Doesn’t Gothic look pretty “Islamic”?

3 Mar

In Old Cairo, I was searching for one thing, really: the madrassah or school of the Mamluk Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad, built in the 1290s. The reason is that I knew it was a building that contained an architectural relic transported from the Holy Land. This relic is extraordinary. It is a portal from the city of Acre, in the northern part of present-day Israel, and it was part of a structure built by western crusaders in the 13th century. Acre was the last outpost of the crusaders in the Holy Land. They finally got ousted from there in a major defeat in 1291, at the hands of the Mamluks (Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil,  conquered Acre in 1291, and the portal was assimilated into the facade of the madrasa by al-‘Adil Katbughaour, Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad’s predecessor). The entire portal was transported like a military trophy to Cairo. As the portal to his school for the study of the Qu’ran, built in the 1290s, it was a gem in a new setting.

It took some searching, but I found it:

That’s just to give a sense of the whole. Here is a closer view of the portal:

The Sultan’s appropriation is sealed by that little roundel right above the pointed arch. It reads, “Allah.”

The thing about this portal is that the thousands of people who have walked by it every week since the 1290s probably have not recognized it as foreign. I mean, compare it to the other arches, real Islamic ones, in this same building. It’s just not that different.

Experts can tell the difference: the colonnettes in the jambs and the ribbing in the arches are typically Gothic, as is the trefoil of the innermost arch. Also, the marble is whiter, clearly from elsewhere. But the main point is that this portal doesn’t look very out of place in an Islamic context because–get ready! this is the eureka moment!–because Gothic itself was an imitation of Islamic architecture. It took its cue from Islamic architecture encountered by crusaders in the Holy Land. But here’s the twist: they didn’t think of this style as Islamic. They thought of it as “ancient Holy Land style.”

If you look in your textbooks, the first Gothic buildings are St Denis near Paris and Noyon cathedral, both built in the 1140s. But there is another first Gothic structure, and that is the rebuilt Holy Sepulcher church in Jerusalem, done by the crusaders. They did it in 1140 or so. They used pointed arches on that structure because that was what they were seeing all over Jerusalem on all the important buildings. Gothic was a Holy Land import, a direct effect of exposure to the architecture of the eastern Mediterranean.

So when Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad imported this portal back to Cairo, what did he think he was doing? Was this a knowing reclamation? If that was the case, he would have been saying something powerful, something along the lines of “You thought you could occupy the Holy Land, but you barely laid a claim to it. In fact, it occupied you. And now we will re-assimilate your derivative efforts back into our grand structures.” Or is that granting too much self-awareness? Clearly he knew this was a crusader portal. He had just taken back the city of Acre. This is a trophy, and it has been islamicized.

I’m not sure what the more moderate claim would be. Maybe he simply saw the subtle difference and enjoyed it, enjoyed owning it: “Look at this exotic portal: now it’s ours.”

If you have any thoughts, please comment.


10 Responses to “Doesn’t Gothic look pretty “Islamic”?”

  1. Alan brown March 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Interesting observations. A couple of more points:

    . They have found arabic numerals numbering roof beams on gothic cathedrals that were roughly contemporary with fibonaci’s visit in Andalusia.

    . edward Gibbon points out that the sack of jerusalem can’t have been that bad because most of th native population haf returned within a couple of years. He attributes our impression of it’s severity to the writings of hysterical monks, like william of tyre.

    If you add in the the adaptation of the Normans to the culture of sicily, when they conquered it – a different picture presents itself.

    It seems a world where good ideas had their own legitimacy.

  2. Anat Meruk March 8, 2012 at 1:11 am #

    feels like its the missing chapter in calvino’s – “le citta nascoste”…

    • Anat Meruk March 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

      correction – citta’ invisibili…

  3. Spirito Pellegrino March 8, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    I wonder if when the Gothic portal hit Cairo in the 1290s it was like when the Rolling Stones first brought their metabolized blues back to the southern United States (and Chicago!) in Spring 1965.

    • Maria Georgopoulou January 29, 2016 at 2:46 pm #

      I would like to publish a high resolution photo of P1050173 or 1050174 in a scholarly essay and would need your signed approval. Would this be possible?

      • Spirito Pellegrino December 4, 2020 at 5:38 pm #

        Maria, I’m very sorry to say I am seeing this only now! I hope you used them and that you can send me the reference. All best, Alex


  1. Wednesday links | Tyler Green: Modern Art Notes | - March 7, 2012

    […] Doesn’t Gothic architecture look really, well, Islamic? [via] […]

  2. Magnetism and orientation. « spiritopellegrino - May 1, 2012

    […] over by the Mamluks after they kicked the crusaders out of the holy land in 1291. (See my earlier post about […]

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