Dazzling, prismatic and intricately symmetrical, muqarnas is a stunning three-dimensional decoration unique to Islamic architecture.
Made of plaster, brick, glazed tile, wood or stone, muqarnas (moo-KAR-nas) is characterized by sloping tiers of niche-like cells that alternate with brackets and stalactite-like pendants projecting and hanging over those below. Although scholars generally believe that the word in Arabic derives from the Greek koronis and Latin coronis, no Arabic dictionary explains the way it is used in Islamic architecture, suggesting that it is a popular or technical term rather than a literary one. Medieval chroniclers rarely mentioned the term; one exception was the 12th-century-CE Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubayr, who wrote of a minaret he saw in Makkah: “It has carvings in the plaster of elongated form as if they were mihrabs. It is surrounded by qarnasa of exquisite workmanship.” Despite muqarnas’s scant presence in the literary record, it is one of the few architectural forms that became popular in a variety of materials across the Islamic lands from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
Muqarnas was used in different ways: It could separate parts of a building, fill corner squinches and pendentives that support domes, and cover the inner surfaces of domes or vaults. While muqarnas appears to be a structural element, muqarnas vaults made of wood, plaster and tile are usually ornamental, attached to load-bearing structures hidden behind them. Stone muqarnas has to be self-supporting due to its great weight, but it is often embellished with dangling, even delicate stone pendants. Plaster and brick muqarnas were often colored with paint or glazed tile. In all cases, muqarnas presents a stunning visual effect as light sparkles over its variegated convex and concave surfaces.
In stone, wood and plaster, muqarnas was popular from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.
The origins of the muqarnas itself are no clearer than those of the name. The earliest surviving example found to date in situ is the squinch over the corner of a 10th-century-CE monument at Tim, located in southern Uzbekistan. It was in the 11th century that muqarnas spread throughout the lands of Islam, and it seems likely that it radiated from a central location—presumably Baghdad in Iraq, then capital of the Abbasid empire. Iraqi examples of muqarnas vaults from the 11th and 12th centuries are notable for their exteriors that resemble pinecones, with protrusions that mirror the niches inside. In Syria, builders followed Iraqi examples in plaster and translated them into cut stone. In Egypt, builders used brick and particularly stone muqarnas to separate or crown the stories of buildings and to embellish the interiors of vaults over doorways and rooms.
By the 12th century, muqarnas appeared farther west in Algeria, Morocco and al-Andalus (now southern Spain). Initially it was used sparingly, but renovations in 1134 to the Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez, Morocco, introduced a series of extraordinary muqarnas vaults in painted plaster over the bays leading up to the mihrab, or niche indicating the direction of prayer. This prime location shows the high prestige this type of decoration carried. At almost the same time, a muqarnas vault was crafted in the 1140’s over the nave of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Sicily. This was the royal chapel of the Christian Norman King Roger II, monarch of a realm recently conquered from Muslims and inhabited by a mixed population, and the ceiling is a rare example of muqar-nas in Christian architecture. Its tiers of wooden muqarnas are painted with a variety of figural and non-figural ornament organized around two rows of eight-pointed stars. The western muqarnas tradition culminated in Granada, Spain, with two spectacular plaster vaults added to the Alhambra palace in the mid-14th century: the star-shaped vault over the Hall of the Abencerrajes, and the celestial octagonal muqarnas vault over the Hall of the Two Sisters. Muqarnas vaults also appear in the contemporary Alcázar of Seville, as remodeled by Pedro, king of Castile and Leon, another Christian patron who appreciated the form.
To the east, Seljuq sultans introduced muqarnas to Anatolia (modern Turkey) from neighboring lands, where portals were crowned with muqarnas hoods, and minarets were built with muqarnas supporting the balconies between stories. Under the Ilkhans and Timurids in the 14th and 15th centuries, builders systematized the muqarnas by creating drawings showing how the individual elements were to be combined. Under the Ottomans (1281 – 1924), muqarnas continued to be used, largely in stone, until the 18th century. In Jam, Afghanistan, builders in 1194 CE used muqarnas to support the balconies of the exquisite brick minaret there. Ghurid builders introduced muqarnas to northern India when they conquered the region in the late 12th century. As a result, the minaret of the Quwwat al-Islam mosque in Delhi, built between 1199 and 1220 CE, uses tiers of muqarnas to support its balconies.
Non-Muslims continued to occasionally incorporate muqarnas decoration, too, in buildings ranging from palaces in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Palermo and Seville to churches in Armenia and 19th-century Orientalist architecture in Europe and the Americas. Contemporary international architects have experimented with new forms and interpretations including I.M. Pei in the Museum of Islamic Art, in Doha, Qatar, and Angelo Candalepas in the mosque in Punchbowl, Australia.
Scholars have long debated whether muqarnas carried symbolic meaning. The form’s range over continents, cultures and centuries makes such interpretation risky, but for an architectural allegory of the celestial vault—the infinity of the heavens—one could hardly find a technique more inspiring to the imagination.