If you had asked me what I thought of Islamic art during my (laughable) attempt to write ten pages on the subject last night, I would have instinctively told you that it was all worthless. The depiction of the human figure is strictly forbidden in Islam, and that admonition tends to carry over into all figures – human, animal or otherwise – so all of my classical training in foreshortening and twisted perspective is for naught.
Instead, one sees endless designs of twisty stems and leaves, and other geometrical wonders. For those of you who know me, you know that geometry was the only class in high school in which I got a C. I don’t consider drawing repeating shapes artistically stimulating, just like I don’t find splattering red paint on a wall particularly clever, though many fans of modern art disagree on abstract, philosophical terms.
However, after a visit to the Galamiya area of Cairo today, I am inclined to revise my previous blanket statement by at least 20 percent. The class proceeds chronologically, so all of the mosques we have visited thus far have been what I fondly refer to as “bowling alley mosques” (photo left). For some reason they are all lit with a strange green neon-type of fluorescent lighting and are smoky and musty like a bowling alley.
Now that we have proceeded past the Abbasids and Fatimids, however, the state of the mosques has drastically improved. While the earlier mosques are primarily located in the middle of modern landfills, most Mamluk mosques are built in modern Cairo proper, al-Qahira, and are therefore somewhat better maintained.
The mosques we visited today were all off of the Qasaba, one of the main thoroughfares of Cairo (Khan el Khalili area). My teacher informed me that the entire area had recently undergone a major restoration, after which all cars were banned from the street. It was so clean and culturally delicious. It was honestly the nicest, most open area of Cairo I have yet visited. Parts of it came close to reminding me of Jerusalem, with buildings rising high to either side of a cobblestone thoroughfare, and plants hanging from windowsills adding a touch of life to the area.
Mosques we visited included the Mosque of Sultan Az-Zahir, which dates to 1266 and is an absolute novelty because, instead of having three large domes on the Mecca wall like in previous Fatimid mosques, it has only one. Though they did the one dome thing pre-Fatimid. But ya, who cares? Really? My art history papers have been reduced to architectural drivel.
We also visited the complex of the Sultan Qala’un al-Alfi, which is located opposite the previous mosque and dates to 1285. It’s beautiful, and it consists of a mosque, a madrassa (school), a hospital and much more. An interesting fact about this hospital: If a patient died, the hospital had to pay for the funeral, which, in a state-run system with no incentives for good performance, served at least as a deterrent for letting people not die left and right. It evolved into a center for learning that drew scholars from all parts of the world. (In photo: Gorgeous geometrical designs; Ottoman)
My impression of Islamic art has evolved and lightened considerably since last night, when I would have told you I was about as interested in Islamic art as I am in ornithology or animal husbandry. I still view it roughly with the same suspicion as I view modern art – it can quickly become overrated. But I’m starting to think the Mamluks in particular may have known what they were doing. There’s no Mamluk Bernini, mind you, of this much I am certain, but at least they tried.