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Symbolic Islamic Architecture of the Medieval Period in Africa

This paper aims to tackle various Islamic architectures that are constructed during the medieval period in Africa: the Citadel of Cairo (North) and the Great Mosque of Kilwa (East). It endeavors to present the formal elements of the works, their contents and meanings. Moreover, it will give a brief background of the artist or culture. And lastly, it will present an analysis of the selected works of art and a critical examination of the references. Africa is one of the most interesting countries especially with regards to its history long before the colonization of Europeans in the continent.

It is in 1250 AD when African societies begin to develop their political and economic foundation. Its medieval era stretches from 1400 to 1800. It is during this period when Africa is enveloped by external forces of Islam from states of the north and from the nautical trade with Europe and Asia. Islam has then broadened its expansion from the South across the Sahara desert. Its early contact in Africa has started during the existence of the prophets. The birth of Islam in the country has brought an extensive influence in the medieval architecture albeit the presence of Christianity, particularly in Ethiopia.

An example of that architecture that immodestly conveys the Islamic influences is the Cairo of Citadel in North Africa which is erected during the Ayyubid period of the continent. The Ayyubid dynasty is under the leadership of Kurdish Zengid general Salah al-Din. They are dynamic and vigorous builders. Their patronage directs to the architectural activity in Egypt and Syria. One of the marvelous secular architecture from this era is the Citadel of Cairo (“The Art of Ayyubid Period”). Cairo is known as the “Mother of the World.

” It is the lieu with highest proliferation and construction of Islamic architectures. It had a magnificent and impressive heritage, which can be traced from its architectural developments and historical accounts. Its Citadel is built under the political leadership of Salah al-Din, shortly after he arrives in Egypt. He envisions a defense project that will definitely enclose the cities of al-Qahira and al-Fustat. He assigns Baha al-Din Qaraqush to administer the project (Rabbat 9). Salah al-Din wants the fortress to serve as a residence for himself and as a garrison for his military.

It is ordered to be built for his image enhancement as a sultan and founder of a new regime (Rabbat 12). Figure 1. The Citadel of Cairo The Citadel is an architecture constructed on top of a hill in 1183-84, which is largely known as the Ayubbid period. It encompasses extremely large walls and towers. Several small pyramids in Giza have been destroyed for its construction (Behrens-Abouseif 78). It has a northern enclosure with irregular polygons, made up of towers and walls that measure about 1, 700 meters.

Some of the towers are circular which are built in dressed stones; others are rectangular and built in embossed stones. The variations of the shape and type of stone cuttings are Creswell’s—the founder of the early Islamic architecture—argument for featuring the round towers to Salah al-Din and the rectangular successor (Behrens-Abouseif 78). The original citadel during the Ayyubid period has already disappeared, some of the structures have remained but they are now referred to as “remains or ruins.

” The citadel that stands today is composed of two enclosures which occupy the high platform and a lower enclosure which is divided into several sections. It has three main gates: Azab gate, new gate and Mountain gate. None of them belongs to the original structure. Figure 2. The contemporary Citadel of Cairo On the other hand, the Great Mosque of Kilwa often known as the Great Mosque is originally build in 11th century by Ali ibn al-Hasan at the East African coast. Kilwa is the islet off the coast of Tanzania.

If North Africa is the origin of Islam expansion due to the weak security of the region—before the construction of the Citadel—Kilwa, during the 11th to 16th century, is the most vital of about 35 trading sites on the Indian Ocean. The Great Mosque of Kilwa is acknowledged as one of the first mosques made without a courtyard and is constructed on two different stages. It is a mosque that is completely covered with domes and vaults. Arches and dome extensions have been added during the early 14th century. Those extensions have collapsed in mid-14th century but are rebuilt in 15th century.

The arches and extensions have made the mosque four folds bigger from its original structure (Insoll 184). Figure 3. East Facade of the Great Mosque of Kilwa The structure of the Great Mosque is composed of a northern prayer hall which is composed of 16 bays with nine pillars holding a flat roof. The pillars are octagonal columns. The east and west side walls have three arched doors. It also has a northern abolition area which is joined to the mosque by a lobby which has a tank, a well, a washroom and blocks of round sandstones.

It also encompasses southern extension that extends out slightly to the east and a dome that is decorated with coral panels. The southern enclosure, which is divided into 30 bays from east to west, is six aisles long and five aisles wide. It functions as a house of prayer of followers of Islam and a very important symbol for Muslims. Figure 4. Interior Barrel of Vault of the Great Mosque The two selected structures are considered as symbols of Islamic architecture because they are composed of parts and features that primarily belong to the Islam tradition.

The Citadel of Cairo is a fortress intended to encircle the city. It encloses in a mosque similar to the Great Mosque, which are made of towers and domes. According to Robert Hillenbrand, the mosque is the Islamic building par excellence and the key to Islamic architecture. The medieval Muslim has a theocentic world thus the mosque is the fundamental expression of their society. The Great Mosque and the mosque inside the Citadel of Cairo have the following components delineating an Islamic architecture.

They have domes, the largest incessant covered space of the building, minarets, mihrab, maqsura or royal box and minbar or pulpit. Inside these mosques are stalactite patterned decoration and carved lattice patterns. The mosque with a courtyard has its surrounding arcades and a mihrab or prayer niche, which is always oriented to Mecca, the holy land of the Muslims. It is in that area that the liturgical elements of the mosque are focused and concentrated (Hillenbrand 34). The Citadel of Cairo mainly functions as a fortress and a royal residence.

It is different from the main function of the Great Mosque which is primarily entailed as “house of the Prophet,” therefore it is a house of prayer—a religious edifice. The Citadel has been built in order to protect military installations and regime leaders. It also serves as a sanctuary of the citizens, the followers of Salah al-Din. From there, it can be hauled that during the medieval period in Africa, there is already a political society whereas it reflects in the secular structure of the Citadel of Cairo in the north, and a religious society which is portrayed by the Great Mosque of Kilwa in the east of the continent.

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