabah Saud

University of Ajman

Architecture of Muslim Caliphate in North Africa.

The advent of Islam to North Africa at the hands of Uqba Ibn Nafi (d.683) annexed this region to the Caliphate in the east, becoming firstly part of  the Ummayad and later a province of the Abbasids.  This ex-Vandals ravaged region was steered to civilisation and prosperity quickly restoring its important position in the Mediterranean region and later gaining strategic significance in the Muslim world.  North Africa was, and still, the main propagator of Islam in Europe, and through it Islam reached Spain in 726 at the hand of Tarek ibn Ziyad, Sicily in 827, Malta in 868, and Syracuse in 876 at the hands of the Aghlabids[i].  The strategic geo-political location at the crossroads between Muslim East and Europe made it a prosperous trade centre and due to this the region was transformed into a construction field resulting in the elaboration and dissemination (to Europe) of building techniques and architectural forms as well as the rise of a considerable number of monuments.


North Africa Influential Monuments.

Perhaps the most important of these, and the oldest, is Kairawan Mosque (670-675)[ii] in Tunis.  Saladin (1899) found the significance of the mosque in its irregular form as none of the angles being of right angle. Jairazbhoy, (1972) also gave similar importance to the plan, which consisted of a large court surrounded by columns and horseshoe arches while the sanctuary (prayer hall) consists of 17 parallel aisles separated with arcades on rows of columns (believed to have been brought from Baghdad).  These run to the end of the wall but stop before reaching the last bay.  The central aisle is wider and at the Mihrab is covered by a dome, and here meets a transverse aisle running the entire width of the sanctuary, forming the T shape.  This is believed to be the second instance of this peculiar layout, after the al-Aqsa Mosque plan outlined by Al-Mahdi in 780.  This feature was later copied in the Great Mosque of Cordova (see below) and Abu-Dulaf Mosque in Samara.

Figure 1. Kairawan Mosque showing the rear side of the minaret.

Figure 1. Kairawan Mosque showing the rear side of the minaret.



These features were also repeated all over Aghlabid architecture and we can see them in the Great Mosque of Safax which was built in 849 (rebuilt in 988) with the same T shape plan and the rectangular Minaret standing above the central axis of the prayer hall. In the Great Mosque of Sousse (850) we find peculiar features to the contemporary style of the time such as the use of pillars and masonry groin vaults producing an effect lacking light and weightlessness of the usual mosque, but very similar to that atmosphere found in European Romanesque church of 11th and 12th centuries (figure2).

Figure 2. The use of robust pillars and masonry groin vaults produced the heavy atmosphere.

Figure 2.  The use of robust pillars and masonry groin vaults produced the heavy atmosphere.


Appearing firstly in the Great Ummayyad Mosque of Damascus, the square tower (minaret) became a dominant feature of the North African Mosque. Under Banu Hammad, this minaret reached an enormous size (20 m square) and developed delicate ornamentation consisting of tripartite design as found in Qala of Banu Hammad 1007 (figure 3). The strong resemblance between this minaret and European square towers of the 11th and 12th centuries suggests some link which can be attributed to the influence of the Qala. However, deeper investigation is needed to confirm this. The other distinguishable period for the sophistication of the North African square towers came under the Almohads (1130-1250). From their capitals Marrakesh (Morocco) and Seville (Spain), these proclaimers of the unity of God , took pride in the construction of mosques and particular attention was paid to the minaret due to its symbolic significance. Historic sources revealed four examples and the designer for the first three of these was a Moroccan named Jabir. The first prototype was made at Kutubia Mosque which was built in 1158 in Marrakesh (figure 4). The minaret was 67.6 m high and 12.5 m square with blind simple base, pairs of windows with horseshoe arch pierced in the first floor and the following sections, and richly ornamented top sections. The other two sister minarets designed by Jabir were the minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville (1172-1182) whose plan was remodelled from Kutubia Mosque, and the tower of Hasan Mosque in Rabat (1195-1196). In Seville, the whole structure does not differ greatly from that of Kutubia but the ornamentation details were significantly developed (figure 5). The intersecting multifoil arch décor system (known as Shebka) which appeared in Kutubia as single intersection line in the top section was extensively worn by the Giralda. Meanwhile, wooden balustrades in the form of balcony were introduced in front of each pair of windows of each section. By the conversion of the Mosque into a cathedral, after the Christian conquest, in late 16th century a belfry and other Christian baroque ornaments were added, and only the orange courtyard (Sahn) of the original mosque remains.

The impressive minaret of Mosque Hasan (1195/96) surpassed the above two examples by its enormous size (16 m square and 80 m high) making it a tower look alike rather than minaret (figure 6). Although only three sections remain standing today, we find similar design and ornamental arrangements were applied here too, confirming the same inspirational origin.

The fourth example is more recent and found in the Great Mosque of Mansurah, in Telemcen (Algeria). The mosque was built between 1303-1336 by Abu-al-Hasan Ali who ruled Telemcen beteen 1331 and 1348. Commentators [such as Marcais (1954) and Hoag (1987)] asserted that the mosque was modelled on Hasan Mosque of Rabat in terms of size (197x 279 feet), the use of stone columns, and the Qibla wall proceeded with three parallel aisles while the remaining aisles were perpendicular to the Qibla. The minaret conformed with the Almohad minarets above but had a remarkably larger horseshoe gate (figure 7).


Figure 3. Qala beni Hammad Minaret    Figure 4. Kutubia Minaret     Figure 5. La Giralda, Seville

(Algeria 1007)                                                (Morocco 1158)                       (Andalusia 1172-1182)

Figure 6. Tower of Hassan Mosque,            Figure 7. Minaret of Mansurah Mosque, Telemcen

Rabat (Morocco).                                               (Algeria).


In addition to the contribution of the North African minaret to enriching the Muslim architecture, it has exercised a strong influence on European church tower. Male (1924) summed such influence in three main aspects; in the adoption of multi-section composition of the European tower, in the dual character of blind base and well ornamented upper sections, and in the flanking of the tower at the main entrance gate.



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