Chapter 1

Early  Buildings

From Mecca and Medina to Omayyad Spain
and the Syrian Desert Palaces

640 - 740

The Califs of Medina 640-690

The two large pilgrimage complexes in Medina and Mecca go back to the lifetime of the prophet. They started from humble palm huts where he taught and gave his sermons and have grown into vast structures which artistically own their final form to the Ottomans and the 80 years since 1922.

Medina, Saudi Arabia
al-Masjid al-Nabawi. The Prophet's Mosque and Tomb

622 to the 20th cent
Architect Dar El Handasah

The Mosque of the Prophet was built in 622 by the Muslim community after they reached the city of Yathrib, which would later be called al-Madina al-Muanwara. The mosque was situated next to the Prophet's house, and it consisted of a square enclosure of thirty by thirty-five meters, built with palm trunks and mud walls.

After the death of the Prophet, the mosque was enlarged to twice its size. In 707, by Umayyad Caliph al-Walid (705-715). Mamluk Sultans built the dome over the Prohets house and tomb and built and rebuilt the four minarets. The Ottomans (1517-1917) added and reconstucted the mosque until in the 20th cent the entire complex was remodeled and enlarged. - The mosque enclosure is one hundred times bigger than the first mosque built by the Prophet and can accommodate more than half a million worshippers.

Mecca, Saudi Arabia
al-Masjid al-Haram Great Mosque of al-Haram

1564, 1571-2, modern expansion in 1955

View of the mosque from the east after the first Saudi extension, showing the minarets with two balconies and the four monumental gates.


Yemen is a unique case architecturally. The local vernacular is so strong that the construction of their mosques - among the earliest in Islam - is firstly and lastly influenced by local colors. There is some Omayyad influence in the layout of the Great Mosque, but even the mosques built during the Ottoman reign have a specific Yemenite signature.

Sana'a, Yemen
The City

Sana'a is an architectural museum in its own right. Recently restored, its 13th-18th century buildings are unique.
All photos and text from

Sana'a, Yemen
Great Mosque - Jami al-Kabir


According to early sources, Prophet Muhammad commanded the construction of this mosque, including its location and dimensions, sometime around 630. While the validity of this claim lacks evidence and certainty, the mosque remains one of the first architectural projects in Islam. Sometime between 705 and 715, the Umayyid Caliph al-Walid I, rebuilt a new and larger mosque at the site.
Isma`ili Queen Arwa ibn Ahmad (12th cent) initiated an upgrade and restoration of the mosque. Towards this end she rebuilt its eastern wing complete with a new beautifully sculpted ceiling.

Interior with pre-Islamic columns

Coffered wooden ceiling (12th cent)

The following descriptions of  later mosques in Sana’a  are out of historical order to  keep the few pictures of Sana’a together.

Sana'a, Yemen
Imam Salah al-Din Mosque

1390, minaret 16th cent

The Mosque of Imam Salah al-Din is the tomb of Imam Salah al-Din Muhammad. It dates to 1390. The mosque is well-known for its minaret. Constructed in the late 16th century by Ottoman governor Sinan

Sana'a, Yemen
Al-Bakiriyya Mosque


Images and text from

The Mosque of al-Bakiriyya dates to 1597 during the first Ottoman occupation in Yemen. It was built by the governor of Sana'a, Hasan Pasha, as a tribute to one of his friends who is buried next to the mosque. Nearby, off of the public square in front of the citadel gate, Hasan Pasha also commissioned the Baths of al-Bakiriyya. This hammam served as the waqf to provide the income to support the mosque. With its grand size and detailed carved ornamentation, al-Bakiriyya is a spectacular example of classical Ottoman architecture

Ornamented weight tower in the foreground with minaret behind to the right

Floor Plan showing the penditives

Omayyad Syria and Spain 661-750

Overlooking Yemen's Great Mosque,  Islamic art-history considers the Dome of the Rock and the Omayyad Mosque of Damascus as the beginning of Islamic Architecture. In a formal sense this is true. The marriage between Byzantine architecture and Islamic needs and tastes took place in Syria and Palestine – and the craftsmen were from Constantinople and Armenia.

A most interisting subject - beyond this investigation - is the refertilization of late Byzantine art by Islamic concepts.  For several centuries Islamic forms and designs resurfaced in Christian sacred architecture: the Iconoclast Period in Byzantine art, Norman architecture in Sicily and Apulia, down to the early Gothic cathedrals in Spain and France  -  not to mention Emperor Frederick II and St. Fancis. - Some Islamic scholars (Idries Shah) maintain that the Gothic masons' lodges were made up of Islamic Sufis from Italy, Spain and Southern France.

The Dome of the Rock, Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah

687 – 691

The Dome was built between 687 and 691 by the 9th Caliph, Abd al-Malik, making it the oldest extant Islamic building. It is in the shape of a Byzantine martyrium, a structure intended for the housing and veneration of saintly relics and is an excellent example of middle Byzantine art. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520 -1566) the exterior of the Dome of the Rock was covered with Iznik tiles. The work took seven years.
The rock in the center of the dome is the spot from which, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad ascended for a night-long journey to Heaven in AD 621, accompanied by the archangel Gabriel. It has other connotations to Christians and Jews.
In 1955-1964 an extensive program of renovation was begun by the government of Jordan, with funds supplied by the Arab governments and Turkey. The work included replacement of large numbers of the Iznik tiles. In 1960, as part of this restoration, the dome was covered with a durable aluminium and bronze alloy made in Italy.

Damascus, Syria
The Great Omayyad Mosque


During Roman times the site was a temple of Jupiter which was in the Byzantine era converted into a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist. The Muslim conquest of Damascus in 636 did not affect the church, as the site was shared by Muslim and Christian worshippers. The Umayyad caliph Al-Walid I purchased the site and demolished the church. He built the present mosque between 706 and 715 with the help of 200 skilled Byzantine workers: including  the mosaics in the overlong (136 x 37 m) prayer hall. Most of this interior decoration was lost in a great fire in 1893. The mosaics on the outside are of recent date.
The building is a simple solution of the Islamic need for a space in which all could face Mecca and see the quibbla. It has been copied in a number of places (e.g. the Great Mosque of Diyarbakir, Turkey). Another early scheme to achieve the same goal is the Mesquita in Cordoba, Spain.

The old south-facade of the Church of St. John Baptist


Floor plan from

Cordoba, Andalusia
The Great Mosque of Cordoba

The construction of the Mesquita (originally the Aljama Mosque) took over two centuries, starting in 784 A.D. under the supervision of the first Emir Abd ar-Rahman I, who built it as an adjunct to his palace - and named it in honor of his wife - on the site of the Visigothic cathedral of St. Vincent. The mosque underwent numerous subsequent changes: Abd ar-Rahman III built a new minaret, while Al-Hakem II, in 961, enlarged the plan of the building and enriched the mihrab. The last changes were carried out by Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Amir in 987.

In 1236 Cordoba was captured by King Ferdinand III of Castile. The Mesquita was reconsecrated as a Christian church. Alfonso X oversaw the construction of the Villaviciosa Chapel and the Royal Chapel within the structure of the mosque. The most significant alteration was the construction of a Renaissance cathedral in the middle of the structure by Charles V (1530s). Still this reversion to a Christian church (officially the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin) may have helped to preserve the Mesquita.

The Mesquita is one of the most beautiful sacred spaces in the world, and Charles V's insertion of an entire cathedral only underscores the peace and quiet of the Islamic architecture.

Cordoba, Spain
Medina Azahara (Medinat al-Zahara)


The ruins of al-Zahara near Cordoba were discovered in 1911. Only about 10 percent has been excavated and restored. The city flourished for approximately 80 years. Built by Abd ar-Rahman III the Caliph of Csrdoba starting between 936 and 940. The largest known city built from scratch in Western Europe. Madinat al-Zahra was destroyed in 1010 during the civil war that led to the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordoba. Abd al-Rahman III moved his entire court to Medina Azahara in 947-48. - Popular legend holds that the Caliph named al-Zahra, or Azahara, after his favorite wife (the Spaniards say concubine).

Omayyad Desert Palaces 7th-8th cent

A special case of Omayyad architecture are the desert palaces of the 7th and 8th century in Syria and Jordan  - another stepchild of Islamic architecture – because so little has survived. However, the few surviving examples, mostly in hard-to-access parts of the Syrian desert, are glorious documents of an entirely unexspected  joi de vivre  of the Omayad Califs - considering the ascetic mind set of early Islam.
I have included a coarse map from Alfred Renz's book and tried to actually place and illustrate as many of them as I could find.

Qasr-ibn Warda,  Syria
6th cent

Photo by Forro Tibor from Panoramio.

Qasr ibn Wardan is a mid 6th century castle complex located in the Syrian desert. The complex - a palace, a church, and barracks - was erected by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as part of a defense line (together with Rasafa and Halabiyya) against the Persians. Its unique style, "imported" directly from Constantinople and not found anywhere else in present day Syria, was probably chosen to impress local Beduin tribes.   

Al Walid's Anjar Palace

Photo by Gregory Zdaniuk from Panoramio

Rural pleasure palace of al-Walid I. A square walled complex resembling Roman-Byzantine army camps. Excavated 1957. A mosque, baths, service quarters, partly restored.

Quasr al-Kharrana

Photo by ToniFarri, Panoramio

Lacking a large water supply and baths Qasr Kharana was not a pleasure castle. Its remote yet highly visible location, coupled with the layout and organization of the building, indicate that it was used as a protected place for the Damascus government to meet with tribal leaders. 

Qasr al-Amra, Jordan

Charming, well-preserved small "red castle" built for Omayyad Caliph al-Walid Architecturally the large throne room resembles a 3-nave Byzantine church. Attached are warm- and hot-steam baths. extensive murals - in poor shape - depict Persian Shah Khosrau, the remperor of Byzantium, and other famous rulers of the world (Persian influences?), the colors of the murals remind of those preserved from Dura-Europos (Museum Damascus). The surprise in the nudity-hostile Islamic-Arabic world, are the bathing and pleasure scenes in lovely garden murals: The pleasures of Paradise on this Earth!

Qasr al-Hallabat and Sarakh Baths, Jordan
Omayyad Palace

Originally a Roman fortress constructed under Emperor Caracalla to protect its inhabitants from Bedouin tribes, this site dates to the second and 3rd century AD. It was one fort of many on the Roman highway, Via Nova Traiana, a route that connected Damascus to Aqaba by way of Petra and Amman. In 709 the Umayyad caliph Hisham ordered the Roman structures to be demolished in order to redevelop this military site and its neighboring territory to become one of the grandest of all Umayyad desert complexes.

Approximately 1400 meters east of the palace stand the remains of the mosque at Qusayr al-Hallabat constructed of layered limestone.
The bath located approximately two kilometers east of the main site is known as Hammam as-Sarakh and consists of a rectangular audience hall, and a bath. It is reminiscent of Qsar 'Amra in plan. From

Kirbat al-Mafdjar

Hunting and pleasure castle of Caliph Hisham (724-43) younger brother of al-Walid I. Most magnificent of Walid's castles. Heated baths (30x30 m!), caldarium with large mosaic floor, aqueduct, remnants of a minaret, palace mosque, great hall for audiences, fountain house with rich ornamentation. The most precious finds are in the Museum in Jerusalem.

Kirbat al-Mafdjar

Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi

 Ruined pleasure castle of Caliph Hisham. The archeological finds including a reconstructed entry gate are in the National Museum of Damascus.

Photo saleem55, Panoramio

Qasr al Hayr ash Sharqi

Impressive ruins of a pleasure castle of Calif Hisham
Photo saleem55, Panoramio

Qasr al-Mshatta, Jordan

As one of the largest and most impressive of the Umayyad palaces, the unfinished, tawny-toned limestone and brick complex at Qasr al-Mshatta includes an entrance hall, a mosque, an audience hall, and residential quarters. Commissioned by Umayyad caliph al-Walid II. Construction concluded in 744 when he was assassinated. "Winter Camp" is a large square "castrum" of 144x144 m wall length.

The most beautiful feature of Mshatta, however, remains in the rich and intricately carved features on its southern exterior, a significant section of which was given to Kaiser Wilhelm as a gift from the Ottoman sultan 'Abd al-Hamid just before World War I . These reconstructed ornamental sculptures from the gates are the piece-de-resistance of the Islamic Museum in Berlin: