Art History: Beautiful Geometric Patterns in Historic Mosques

This week’s education feature dives into the beautiful geometric patterns in historic mosques. I geeked out on the following resources to refresh my knowledge on Islamic art – The Met, the History of Art course on HOWU, tourism sites and scholarly articles.

When you compare the art found in mosques to churches, you’ll notice some key differences. Churches, for example, often showcase paintings, stained glass art, and sculptures of religious figures such as Jesus, Mother Mary, and the saints. Mosques, however, do not include figural representations because Muslims believe that the creation of living things is unique to God, and they don’t want to encourage idolatry.

The geometric patterns found in mosques are stunningly beautiful and intricate. The patterns’ purpose is to not copy nature but to reflect what nature’s represents. According to this research article written by Loai M. Dabbour, geometry “represents an expression of the order of the universe as a visual representation of the truth.”

We only focus on three periods of the evolution of Islamic geometric design. Note that this is a slice of Islam’s rich history and the use of patterns in Islamic religious decoration.

While viewing the images below, notice the widespread use of circles. The research article “Evolution of Islamic Geometric Patterns” notes that the deliberate use of circular design “emphasizes One God and the role of Mecca.” Other common geometric construction designs found in early mosques include the six-point, such as hexagons and 6-point stars, and eight-point designs, such as octagons, 8-point stars, and the 8-fold rosette. As time moves forward, the geometric patterns expanded to include 10-point shapes, such has decagons, 10-point stars and the 10-fold rosettes, and even to 16-point geometric shapes.

The below graphics depict the basic construction of these geometric designs:

Let’s view some of the historical mosques and their geometric patterns,

3 Periods of Geometric Patterns in Mosques

Early Period – Up to ~900 AD

Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia

The early period of geometric shapes in mosques pictured vegetal and floral patterns. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, which was constructed in 670 AD and rebuilt in 836 AD, features these geometric shape designs.

Photo: Mahdi Jwini

Photo: Mahdi Jwini

Photo: Tai_Mab

Photo: Tai_Mab

Mosque of Ibn-Tulun, Egypt

A milestone for geometric shape design in mosques is the 6-and 8-point geometric shapes. Take a look at this historic mosque, which also includes the earliest examples of woven geometric patterns.

Ibn Tolon historic #mosque . #Cairo #Egypt

A photo posted by NG (@ng_noah) on

In a spiritual state of mind ❤ #throwback

A photo posted by Noora Sultan Saqer Al Suwaidi (@noorasultansaqeralsuwaidi) on

#Islamic #Cairo #travel #wonderlust #travelblogger

A photo posted by Fatih Çiçek (@maamafiih) on

Middle Stage: 11th – 13th Century

During this timeframe, artists included a wider variety of patterns and they began to use Girih tiles. Five girih tiles, each with decorative painted lines, placed next to each other create a stunning beautiful geometric shape.

Great Mosque of Isfahan, Iran

The below image contains Muqarnas, which takes geometric patterns to the 3-D level. Muqarnas are structures that are built inside a half-dome ceiling. It contains curved walls, also known as squinches, that connects the floor to the ceiling.

Photo: Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SA

Photo: Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SA

Late Stage – 16th – 17th Century

Alhambra, Spain

The Alhambra’s history is unique, to put it quite simply. In fact, it was first built in AD 889 as a Roman fortress. However, we will pick up from when the Moors took charge of the fortress in the mid-13th century.  The Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar rebuilt what is now the current palace and walls during that time. You’ll observe that the geometric designs advanced to include 12-point and 16-point patterns.

The History of Art instructor Carolina Caycedo notes that Alhambra’s “interior courtyards and halls are richly decorated with the most subtle lacework ornamentations, known as arabesques. The domed chambers were built in an intricate geometrical pattern based on arches, and covered with elaborate stucco decorations and mosaics with golden backgrounds.”


Source: Nuria Pérez

Source: Nuria Pérez


Source: Nuria Pérez


Source: Nuria Pérez

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