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Muqarnas:

 System of projecting niches used for zones of transition and for architectural decoration.

Definition:

Muqarnas is one of the most characteristic features of Islamic architecture and is used throughout most of the Muslim world (in North Africa a related system known as muqarbaras is also used). Muqarnas is usually associated with domes, doorways and niches, although it is often applied to other architectural features and is sometimes used as an ornamental band on a flat surface.

The earliest examples of muqarnas so far discovered were found at Nishapur in eastern Iran and date to the late ninth or early tenth century. These consist of fragments of stucco niches with carved and painted decoration which were found within domestic buildings. Of a similarly early date are fragments of painted stucco muqarnas belonging to a bath house of the Abbasid or Fatimid period at Fustat in Egypt. The wide dispersion of muqarnas at this early date (ninth-tenth century) suggests that its origin was somewhere in the centre of the Islamic world, probably Baghdad.

During the eleventh century muqarnas spread to most parts of the Middle East (from Egypt to Central Asia) whilst in the western Islamic World a similar device called muqarbaras was also used. The earliest use of muqarnas seems to have been on the inside of buildings in association with domes and vaults. The first use of muqarnas on the exterior of a building is on the tomb of Ladjin in Mazandaran built in 1022 where two superimposed rows are used as decoration. Some of the most impressive examples of muqarnas on the exterior of buildings are where it is used as corbelling for balconies on minarets. One of the best examples of such muqarnas corbelling is found on the minaret of Suq al-Ghazzal in Baghdad dated to the thirteenth century. The base of the minaret is encased in a thick sleeve of muqarnas corbeling above which there is a short shaft which supports a giant six-tiered band of muqarnas corbelling which forms a platform for the balcony.

Generally, however, the most elaborate muqarnas are associated with domes. Some of the earliest and simplest forms of muqarnas can be found in the eleventh-century mausoleums at Aswan in Egypt. One example consists of an arched squinch divided into three lobes on the bottom with a small single niche on top. In Iraq the same device was taken to its most extreme form with the development of conical domes made of muqarnas. The oldest surviving example is the mausoleum of Imam Dur north of Samarra. This dome is extraordinary both for its height (over 25 m) and its profuse, almost organic, muqarnas plaster decoration.

One of the most common uses of muqarnas was for column capitals. Before the eleventh century Islamic buildings would rely on re-used classical and Byzantine capitals or copies of these forms. Muqarnas was particularly suited for use in capitals as it lends itself to the transition from circular column to the square section of an arch and was uniquely Islamic in form. In Ottoman architecture, where Turkish triangles performed the same function as muqarnas pendentives and squinches, muqarnas was still employed for portals, niches, column capitals and other decorative features.

It is in its use for domes and vaults that muqarnas was to have its most significant impact. By providing a diffused method of transition from flat to curved, muqarnas zones of transition were able to break down the distinction between vertical and curved, domed and horizontal. The best examples of this can be seen in conical domes such as that at Natanz in Iran where the roof emerges not as a hemispherical dome but as a multi-faceted prism-like series of surfaces.

The almost universal adoption of muqarnas as architectural decoration meant that it was also adapted for woodwork such as mosque furniture. The minbar of Nur al-Din built for the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem had three bands of tiered muqarnas on a canopy above the foot of the stairs.

In Iraq, Iran and the eastern Islamic world the most suitable materials for muqarnas construction were plaster and baked brick. Both materials have the advantage of being light whilst bricks have the additional advantage of being made to a standard dimension which is useful when repeating the complex geometric alignments necessary for muqarnas. Plaster also has the advantage that it can easily be decorated by carving or painting. In Syria and Egypt the first muqarnas domes were made from plaster suspended from a wooden frame within an outer dome made out of stone. The most famous example of this technique is the dome in Nur al-Din's maristan built in 1154. Later muqarnas stone domes were made, the best examples of which belong to fifteenth-century Egypt.

The first muqarnas was made purely out of interlocking cut niches but fairly early on 'dripping' stalactites were developed. These are thin downward projections from the cut side of the niche which give the illusion of arches suspended in midair. These stalactite niches are some of the most elaborate form of muqarnas which defy attempts at two-dimensional representation.

There are several theories about the origins of muqarnas. Generally the decorative origin and function is favoured over the suggestion that muqarnas was the solution to a particular structural problem. The reason for this conclusion is that some of the earliest examples of muqarnas found were decorative plaster bands, although equally early are examples of muqarnas squinches from Egypt. Whilst certainly muqarnas did have a decorative function, from the beginning its early and frequent association with domes and pendentives suggests that the form had structural associations. The tiered form of muqarnas means that the thrust of the dome could be directed downwards into the corner of a building without adding the extra weight of a pendentive. On the other hand muqarnas squinches are a way of providing a greater span without having to build large heavy arches. In general muqarnas tends to blur the distinction between squinch and pendentive and provides a more subtle transition from square to octagon. A view which combines both decorative and structural functions suggests that the origins of muqarnas may be found in Islamic theology which promotes an occasionalist view of the universe whereby the continued existence of anything is dependent on the will of God. Muqarnas is then a way of expressing this view of the universe where the dome appears to stand without visible support.

 Further Reading:

J. Bloom, 'The introduction of the muqarnas in Egypt', Muqarnas 5, 1988.

 

0. Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (revised and enlarged edition), Yale University Press: New Haven and London 1987.

 

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منبع: آرچ نت دات او آر جی

 



موضوع مطلب : معماری اسلامی


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