Prior to the times of loudspeakers, it was the echo of the voice of the Imam at the mihrab (niche) of the mosque that got the attention of worshippers to stand in rows at mosques to pray. In the Sufi thinking, this echo recalled the grandeur of the presence of the Almighty.
"This is why the mihrab is such an essential element of the interiors of any mosque,” said Yara Hatem, assistant lecturer at the Fine Arts School of Helwan University.
Hatem has always been fascinated with the mihrabs, particularly those of the Ghouri Mosque and mausoleum on El-Muez Street of Old Cairo.
“These two mihrabs have it all – the geometric and floral designs, the diverse selection of material, the influences of schools of art that had come before the times of the Mamlouks; they have it all – and they are both beautiful and unassuming at the same time,” she added.
Hatem’s fascination with these two mihrabs and the diverse applications thereon of the right hexagonal star plate, which she had studied at length, had often prompted her to think of all possible inspirations that contemporary exterior and interior designs could find in the voluminous Islamic architecture.
“The more time I spent looking at and examining the details of these two mihrabs, the more items I found there for inspiration of a lot of things that could be done on the walls, balconies and facades of buildings that we construct today,” she said. “I am talking about wall decoration, lighting designs, furniture, partitions, textile patterns and more,” she said.
According to Hatem, “the thing is to really understand the designs; this means to be able to undo the design into its very basic lines and then to be able to play with these lines into diverse compositions.”
“Islamic architecture in essence had always been so flexible – in both adopting influences and playing with material and techniques. It was always evolving and it was never meant about copy-and-paste,” she said.
“The trouble that we saw in Egypt for example in the late 1980s and early 1990s pertains to the lack of imagination because in most cases we saw replicas rather than inspirations or influences,” she said.
Consequently, Hatem added, there was a decade of the more-often-than-not superimposed thick mashrabiya work in one room of an otherwise very modern house.
“There was this thing about having an Islamic imprint or an Islamic corner, which meant getting someone to copy an item or a selection of items and to have them put un-integrated,” she said. “This had only contributed to putting people off the Islamic architecture that was never ever just about mashrabiyas and was never meant to be stagnant,” she added.
Hatem walks on the streets of the older quarters of Heliopolis and she notes the “clever use of the designs and techniques of Islamic architecture” on a balcony with several adjacent niches, “a sequel of simplified arches”. She steps into the interior of one building and she notes the use of a simplified version of the right hexagonal star to allow for the penetration of sunrays. She then walks along El-Mue’iz Street and notes the many ways in which the right hexagonal star had been applied to decorate walls and how they have appeared in one composition on the mihrab of a mosque and in another on stained glass on the walls that are carefully designed to allow the external light in both day time and at night.
“In all the very rich wealth of Mamlouk buildings in Cairo there is always evidence on the alternative compositions in which the right hexagonal star plate was used – not just in terms of design but also in terms of material used. This is precisely what we should be thinking of when we talk about finding inspirations in our heritage – we should be thinking of the options to manage the designs either fully or partially rather than of how we can copy one particular design and just throw it in,” Hatem said.
Hatem is as dismissive of the cut and paste approach – which she calls the mashrabiya phase – as she is of the assumption that the work of one modern architect is simplifying Islamic architecture to make it easier to adopt in today’s times. No matter how great the work of this architect or designer is, she said, it should be about the ability to find inspiration rather than to just imitate.
“The overwhelming beauty of these Mamlouk monuments is about the imagination behind the construction and interior design and about the skillful artisanship that got every little piece of wood and glass so carefully and neatly made and fit,” she said.
Hatem is convinced that one thing that had defied the simple adoption of the inspiration of Islamic art and architecture is the assumption that it has to be either all Islamic or not at all.
“The first apartment buildings and houses that were built in Heliopolis, for example, were never all Islamic and nobody ever said that the interiors of these houses were full of Islamic styled furniture,” she argued.
The essence of Islamic architecture, she said, “is not at all about the Mashrabiays and the intense use of ceramics and steel lighting pieces”.
“Balance and space is what is at essence for Islamic architecture and geometrical and floral designs are the essentials of the interior work – and from there we can start and the sky is really the limit,” she said.
The more contemporary work of capturing the essence of Islamic architecture that has been adopted by a group of contemporary designers, during the past 10 years or so, has been slowly but surely re-introducing the concept, Hatem argued. "And the niche is getting bigger," she said.
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