Muqarnas vaulting in the iwan entrance to the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (17th century)
Muqarnas dome in the Sala de Dos Hermanas at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain (14th century)

Muqarnas (Arabic: مقرنص; Persian: مقرنس, or Persian: آهوپای, romanized: ahoopāy), also known in Iberian architecture as Mocárabe, is a form of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture. It is the archetypal form of Islamic architecture, integral to the vernacular of Islamic buildings.[1] It was most likely first developed in eleventh-century Iraq, though the earliest preserved examples are also found outside this region.[2][3]

The muqarnas structure originated from the squinch. Sometimes called "honeycomb vaulting"[4] or "stalactite vaulting", the purpose of muqarnas is to create a smooth, decorative zone of transition in an otherwise bare, structural space. This structure gives the ability to distinguish between the main parts of a building, and serve as a transition from the walls of a room into a domed ceiling.[5]

Muqarnas architecture is featured in domes, half-dome entrances, iwans and apses. The two main types of muqarnas are the North African/Middle Eastern style, composed of a series of downward triangular projections, and the Iranian style, composed of connecting tiers of segments.[6]


The etymology of the word muqarnas is somewhat vague. It is thought to have originated from the Greek word korōnis meaning "ornamental molding".[7] There is also speculation of the origin to stem from the Arabic word qarnasi meaning "intricate work".[8] Nişanyan claims that it is related to the Aramaic קרנסא, meaning "hammering".[9]


Close-up of muqarnas vaulting in the Alhambra (14th century) in Granada, Spain, showing horizontal courses of alveoles

Muqarnas is typically applied to the undersides of domes, pendentives, cornices, squinches, arches and vaults and is often seen in the mihrab of a mosque.[10] They can be entirely ornamental, or serve as load-bearing structures. The earliest forms of muqarnas domes, found in the Mesopotamian region, were primarily structural. Muqarnas grew increasingly common and decorative in the beginning of the 12th century. Muqarnas can either be carved into the structural blocks of corbelled vaulting or hung from a structural roof as a purely decorative surface.[11][12] The most distinctive form of the muqarnas is the honeycomb structure, often intricate and impossibly fractal-like in its complexity. The individual cells are called alveoles.[13]

Muqarnas vaulting covered with tilework, seen from below, in the iwan entrance of the Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom, Iran

Muqarnas are made of brick, stone, stucco, or wood, and clad with tiles or plaster. The form and medium vary depending on the region they are found. Muqarnas structures in the east are built using a standard set of components and guidelines, creating a more uniformed style. Muqarnas found in the west are more intricately creative because they tend to not have a standard set of regulations regarding composition, components, and construction.[14] In Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, muqarnas are constructed out of stone. In North Africa, they are typically constructed from plaster and wood, and in Iran and Iraq, the muqarnas dome is built with bricks covered in plaster or ceramic clay.[7]



Early example of basic tripartite muqarnas squinches under the dome of the Duvazdah Imam Mausoleum in Yazd (1037–8)

The earliest monuments to make use of this feature date from the 11th century and are found in Iraq, North Africa, Iran, Central Asia, and Upper Egypt.[3] This apparently near-simultaneous appearance in distant regions of the Islamic world has led to different scholarly theories about their origin and diffusion.[3][2] Some early scholars of Islamic art, such as K. A. C. Creswell and Georges Marçais, believed that the evidence points to a simultaneous parallel development in these different regions. Others propose that they originated in one region at least a century earlier and then spread from there.[3]

Imam Dur Mausoleum (1090), with exterior view of its muqarnas dome

The earliest evidence of muqarnas-like elements, although only conjectural, comes from fragments of stucco found in Nishapur, Iran, dated to the 9th or 10th century. These fragments have concave triangular shapes and were reconstructed by excavators as a tripartite squinch.[3][2] The earliest surviving examples preserved in situ are tripartite squinches used as transitional elements for domes and semi-domes. These examples include the Arab-Ata Mausoleum (977–978) in Tim (near Samarkand) in Uzbekistan, the Gunbad-i Qabus (1006–1007) in northeastern Iran, and the Duvazdah Imam Mausoleum (1037–1038) in Yazd, Iran.[15] The oldest muqarnas dome, completed in 1090, is found in the Imam Dur Mausoleum, at Samarra.[2][16] (This shrine was reported destroyed by ISIS in October 2014.[17])

Some scholars have theorized that muqarnas originated in northeastern Iran, based on the evidence from Nishapur and Tim, and that it was further developed in subsequent Seljuk architecture, as seen in the Seljuk domes of the Great Mosque of Isfahan (1088).[2] Other scholars believe the most likely point of origin is instead Abbasid Iraq in the early 11th century, at a time when the Abbasids in Baghdad were undergoing a renaissance.[2][18][3] Alicia Carrillo Calderero has proposed that the first muqarnas originated in the palaces of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad.[16][19]

Façade of the Aqmar Mosque in Cairo (c. 1125, Fatimid period), with rectangular muqarnas niches to the left and right of the central doorway

In the case of Egypt, the earliest known and securely dated examples of muqarnas are from the Fatimid period and are found on the minaret of Badr al-Jamali's mashhad in Cairo, dated by inscription to 1085, and a cornice in Cairo's north wall (1085).[5] The first fully realized, sophisticated use of muqarnas is found on the street façade of the Aqmar Mosque (1125) in Cairo.[3] The advanced technical mastery of constructing muqarnas suggests that the technique and its associated architectural elements were imported from elsewhere. Jonathan Bloom speculates that the outside influence could originate from Syria, but notes that there are few Syrian monuments still standing that can support this claim.[5] A cemetery in Aswan, containing many domed tombs from the 11th and 12th centuries,[20] is a crucial example for the advancement in the development of the stalactite pendentive. In the mid-11th century, prosperous pilgrimage routes along the Red Sea and flourishing trade routes began in Cairo and dispersed throughout the Islamic empire. This allowed for a great exchange of ideas as well as a lucrative economy, capable of funding various architectural projects.[5]

At Qal'at Bani Hammad in central Algeria, a royal city founded in the early 11th century by the Hammadid dynasty, archeologists discovered fragments of plaster which have been identified by some as the earliest appearance of muqarnas in the western Islamic world,[21][22]: 133  but their dating and their identification as true muqarnas have been rejected or disputed by some scholars, including Yasser Tabbaa[2] and Jonathan Bloom.[23]: 93 

Later development

By the 12th century muqarnas had spread far and wide and from this point onward it would develop into different styles in different regions.[3]

Iraq and Syria up to the 13th century

Muqarnas dome in the Mausoleum of Zumurrud Khatun (before 1202, late Abbasid period)

The largest examples of muqarnas domes can be found in Iraq and the Jazira region of eastern Syria, with a diverse variety of applications in domes, vaults, mihrabs, and niches.[2] These domes date from a period of great architectural activity between the mid-12th century and the Mongol invasion in the mid-13th century.[2] They follow the same model as the dome of the Imam Dur Mausoleum and have a pine cone-like appearance from the outside, as exemplified by the dome of the Mausoleum of Zumurrud Khatun,[3] completed before 1202 in the late Abbasid period.[24] This type of dome was also popular in Zengid Syria around the same time, as in the example of the Bimaristan of Nur al-Din in Damascus (1154), which also features a shallow muqarnas vault hood over its entrance portal.[3]

Dome of the Mausoleum of Shaykh 'Abd al-Samad in Natanz (1307, Ilkhanid period)

In northern Mesopotamia, muqarnas domes were often made of stucco inside a conical or pyramidal brick roof, as seen in Mausoleum of Imam Awn Al-Din in Mosul (built in 1245, destroyed by ISIL in 2014[25]).[3] A closely related type is also seen in the Shrine of Shaykh 'Abd al-Samad in Natanz, Iran, which is dated to 1307 and demonstrates the sophistication muqarnas had reached in the Ilkhanid period.[3] The oldest examples of entrance portals decorated with muqarnas vaulting in Iran also date to the Ilkhanid period.[3]

Egypt and Syria in the 13th to 16th centuries

Stone muqarnas vault and scalloped semi-dome in the entrance portal of Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan (13561363, Mamluk period)

Muqarnas in carved stone was characteristic of Ayyubid and Mamluk architecture from the 13th to early 16th centuries in Egypt and the Levant.[3] The Mamluk sultan Baybars introduced to Egypt the Syrian tradition of entrance portals with a muqarnas hood. These subsequently developed into spectacular designs used in at the entrances of both religious monuments and private palaces,[3] forming some of the most accomplished stone muqarnas designs in the Islamic world.[26][27]: 86  Muqarnas was also frequently used to cover the pendentives inside domed chambers.[27]: 81–83 

Muqarnas vaulting in Mamluk portals usually culminated in a scalloped or shell-shaped semi-dome at the top.[27]: 86 [3] Variations of this style became prevalent in the entrance portals of the 14th century, with the most monumental example being that of the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan in Cairo. Among the other examples, several unusual portals have muqarnas covering the underside of a flat vault, most notably at the Mosque of Amir Ulmas (1330).[27]: 86  Muqarnas became less prominent in Mamluk portals during the 15th century.[27]: 89 

Eastern Islamic world after the 14th century

Under the Timurids, ruling from Central Asia in the late 14th and 15th centuries, some extraordinary muqarnas vaults were built and muqarnas was also used as a transitional element around the base of large ribbed domes.[3] It is also in this period that the oldest surviving written work about muqarnas was composed, the Miftāḥ al-ḥisāb ('Key to Arithmetic'), written by Ghiyath al-Din al-Kashi in 1427.[3] Muqarnas vaulting nonetheless became somewhat less popular in this region during this period.[3]

Muqarnas vault with covered with mirror mosaics in an iwan inside Chehel Sotoun in Isfahan (from a 1706–7 restoration, Safavid period)

In Safavid Iran of the 16th to early 18th centuries, muqarnas was no longer used to cover the interiors of religious buildings but was still used to fill the vaults of iwans. Like other surfaces in Safavid architecture, they were typically covered in colourful tilework.[3] In the 18th century, Iranian muqarnas began to be covered with mirror glass mosaics, with one of the earliest examples found at Chehel Sotoun in Isfahan, dating to its restoration in 1706–7. This style was used afterward to decorate the interiors of major Shi'a shrines in Iran and Iraq.[3]

Muqarnas and geometric vaulting inside the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore (early 17th century, Mughal period)

Muqarnas was also a recurring embellishment of vaults and iwans in Mughal architecture in the Indian subcontinent.[28] Experimentation with new styles of vaulting was characteristic of the reign of Jahangir (r. 1605–1627).[29] Muqarnas with small lozenge-shaped alveoles were combined with a related type of geometrically-patterned vaulting, usually based on a star motif. The latter was probably derived from the influence of Safavid architecture.[29] In Mughal decoration, muqarnas are often covered with arabesque decoration, crafted with molded plaster and fitted to each of the alveoles.[28]

Maghreb and al-Andalus

Almoravid Qubba in Marrakesh (1117 or 1125), with minor muqarnas cupolas visible in the corners

In the western Islamic world, muqarnas decoration was definitively introduced during the reign of the Almoravid emir Ali ibn Yusuf.[3][30] The earliest examples, although limited to small details of larger domes, are found in the Almoravid Qubba in Marrakesh, Morocco, built probably in 1117 or 1125,[30][31] and in the stucco openwork dome in front of the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, Algeria, dated to 1136.[3] The earliest complete muqarnas vaults in the western Islamic world are located in the Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez, dating to Ali ibn Yusuf's major expansion of the mosque between 1134 and 1143. These vaults are made of plaster and suspended from hidden wooden struts above them. They are richly decorated, with individual alveoles painted with vegetal motifs and highlighted in red and blue.[23]: 119–120  Further north, in al-Andalus (present-day Spain), the oldest surviving muqarnas fragments were found in a palace built by Muhammad Ibn Mardanish (r. 1147–1172), excavated under the present-day Monastery of Santa Clara in Murcia. The fragments are painted with images of musicians and other figures.[23]: 98–100  It's possible that an even older instance of muqarnas existed in a palace inside the Alcazaba of Almería, dating to the reign of the Taifa ruler al-Mu'tasim (r. 1051–1091). The evidence for its existence comes from a written account by al-Udhri, though the wording may be open to multiple interpretations.[19]

Archway with muqarnas in the Palace of the Lions (14th century, Nasrid period) at the Alhambra in Granada

Muqarnas eventually reached its highest level of sophistication in the Alhambra of Granada, built by the Nasrids. The most impressive domes are found in the Palace of the Lions, built in the 14th century.[3] The dome over the chamber known today as the Sala de Dos Hermanas ('Hall of the Two Sisters') is one of the most magnificent muqarnas domes in Islamic art, consisting of at least 5000 alveoles that unfold from a central summit downward into sixteen miniature domes around the dome's perimeter.[32][33]

Anatolia and the Ottoman Empire

Muqarnas vault over the entrance of the Sultan Han (1229, Seljuk period) in Turkey

In Anatolia, the monuments of the Anatolian Seljuks and other local dynasties made use of muqarnas inside mihrabs (sometimes covered in tilework), on the capitals of columns, in the transitional zones of minaret balconies, and over masonry entrance portals. It was used less in the pendentives and squinches of domes, where other techniques came to be employed instead.[3]

The muqarnas-vaulted entrance portal was strongly associated with Seljuk royal patronage in the 13th century and spread more widely across Anatolia as the century progressed.[34] It typically had a pyramidal or triangular shape, more akin to a corbelled vault than a half-dome.[35] This kind of muqarnas vault also appears in some Cairene Mamluk portals, particularly in the shape of the pyramidal muqarnas vault of the Madrasa of Umm al-Sultan Sha'ban, possibly due to Anatolian influence.[27]: 219 [36] During the 14th century, Mamluk influence is in turn apparent in the design of muqarnas portals in Anatolia.[37]

Muqarnas portal at the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne (1568–1574, Ottoman period)

Under the Ottomans, the tradition of Seljuk muqarnas continued into Ottoman architecture, although it diminished in importance during the Classical period in the 16th century, when it was only one element in a wider decorative repertoire.[3] It was mainly used in entrance portals, niches, and column capitals.[18] It eventually faded from use in the 18th century, when European-influenced decoration began to predominate in the Ottoman Baroque period.[3]

Outside the Muslim world

Painted muqarnas in the Cappella Palatina, Palermo (circa 1140), commissioned by Roger II of Sicily

Muqarnas was also used by Christian patrons outside the Muslim world, in regions influenced by Islamic art and culture. It is found in some monuments of Arab-Norman architecture in 12th-century Sicily. The most impressive example is in the Cappella Palatina (circa 1140) in Palermo, which has a central nave covered by the largest rectangular muqarnas vault in the world, made of painted wood.[23]: 102–104  The frequent use of muqarnas in al-Andalus also led to its use in Mudéjar architecture commissioned by Christian Spanish patrons.[3] Armenian architecture in the 13th century also made use of muqarnas, spurred by the influence of contemporary Islamic architecture.[38]


As with the origins of the muqarnas form, there are multiple theories about its possible symbolic meaning or function.[18] Oleg Grabar, in his work on the Alhambra in Granada, suggested that the large muqarnas domes in the Palace of the Lions were representations of the rotating heavens.[39][2]

Yasser Tabbaa has argued that the muqarnas dome was originally intended as an architectural representation of the atomist and occasionalist view of the universe endorsed by Muslim philosophers, particularly the version formulated by al-Baqillani (d. 1013) and endorsed by the Abbasid caliph al-Qadir (r. 991–1031), roughly around the time that muqarnas began to appear.[2] By subdividing the continuous surface of a dome into a large number of small units organized in a complex pattern, while also de-emphasizing the former squinches and making the dome appear unsupported, architects were representing a universe divided into atoms and held together by God.[2] Tabbaa goes on to suggest that the symbolism of the muqarnas dome as a representation of the rotating dome of heaven, proposed by Grabar, could have been a secondary interpretation that developed in subsequent centuries.[2]

The muqarnas domes were often constructed above portals of entry for the purpose of establishing a threshold between two worlds. The celestial connotation of the muqarnas structure represents a passage from "the functions of living, or of awaiting eternal life that is expressed by geometric forms."[40]


See also


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