“rectangular boundaries, defined by two intersecting orthogonal axes”

I wrote a short essay about rectangular boundaries which are defined by two intersecting orthogonal axes in the history of architecture.

The primitive sacred expression of the four elements which combined with a central element can be found in all religions and mythologies of the world. The Cosmic Cross and the Axis Mundi (the cosmic center) are the most known representations which relate to the four cardinal points. Since the origin of the sacred expression of the four is related to the spatial orientation of man in the world, it acquired spatial and strictly geometrical representations. Therefore, that representations were adopted in the construction of quadripartite cities (e.g. urbs dei), palaces, temples (e.g. Buddhist stupas, Hindu temples, Christian cruciform churches and martyria, Islamic four-iwan mosques and madrasas, and Sufi domed four-iwan khanaqahs, etc.), tombs and Persian gardens (e.g. chahar baghs). Thusly, rectangular boundaries, defined by two intersecting orthogonal axes marking the four corners of the world can be seen in all these architectural and landscape sites clearly.[i]

The most momentous work that survives in Iran is Masjid-i Jami at Isfahan was initially built by the early Muslims who arrived in the first century after the Hijra (AH). The mosque was enlarged by Buyids (between 908-32 CE), following the restructuring of the mosque to a typical hypostyle plan by Abbasids in 840-41 CE. After Seljuks made Isfahan their capital, the mosque reached a remarkable position. The vizier of the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah, Nizam al-Mulk supported much of the rebuilding of the mosque and he introduced many features including a large brick dome in front of the mihrab in imitation of the Umayyad mosques  (between 1086/87 CE). Later, a political rival of Nizam al-Mulk, Taj al-Mulk added a seldom equaled sister dome (between 1088/89 CE) at the opposite end on the northern axis of Nizam al-Mulk’s dome. During 1120-1121, an occurred fire consumed much of the original Masjid-i Jami except Taj al-Mulk’s dome. Moreover, the transformation from the hypostyle plan of mosque into a four-iwan scheme, which arranged around a large courtyard, was during these times as well. Plus, the alignment of the walls’ decorated panels, the squinches, and windows above them expressed an impressive verticality and achieved a structural harmony. The mosque is a masterpiece of brick architecture, besides it has presented new elements, structural ingenuity and complexity. Furthermore, traces of Seljuk architecture are seen in the applications: the amalgam of decoration compositions which is produced by the variety of brick patterns, the detailed work in carved stucco, colored panels of floral, geometric and epigraphic motifs.

Masjid-i-Jami has three architectural merits, the first characteristic is the large application of muqarnas to decorate many surfaces especially domes and squinches beautifully with skills. Muqarnas is found in the oldest part of the Mosque, in the 11th century Qibla section, on 12th century iwans as well as 15th and 16th centuries Safavid renovation work. The second remarkable element is the vaulting system of the mosque. There are numerous vaults by including mostly domes and barrel vaults which were made with great skills and craftsmanship. One interesting detail is the rib vaulting is treated in the domes of the mosque. Traditionally, the domes were constructed with bricks as the Mosque becomes a masterpiece of brick architecture. There was the lack of wood in this region, so that the domes were supported by long slender intersecting arches which are composed of one single line of bricks. These domes and iwans were erected between the end of the 11th century and the first half of the 12th century and therefore they are not really the earliest examples. The third renowned feature is the substitution of the hypostyle plan with the four iwan plan, as mentioned previously. Together with the new alteration, Masjid-i Jami emerged as a large complex which consists of a vast prayer hall with a courtyard and four monumental iwans. The iwans were connecting the four sides of the sanctuary. These iwans were arranged in axial plan of equal size and they were facing each other. Unlike the other three iwans, the southern side iwan was deliberately enlarged above the others to emphasize the direction of the Qibla and the presence of the mihrab. In the following periods further alterations were made including a madrasa which is added by the Muzaffarids; and a great winter prayer hall and a gate which were constructed by the Timurids.[ii] [iii] [iv] [v]

The representation of a structure (e.g. Masjid-i Jami) with orthogonal axes ending in four iwans surrounding a courtyard is defined as four iwan type. The type first appeared in Khurasan, and probably it developed from ancient Iranian models. It was the most popular type in the medieval period, and it remained dominant in Iran.[vi] In general, rectangular boundary which is defined by two intersecting orthogonal axes marking the four is a common used plan within the urban fabric. Therefore, the status of Axis Mundi, relate to the four cardinal points, by copying the orientation of the Ka’ba was acquired especially in The Bibi Khanym Mosque and the Ulugh Beg Madrasa in Samarqand have Islamic four-iwan mosques,  as Masjid-i Jami at Isfahan (1397) has. Additionally, this concept is seen in caravansaries, e.g. Ribat Sharaf (1114); hospitals, e.g. the hospital of Nur-al-Din at Damascus (1154); Hindu temple, Christian cruciform churches and martyria, and the Buddhist stupa with the four-iwan plan, and buildings which spread throughout Anatolia, Syria and Iran respectively.  These orthogonal-axial monuments shows the basic compositional features such as the orientation along two orthogonal axes, situation of the sanctuary in their crossing point, four massive gates, etc. [vii]

Taj Mahal in Agra, India (1631-47) is one of the world’s best known buildings. In the plan of the complex, there is a nested hierarchy of axes and cross-axes that allude to the garden of paradise. The complex is set around a large square chaharbagh or Mughal garden. The Taj Mahal gardens have been designed in the chaharbagh style, that is to say that it is divided into the four parts, as the number of four is being a sacred number in Islam religion. The chaharbagh garden, a design inspired by Persian gardens, and it was introduced to India by Babur, the first Mughal emperor. The plan of the Taj Mahal represents an elaboration of Humayun mausoleum built by Akbar for his father Sayid Muhammed (1562-71). Many of the features of Humayun mausoleum, including its plan, is found in Taj Mahal complex.[viii] [ix]

There is a contemporary architecture examples of the concept introducing a rectangular boundary which is defined by intersecting orthogonal axes as well: Temple in Stone and Light, also known as Barmer Temple (2016) projected by SpaceMatters in Barmer, Rajasthan, India. Although the structure has one more axes intersecting orthogonal with the ‘intersection of two orthogonal axes’, these three axes still define a rectangular boundary. In this case, the third axes does not break the idea the structure has imitated the Hindu Temple’s plan. Further, there is an information about Lord Shiva, to whom Temple in Stone and Light is dedicated, dwells in paradoxes and apparent dualities, also, in Hindu scriptures and mythology he manifests as both the Preserver and the Destroyer. Probably, this analogy lead architects to deliver this project with a Hindu Temple plan as well. Since the Garbhagriha, the innermost sanctum of a Hindu Temple, is seen in the plan of Temple in Stone and Light, the idea, that it was inspired from early examples, is strengthened.[x]

In the essay, two specific examples from different eras, which represent the definition of a rectangular boundary by the help of two intersecting orthogonal axes, are introduced. While one represented the plan of Islamic four-iwan mosques, the other symbolized the features of Persian gardens’ plan.  Also, one example from contemporary architecture that can be related with the concept was mentioned. As a consequence, the examples diversified over centuries, inspired, imitated by each other, changed, and added elements or details under the title of general concept.

[i] Paskaleva, E.G. (2010). The architecture of the four-īwān building tradition as a representation of paradise and dynastic power aspirations. Doctoral thesis. Leiden University.

[ii] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2012). “Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan”. Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1397

[iii] Ingersoll, R. & Kostof, S. (2012). World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History. Oxford University Press; 1 edition.

[iv] “Masjid-i Jami’ IsfahanIran”. Retrieved from http://archnet.org/sites/1621

[v] The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation. (n.d.). “Masjid-i-Jamis: the Friday Mosque of Isfahan”. Retrieved from http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/masjid-i-jamis-friday-mosque-isfahan

[vi] MIT OpenCourseWare. “The Great Seljuqs, the Sunni Revival, and the Four-Iwan Plan”. Retrieved from https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/architecture/4-614-religious-architecture-and-islamic-cultures-fall-2002/lecture-notes/seljuqs/

[vii] Paskaleva, E.G. (2010). The architecture of the four-īwān building tradition as a representation of paradise and dynastic power aspirations. Doctoral thesis. Leiden University.

[viii] Ingersoll, R. & Kostof, S. (2012). World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History. Oxford University Press; 1 edition.

[ix] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (1983). “Taj Mahal”. Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/252

[x] “Temple in Stone and Light / SpaceMatters”. ArchDaily. Retrieved from http://www.archdaily.com/786983/temple-in-stone-and-light-spacematters


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