“Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe” by Diana Darke

Ribbed cross-vaulting in the 10th-century Mezquita, Córdoba (via Wikimedia Commons) Ribbed cross-vaulting in the 10th-century Mezquita, Córdoba (via Wikimedia Commons)

The morning after Notre-Dame Cathedral caught fire last year, Diana Darke remarked on Twitter and then on her blog that much of what is considered iconically European about the cathedral—the twin towers, the gothic arches—is Middle Eastern in origin. This created something of a stir and in the provocatively-entitled Stealing from the Saracens, Darke sets out to prove it.

After some initial surprise, the case she makes is, if not quite self-evident, right there before our eyes. Pointed arches, trefoil arches, tracery, ribbed vaults, spires, stained glass, sunlit spaces—everything one goes to Chartres or Canterbury to see—can be found earlier in what we now call the Middle East. Some of this is “common knowledge”: the “Eastern” features of Venice’s San Marco are pointed out by tour guides; the two-toned facades of many Italian cathedrals recall similar, earlier stonework in Córdoba’s Mezquita. But narrative is powerful: Gothic was long known as the “French style”. Wikipedia gives it as

 

Gothic architecture (or pointed architecture) … evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. It originated in 12th-century northern France and England as a development of Norman architecture.

 

Just as surprising is that, like a number of other things now forgotten, educated people closer to the time knew the truth. Christopher Wren, who is a running theme in Stealing from the Saracens, wrote that Gothic should really be known as the “Saracen style”: he found it structurally weak and didn’t think much of it. In his construction of St Paul’s, Wren ironically rejected one style originating in the Middle East for another: the double dome.

Much of what Darke points to is neither really “stealing” nor “Saracen”.

Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, Diana Darke (Hurst, August 2020)
Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, Diana Darke (Hurst, August 2020)

The book’s title, however, is somewhat infelicitous. A review in the Guardian had an incendiary headline of its own: “Looted Landmarks: how Notre-Dame, Big Ben and St Mark’s were stolen from the east”:

 

They are beacons of western civilisation. But, says an explosive new book, the designs of Europe’s greatest buildings were plundered from the Islamic world – twin towers, rose windows, vaulted ceilings and all

 

That’s not really what Darke says. Copying an architectural feature or a design is not, except perhaps in our own overly litigious century, “stealing” let alone “plundering”. Nor did Europeans at the time (with the possible exception of the Visigoths and the horseshoe arch) claim to have invented any of it.

And much of what Darke points to isn’t (pace Wren) really “Saracen”. Her story is most convincing in the discussions of arches and vaulting, which depend on engineering and whose development can be tracked, but she starts the book noting that Notre-Dame’s double tower façade has a precedent in Syria’s 5th-century Qalb Lozeh church—not just non-Islamic, but pre-Islamic.  Similarly mosaics and colored glass pre-date Islam, and were widely used in classical Roman as well as Byzantine art and architecture. Spires and bell towers look like minarets, but there are examples (even in Europe) from earlier periods. Darke admits this upfront:

 

It is essential to see the picture in the round and to acknowledge that many characteristics of Islamic architecture grew out of the earlier Byzantine heritage already extant. The Byzantine, Arab Christian heritage in turn had grown out of the Hellenistic-Roman legacy of the eastern Mediterranean region…

 

The result, however, is that this otherwise intriguing and eye-opening book suffers from some structural inconsistencies of its own. Darke will slip from Islamic to pre-Islamic Christian to pre-Islamic pagan, from Constantinople to Syria to Ravenna, sometimes within the same page. (Some greater editorial oversight might have helped: several passages and arguments are repeated.) Exactly how the various techniques and styles reached Western Europe is rarely clear.

Rather than proving that the icons of Western architecture are rooted in “Saracen” originals, she has perhaps instead demonstrated that in architecture and design, as in mathematics and science, so-called East and West, Islamic, Christian and pre-Christian are all of a piece. Wren, as Darke points out, seems to have understood this every well.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.