Definition of Islamic Hypostyle

Hypostyle is an open room lined with rows of columns, common in mosque design.
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Hypostyle refers to a roofed colonnade. Archeologists typically use the word, from the Greek for “under” and “columns,” to describe the distinctive structures in ancient Egyptian temples. Centuries later, hypostyles prevailed in the design of mosques, coming to characterize early-medieval Islamic architecture. The grand domes and vaults of Persian and Turkish mosques began to influence and supersede hypostyle construction by the 11th century, but Islamic hypostyles remain common, often in combination with later design elements.

1 Origins

Hypostyle came to the Islamic world during the Umayyad Caliphate. This first dynasty of Islam spread the religion and the Arabic language through a growing empire that, between 661 and 750 A.D., stretched from Spain to India. Because of the rapid spread of the religious and political power of the Umayyad Caliphate, the art and culture also spread, and hypostyle became, for centuries, part of the most common design for mosques. The Museum with No Frontiers, an online archive of art and architecture, explains that the builders of the first mosques patterned them after the initial mosque of the Prophet Muhammad, in Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia.

2 Structure

Islamic hypostyle buildings are typically constructed of stone, wood being rarer in the original Middle Eastern homelands of the Umayyads. Such structures are typically square or rectangular, and the columns are arranged according to a grid pattern. The prayer hall has a roof, and the building usually features a courtyard and open colonnade along one or more sides. This structure supports the roof, which is typically flat, while maximizing cooling air circulation. The rows of columns give a visual impression of limitless space, maximizing spiritual symbolism and visual appeal, explains The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation.

3 Development

Minarets, the tall, slender towers from which Muslim clergy issue the call to prayer, first appeared during the Umayyad period. Many hypostyle mosques also feature minarets, often with square bases; after the Turks made round arches a common feature of Islamic architecture, such arches were also often added to hypostyle buildings. Neither arches nor minarets, however, are specifically part of Islamic hypostyle. Non-representational art, featuring floral designs, abstract geometric patterns and calligraphy, typically adorned the walls and columns of hypostyle mosques. Because the Umayyad builders introduced calligraphy as a building decoration, it is closely associated with Islamic hypostyle architecture.

4 Examples

The Mezquita, in Cordoba, Spain, features 850 columns. Begun in the eighth century, it was the center of the Muslim caliphate of Spain and remains one of Islam’s most beautiful buildings. Still larger is the Great Mosque of Damascus, Syria, a seat of the Umayyads; it was built between 706 and 715 A.D. Farther west, the Great Mosque, in Kairouan, Tunisia, influenced North African architecture for centuries; the hypostyle mosque, rebuilt in the ninth century, features what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization calls a “forest” of columns.

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.