From Cave to Palace: Mocárabe in Architecture

Architecture is full of flowers, textures and patterns of nature. How do these recollections both soothe and impress the eye?

Ceiling of  © HORIZON with CCLicense

Ceiling of Charbagh Theological School, Isfahan, Iran
© HORIZON with CCLicense

We are accustomed to seeing stylized imitations of plant and rock textures and forms decorating our homes, workplaces and just about anywhere we go. Cave stalactites have found their way into architecture as well, in the ornate form called mocárabe or muqarna. Also known in Arabic as al-halimat al-‘uliya, or the overhang, mocárabe is an ornamental design that originated in northern Africa and Iran in the 10th Century, consisting of sculpted geometric shapes projecting downward from a surface.

Sala de los Dos Hermanas,  Alhambra, Granada, Spain © Antonio M. Mora García with CCLicense

Sala de los Dos Hermanas, Alhambra, Granada, Spain
© Antonio M. Mora García with CCLicense

Perhaps the most famous use of this beautiful decoration in the West is in the Alhambra palace of Granada, built under the direction of the Nasrid dynasty in Spain. Above is the domed ceiling of the Sala de los dos Hermanas, the Room of the two Sisters, reaching down like an exquisite, lacy flower. The regularity and mathematical precision of the mocárabe are hypnotic, somehow soothing.

The Sala de los Abencerrages, Alhambra, Granada © James Doyle with CCLicense

The Sala de los Abencerrajes, Alhambra, Granada
© James Doyle with CCLicense

Nearby is the star shaped dome of the Sala de los Abencerrajes, the Room of the Abencerrages, with its stunningly placed windows throwing patterns of light and shadow over the fantastic mocárabe, which resemble images in a giant kaleidoscope.

Sala de los Abencerraje, Alhambra  © jvwpc with CCLicense

Sala de los Abencerraje, Alhambra
© jvwpc with CCLicense

The name of the room stems from a legend in which an unnamed sultan slew the entire Abencerrages family for an unsolicited affair between one of their number and a royal lady. He reportedly had them shut up in this beautiful room, then ordered his men to kill them. There is an evocative red rust stain in a fountain at the center of the room which may have inspired or at least given given credence to the story. Perhaps it was a fable, someone’s idea of discouraging hanky-panky in the court. One can see how imaginations might run wild in such a fantastic place.

Looking into a corner in the Sala de los Abencerrages

Looking into a corner in the Sala de los Abencerrajes

The invocation of the cave is so strong in some of these rooms that I can imagine some vampire hanging about as a bat, living it up Dracula style.

Alhambra, Granada, Spain © Antonio M. Mora García with CCLicense

Alhambra, Granada, Spain
© Antonio M. Mora García with CCLicense

The attention to detail borders on the overwhelming, but everything comes together in large scale patterns.

Alhambra, Granada, Spain © RaMaOrLi with CCLicense

Alhambra, Granada, Spain
© RaMaOrLi with CCLicense

The Nasrids had their mocárabe carved from the features which they decorate rather than using moulds for clay and plaster and applying the mocárabe to an underlying structure.

© Anneke Bart with CCLicense

Alhambra, Granada, Spain
© Anneke Bart with CCLicense

Another of Nasrid work can be seen at the Corral del Carbòn in Granada, a simple storehouse originally used for foodstuffs and later for charcoal. The work here is less delicate and fine, but it is still pretty impressive, especially considering the function of the building.

Corral del Carbòn, Granada, Spain © laundalauts with CCLicense

Corral del Carbòn, Granada, Spain
© landalauts with CCLicense

Flamenco dance and theater troupes frequently perform here, as the structure combines dramatic aesthetic beauty with practical space.

Corral del Carbòn, Granada, Spain © landalauts with CCLicense

Corral del Carbòn, Granada, Spain
© landalauts with CCLicense

Mocárabe became so ingrained in Spanish culture that it was incorporated into the Palacio Real de Aranjuez in Madrid, the residence of the King of Spain, commissioned by Philip II and finished in the mid 18th century.

Palacio Real de Aranjuez, Madrid, Spain © Konstantinos -Boadilla del Monte with CCLicense

Palacio Real de Aranjuez, Madrid, Spain
© Konstantinos -Boadilla del Monte with CCLicense

Islamic craftsmen and artists have been extremely creative in their use of texture and patterning in decoration, partially because figures of humans and animals were not permitted for their use on religious grounds. To portray any being which contains the breath of life can be seen as an affront to God, an attempt to create like He created, but to focus the mind in patterns is recognized as a centering and meditative practice.

Masjed-e Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran © Nevit Dilmen with CCLicense

Masjed-e Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran
© Nevit Dilmen with CCLicense

Isfahan, in Iran, is one of the birthplaces of mocárabe, containing many fine and varied examples fashioned over centuries.

The Friday Mosque, Isfahan, Iran ©LetsGoIran with CCLicense
Masjed-e Jāmé Mosque
Isfahan, Iran
©LetsGoIran with CCLicense
Masjed-e Jame Mosque, Isfahan, Iran © youngrobv with CCLicense

Masjed-e Jāmé Mosque, Isfahan, Iran
© youngrobv with CCLicense

 

Islamic geometric patterns are second to none in their mathematical elegance, complexity and beauty. The mocárabe itself may have spiritual significance, perhaps symbolizing the cave in which Mohammed received the Koran.

Ibn Youseff Mosque, Morocco © Khalid Albaih with CCLicense

Ibn Youseff Mosque, Morocco
© Khalid Albaih with CCLicense

Mocárabe was originally introduced to Spain and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Almoravid dynasty of Morocco, centered at Marrakesh, who ruled over southern Spain and were instrumental in defending the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus (Andalusia) against the Christian army of the Castilian and Aragonese. Much of the richness of southern Spanish culture is due to the influence of the highly advanced Islamic civilization which flourished there from 711 to 1492 AD. You can read more here. There is much more beauty to be found.

10 thoughts on “From Cave to Palace: Mocárabe in Architecture

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  4. Love the article. The mathematics behind it fascinates me as well, but I have not found a good article that explains that part. I have seen the 2-D drawings form the Topkapi museum (I think that’s where they were from) that showed some of the design.

    • Thank you! I would love to see those drawings. I have a feeling that there is a great deal of writing on the technical and mathematical elements of mocárabe that hasn’t been translated into English yet, at least for the general public. There is always more to discover.

      kat

      • Thank you, those are absolutely gorgeous! There are quite possibly documents in Spanish, but my guess is that there are some Arabic treatises on proportion somewhere. Library time.

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