Beautiful Arabesque inlays at the Mughal Agra Fort in India; the opulent silk rugs on sale in a Baghdad souk; the striking blue-tiled exterior of the Herat Mosque in Afghanistan and the stunning interior of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul: pattern is vibrant and integral to each of these famous designs.
Notable for its lack of figurative depiction, the art, design and architecture of the Islamic world is characterized by vivid, complex and intricate patterns. Not only does Islam fear that the depiction of the human form is idolatry and contrary to the love of god but it also believes that all creation is harmoniously interrelated. These two religious laws have combined to put pattern at the centre of Islam’s visual culture.
Used to ornament the exterior and interior of important buildings, carpets, ceramics and decorative objects, almost all cultures across the Islamic world have a rich tradition of pattern. Stretching across huge geographies from Spain to China, individual Islamic cultures have developed distinctive patterns, material and form but all Islamic art is underpinned by three distinct disciplines of decoration: Arabesque or Vegetal; Calligraphy and Geometry.
Emphasizing biomorphic, floral elements, Arabesque designs are influenced by nature and flow with rhythm and balance, symmetry and structure. Using the inherent beauty of the Arabic script calligraphy allows writing to become ornament. It transmits texts in a decorative form and is omnipresent in the Islamic world. Drawing on the intellectual contribution of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers and scientists, geometric designs stress the importance of unity and order. They use interlaced circles, squares, stars and polygons in countless complex arrangements.
In the ancient medina of Marrakesh, labyrinthine alleys house a wealth of traditional riad homes. Arranged around courtyards fragrant with citrus blossoms, the rooms inside are a delight of carved stucco arches, Berber rugs and beautiful patterned zellij tiles. The hand-made enamelled terracotta has been highly prized since the 10th century.
Many designers in contemporary Turkey infuse their work with visual elements that reflect their heritage. In Istanbul, Autoban is one of a number of furniture design companies receiving international attention. Though the look is strikingly modern, centuries-old geometric pattern is strongly present in Autoban pieces such as Sledge Chair, which has two semi-circles carved out of its sides.
In the UAE even the most contemporary of statements will draw on traditional motifs. Combining high-end fashion boutiques with food stores, craft shops and eateries, Abu Dhabi’s Central Market, is a reinterpretation of the traditional souk for a modern-day shopper. Casting beautiful coloured shadows around the building and making reference to the local vernacular, the huge stained glass windows were designed by Jean Marc Castera, a French artist and academic of the Islamic Arts.
In Dubai, pattern is everywhere. Visitors to the city will note the rich tile work of opulent hotels such as the Madinat Jumeirah. They marvel at the architectural artistry of the Grand Mosque with its splendidly decorated glass panels and carved window shutters. Then, in the historic Bastakiya area of the city the Majlis Gallery offers a fascinating display of traditional ceramics, jewellery, calligraphy and sculpture. At the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – the geometric pattern of its vertiginous structure makes engineering sense.
From carpets to ceilings, earth to sky, the patterned arts of Islam remain as sophisticated and intricate as they ever were.