Discover the architecture of the Silk Road

Those searching for remnants of the Silk Road today often look for a crumbling caravanserai or walk an ancient mountain path. But the most obvious connections are in some of the great buildings of the Islamic world, reaching from the edge of the Mediterranean to the heart of China.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 5 May 2024

The great mosques of Istanbul, Turkey, are well known, but the most influential building in the city is a former church of the Byzantine Empire.

The present Hagia Sophia was built by the Emperor Justinian in 532 and it was the world’s largest Christian church for more than 1,000 years.

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans from Anatolia (Asia Minor), it was converted into a mosque.

The dome of Hagia Sophia stands some 180 feet, which is still impressive today. “What a dome, that vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven!” said 15th-century Ottoman chronicler Tursun Beg.

Four minarets were added to the new mosque, setting a template for future Ottoman architecture, particularly mosques and most notably the nearby Sultanahmet that dates to 1616.

Otherwise known as the Blue Mosque, the Sultanahmet's popular name comes from the 20,000 handmade İznik ceramic tiles and blue paint that decorate the interior.

İznik tiles have a direct connection to China. The Mongol invasions led by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan that united the 'people in felt tents' from the east eventually reached Iran around 1220.

The Mongols brought Chinese art and ceramic techniques to the region but it was the later trade in 15th-century Ming porcelains that directly inspired the blue and white Iznik ceramics.

Istanbul’s lesser-known Saints Sergius and Bacchus was another influential Byzantine church that Islamic architects studied and improved on.

It was probably a model for Hagia Sophia but its smaller size made it a more stable design. It too was converted into a mosque, although not until around 1510.

The most important discovery made by these Byzantine architects was this method of making a smooth transition from a square plan of the church to a circular dome.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (690) and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (714) are among the earliest Islamic buildings to show the direct influence of this new technique.

They established a mosque design that can still be found throughout North Africa and Arabia. But it was the perfection of the dome in Persian Islamic design that most influenced architecture along the Silk Road to Asia.

Isfahan is the peak of Persian and Islamic architecture, its glories producing the 16th-century Persian boast: “Isfahan is half the world!”

Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) made the city his capital in 1598 and transformed it within a few decades with buildings and gardens on a grand scale.

Workshops for artists provided fabulous furnishings and luxury carpets for the palaces and mosques and launched a golden age of Iranian culture. Painters, carvers and calligraphers created some of the greatest works of art of Islamic history.

Abbas conquered Baghdad and controlled trade across the Persian Gulf, making Isfahan a cultural crossroads for travellers from Christian Europe, Buddhist India and the rest of Asia. The bazaars he built were as important to the city as any other public buildings. Naghsh-e Jahan Square, which means “Image of the world”, could rightly boast of being the centre of an empire.

The Masjed-e Shah (Royal Mosque), known as the Imam Mosque since the Islamic Revolution, stands on the south side of the square and was finished in 1629.

The blue tiles of its dome and four minarets evoke both water – richly precious to Arabs – and the heavens. This bright blue exterior is a feature of Persian domes that still make them stand out to travellers on the Silk Road.

The calligraphy adorning the mosque’s frontage is by Reza Abbasi, whose art has been copied by many craftsmen since but seldom surpassed.

His work also adorns the main gateway of the Bazaar-e Bozorg to the north of the square, which the mosque was built to balance.

The bazaar, with its many alleys and workshops, can transport any visitor back to ancient times. Its lively bargaining is a reminder that anyone could sit in Isfahan and let the Silk Road bring all its goods and ideas to them.

Under Timur the Great (1370–1405), Samarkand in Uzbekistan grew into perhaps the most important city of the Silk Road.

Here at the midpoint of east and west, caravans brought goods and ideas to its grand bazaars and craftspeople settled under Timur’s protection.

Others were brought in their thousands after being captured on Timur’s rampages across a vast region where he conquered Baghdad, Damascus and even Delhi.

Grand gardens, and blue-domed mosques and madrasahs filled the city centre, where the Registan bears a striking resemblance to Naghsh-e Jahan Square.

In 1888 George Curzon, future Viceroy of India, called it “the noblest public square in the world”.

Genghis Khan laid waste to Samarkand in the 13th century, so Timur had a blank canvas on which to build the city of his dreams, a vision completed by his grandson Ulugh Beg.

The three great madrasahs that stand on the Registan now, so like those of Isfahan, came after him so his greatest work is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

The Bibi-Khanym was finished around 1404 – using 95 elephants from India – and its vast dome pushed the limits of its builders.

It follows a classic Persian ‘Four-Iwan’ design, an iwan being a soaring vaulted space, walled on only three sides. Four minarets of an original eight have been restored (much of the building collapsed after an earthquake in 1897). Four is a holy number in Sufism and repetitions of it are common in Islamic architecture.

Timur’s mausoleum, the Guri Amir, is impressive in a different way. Built originally as a madrasah, then becoming a mausoleum for a beloved grandson, its gateway is decorated with the name of its architect: Isfahan’s Muhammad ibn Mahmud.

Its beautiful tiled interior and turquoise-blue dome as seen as a direct influence on later great Islamic tombs such as the Taj Mahal in Agra, built by Timur's descendants, the Mughal dynasty.

While the lovely shape of India's Taj Mahal’s dome is the most obvious link to Istanbul, Isfahan and Samarkand, its gardens are at least equally important.

Persians have loved formal gardens since at least the time of Cyrus the Great (576-530 BCE) and their designs heavily inspired Timur’s gardens in Samarkand. Shaded pavilions and running water feature heavily, evoking paradise.

Samarkand’s gardens in turn influenced those of the Mughal Empire as much as its architecture did. One distinctive feature of Timur’s gardens was the division into four areas of water with a pavilion at the centre.

At the Taj Mahal, the garden is also divided into four quarters and each is originally thought to have 16 flowerbeds of 400 plants each.

Its trees were fruit bearing, representing life, or cyprus, representing death, and were similarly arranged in the geometric and numerical patterns beloved in Islam. (The British turned the gardens into something more like an English park.)

While the actual mausoleum is at one corner of the garden instead of at the centre, a pool of water at the centre reflects the shining white building to complete the symmetry.

The reflected image – a philosophical nod in itself – may have been designed to be the centrepiece of the Taj Mahal following an inspiration from Samarkand.

Muslim communities sprang up in China in various trading cities but Xi’an’s was the largest. This ancient capital was at the eastern end of the Silk Road and one of China’s largest cities.

However, at first sight the Great Mosque of Xi’an, or Huajuexiang Mosque, bears little relationship to Persian or any other western design, unlike many others in China.

It was founded in 742, making it one of the world’s oldest, but this building was originally no later than 1395 and has been heavily restored since.

The design owes much to Buddhist temples and is made of wood using local techniques and styles, with a three-storey octagonal pagoda serving as a minaret. Even the Arabic calligraphy has a Chinese feel to it.

Stand back and look at the Prayer Hall’s glazed tile turquoise roof, though, and you are reminded of those domes of Isfahan and Samarkand.

Another reminder is the way the mosque sits in an area dedicated to the Islamic ideals of community. This Muslim quarter, only a short distance from the famous Drum Tower, is still home to 20,000 Muslims.

Guesthouses, madrasahs, baths, halal food sellers and a large bazaar spread around the mosque in a way that is familiar to anyone who has been to Istanbul, Isfahan or Samarkand.

The Silk Road forms a chain, and some of the links remain unbroken.

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