Mosaic is a simple form of art and technique that mainly uses small tiles (tesserae) or/and pottery pieces to make large portraits on different flat forms which includes walls, frames and floors (Paul 12). Mosaic technique has been adopted by many cultures globally such as in Rome, Greece and in Middle East. The main form of art used in the areas is cladding. Cladding is preferred since its effective and the artwork formed by cladding is long lasting. History and Popular beliefs have it that, in the Middle Eastern architecture is heavily influenced by the middle ages Roman and Byzantium culture’s evidenced by the inclusion of their signature style of mosaic art form in their architecture. Such beliefs are supported by the extensive use of this technique especially in mosques.
Byzantium essentially inherited the mosaic art form from the Roman Empire (Harry 23). Even though now, Middle East is predominantly Islamic, it was once inhabited by other religions such as Greeks and Romans, thus mosaic art is invariably a part of architecture throughout the Middle Eastern region. But an important difference in Byzantium and Islamic mosaic art is the motif itself.
The differences in the art included; Byzantium and Roma era made extensive use of animal and human figures. The mosaic art was depiction of life, thus extensive use of animals, birds and human forms. But in sharp contrasts, Islamic architecture even though has embraced mosaic art; it did not adhere to anthropomorphism. Adaptation of Sassanid and Byzantium styles along with Germanic Visigoths made a huge impact on the architectural designs of Islamic buildings and structure, but it essentially evolved this art to make a unique form of itself consisting of geometric patterns instead human and animal forms (Joseph 20).
There are several evidences that shows that mosaics were extensively used and that were fundamental to the lifestyles and standards of people. These evidences include;
i. Jerash located in Amman which was inhabited mainly by Christians since AD 350. Many churches here had magnificent mosaic art sculpted on the walls and the floorings.
ii. Turkey’s Antolian region since about circa 700BC. Use of mosaic resulted from the arrival of Christianity notably evident in the structures of Damascus, Mecca and Medina.
Just but to name a few. Therefore it is evident that mosaic was the mostly common art and was adopted by many races and types of people.
There are evidences of Islamic adoption of mosaic art in Byzantium and Roma. Before the coming of Muslims and Islamic culture in these areas, the areas were inhabited by the Christians. The Christians largely used mosaic in constructions of churches and decorations of walls and floors in churches (Harry 25). A good example of mosaic art form is found in Tell Mar Elias which is believed to be the birthplace of Elijah (a prophet in Christian religion). This was used to mark the birthplace and to honour the coming of the prophet sent by God. A church complex was discovered here in 1999, which now constitutes the present day Jordan. Artistically placed multi-colour mosaic consisting of geometric and floral motifs was found in the church.
The Holy Land of Jerusalem has the highest concentration of mosaic art present in its churches and other structures. One of the most important of these mosaic structures is the Armenian Mosaic. Discovered near Damascus Gate in 1984, it has vine clusters and birds such as peacocks, storks, ducks and pigeons (Paul 31). Similarly on the outskirts of Jerusalem many churches have been discovered consisting of intricate designing using floral, geometric and animal motifs.
Lebanon too showcases remains of the Byzantium and Roman churches and structures that contain mosaic art as the central theme. In the church of St. John the Baptist, a huge mosaic floor was discovered, which had geometric designs throughout. It was discovered Byblos, Lebanon. Even after the dawn of Islamic era, mosaic art form was the chief feature in all the structures in Middle East. During the Umayyad period, mosaic art remained the central art form and was incorporated in religious buildings and palaces.
When Muslims moved in some years later (dates and accounts not clear) and they got inspired by the beautiful and cultivating arts made in mosaic and ended up copying from the Christians. However, it’s not evident whether the Christians were the original innovators of mosaic in Middle East or they had copied from the earlier races of people that inhabited these areas before them (Springer 30).
The Muslims started building and decorating structures mainly mosques using mosaic. Christianity did not last for long due to the differences in ideologies and Muslim soon became the major religion in Middle East and also spread out to other neighbour regions at a higher rate. This led to the spread of use on mosaic in mosques, matrimonial houses, structures and even in sailing vessels. Tile mosaic was to become a trademark of Islamic architecture throughout the Arab world.
The first impression of Mosaic art in the Islamic architecture is seen in the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. It consists of glass mosaic work, and as it is an Islamic structure, the motifs are geometric and do not contain any human or animal motif. The style is inspired by the Byzantium traditions and thus incorporates many aspects of similar architecture. Even though heavily adopted from the Byzantium era, use of anthropomorphism was strictly prohibited in Islamic culture based on beliefs and traditions. This gave rise to evolving of unique mosaic form which included intricate geometrical design dominated by use of contrasting colour. One of the common features of Islamic mosaic form is the repetitive use of set patterns to formulate a urge geometric motif placed centrally over the structure (Springer 35).
The Umayyad Mosque situated in Damascus, which was the capital of the then Arab Caliphate, makes use of mosaic art to depict heaven in the courtyard of the structure. It is complete with the depiction of pretty flowers, beautiful trees and hills. A continuous depiction is observed in ‘Barada Panel’ which makes use of huge tiles, unlike the former use of small tiles. Being an Islamic structure, the mosque was devoid of any kind of human and animal motifs, even though being heavily influenced by the Byzantium style of mosaic art which essentially incorporated life forms and human and animal forms.
Recent excavations revealed intricate mosaic work at Qastal, Amman. This was aged back to the era of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, the caliphate. These mosaics were present mainly on the floorings of highly decorative building that is considered to be a palace. The entire floor is covered with mosaic work except for the courtyard and stairways (Joseph 29). The motifs include rosettes, geometric designs, natural elements etc. Many such excavation carried out in Jordan also revealed extensive use of mosaic art, either as glass or tiles, with geometric motifs, in its structures.
The structure excavated, clearly showed signs of Byzantium influence, thus portraying the effect of Roman and Byzantium culture and art on the Islamic architecture. Further research reveals that Middle East structures made extensive use of small tiles and glass not only in the exteriors but also in the interiors of their structures, this tradition is yet carried out today wherein one observes extensive use of mosaic art in structures especially tombs and mosques.
Evolving of the art
Notwithstanding the fact that mosaic art is believed to have originated from the Byzantium and Roman cultures, Islamic architecture in the Middle East incorporated its own style since the Muslim cultures and beliefs high condemned and prohibited use of anthropomorphism. They had to adopt the idea based on techniques and then incorporate their own changes to suit the Muslim cultures and beliefs (Harry 26).
Just like when any change is adopted, mosaic art experienced a number of changes in the key elements and this led to losses in many of its aspects. Mosaic art was essentially depiction of life, but that essence was entirely lost in Islamic architecture. As anthropomorphism was strictly condemned, the sculptors used geometric motifs or Arabic verses to decorate the walls. This led to the disintegration of the original art form and gave rise to a new style in mosaic art. This art is prevalent in all Islamic structures even today. Critics are sceptical of this change as it has essentially ruined the essence of mosaic art. Historians believe that preserving the original art form is necessary in order to feel its essence even after many years, but the Islamic architecture changed this form and evolved it into the present form. It is therefore in record that the main reason and cause of evolution was the differences in ideology and beliefs between religions, mainly the Christians and Muslims. This is supported by the many instances of changes that took place in Christians dominated areas soon after the coming of Muslims (Joseph 26).
Middle East architecture is dominated by mosaic art as evidenced by structures, palaces and even mosques. Even though Middle East is dominated by Muslims who largely adopted the mosaic that didn’t use anthropomorphism, the few Christians still practice the original mosaic while the young generations have largely adopted the Muslim art mosaic since its dominated and also due to cultures. Up to date, Middle East structures, for instance, palaces, mosques and government buildings, have great shows of mosaic art work as used for decorations and paintings.
Mosques present in Egypt, UAE and other such Middle Eastern regions make heavy use of mosaic in its interiors as well as the exteriors but not in its original form but in the way evolved over the years. It’s therefore in order to conclude as per records and evidences, that much of the Islamic cultures have embraced mosaic art but have changed it to none use of anthropomorphism in decorations of structures for example mosques. This inference is supported by presence of many structures in Middle East that have decorations of mosaic art work.
Springer, V. World Architecture 1900-2000: Middle East: A critical mosaic- World architecture 1900-2000. London. Palgrave Macmillan. November 1999. Print.
Paul, S. Medieval Islamic Mosaics and Modern Maths. New York. Blake Publishers.2011. Print.
Harry, M. The Mosaics of the Madaba Plateau of Jordan. London. Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. Print.
Joseph, K. Various Forms of Mosaics. New York. Hedge Publishers. 2009. Print.