Geometric and Arabesque Design
Decoration is a major factor in Islamic architecture and design. Islamic artists developed complex geometric designs to cover surfaces, using symmetry and repetition to extend the intricate patterns. Islamic artisans used mathematical precision to produce decorative tile work, architecture, tapestries, and even the page borders of books. Geometric designers made use of circles, squares, and triangles of various sizes and colors to create sophisticated patterns of mosaics.
Muslim artisans also perfected the technique of creating decorative motifs of flowers, vines, and other graphics in precise geometric patterns. These “arabesque” motifs often cover walls, pottery, and other decorative objects and are governed by geometric and mathematical principles. The vines curve around and split off at very precise angles.
Muslim artisans rarely use just one technique or medium to decorate an object or building. One will find inscriptions in calligraphy, framed in arabesque designs, above a doorway decorated with mosaic tiles, and leading to a hallway covered in Oriental carpets. While this may seem like it would be an overwhelming visual clash, Muslim artists and architects have been careful to reproduce patterns, follow decorative schemes, and create fluidity of space. The designs are multifaceted and multilayered, resulting in a sophisticated weave of connecting patterns.
A stroll through central Fez, Morocco, will delight the eye with shimmering patterns of color and texture, called zillij. The word zillij comes from the Arabic word for “slippery tile,” which describes the smooth (or slippery) ceramic tile pieces that make up the colorful patterns. Zillij uses intricate tile patterns to decorate a surface, often a wall, floor, or fountain. In Fez, these geometric tile works decorate mosques, homes, schools, and city streets.
To create a zillij tile work, a craftsman first bakes clay tile squares, mixing natural pigment to glaze them in various colors. Then the tiles are hand-cut into the many shapes needed for the pattern: stars, triangles, chevrons, hexagons, octagons, diamonds, and so on. Zillij makes use of as many as 360 different geometric shapes in dozens of different colors.
By the thirteenth century
After cutting all the tile pieces, a layout artist spends days, or even weeks, arranging the thousands of tiny pieces on the floor, upside-down. Then concrete is poured over the whole thing. When the concrete dries, the panel can be lifted to expose the pattern on the other side.
Tapestries and Carpets
One of the best-known art forms in the Muslim world is the “oriental” carpet. The most famous of these carpets, known as “Persian” carpets, come from Iran. Ancient carpets are difficult to preserve, but examples of tapestries dating back to the sixteenth century have been saved. They are part of the artistic heritage of Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, Afghanistan, India, and China.
The carpets are traditionally decorated with arabesque and geometric designs, figures, and bright colors. They are made by stretching the wool or silk threads on a loom and then knotting them in rows and shearing the pile. The value of the carpet depends on how tightly the rug has been knotted; the more knots, the better. A valuable oriental rug could contain as many as 1,000 knots per square inch.
While these carpets are typically considered luxurious in the Western world, they are very commonplace in many Muslim countries. They cover the floors of many mosques, libraries, homes, and even city streets. One of the most famous historical carpets is the Ardabil Carpet, which has been preserved in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. This carpet dates back to 1539–1540