Book Review: Many buildings in Europe that are quintessentially European, they aren’t

27th Nov 2020
Book Review: Many buildings in Europe that are quintessentially European, they aren’t

Sir Christopher Wren’s St Pauls Cathedral architectural style was not Gothic but Saracenic
(Credit: Mark Fosh/Flicker Commons)

Stealing from the Saracens. How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe. By Diana Darke. 480pp. Hardback. 2020. Hurst & Company, London. £25

In a world that increasingly chooses to be polarised, where lines are drawn between us and them, Darke poignantly points out that these divisions are not clear-cut and more importantly show up in the buildings that are quintessentially European — which they aren’t.

This book is part architectural going into the mechanics of the building designs and part historical. For a person who is unfamiliar with architectural details — such as angles and their weight-bearing abilities — the historical underpinnings of every building that she discusses is fascinating making this a brilliant read.

The title itself is a tongue in cheek effort to highlight the point that Darke makes throughout the book. Saracens was a term used to describe the Arab Muslims against whom the Crusades were fought. The term comes from the root word of Arabic, saraqa, meaning to steal. Therefore, the Saracens were stealers.

However, the irony is that a lot of design features that we consider European are features that Crusaders encountered on their journeys to Jerusalem and back. For example, the famous Dome of the Rock was thought to be King Solomon’s temple was replicated across Europe. Thus, ‘stealing’ from the iconic buildings that (both Christian and Muslim) empires in the Middle East built.

Darke begins the book talking about the history of Sir Christopher Wren the famous architect of St Pauls Cathedral and how he was convinced that the architectural styles he saw were not Gothic but Saracenic. His view was influenced by drawings and writings that were coming into Oxford University at the time of his tenure. Darke throughout the book attempts to prove this point beyond doubt.

The author’s extensive travels in the Middle East and Europe — which Wren hadn’t — has allowed her to make the connections and prove the famous architect’s point. She has organised the book chronologically going back to Byzantine/Pre-Islamic architecture and working its way to present time. At most points, Darke makes connections to iconic western buildings and it hammers the point home.

Darke has also dedicated a whole chapter at the end of the book on features such as the Trefoil arch, the minarets/towers/spires and the pointed arch among others and gives a cursory history of each feature and where it first appeared and how it has appeared over time.

As technical as this book is, the intersection of history, its chronological arrangement, its ability to tie the history to the current state of affairs is a worthy read. The whole idea behind the book is that European architecture has been inherited from the cultures and empires of the Middle East. In a time when Islamophobia is rampant, this book serves as a reminder that the influence of cultures and architecture are fluid and ever-changing entities.

Aasiya I Versi

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