Domes: A signature form in Islamic architecture


Domes are one of the signature forms in Islamic architecture. Since the revelation of Islam in the 7th century CE until today, they have been used in most—if not all—Islamic lands and cultures. Technically, a dome is a rounded vault, set over a room that is usually square. Builders adopted various means to connect the square room to the dome’s circular base.

Bottom of the Dome of Masjid Madrassa of Sultan Hassan

The dome at the Ahmed Ibn Tulun mosque

Long before Islam, the dome was a popular architectural form throughout the Mediterranean and southwest Asia. Indeed the English word dome derives from the Latin word domus, which means “house.” In Arabic, the most common term for a dome is qubba, which comes from a Syriac word meaning “canopy” or “umbrella”—a reference to the much earlier domical tents of Turkoman and other nomads.

The fountain in the middle of the dish, Mosque of Sultan Hassan (photo: Almrsal)

The first major work of Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem which was finished in 691 CE under the sponsorship of the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, is covered by a monumental dome on a wooden frame. A few years later, when his son the Caliph Al-Walid had the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina reconstructed, a shallow wooden dome was installed over the space in front of the mihrab to emphasize its importance, and today the Prophet’s Mosque, rebuilt over the centuries, retains this feature. Additionally, the palaces of the Umayyad caliphs in Syria invariably had a domed audience hall, known as a qubbat al-khadra’ or a “dome of heaven”. These three types of domes—commemorative, sacred and royal (or official)—continue to be used in Islamic architecture to this day.

A dome at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the second holiest site in Islam (photo: M5ZN)

A dome at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the second holiest site in Islam (photo: M5ZN)

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, finished in 691 under the sponsorship of the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik

Dome of the Rock from the inside

In the Islamic lands and cultures around the Mediterranean, the domed interior was generally regarded as more important than the exterior, which was often either plain or covered with a practical, weather-resistant pyramidal tile roof. Thus the ribbed domes added to the Great Mosque of Córdoba in the 10th century are magnificently decorated on the interior, especially the one on the cover of this calendar, which rises above the front of the mihrab. By the 12th century, the development of the muqarnas, the quintessentially Islamic form of architectural decoration that is often likened to stalactites, gave builders new means of decorating interior vaults.

Muqarnas Dome of the Calat Alhambra in Granada (photo: The English Group)

Dome in front of the mihrab of the Great Mosque, Córdoba,

Dome in front of the mihrab of the Great Mosque, Córdoba,

The plaster interior of the Qubbat Al-Baadiyyin in Marrakesh combines the Córdoban tradition of ribbed vaults with muqarnas in the corners. Perhaps the most magnificent examples to survive are the two Nasrid muqarnas domes in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, in which thousands of plaster elements suggest an optical illusion of a rotating dome of heaven.

Qubbat Al-Baadiyyin in Marrakesh (photo: Archnet)

Qubbat Al-Baadiyyin in Marrakesh (photo: Archnet)

Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Muqarnas in the Alhambra Palace, Granada

In Egypt, from the 10th century onward, domes were often used commemoratively to mark the graves of important people. While some domes were constructed of wood covered with lead sheets, the most famous are a series of carved stone domes for rulers and courtiers of the Mamluk period (1250 CE to 1517 CE). Builders vied with each other to erect taller, larger, more elegantly decorated domes that would be visible from afar, the better to glorify the memory of the deceased patron

Tomb of Zahir Qansuh

The interiors of most Mamluk domes are often uncomfortably attenuated, revealing the challenges builders faced in combining exterior monumentality with a comfortable interior.

The Complex of Sultan Qalawun Al-Muiz Le Din Allah Street in Cairo, Egypt

Mihrab at Madrasa Al-Nassir Mohammed Ibn Qalawun

Mohammed Ali mosque