Doesn’t Gothic look Pretty Islamic?


p1050174-smallerIn 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:

The Sultan’s appropriation is sealed by a 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.”


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