Opening ceremony, UNESCO Paris, 21 January 2014

Abdelmalek Thalal, Professor at the Deparment of Physics at Cadi Ayyad university in Marrakech (Morocco)

Symmetry in Art and Architecture of the Western Islamic Golden Age

Abdelmalek Thalal


The history of the Maghreb was closely linked to that of Andalusia from the time of the conquest of Andalusia by the Arab-Berber Muslims and the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate in the 8th century until the fall of Granada in the 15th century.

The mixture of populations of different ethnic origin gave birth to a civilization that radiated its science and culture worldwide. This brilliant civilization particularly favoured the development of an original, rich and varied art that integrated geometry into the construction of complex patterns that appear in architectural ornamentation. This highly stylized form of Moorish art has evolved over centuries from simple drawings to complex geometrical patterns involving a high degree of symmetry.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba, the madrassas of Fez and the Alhambra Palace and the Moorish architectural wonder are just some examples of historic buildings that reflect the development of art and architecture during the golden age of the western Islamic world.



1. Introduction -SLIDE 3

During the period 711−1492, the history of the Maghreb and Andalusia was closely linked. Exchanges between the two shores of the Mediterranean, mutual influences and a mixing of populations of different ethnic origins gave birth to the civilization of the Western Islamic World.

Through its mathematicians, philosophers and physicians, this brilliant civilization contributed to enriching the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity.

Abbas Ibn Farnass (9th century) « the bird man », a humanist, chemist and poet, was a specialist in the cutting of rock crystals.

Ibn el Banna Al Mourrakouchi (13th−14th centuries), a mathematician and astronomer, developed the Euclid geometry. His work had an impact on the development of art and Moorish architecture.


2. Moorish art and architecture

2.1 Concept of unity - SLIDES 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

The concept of unity is a characteristic of Islamic art and architecture, regardless of geography. Principles, ideas and architectural forms are identical, with the exception of some small variants depending on the area.

Building façades are generally simple and bare. The interior spaces are open, with a central courtyard surrounded by alleys giving access to the covered parts. The internal decorative coating is rich and varied, sometimes luxuriant.

Decorative principles are applicable to all building types: mosque, palace, private home or madrasah (religious school).


2.2 Sacred Architecture - SLIDES 9, 10, 11


The mosque occupies an important place in Islamic architecture. Its design reflects the harmony, order and peace inherent in nature. A forest of columns and arches punctuates the division of the covered area. Space is polarized on the mihrab, which indicates the qibla, the direction of Makka (Mecca). The naves are arranged perpendicular to the mihrab.


2.3 Ornamentation in Moorish art - SLIDES 12, 13


Ornamentation is one of the aspects which most characterized Moorish art. The originality of architectural structures and ornamental motifs produced a specific Moorish art.

This art has evolved over the centuries, according to the successive dynasties of the Maghreb and Andalusia [Umayyad, Kings, Taifa, Almoravids, Almohads, Nasrids (Grenada) and Marinids (Morocco)].

The decoration is carried out on stone, terracotta brick, stucco, wood, glazed ceramic and metal. The flat surfaces are decorated with geometric and floral arabesques and calligraphy. The Mouqarnass (stalactites), three-dimensional motifs, generally adorn vaults and the inside of domes.

3. Symmetry in Moorish art - SLIDES 14

Moorish art integrated geometry into the construction of the complex patterns that decorate architecture. This highly stylized art form has evolved over centuries from simple drawings to complex geometric patterns involving a high degree of symmetry.

3.1 Definition of symmetry - SLIDES 14, 15, 16, 17, 18

The term symmetry is translated into Arabic by either « Attanaadour « or « Attamaatul», which means harmony, order and coherence, as in the Greek and Latin definitions. They also mean resemblance, reflection and similarity, as defined by Montesquieu and Diderot, who both reduced symmetry to bilateral symmetry.

The concept of symmetry in the Arabic language reflects invariance but also redundancy, as it has been generalized by contemporary scientists.

3.2 Notion of invariance - SLIDES19, 20, 21, 22

An object is described as being symmetrical if it remains invariant under the application of a set of transformations. In a plane, these transformations may be rotations, reflections on the axis, glide reflections and translations.

One can make a minimal description of a symmetrical object by examining only one of its parts. To reconstitute the object fully, it suffices to repeat the symmetrical pattern.

3.3 Rosettes and rotational symmetry - SLIDES 23, 24, 25, 26

Rotations have been widely used in Moorish art to achieve large rosettes. The symmetries 5, 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, 24, 32, 48 are present in Moorish decorative art. However, the most common symmetries are 8, 12, 16, 24, 32. Nine-fold symmetry exists but it is rare.

Some ornamental panels are a composition of different symmetries of rosettes. This superimposition of star polygons (called constellations) might suggest that Moorish decorative art is an art of mathematicians and astronomers.

3.4 The periodic tiling of the plane - SLIDES 27 to 41

Periodic tiling of the plane is a Moorish ornamental tradition that peaked between the 13th and 14th centuries. It is sophisticated tiling with a high level of complexity, using all possible arrangements in the plane.

Tiling is an endless repetition of the same pattern in several directions on the plane without any overlap or gaps. The pattern is repeated through rotations of 60 °, 90 °, 120 ° and 180 °, translations compatible with these rotations, reflections and glide reflections.

The Russian mathematician Fedorov showed, at the end of the 19th century, that there are only 17 different periodic tilings of the plane (crystallographic plan groups).

A large amount of tiling dates from the time of the Nasrids and Marinids. Some authors claim that the 17 tilings exist in the Alhambra, others argue that four tilings are missing from the Moorish tiling.

The creativity of the artisans of the 14th century led them to design quasiperiodic tiling, a pattern that was only discovered in 1984 by Dan Shechtman when he discovered special crystals called quasicrystals.

4. Conclusion - SLIDE 42

After the fall of Granada, Moorish decorative art continued to flourish in the Maghreb, especially in Morocco under the Saadian and Alawite dynasties.

In the late of 1980s, King Hassan II revived this ancient art by building the Great Mosque in Casablanca.

In pure Almohad tradition, His Majesty Mohamed VI created the Foundation of the Hassan II Mosque; besides the mosque, it includes a library, a museum and an Academy of Traditional Arts where highly skilled artisans are trained.

Academic research into Moroccan geometric art, as seen from the perspective of crystallography, is also being conducted at Moroccan universities.

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