The heritage of Notre Dame – less European than people think
It was striking last night, as Paris’s landmark site of Notre Dame Cathedral burned before our eyes, how few seemed to know that Notre Dame’s architectural design, its twin towers flanking an elaborate entrance, its rose windows, its rib vaulting and its spire (la fleche) owe their origins to Middle Eastern predecessors. Tributes flowed in from round the world, praising the cathedral’s status as an icon of our shared European heritage and identity. “All of us are burning,” declared President Macron to the French nation.
Let’s start with the twin tower design. The earliest example stands on a hillside in northwest Syria, in Idlib province, in a church built from local limestone in the mid-5th century. It’s called Qalb Lozeh (‘Heart of the Almond’ in Arabic) rightly praised as one of the best preserved examples of Syrian church architecture, a magnificently proportioned broad-aisled basilica, the forerunner of what came to be known as the Romanesque period.
When Gertrude Bell first saw it in 1905 she described its “towered narthex, the wide bays of the nave, the apse adorned with engaged columns, the matchless beauty of the decoration and the justice of proportion preserved in every part… this is the last word in the history of Syrian architecture, spoken at the end of many centuries of endeavour… the beginning of a new chapter in the architecture of the world. The fine and simple beauty of Romanesque was born in North Syria.” Later scholars like George Tchalenko, Georges Tate and Jean-Pierre Sodini conducted extensive surveys.
In belated recognition of its importance it was included in 2011 within a UNESCO World Heritage Site labelled Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Locally they are known as the ‘Dead Cities’, clusters of nearly 800 Byzantine stone-built settlements with over 2,000 churches dating from the 4th-6th centuries. Their wealth was built on wine and olive oil production, with many stone presses still extant. They were renamed the ‘Forgotten Cities’ by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism before the war, and there were even hiking holidays under discussion, with planned homestays in the villages to bring income back to these remote rural areas.
Inside the church is divided into three, with a central nave, echoes of the Trinity everywhere in the design – the three aisles, three pillars on each side of the nave, three facade windows, three apse windows and three arches dividing the nave from the side aisles. The arches rest on squat square piers with strong capitals to bear the weight of the upper storey with its clerestory windows. The nave would originally have had a wooden roof, long since gone, but the vaulted dome over the semi-circular apse still survives.
Qalb Lozeh was thought to have been built as a pilgrim staging post en route to the famous St Simeon Stylites, some 35km to the northeast. Pilgrims, monks and merchants travelled constantly between Syria and Europe – influences were fluid, as were borders. Frankish (modern French) Crusaders saw these church designs (as well as local military architecture) in the 12th century, and brought many ideas back with them to Europe, where they were developed further.
What we today call the Gothic arch, prevalent in Notre Dame and in all the great cathedrals of Europe, was an architectural design first seen in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo and passed via Amalfi merchants to Sicily. With their advanced knowledge of geometry and the laws of statics Muslims developed both the horseshoe (also known as Moorish) arch (first seen in the Damascus Umayyad Mosque then further developed by the Umayyads in Andalusia in the Cordoba Mezquita) and the pointed arch to give more height than the classical arch. The first building to use them in Europe was the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 1071, financed by Amalfi merchants. It then moved north to the Church of Cluny which boasted 150 pointed arches in its aisles. The fashion quickly spread from these, two of the most influential churches in Europe, as this pointed ‘Gothic’ arch was stronger than the rounded arch used by the Romans and the Normans, so allowed the construction of bigger, taller, grander and more complex buildings like the great cathedrals of Europe.
Other borrowings from Muslim designs, also to be found in Notre Dame, include ribbed vaulting (traced to the 8th century Abbasid Palace of Ukhaydar in Iraq and later entering Europe via the Toledo and Cordoba mosques in Muslim Spain), rose windows (first seen at the 8th century Umayyad palace of Khirbat Mafjar (Hisham’s Palace) in the West Bank near Jericho,
and the spire (which collapsed so spectacularly on Notre Dame as the timber roof gave way beneath it). The first known spire is on top of the northern Minaret of the Bride in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built in the early 8th century.
In England the first ever spire was on top of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1221. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London then rebuilt in 1710 by Sir Christopher Wren, an avowed admirer of Muslim architecture who conducted an extensive comparative study of Gothic, Moorish and Ottoman styles. “The Goths,” he said, “were rather destroyers than builders: I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen (Arab Muslim) style.” The combination of dome and tower in his masterpiece of St Paul’s, together with the structure of the domes in the aisles, shows this strong Muslim influence, also clearly visible in Notre Dame.
Monuments of Syria, Ross Burns (IB Tauris 1999)
The Origin of the Two-tower Facade in Romanesque Architecture, Herwin Schaefer (The Art Bulletin 1945)
Muslim Heritage in Our World, ed. Professor Salim Al-Hassani (Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation 2006)
The Desert and the Sown, Gertrude Bell (Dutton 1907)
Discussion of the Islamic Origin of the Gothic Style (from Parentalia: or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens, by Mathew Bishop 1750)
An Islamic History of Europe, Rageh Omar (BBC4, 5-19 August 2005)