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Muqarnas in Islamic Architecture Thesis


Muqarnas is known as a traditional structural element of Islamic Architecture. This vault-like structure slightly resembles stalactite formations, and its utilization is ubiquitous in mosques and mausoleums belonging to Muslim culture. It is possible to describe muqarnas as descending vaults with flat plates and facets designed in the form of a complicated set of adjacent cells. It is applied in domes, facades, entrance portals, arches, and wall niches and serves both as decoration and structural features. Muqarnas constructions were built from various materials depending on the region. It is difficult to detect the place where this architectural element was first used. The early sample of muqarnas is the plate found in Takht-i Sulayman palace in Iran. This plate became the basis of several studies resulting in different interpretations of erection methods and geometry of muqarnas. Analysis of various monuments of Islamic architecture proved that the main functions of muqarnas are to provide a smooth transition from the rectangular form to a circular dome or domical element and to decorate a building imparting specific cultural meaning to the ornaments.

Literature Review

It is generally recognized that spatial transition from a square base to a dome is highly problematic. The solution was suggested by Islamic architects as a segue between two different shapes. Some researchers state that “creation of muqarnas can be translated as a branch of the evolution process of patkâné” (Dadkhah et al. 131). In its turn, patkâné developed from a squinch used as a transitional element in Byzantine and Roman architecture. Squinch also appeared in the early examples of Islamic mosques.

The geographical origin of muqarnas is difficult to detect. It is emphasized that muqarnas decoration as a squinch fragmentation was influenced by Sasanian art (Carrillo 203). This influence was characterized by utilizing projections and recesses in façade and arch design and was reported to be present in Persian architecture before Islam’s appearance.

Geometrical patterns and geometry play a significant role in Islamic architecture. Muqarnas design is known to have a connection with the principles of fractal geometry, which appeared in the twentieth century. Islam architects might develop this element based on the fractal patterns that can be found in nature. Some researchers state that such geometrical patterns helped the architects to create complex ornamental, structural, and spatial elements by their essential rules (Kiani and Amiriparyan 777).

Islamic architects closely collaborated with mathematicians and applied strict geometric rules in creating sophisticated Muqarnas configurations. It is stated that Bahri Mamluk muqarnas in Egypt managed to reach the most complicated structural proportions, as well as ornamental and sculptural unity, which greatly influenced the development of muqarnas in other countries (Kashef 502). The analysis of Bahri Mamluk muqarnas gives a general understanding of geometrical analytic and techniques of the erection of muqarnas configurations.

Representations of muqarnas in a two-dimensional form are abbreviated and difficult to conceive. It is a general opinion that the process of muqarnas generation involves both horizontal and vertical geometrical transformations. It is noted that “the emerging digital design approaches and computational thinking might contribute more to exploring the unvisited potentials of muqarnas” (Alaçam et al. 293).

Muqarnas can be interpreted as the materialization of symbolic meanings in architecture. It is noted that “language of symbolism in the Islamic architecture is effectively used to connect the physical to the imaginal, the mortal to the immortal” (Nasrollahi 91). Therefore, muqarnas represents an image of stars and sky in Islamic architecture. It is designed in compliance with Muslim beliefs in God who raised the sky without pillars.

History of Muqarnas

The early examples of the structural units resembling muqarnas were found in Central North Africa and North-Eastern Iran. It is generally recognized that the first constructions where muqarnas elements were applied include the Mausoleum of the Sāmānid prince Ismāʿīl in Buchara and the mausoleum of Arab-ata not far from Buchara. The domes of these buildings are supported by squinches segmented by muqarnas-like elements to decorate the transition zone. It is believed that this approach to decoration quickly spread to other parts of the Islamic world. The earliest example of a surviving muqarnas vault can be found in the shrine of Imām Duvazde at Yazd dated by 427/1037. The technique of enriching the zone of transition provided the development of further elements that could be used, and the fragmentation of squinches became more complicated and complex.

There is a theory that muqarnas might have appeared in two different places at the same time. The analysis of muqarnas domes that survived in Egypt makes it possible to say that the muqarnas portal was first applied in the ruler’s palace at Samarra. This suggestion is supported by the other muqarnas domes of the surviving constructions such as one in the shrine of Imam Al-Dawr. The dome of this square building includes pronounced squinches visible from outside and inside. Still, Egypt might obtain the idea of muqarnas from Iran and Iraq through traders and travelers. It is noted that “the multi-tiered muqarnas portal was probably brought to Egypt in the mid-13th century by Sultan Baybars Al-Bunduqdari, who used it as a monumental entrance to his madrasa” (Kashef 490). Furthermore, the primary source of current interpreting of muqarnas design, erective units, and structure is a gypsum plate dated by the thirteenth century and found in Takht-i Sulayman. The most detailed description of muqarnas is provided by the astronomer Timurid and the mathematician called Ghyiath Al-Din Al-Kashi.

It is possible to distinguish four types of muqarnas such as Shirazi, curved, clay-plastered, and simple. The descriptions of two-dimensional muqarnas projections include such elements as rhombus, square, almond, half-rhombus, jug, small and large biped, as well as barley kernel. It is emphasized that the introduction of muqarnas fragments such as small niches and keel arches in squinch fragmentation led to the development of the system of three-dimensional decoration. Complex examples of muqarnas are unique architectural elements where each level of composition projects beyond the previous one creating a rich and jointed surface that alters in three dimensions.

It should be noted that muqarnas is a widespread architectural feature and was used in the vast territories from India to Spain. The term “muqarnas” means a stalactite vault, which includes the understanding of its potential formation. Thus, muqarnas is generally explained as the formation of vaults consisted of interlocking elements jointed in a complex geometric combination. The available studies of muqarnas are limited and present little knowledge about the principles of its structure and system.

Development and Evolution of Muqarnas

As it was mentioned earlier, muqarnas was originally designed to divide domes and vaults into multiple elements to transform their transitional zone into an ornamental composition. The historical evolution of muqarnas begins with the structures that are called patkâné, which are similar according to their configurations and purposes. Patkâné served not only as a structural solution for a zone of transition but also as a decorative element. Nevertheless, the structure, construction, and geometry of muqarnas are different from patkâné, which made it possible to differentiate it as a separate craft. The structural difference between these two crafts is that muqarnas starts at the highest point of the ceiling and is gradually dropping down while patkâné supports itself with the hierarchy of tiers and niches starting from below at the lowest level. Moreover, muqarnas includes horizontal items to enrich the stalactite niches.

The initial development of muqarnas elements from squinches can be traced from the surviving examples of shrines and mausoleums dated by the fourth or tenth century. These constructions contain the squinches which are primitively fragmented using niches. It proves the statement that muqarnas combines both decorative and structural functions as a transition zone used between a room and a dome. Still, little is known about the place where squinch fragmentation was first used, as well as of the first primitive examples of muqarnas because very few of them survived. It should be noted that the first known muqarnas was made from interlocking curved niches. It is a general opinion that later in the eleventh century the small niches used for squinch fragmentation became independent decorative elements. These units were more complicated in geometric construction and composition and gave birth to the new type of decoration.

The origin of muqarnas might have theological roots as Islam promotes the idea that everything in this world exists by God’s will. It is suggested that the main function of the new decoration was to conceal the squinch structure to achieve the erection of a dome without any visible support. This solution used a wide range of materials and additional decorative approaches. Muqarnas technique was applied to cover capitals and cornices, as well as the whole dome. By the twelfth century, muqarnas transformed from concave niches to geometrically created prisms and became very intricate. Therefore, it is possible to say that at this stage muqarnas elements ceased to be only architectural supports and served more as a decoration device. It is difficult to say when these elements became suspended geometrical items jointed to cover the required space and independent from the visible support.

Application and Scale

Muqarnas consists of repetitive rhythmic scales used in the domes to enhance spatial quality. The stages of creating the muqarnas fractal patterns are proliferating. It is indicated that “at the first stage, the base rhomboid pattern has the maximum plurality (multiplicity) and the frequency at its surface, and is overlapped by different scale degrees widely in several consecutive vertical levels” (Kiani and Amiriparyan 776). At the next stage, the number of basic patterns is gradually decreased resulting in changing of complete similarity and scale, as well as diminishing of extension in the horizontal plane. Therefore, muqarnas is regarded as a semi-structural system that can be applied in the construction of high ceilings which have wide openings. Muqarnas squinches provide a bigger span and eliminate the construction of large and heavy arches. It is a general opinion that applying the muqarnas technique had the most significant influence on the building of domes and vaults.

Muqarnas also remains the most famous decorative fragment of Islam architecture and its application varies greatly. It is noted that Salŷuqid architecture applied muqarnas both in the transition zone and in tiers to decorate cornices and minarets. This technique is widely applied not only for squinches and domes but also for niches, cornices, and windows, which caused a gradual loss of its primary function.

Although it is easy to distinguish various muqarnas elements in the plane projection, it seems to be difficult to understand which item belongs to which tier. It is possible to interpret muqarnas as basic blocks known as cells. There are also intermediate elements which are usually smaller and required between the cells to complete the geometric pattern. All the elements of muqarnas are recognized as three-dimensional structures. Only deep knowledge of the effect of each element on the space allowed the architects to apply the muqarnas system. The base model of the muqarnas pattern includes three crucial elements such as similarity, iteration, and scale change. The small sizes of elements allow creating exquisite geometric compositions enriched by the complexity of style. According to muqarnas characteristics, it is possible to state that it was widely utilized to create an atmosphere of cohesion and unity in the closed spaces.

It is noted that muqarnas geometry allows the manufacturing of the required number of templates made from plaster. It is possible to fabricate them separately for decorative purposes and then assemble them on the site. Thus, construction is performed quickly, and the costs are rather low. Various materials such as brick, stone, wood, and stucco result in unique architecture systems, which is possible to identify according to the region. Therefore, muqarnas is widely applied in minarets, facades, portals, domes, and mihrabs as a decorative and structural element.

Function of Muqarnas

In architecture, the characteristics of specific components might differ, which makes it almost impossible to realize whether they served as purely decorative elements or had a genuinely structural function. It is a general opinion that Islam architects thought both esthetic and static functions of the separate elements. Therefore, the application of muqarnas in constructions might initially include both structural and decoration purposes. This fact distinguishes Islamic architecture from Western traditions in construction where the function and form of an architectural element stand apart.

The main structural function of muqarnas is to blur the distinction between pendentive and squinch and provide support to the structure by gradual staircase-like transition and creating the illusion of construction lightness. Muqarnas also ensures a three-dimensional perception of volume and space in the building. It is known to have no boundaries that might limit the scale of the composition. Muqarnas fractal shape is a result of algebraic equations, and its complexity depends only on the skill of the architect. The best demonstration of theoretical and practical skills of Islam architectures is regarded to be the drawings called Toomer, which represent muqarnas design in-plane two-dimensional projection.

According to these drawings, it is possible to evaluate the impact of three-dimensional muqarnas design on the spatial characteristics of the whole construction. Primarily, radial and orbital axes should be located to build a simple muqarnas. Some researchers indicate that “the most effective spot of the plane of projection is the center of the half-circle which connects every element and eventually to a unique center” (Dadkhah et al. 134). After that, the location of the structural units on the first tier is indicated depending on its height, span, and style. The number of muqarnas tiers is indicated as the last step. These tiers should be convergent to the muqarnas center. Therefore, muqarnas represents a complex set of tiers to provide a smooth erection of a dome from square walls.

Nevertheless, among the theories about muqarnas origin prevails the idea that, initially, its main function was decorative rather than structural. Thus, muqarnas can also be defined as a specific type of wall sculpture, which provides a three-dimensional effect to the construction elements where it is applied. Some niches and archways with muqarnas elements are designed in such a way that sunlight creates specific shadows in them. For example, in one of the entrances to the mosque of Divrigi in Turkey, one can see human shadows cast depending on the position of the sun in the sky.

Usually, muqarnas elements do not require further decoration. Still, sometimes it is adorned with mosaics and painting. The units of muqarnas may be covered with such materials as wood and tiles to provide further complexity and depth to the applied technique. This fact supports the main characteristic of Islamic architecture, which is believed to be overloaded with decorative elements.

The three-dimensional effect of the muqarnas decoration is achieved by interlacing and repetition of patterns. Such designs help to achieve and the illusion of utilizing different planes to produce various optical effects. Muqarnas with its complexity also assists in achieving a spatial balance of negative and positive areas.

Muslims are also known to embody their philosophical concepts in an architectural form according to their understanding of the Imaginal World theory. It is noted that “imagination in Islamic architecture represents the real and eternal world, of which the architectural form is but a pale shadow” (Nasrollahi 89). Therefore, spatial elements of Islamic architecture such as domes and muqarnas originate from this conception. Symbolic elements are used by Muslim architects to achieve the transformation of invisible ideas to some visible form and connect physical and imaginal, as well as mortal and immortal.

According to this concept, muqarnas reflects Islamic religious beliefs in an architectural form symbolizing the descent of light to the material world achieved by the downward movement of structural elements. The splendid example of muqarnas representing this idea is placed at the entrance portal of Imam mosque in Isfahan. Therefore, muqarnas is also a result of the Islam architect’s transcended imagination who can transmit celestial images of the highest power to the physical form. In the mosques, muqarnas functions extend to transporting the believer into the world of archetypes to ensure the spiritual effect and divine associations.


Analysis of various monuments of Islamic architecture proved that the main functions of muqarnas are to provide a smooth transition from the rectangular to a circular dome or domical element and to decorate a building imparting specific cultural meaning to the ornaments. It should be noted that Islam architects tried to include both structural and decoration function to the muqarnas system, which distinguishes Islamic architecture from the Western traditions in the building. Still, according to the study of the earliest constructions with muqarnas elements, it is possible to say that it was initially applied to hide and decorate the squinches. This technique assisted in achieving a gradual transition zone between two different shapes such as a cube and a hemisphere.

The development of the muqarnas technique resulted in achieving the extreme complexity of its jointed elements, which made it possible to use this architectural feature for structural purposes to erect domes without visible support. The collaboration of mathematics and architects is regarded to be historical in the Islam world and reflects the attempts to find practical application to theoretical findings. Muqarnas is a result of complex algebraic calculations and consists of small geometric figures that vary greatly. Therefore, its two-dimensional plans made by ancient Islam architects are difficult to understand and apply.

Muqarnas represents the connection between architecture and mathematics to create complex structural and decorative forms. It is also possible to state that this connection is influenced by the religious beliefs of Islam architects because Muslim holy texts are distinguished by their numerological significance which is also difficult to encode. Therefore, muqarnas with its strict mathematical rules are believed to reveal the nature of the divine. These structural elements are stated to have perfect proportions and adjust to one another to form an illusion of lightness and expand the spatial scales of construction.

Muqarnas also serves as a decorative element and its variations help to create optical illusion utilizing the shades and the light. It is defined as a three-dimensional decoration in which spatial effect is achieved by interlacing and repetition of small patterns. Various materials applied in the muqarnas element help do achieve additional ornamentation. Still, it is a general opinion that muqarnas looks impressive even without any further decorations.

Works Cited

Alaçam, Sema, et al. “Reconnoitering Computational Potentials of the Vault-Like Forms: Thinking Aloud on Muqarnas Tectonics.” International Journal of Architectural Computing, vol. 15, no. 4, 2017, pp. 285-303.

Carrillo, Alicia. “The Sasanian Tradition in ʽAbbāsid Art: Squinch Fragmentation as The Structural Origin of the Muqarnas.” Mirabilia: Electronic Journal of Antiquity and Middle Ages, vol. 22, no. 1, 2016, pp. 201-226.

Dadkhah, Negin, Hadi Safaeipour, and Gholamhossein Memarian. “Traditional Complex Modularity in Islamic and Persian Architecture: Interpretations in Muqarnas and Patkâné Crafts, Focusing on their Prefabricated Essence.” Proceedings of 2012 ACSA FALL CONFERENCE — Offsite: Theory and Practice of Architectural Production (Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, 27–29 September 2012), 2012, pp. 130-138.

Kashef, Mohamad. “Bahri Mamluk Muqarnas Portals in Egypt: Survey and Analysis.” Frontiers of Architectural Research, vol. 6, no. 4, 2017, pp. 487-503.

Kiani, Zohreh, and Peyman Amiriparyan. “The Structural and Spatial Analyzing of Fractal Geometry in Organizing of Iranian Traditional Architecture.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 216, no. 1, 2016, pp. 766-777.

Nasrollahi, Fatemeh. “Transcendent Soul of the Muslim Architect and Spiritual Impact of the Islamic Architecture: Islamic Architecture and Mundus Imaginalis.” Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2015, pp. 86-99.

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