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Reviving the Muqarnas in Damascus: A Historical Architectural Form in a Contemporary Discourse

The Bartlett School of Architecture
University College London

This research provides a study of traditional muqarnas – three-dimensional patterns that usually occupy domes, half-domes and vaults – and re-envisions these Islamic architectural forms in a contemporary setting in Damascus. The thesis endeavours to revive an old craft using new technologies and techniques.

The thesis first examines the origins of muqarnas, their geometrical and architectural definitions, their various styles, the reasons why they were created, how they were inclusive of different religions, sects, and ethnicities, and how they became functional in the way that they responded to the local environment, the culture, and the social setting.

It then documents the development and decline of muqarnas in Damascus during different epochs. An enquiry into the total disregard of the Islamic heritage in architecture and urban spaces in Damascus in the early twentieth century reveals how muqarnas, together with other traditional features of the Old City, were abandoned. Building the nation-state in the 1960s and 1970s meant extending Damascus to new neighbourhoods outside the gates of the Old City. People living there preferred to settle in modern, affordable, state-house apartments and concrete buildings that appeared to be economically easier to sustain than the old Damascene houses. The Old City was left to decay, and it was not until the 1990s that its previously abandoned vernacular dwellings again became popular when they were remodelled to function as restaurants and boutique hotels. The renovation of Old Damascene houses highlighted the aesthetic features of those historical spaces.

My project attempts to revive muqarnas and re-interpret them within existing vaults and domes in hammams (public bathhouses). Focusing on digital computational tools and techniques, I discuss the possibilities provided by advanced technologies to imagine them within a contemporary discourse. Inspired by the skills of Damascene craftsmen and ancient manuscripts devoted to the craft, I have attempted to design and fabricate contemporary muqarnas that differ from traditional forms in that they form self-standing double-curvature vaults with larger spans that respond to the environment and allow light to enter. These contemporary muqarnas might serve architecture in the Old City both aesthetically and functionally.
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Nahed's Film on muqarnas
This is a documentary film that I did for my PhD ( Bartlett, UCL) in Architectural design.

In August 2015, I produced a documentary film to accompany my thesis. The film comprises two parts, the first part documents a total of twenty different buildings (or in the case of the Umayyad Mosque building additions) belonging to four different historical periods, the Zengidera, the Ayyubid era, the Mamluk era and the Ottoman era. The second part of the film, which documents my visits to two muqarnas workshops in Damascus.

Producing the film was a natural result of exploring the Old City of Damascus. At the beginningof the PhD research, I had not been aware of quite how rich the city was with these historical treasures. As I had been aware of their existence in Damascus since my childhood days. However, the old city of Damascus is lacking in documentation with regard to its architectural heritage. My initial expectation was that I would only be able to find a fairly limited number of examples. Consequently, my plan was to spend a single day in 2015, exploring the city and documenting the muqarnas that I discovered. However, it soon became apparent that there existed far more examples of muqarnas than I had initially expected. The more I walked, the more I discovered and I soon realised that I might need several weeks, or even months, in order to fully conduct my research.

My research was greatly helped by a number of residents of the old town, who were able to assist me by pointing out certain elements that were hidden inside the buildings. As a result of this interaction and exercise, I decided that I should document at least twenty of these historical elements in order to provide enough substance to my research in particular and to the whole muqarnas field in general, as my thesis has to serve this historical dimension.

As part of this research I also visited two muqarnas workshops. From this experience I was able to begin to connect the various strands of my research; the lessons that I had learned from the Il-Khanid Plate and from the works of al-Kashi; and the work of mathematicians and architects, including Yvonne Dold-Samplonius, Mohammad Ali Yaghan, and Shiro Takahashi;with the practical nature of the crafts that had been inherited from one generation to the next.Visiting those workshops was insightful and I tried to capture this inherited knowledge and skills of Damascene craftsmen in my documentary film.

The craft of making, designing and fabricating traditional muqarnas is based on two major techniques: modularisation (composition of modular units) and pre-design, or pre-fabrication (units assembled in horizontal tiers packed one on top of another without any overlap).

This is how those muqarnas used to be constructed traditionally.

Have a look and appreciate the forgotten treasures!

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