How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe
By Diana Darke
Christopher Wren, architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, wrote in the early 1700s that he had used ‘Saracen vaulting’ in constructing his iconic dome. He also wrote that what we call ‘the Gothic style’ should rightly be called ‘the Saracen style’. Somehow, over the last 300 years, what Wren considered a self-evident truth has been airbrushed out of history, yet the evidence is there for all those willing to look with an open mind.As someone who has lived and worked across many parts of the Arab world for decades and is familiar with its key monuments it was also a self-evident truth to me, so I took it for granted that such connections were common knowledge. However, the world’s reaction to the Paris fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in April 2019 revealed that Gothic architecture was now thought of as an entirely European invention.This is what made me decide to write a book explaining the Islamic backstory of Gothic architecture. I traced the Arab and Islamic roots of Europe’s architectural heritage, showing how ideas and styles had passed from vibrant Middle Eastern centres like Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, via Muslim Spain, Venice and Sicily into Europe. I explained how medieval Crusaders, pilgrims and merchants encountered Arab Muslim culture on their way to Jerusalem and the Holy Land and I documented the many instances of artistic interaction between the Muslim and Christian worlds. This talk will take you on that same visual journey through the key buildings both in Europe and the Middle East, to show how our cultures have interacted and intertwined in ways that challenge all kinds of assumptions we might make about our history.
Diana Darke is a Middle East cultural expert with special focus on Syria. With degrees in Arabic from Oxford University, and in Islamic Art & Architecture from SOAS, London, she has spent over 35 years specialising in the region, working for both government and commercial sectors. Among her publications are the highly acclaimed My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016), The Merchant of Syria (2018) and The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo (2019). Her book Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture shaped Europe (2020), received three Book of the Year 2020 awards. Her most recent book, The Ottomans: A Cultural Legacy, was published in the UK in September 2022. Frequently invited to speak at international events and media such as the BBC, PBS, TRT, Al-Jazeera and France24, her work on Syria has been published by the BBC website, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Financial Times. She is a Non-resident Scholar at Washington’s think-tank MEI (the Middle East Institute).