Few seem to know that the Parisian cathedral’s architectural design owes a vast debt to Middle Eastern predecessors.
On Monday, as Notre Dame burned before our eyes, it was striking to note how few seemed to know that the Parisian cathedral’s original architectural design, its twin towers flanking an elaborate entrance, its rose windows, its rib vaulting and its spire (la fleche) owe their origins to Middle Eastern predecessors.
Tributes flowed in from round the world, praising the cathedral’s status as an icon of our shared European heritage and identity. “All of us are burning,” declared French president Emmanuel Macron, addressing the nation.
‘Heart of the Almond’
Let’s start with the twin tower design. The earliest example stands on a hillside in northwest Syria, in Idlib province, in a church built from local limestone in the mid-5th century.
It’s called QalbLozeh (‘Heart of the Almond’ or more specifically the ‘innermost of Almond’ in Arabic), and is rightly praised as one of the best preserved examples of Syrian church architecture, a magnificently proportioned broad-aisled basilica, the forerunner of what came to be known as the Romanesque period.
In a belated recognition of its importance, it was included in 2011 within a UNESCO World Heritage Site labelled Ancient Villages of Northern Syria.
Locally they are known as the “Dead Cities”, clusters of nearly 800 Byzantine stone-built settlements with over 2,000 churches dating from the 4th to 6th centuries.They were renamed the “Forgotten Cities” by the Syrian ministry of tourism before the war.
What we today call the Gothic arch, prevalent in Notre Dame and in all the great cathedrals of Europe was an architectural design first seen in Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo.
The Gothic arch When Frankish crusaders saw these designs in the 12th century, they brought the idea back to Europe.
With their advanced knowledge of geometry and the laws of statics, Muslims developed both the horseshoe (also known as Moorish arch, first seen in Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque, then further developed by the Umayyads in Andalusia in the Great Mosque of Cordoba) and the pointed arch to give more height than the classical arch.
Muslim designs : The fashion quickly spread from these, two of the most influential churches in Europe, as this pointed “Gothic” arch was stronger than the rounded arch used by the Romans and the Normans, so allowed the construction of bigger, taller, grander and more complex buildings like the great cathedrals of Europe.
Other borrowings from Muslim designs, also to be found in Notre Dame, include ribbed vaulting (traced to the 8th century Abbasid Palace of Ukhaider in Iraq), rose windows (first seen at the 8th century Umayyad palace of KhirbatMafjar in the West Bank near Jericho).
The first known spire is on the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built in the early 8th century.
The combination of dome and tower in his masterpiece of St Paul’s, together with the structure of the domes in the aisles, shows this strong Muslim influence, also clearly visible in Notre Dame.
Abridged from an article authored by Diana Darke, a Middle East cultural expert with special focus on Syria.