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G - 91 : Is Gothic Style of Arab Origin?

Westminster Abbey in the Heart of London, built in the 13th and 14th Century

Most people come to England for job opportunities or its vibrant life style. Even after Brexit, London remains Europe’s most cosmopolitan town. The country also has many lesser-known jewels - like its Gothic churches. England gives you a crash course in Gothic history. Only northern France can rival it.

The Nave of the Cathedral of Reims with its Rosettas

These monuments are testimony to the time when Europe came out of the middle ages. By the turn of the first millennium it rediscovered the secrets of Roman builders. The new gothic designs though were more sophisticated than what we find in the Colosseum, the Pantheon or the Hagia Sophia. Without these new designs, Gothic cathedrals would not reach their stunning heights nor keep their slim shapes. My two favorites are Westminster Abbey and the Cathedralof Reims. Where did these new designs originate from?

The Gothic Cathedral-Basilica of Santa-Maria in La Palma was built from 1229 - 1346

Always assumed they were genuine European inventions. It turns out that European architects were inspired by their Muslim colleagues who came up with pointed and trefoil arches and ribbed vaults a few centuries earlier. Arab architecture was originally based on Byzantine designs. They loved the domes and towers which became standard features for any mosque. Without access to the volcanic ash the Romans used to make light concrete for domes, Arab architects had a weight problem. How to build domes with heavy material? The answer could not be thicker walls. Loving mathematics and geometry, they came up with a novel solution for weight distribution: pointed arches and ribbed vaults

Ribbed Vaults and Pointed Arches were used for the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by the Umayyad Rulers in the late 7th Century - The Dome was made from Wood though

Having acquired an Empire almost by accident in the 7th century, the Arab rulers were eager to learn everything they could from the Hellenistic and Byzantine world. All Greek and Roman classics were translated. Universities were opened in Baghdad and Cordoba. Innovations spread quickly along trading routes. In places ruled by Arabs, new mosques went up with the new designs. One of the best-preserved examples is the mosque in Cordoba, the former capital of Al-Andalus. The quality of the masonry was so high that – despite several earthquakes – it never needed to be repaired and still stands in full glory. Cordoba’s cathedral is called Mezquita today – the Spanish word for mosque.

The Dome of the former Mosque of Cordoba with its perfect Pointed Arches

From Crete, Sicily and Spain, the new design spread north to places which did not have access to Roman concrete either. The knowledge also spread during the crusades via the maritime mini republics. A good example is the church of Amalfi which most people admire for its black and white marble stripes. The most innovative feature though are the pointed arches which allow for big windows. Roman churches were usually dark.

The Duomo of Amalfi was one of the first Churches where Pointed Arches were used

Pointed arches and ribs made larger windows possible. Finally, light could stream into the churches. The time of stained-glass windows had arrived.

Chapter House in Westminster Abbey - Without Pointed Arches and Ribs there would be no space for the beautiful stained-glass Windows

Our history books often talk of the clash between Christian and Muslim civilisation. It is a perspective derived from centuries of religious wars. But we also know that most Christian communities in the Middle East welcomed their new Arab rulers in the 7th century. The were less oppressive than the former Byzantine Masters. The Muslim rulers left the multiple Christian Churches in peace. Different cultures often collaborate and inspire. New solutions are taken up regardless of origin. The Gothic Cathedrals in Europe still represent Christian spirituality – even if their key design is an Arab invention.

The Entrance of the Amalfi Duomo illustrates how "light" supporting columns became

If you like to read more about the subject, there is a well-illustrated book from Diana Darke, “Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe”, published in 2020.

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