How Islamic Architecture Transformed Europe

By Neenah Payne

How Arabs Revolutionized Western Culture shows how the Moors brought Europe out of the Dark Ages into which it sank after the fall of Rome in 500 AD. When the Arabs ruled Spain from 711-1492 AD, they replaced the awkward Roman numerals with the Arabic numbering system we use today. They introduced gardens, paved and lighted streets, heated and air-conditioned homes, public baths, libraries, and universities to which Western Europe flocked.

Sicily’s contact with the Moors led to the Renaissance and Arabs revolutionized astronomy, geography, geometry, algebra, medicine, philosophy, architecture, city planning, health, etc. It explains that many of the words we use today are Arabic. This article shows how extensively Arab architecture revolutionized Europe. Many of Europe and America’s most iconic buildings are based on Moorish design. However, credit is not given to the Moors. These include all the Gothic architecture in the cathedrals of Europe including Notre Dame in Paris.

Diana Darke, author of Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, says in a video below that she was inspired to write the book when Notre Dame burned down in April 2019 and the French were mourning the loss of a symbol of their culture. She realized that most Europeans did not know that the Gothic architecture is not a symbol of European culture, but of Arab culture!

Amazon Description

Against a backdrop of Islamophobia, Europeans are increasingly airbrushing from history their cultural debt to the Muslim world. But this legacy lives on in some of Europe’s most recognizable buildings, from Notre-Dame Cathedral to the Houses of Parliament.

This beautifully illustrated book reveals the Arab and Islamic roots of Europe’s architectural heritage. Diana Darke traces ideas and styles from vibrant Middle Eastern centers like Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo, via Muslim Spain, Venice, and Sicily into Europe. She describes how medieval crusaders, pilgrims, and merchants encountered Arab Muslim culture on their way to the Holy Land; and explores more recent artistic interaction between Ottoman and Western cultures, including Sir Christopher Wren’s inspirations in the “Saracen” style of Gothic architecture.

Recovering this long yet overlooked history of architectural “borrowing,” Stealing from the Saracens is a rich tale of cultural exchange, shedding new light on Europe’s greatest landmarks.

The beautiful stained glass windows of which many churches are so proud were possible only because of the unique glass from Syria. They allowed buildings to be filled with light instead of the heavy Roman architecture that created dark interiors.

Yet, the West’s deep debt to the Moors is not taught in our schools or shown in our media. Darke explains that growing up in England, she was taught that everything originated in Greece and Rome. However, she learned later how deep the West’s debt is to the Arabs. She points out that the legendary British architect Christopher Wren (1632-1723) who built St. Paul’s Cathedral in London said the “Gothic” architecture of all the European cathedrals should be called “Saracen” architecture because it was based on the knowledge of the Saracens — aka Muslims, Moors, Arabs.

Duke said the Capitol building in Washington, DC is also an example of Arab architecture. How ironic that the government of the United States meets there to wage the endless War on Terror on the Arab world for over 20 years!

How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe | Diana Darke

In this video, Diana Darke, author of the award-winning book, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, takes you on a quick architectural journey to see how architectural styles and ideas passed from vibrant Middle Eastern centers such as Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo and entered Europe via gateways including Muslim Spain, Sicily, and Venice through the movement of pilgrims, bishops, merchants, and medieval Crusaders.  It’s a rich tale of cultural exchange that will help you see some of Europe’s – and even America’s – iconic landmarks with new eyes.

Diana Darke is a Middle East cultural expert with special focus on Syria. With degrees in Arabic from Oxford University and in Islamic Art & Architecture from SOAS, London, she has spent over 30 years specializing in the region, working for both government and commercial sectors. She is frequently invited to speak at international events and media networks, such as the BBC, PBS, TRT, Al-Jazeera, and France24. Her work on Syria has been published by the BBC website, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, and The Financial Times.

She is a Non-Resident Scholar at Washington’s think-tank MEI (the Middle East Institute). Diana is also the author of the highly acclaimed My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016), The Merchant of Syria (2018), and The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo (2019).


Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe 8/1920

From the Notre-Dame and Saint Marks Cathedrals to Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. They are all symbols of the western world. But according to a new book, Gothic architecture might not be as European as we think. Diana Darke, author of Stealing from the Saracens​.

In the video below, Diana Darke explains that growing up in England, she was taught that everything originated in Greece and Rome. However, Christopher Wren (1632-1723) who built St. Paul’s Cathedral in London said that the “Gothic” architecture of all the European cathedrals should be called “Saracen” architecture because it was based on the knowledge of the Saracens — aka Muslims, Moors, Arabs. Wren explained that he used Saracen vaulting in the dome of St. Paul’s because it was the best. Oxford University was receiving lots of Arabic manuscripts that were very relevant to architecture.

How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe with Diana Darke

The high ceilings with stained glass windows that let in a lot of light were a major transition from the Romanesque architecture which had low ceilings with dark interiors. Stained glass is incredibly important in gothic architecture. The beautiful glass was shipped from Syria because Europe had nothing like it. The technique of enameled glass was invented in Syria. Nothing of that sort existed in Europe.

Darke explains that she was inspired to write the book after the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris caught fire in 2019 and the French despaired that they were losing a symbol of their national identity. President Macron has promised to have the cathedral rebuilt. Darke realized the French didn’t understand that the Gothic Cathedrals were not French, but Muslim architecture. When she realized people didn’t know that, she decided to write the book. The stain glass windows survived the fire because the Syrian glass is incredibly strong.

The video explains that the Arab influence on European Christian architecture has been “air brushed” out of history as though Europeans created all the architectural innovations. The video ends explaining how the US Capitol building in Washington, DC has an Islamic dome.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

Amazon Description

The Western narrative of world history largely omits a whole civilization. Destiny Disrupted tells the history of the world from the Islamic point of view, and restores the centrality of the Muslim perspective, ignored for a thousand years.

In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary tells the rich story of world history as it looks from a new perspective: with the evolution of the Muslim community at the center. His story moves from the lifetime of Mohammed through a succession of far-flung empires, to the tangle of modern conflicts that culminated in the events of 9/11. He introduces the key people, events, ideas, legends, religious disputes, and turning points of world history, imparting not only what happened but how it is understood from the Muslim perspective.

He clarifies why two great civilizations-Western and Muslim-grew up oblivious to each other, what happened when they intersected, and how the Islamic world was affected by its slow recognition that Europe — a place it long perceived as primitive — had somehow hijacked destiny.

With storytelling brio, humor, and evenhanded sympathy to all sides of the story, Ansary illuminates a fascinating parallel to the world narrative usually heard in the West. Destiny Disrupted offers a vital perspective on world conflicts many now find so puzzling.

Medieval Muslims made stunning math breakthrough

By Will Dunham

Magnificently sophisticated geometric patterns in medieval Islamic architecture indicate their designers achieved a mathematical breakthrough 500 years earlier than Western scholars. By the 15th century, decorative tile patterns on these masterpieces of Islamic architecture reached such complexity that a small number boasted what seem to be “quasicrystalline” designs, Harvard University’s Peter Lu and Princeton University’s Paul Steinhardt wrote in the journal Science.

Only in the 1970s did British mathematician and cosmologist Roger Penrose become the first to describe these geometric designs in the West. Quasicrystalline patterns comprise a set of interlocking units whose pattern never repeats, even when extended infinitely in all directions, and possess a special form of symmetry. “Oh, it’s absolutely stunning,” Lu said in an interview. “They made tilings that reflect mathematics that were so sophisticated that we didn’t figure it out until the last 20 or 30 years.” Lu and Steinhardt in particular cite designs on the Darb-i Imam shrine in Isfahan, Iran, built in 1453.

Islamic tradition has frowned upon pictorial representations in artwork. Mosques and other grand buildings erected by Islamic architects throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere often are wrapped in rich, intricate tile designs setting out elaborate geometric patterns. The walls of many medieval Islamic structures display sumptuous geometric star-and-polygon patterns. The research indicated that by 1200, an important breakthrough had occurred in Islamic mathematics and design, as illustrated by these geometric designs. “You can go through and see the evolution of increasing geometric sophistication. So, they start out with simple patterns, and they get more complex” over time, Lu added.


While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, Islamic culture flourished beginning in the 7th century, with achievements over numerous centuries in mathematics, medicine, engineering, ceramics, art, textiles, architecture and other areas. Lu said the new revelations suggest Islamic culture was even more advanced than previously thought. While traveling in Uzbekistan, Lu said, he noticed a 16th century Islamic building with decagonal motif tiling, arousing his curiosity as to the existence of quasicrystalline Islamic tilings.

The sophistication of the patterns used in Islamic architecture has intrigued scholars worldwide. Emil Makovicky of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark in the 1990s noticed the relationship between these designs and a form of quasicrystalline designs. Makovicky was interested in particular in an 1197 tomb in Maragha, Iran.

Joshua Socolar, a Duke University physicist, said it is unclear whether the medieval Islamic artisans fully understood the mathematical properties of the patterns they were making. “It leads you to wonder whether they kind of got lucky,” Socolar said in an interview. “But the fact remains that the patterns are tantalizingly close to having the structure that Penrose discovered in the mid-70s.” “And it will be a lot of fun if somebody turns up bigger tilings that sort of make a more convincing case that they understood even more of the geometry than the present examples show,” Socolar said.

Córdoba (Spain), mosque, vault over the bay in front of the mihrab, 976. Photo by Jonathan Bloom

Architecture of the Islamic West: Innovative, Impressive and … Overlooked?

Some of the most outstanding examples of world architecture, such as the Mosque of Córdoba, the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Pale.

Granada (Spain), Alhambra, Hall of the Abencerrajes, muqarnas ceiling, late c13. Photo by Jonathan Bloom.

The complex geometry of Islamic design – Eric Broug

View full lesson:… In Islamic culture, geometric design is everywhere: you can find it in mosques, madrasas, palaces, and private homes. And despite the remarkable complexity of these designs, they can be created with just a compass to draw circles and a ruler to make lines within them. Eric Broug covers the basics of geometric Islamic design.

Stained Glass Windows

An Abbreviated History of Stained Glass Windows (images) by Abigail Swire implies that Europe invented stained glass windows. It gives just a brief nod to the Muslim world with “Stained glass windows were adopted into the atmosphere of medieval monasteries in the 7th century. Soon they could be found in cathedrals across Europe….Stained glass adorned Islamic mosques and palaces across the Middle East by the 8th century reflecting the rich ornate styles of Islamic architecture. The Book of the Hidden Pearl, written by Persian chemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, is a colored glass recipe book written about the craft.”

While the article below gives credit to the Egyptians and then skips right to Christian churches. It implies that Moorish architecture employed stained glass windows after Christian churches!



No matter your opinion on Christian doctrine and theology, it’s hard to deny the architectural and artistic beauty of old cathedrals. The powerful vertical lines drawing the eye up; the crisscrossed support arches high above; the detailed filigrees along columns and walls. Whether new, art deco cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or old, gothic behemoths like Notre Dame in Paris, cathedrals continue to inspire. But even small, modest chapels and churches often contain a key feature of beauty and storytelling shared with their larger cousins: stained glass.

If you’ve ever poked around an old church or sat in one during a service, you might have found your head tilted up and your gaze running along with the church’s glassy wedges of green, red, yellow, etc. Maybe you saw a nativity, or a scene of Jesus doing the “sacred heart” pose with the first two fingers of the right hand upraised, or St. Peter standing on clouds at the gates of heaven.

If so, then you’ve done exactly what folks hundreds of years ago did and demonstrated the exact purpose of stained glass: to tell stories.

The History of The Glass Industry During the Islamic Era

by Egyptian Government

“The influence exerted on the Arabs by the civilizations of the countries they conquered; the Greek, Roman, and ancient Egyptian civilizations in Italy, Syria, Asia, Turkey, Egypt, and Spain were enormous. In Egypt, such influence manifested itself, among other things, in glass-making. A glass-making industry already flourished in Alexandria at the time Amr Bin Alas conquered Egypt. However, the Arabs made efforts to further develop this industry.

They encouraged it in their new Egyptian capital, Fustat, near modern Cairo, and introduced it to other centers of the Islamic world, such as Damascus, Aleppo, and the cities of Andalusia. Islamic glass works of the period were distinguished by their elaborate ornamentation, including calligraphy of Quranic verses and other writings. Glided lanterns, pots, and bottles were exported to the East as far away as China. One of the most terrific glass works of this period of Islamic history is the lantern presently exhibited at the Corning

Museum of Glass, Corning, N.Y., USA.

Up to the Abbasid era (AD 750-868) the glass industry was dominated by Alexandria and Syrian, but the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid valued enameled and gilded glass works. This became the finest gift that the Caliph could bestowed on his favorites. In Egypt during the Tulunid era (AD 868-905), special attention was given to stained glass surfaces as well as lanterns and vessels. Sultan Ahmed Bin Tulun (AD 868-883) renovated glass workshops in Alexandria. In connection with the restoration of Alexandria’s lighthouse, his technicians developed glass mirrors, and he introduced official weights of glass sealed with his stamp.

Practical use:

Shamsiyyas and qamariyys are closely associated with Islamic architecture and are a good example of design that fulfils both aesthetic and practical ends. Windows themselves lighten loads carried by walls or arches, while admitting daylight. The glass set in them provides a building with defense against animal or insect intruders, controls the amount of light entering the place, and protects the interior against dust, wind, and weather throughout the year. Practical functions of shamsiyyas and qamariyyas are as important as the beauty they impart to a building, endowing it with a kind of spiritual peacefulness.

Architecture in Egypt made use of stained glass in mosques, houses, palaces and khankawat (monastic complexes). Stained glass windows varied in their style, ornamentation, and color according to the kind of building and to the era of construction. Cairo abounds in buildings with stained glass windows of all periods from the ninth century to the twentieth. Among these are Ahmed Bin Tulun Mosque, the Tanbugha Al Maridany Mosque, the Palace of Beshtak, Khanqah of Shiaykhu, the Madrasah of Sultan Hassan, House of Zaynab Khatun, the Musafirkhanah Palace, the Rifa’i Mosque, and the Palace of Prince Mohammed Ali in Manyal.


The prophet Muhammad proclaimed the new religion of Islam in 622. Following his death 10 years later, Arab armies conquered much of what is now Egypt, the Near East, and Iran. Here the Muslims found flourishing glass industries, which continued to produce large quantities of objects for daily use. Later, Islamic glassmakers introduced new forms and decoration that were based on one or more of the three principal “building blocks” of Islamic art: geometric ornament, vegetal motifs, and calligraphy. From time to time, these craftsmen also depicted human figures, animals, birds, and fish.

In the eighth century, glassmakers in Egypt discovered the technique of painting glass with metallic stain. Transparent stains colored with copper (which produces red or brown) and silver (which produces yellow) became a hallmark of early Islamic glassware in Egypt and the Near East…

In the 13th century, decorators in the region of Syria achieved the first extensive application of enamels on glass. For the next two centuries, Syrian and Egyptian craftsmen produced large quantities of glass in many shapes and sizes with brilliant polychrome ornament. These objects included functional vessels such as hanging lamps to illuminate the interiors of mosques, as well as drinking vessels and other useful items, plus spectacular display pieces.

The making of this glass required both artistic imagination and technical expertise….

In the later Middle Ages, Europeans prized Islamic luxury glasses because of their exotic appearance and technical sophistication, and sometimes because they were believed to be relics from the Holy Land….

In the 19th century, glassmakers in Austria, Bohemia, and France began to create objects decorated in Islamic style. The Viennese firm of Lobmeyr and other companies produced gilded glassware for Egyptian and Middle Eastern markets, as well as pieces with “Moorish” and Turkish decoration for customers closer to home.

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post

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