Stealing from the Saracens: The Islamic Origins of European Architecture

The Review of Religions spoke to Diana Darke, a historian and writer, on a campaign to shed light on the rich cultural exchange that took place between Europe and the Muslim world.

For centuries, artificial lines on a map have defined who we are. National borders suggest one person is either French or German, European or Asian, or from the northern or southern hemisphere. The consequence of such identities has meant centuries of cross-cultural exchange are often overlooked in favour of nationalistic historic identities. For thousands of years, Europe and the Middle East were closely intertwined. European monks, traders and travellers flocked to the Holy Land, eager to connect with Christianity’s origins. In doing so, they passed through the cross-roads of civilisations; the meeting point where merchants from China, Uzbekistan, India, Egypt, Mali, Tunisia and further afield congregated. It was here that ideas, inspirations and materials converged and dispersed, making their way back to their original destinations. 

Sadly, much of this prolonged cultural exchange has been forgotten. Instead, punctuated episodes of conflict such as the crusades – where Islam and Christianity seemingly waged war with one another – have been popularised. Recent efforts, however, have sought to reframe this narrative and present a true picture of what was a surprisingly globalised world.

In its latest podcast, The Review of Religions spoke to Diana Darke, a historian and writer who is on a campaign to shed light on the rich cultural exchange that took place between Europe and the Muslim world. The book entitled, ‘Stealing from the Saracens, How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe’, reveals the Arab and Islamic roots of Europe’s architectural heritage, from Notre Dame to Big Ben. Diana has over 30 years of experience in the Middle East, writing over 15 books covering the Arabian Peninsula and frequently appears in the media for The Guardian, The BBC, The Times, Sky News, CBS News and countless others. 

Below is a lightly edited transcript of Diana Darke’s conversation with Rizwan Safir, Editor of the Archaeology Section for the Review of Religions. Rizwan Safir is a Senior Research Consultant specialising in archaeology and museums, with over 10 years of experience in the Middle East. He has worked for the British Museum, Humboldt University Berlin, Copenhagen University and other such institutions on excavations and heritage conservation projects.

Rizwan: When we think about iconic landmarks across Europe – Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Notre Dame in Paris, or even Big Ben in London – we consider it to be very much a part of European identity. But a new book has challenged this narrative, suggesting that much of Europe’s architectural wonders borrow directly from examples in the Middle East. In today’s podcast, we speak to Diana Darke about her new book entitled, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe. This fascinating book will be the focus of today’s interview. We will be diving into this subject much further but at first, thanks a lot for joining us today Diana!

Diana: Well thanks very much for inviting me.

Rizwan: It’s a pleasure to have you. The topic you have chosen to write about is fascinating. Thinking firstly about the context of your book, how did you arrive at this subject and could you share with us how you developed an interest in this area of research?

Diana: Well, I honestly think it’s an area that I’ve been interested in for my whole life, although I probably didn’t fully realise it until I started to write this book. The specific trigger for this book was the fire at Notre Dame in Paris last year in April, and of course, the entire world was transfixed by this fire. In France, there was this huge outpouring of a national identity that, ‘oh our culture is going up in flames’, and I watched all of this and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, don’t people realise this building is not quite as European as they’re making?’ This cultural appropriation of Notre Dame slightly irritated me — the notion that gothic style is considered to represent French identity — and so I put out a tweet saying; ‘Notre Dame’s ancestor stands on a hill in northwest Syria and it dates from the 5th century’. Along with this, I put up a photograph of the Church of Qalb Lozeh in the Idlib province which is where the Syrian war is still going on.

Image of Notre Dam Cathedral in Paris
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (open source image)
Image of Qalb Lozeh Church in Syria
Qalb Lozeh Church in Syria (image credit: creative commons/ Bertramz)

Rizwan: There must have been quite a backlash to the tweet!

Diana: There was an astonishing reaction to it! I was taken aback because I had assumed this was more widely known, that the very first example of Romanesque [architecture] — the twin towers flanking a monumental entrance — was more widely known. I assumed it was common knowledge that the very first example was in Syria and that I wasn’t the first person to mention this; plenty of other people have mentioned this before. But anyway, because of the focus on Notre Dame, of course, people took an interest in this, so I thought, ‘Wow, I better explain myself a bit’. So I wrote a piece on my own website explaining that the architectural aspects of Notre Dame had almost all come from the Middle East, and actually, pretty much all aspects of gothic architecture, apart from the flying buttresses, come from the Middle East. Again, the reaction to that blog piece was astonishing. Within an hour or two, Middle East Eye had contacted me saying, ‘Can we reblog this onto our website straight away?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, ok’. They translated it into French, and then it was published in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, various Indian languages – I mean it was just amazing. Within a matter of days, it was being read all over the world, and I was amazed and thought, ‘Goodness, you know clearly a lot of knowledge has just somehow been forgotten or lost’.

Rizwan: What’s interesting is that two observations are apparent from the response you received: one, is the sensitivities around even suggesting that there is a foreign historical legacy associated with ‘national’ symbols of architecture – whether it’s in any country in the world, but particularly in the context of Europe and how nationalistic the symbol of Notre Dame became – but also secondly, how much people have forgotten this historic legacy – even perhaps in the Arab world – but primarily in Europe, knowledge of this cross-cultural legacy has receded to the extent that most people are not familiar with it at all.

Diana: Oh, that’s right. So, after the Notre Dame fire, I went on a family holiday to Spain, to Cordoba, partly on a sort of research trip from my point of view. I was commissioned to write a new book on the history of Damascus, so I thought of going to Cordoba looking for Damascus – for it was the Umayyads of Damascus who founded Cordoba in the first place, and the Mezquita of Cordoba was the key building. When we arrived, and I entered that building, I was shocked at what had happened – the cultural appropriation of it. The fact that forty chapels had been added around the outside, plus the main big chapel plunked right in the middle by Ferdinand and Isabella in the Reconquista – but more to the point, that crucifixes were hanging on all of the arches and Christian music was being played. There was almost no mention of the back-story of the building, and so I was shocked. The next sort of strange coincidence if you want, was that on return from Cordoba, I happened to be having lunch with the publisher of one of my earlier books. He was trying to interest me in writing a different book actually, about the Levant, and I said, ‘No, no, no…I don’t think I’m the right person to write that book’. Instead, I carried on ranting about Cordoba and he listened to me for a bit and he said, ‘Ok, well why don’t you write a book about that then?’ So, I said, ‘Well alright’ – I was going to write maybe two articles, but he said, ‘No, no…. forget about the articles, just write the book!’ Within a week, he sent me a contract and that was that, I was off and this book just poured out of me. What I realised was how much I already knew about the subject, but that I hadn’t researched it in an academic manner. Just from observation, being so familiar with so many of the key buildings in the Middle East such as the Dome of the Rock and the Damascus Mosque, the Umayyad palaces, the Dead Cities, the early Byzantine cities in Syria etc. I had been to all these places and I knew them well, so I could see cultural influences so clearly. When it came to research, I was staggered at what I found and the more I started digging, the more I found.

Aerial view of the Cordoba Mezquita (Mosque Cathedral) in Spain, which originally stood as a mosque and was converted to a church after Muslim rule
Aerial view of the Cordoba Mezquita (Mosque Cathedral) in Spain, which originally stood as a mosque and was converted to a church after Muslim rule (image credit: creative commons / Toni Castillo Quero)

Rizwan: Fascinating – I would like to get more into this aspect, in particular, your methodology and process for conducting your research. Some people may argue that granted there is a visual similarity between buildings like Notre Dame and the Qalb Lozeh in Syria, but how are you able to trace back directly to their origins and conclusively prove that these buildings were in fact influenced from the Middle East?

Diana: Well, I went to the London Library – which is the most wonderful resource, where they let you borrow the books, even really quite old and valuable books. You can take them away with you and keep them, which I did – and what I discovered was that scholars had devoted huge chunks of their life to writing about one particular aspect of these cultural influences. For example, a woman called Deborah Howard, who is the Professor of Architectural History at Cambridge, she is retired now, but about ten to fifteen years ago, she wrote this book called Venice and the East. She spent ten years working on the book and it is astonishing, to sit down and do all the hard work. She dug out early references and has written the most incredible book about it. For my chapter on Venice, I relied on her earlier work for sure. For the Umayyads, another remarkable early scholar called Robert Hamilton, he was doing archaeological digs on the Umayyad Palace called Khirbat al Mafjar (sometimes it’s called Hisham’s Palace), and this is currently in the West Bank near Jericho. When he was undertaking his archaeological work, it was under the British mandate and he worked over fifteen consecutive seasons, excavating and recording everything. With the creation of Israel in 1948, all that came to an end and he was essentially thrown out. Thankfully, he had already accumulated a wealth of information and produced the most magnificent book with meticulous drawings. It was from such sources that I was able to see clear architectural similarities such as the trefoil arch. The trefoil arch, is a triple arch which gothic architecture is so fond of – you look at any cathedral or church and it’s covered in trefoil arches. It was favoured as it represents the Trinity, so fits rather well with Christian symbolism. The first time it occurs as an architectural feature is in Umayyad art, architecture and patterns, and it’s clearly recorded in Khirbat al Mafjar (also known as Hisham’s Palace).

Illustration of a trefoil arch, or three-foiled cusped arch, with three overlapping rings.
Illustration of a trefoil arch, or three-foiled cusped arch, with three overlapping rings. Image Credit – Creative Commons/ Mats Halldin

Then I read very detailed works about the Dome of the Rock and discovered that the trefoil arch also occurs even earlier than at Khirbat al Mafjar. The Dome of the Rock was the very first Umayyad statement building under the caliph Abd al-Malik. It is the first time that the Umayyads built a monument that essentially declared, ‘The Islamic Empire has arrived’. This is how it was with every new civilisation; every new conquering civilisation came in, and after accumulating wealth, they appropriate that money into architecture as a kind of political statement. So many monuments are actually political statements of power. They are essentially saying, ‘Right, we’re in power now, this is us.’ You look at the Dome of the Rock and of course, it is also a synthesised building. It has taken elements of the previous Byzantine Christian culture and synthesised it in a completely new way. For example, the pointed arch occurs in the circumambulatory inside, and the trefoil arch occurs high under the Dome. There are pictures in the book illustrating this and it is a very well-illustrated book. Hurst really has done a beautiful job on the production. There are over 150 very good colour photos throughout, which I sourced myself from publicly available photos. So there was Deborah Howard, Robert Hamilton, and many other scholars who had already devoted huge chunks of their lives to researching this one aspect. There are German scholars, for example, who took ten years to write books on Saracenic heraldry (the coat of arms in the Muslim world). They unearthed the fact that heraldry (the coat of arms), which we think of as part of English chivalry, has its origins in the Middle East. It turns out that when the Crusaders went to the Holy Land and first saw Syrian horsemen having tournaments on horseback – these horsemen were equipped with a blunt javelin, wore helmets with a nasal bit protecting the nose, whilst one particular horseman’s helmet was in the shape of a fleur-de-lis (now the royal arms of France). Others had a lion on there – and Crusaders saw this and liked the idea of representing their family or their lineage through a symbol of this sort. They took this concept back to Europe and it has evolved ever since then into this whole ‘heraldic shields and stained-glass windows’, but the original idea and inspiration for it came from the plains of Syria. I learnt all of this thanks to these wonderful German scholars, and so I came along and basically was able to join the dots. I was able to build it into a big picture and I came to think of the whole thing as a giant circular jigsaw, with all the pieces falling into place. 

Historic image of the Umayyad Dome of the Rock Mosque, which also employed the trefoil arch technique
Historic image of the Umayyad Dome of the Rock Mosque, which also employed the trefoil arch technique (image in the public domain)

Rizwan: I think that’s putting it really nicely, because like you say, this knowledge existed, and this research existed to some extent, but putting it all together and really demonstrating that direct link, from how it moved from one place to the other – effectively from the Middle East to Europe, is something that really needs to be celebrated and promoted more. Just thinking about that transfer of knowledge, when we think about how architectural knowledge was transferred from the Middle East or even the wider Muslim world into Europe, what were the mechanics of that movement? Were architects moving from one region to the other, or was it purely visual imagery that Crusaders were inspired by, and then perhaps transmitting it orally to architects who then were working in Europe?  What were the mechanics involved in the transfer of architectural knowledge throughout this period in history? 

Diana: That’s a very, very interesting question because it turns out that most of that knowledge had actually reached Europe well before the Crusades. The Crusaders, more than anything, just popularised gothic architecture. What I discovered is that it was already passing here from the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries via pilgrims, via merchants, via priests. One of the monumental influences was the Saint Simeon Stylites Basilica, just west of Aleppo in Syria. Saint Simeon was a monk who preached off of his pillar – stylite refers to the pillar, stylite is, in fact, Greek for pillar – and he became this incredible magnetic figure. On his death, Emperor Zeno in Byzantium ordered this basilica to be built on the site of where his pillar had stood, and this became the Santiago de Compostela of its day. It became the biggest church in Christendom at the time and it was completed in the year 490. Pilgrims from Britain and over Europe went to Syria to visit the shrine and were baptised en masse. At Saint Simeon’s, there is a separate building for the baptistry and pilgrims. They would walk up this winding path called ‘Via Sacra’, the Holy Way, and it wound up the hill to where the water was. In order to reach the basilica, visitors passed through the baptistery with this walk-in-font, where mass baptisms would take place. They all thought this was the route to heaven, the way to Salvation. The influence of this is colossal; we have records recorded by Bishops who wrote histories. When they saw some of the architectural styles, they would write to the Roman Emperor Zeno and say, ‘Please send us the artists, the materials, and the craftsman, because we would like to decorate our bishop’s palaces and our church in that same style’. An example is the Iona Abby in Scotland, which is a very famous early Christian monastery in Scotland set up by Saint Columba, who came across from Ireland. The biographer of St Columba wrote that Irish monks were sent to Syria to acquaint themselves with monastic architecture. The Irish monks went off to Syria, deliberately sent by their own priests and abbots to gather information about early Christian styles, because they all wanted to copy from the Holy Land. This whole area from the Holy Land, which includes Syria – it was all the Roman province of Syria up until the First World War – so Syria included Jerusalem back then. When I say Syria, I’m talking about the whole of ancient Syria, not the poor, amputated rump of today’s Syria which has had so much of it chopped off. I am talking about historic Syria, which was a very multicultural area. When people say, ‘Oh but that was all Roman’, the point is, if we look at who were the people living in that area, they were a complete mix. They were multicultural, and they were not ‘Romans’, as in they were not from Italy. People see the word ‘Roman’ and say, ‘It must have all been Italians’; they see the word Byzantine and think, ‘Well that’s all Greeks’. It’s simply not true! The society was very multicultural and very few Byzantine emperors were ethnically Greek. 

Image showing Church of Saint Simone Stylites, Syria.
Church of Saint Simone Stylites, Syria. Image Credit – Creative Commons/ Bernard Gagnon

Rizwan: So it’s interesting to think that – in effect, it was traders, travellers, but also even monks that were commissioned in effect, to travel to the Holy Land and act as pseudo-architects and presumably made drawings and writings of various aspects that they would have taken back?  

Diana: That’s right! and a lot of the time they didn’t have the requisite skills. Centuries and centuries of stone masonry – stone is the main building material in Syria – meant Syrians acquired great skill in stone masonry, and this is evident to see in Dead Cities (a group of 700 abandoned settlements between Aleppo and Idlib). When I refer to Dead Cities, these are places that have since been recognised as UNESCO World Heritage sites but very, very late. It didn’t happen until 2011, three months after the Syrian war had started, that they finally were recognized. These are a series of early Byzantine settlements, with over two thousand stone churches scattered over the hills of northwest Syria, a lot of them in Idlib province. There you have it you know, the whole field of experimentation of early Christian architecture. You can see styles evolving, with elements such as the twin towers flanking monumental entrances such as the Church Qalb Lozeh, which is on the pilgrimage route to Saint Simeon. The monumental entrance between the twin towers is for the pilgrims to feel they’ve arrived at somewhere important, somewhere special. It’s to receive the pilgrims in through the monumental entrance, on their way to the great shrine.

Rizwan: So, this would have been engrained in their memories, the collective memories of pilgrims who were travelling on this route for centuries, and it would have been an iconic symbol which they could have transported back into Europe, effectively?

Diana: Precisely, and that’s why, when then later ‘Santiago de Compostela’ became the main shrine, the Benedictines at Cluny (Cluny was the powerhouse of the Benedictines), built a series of churches, ‘Cluniac shrines’, on the route to ‘Santiago de Compostela’. They call it the Romanesque style with the twin towers flanking the entrance. In all those Cluniac shrines on the way to Santiago de Compostela, you can see the copying of these styles. There’s a Cathedral called ‘Le Puy’ in France – If you look at it, they even have pseudo-Arabic Kufic script, and two-tone brickwork, because they have seen it and liked it. 

The major way that these styles came in was through the Umayyads. Abdul-Rahman, the Umayyad prince, was the only one left when the Abbasids came in and slaughtered all the Umayyads (in Damascus). That one prince, Prince Abdul-Rahman, escaped across North Africa and founded the Umayyad Empire in Spain. Of course, what he did there was to recreate Damascus as closely as he could. There were many Syrian craftsmen already there. Once he had conquered an area and set himself up as its ruler, he put out a summons across the Mediterranean, saying, ‘All Syrians, all Umayyads are welcome here!’ Very quickly, all the Umayyads who were in exile, flocked to him, and of course, that would have included many of the craftsmen who he then employed to build his mosque, or what is today known as the Cordoba ‘Mezquita’, and you can see the same influence as he was copying the Damascus Umayyad Mosque. These styles are then are built on European soil, and again, enter Europe via Northern Spain into Southern France, and are used in the buildings for the pilgrimage to ‘Santiago de Compostela’. 

Image of the Santiago de Compostela which was heavily influenced by the architecture of the Middle East.
View of the Santiago de Compostela which was heavily influenced by the architecture of the Middle East. Image Credit – Creative Commons / StephenD

Rizwan: And in terms of the actual construction of these buildings, were they trying to replicate the type and look as much as possible, including in the type of building materials they were using? I know you mentioned in Syria, of course, stone was the most available resource and the most commonly used resource. What was the solution where perhaps stone wasn’t readily available? Did they adapt or were they trying to make it as close as possible to the examples they came across in the Holy Land?

Diana: In Spain, they did have access to quarries where they have stone. They didn’t need to use brick much. Sometimes they would use a little brick, but brick was more what the Abbasids in Iraq and Baghdad used. The Abbasids became experts in their use of brick because they did not have stone, they had mud. This is actually another important point I must mention, when you were asking about how they transferred knowledge. There is a well-documented case of exactly how the pointed arch entered Europe. 

Amalfi, on the Italian coast (it has its own independence, the Duchy of Amalfi, it’s called), was for many years the paramount trading empire before the Venetians in the eastern Mediterranean. They were trading a lot with Egypt, with Syria – and the Amalfi merchants admired the pointed arches on the ‘Mosque of Ibn Tulun’ in Cairo. They thought, ‘Oh that looks really good!’ They also learnt that the pointed arch was stronger than the round arch, so you could build it a little bit taller, so it had advantages in that too, but they liked the look of it. They brought that back to Amalfi and used that on their own cathedral, and they put in a pointed door and embellished it in ways that they had seen in Cairo as well. 

Then the Abbott of Montecasino (another powerful Benedictine monastery), visited Amalfi, where he was basically on a shopping trip. He was there to buy lavish silks that the Amalfi merchants had brought from the east on behalf of the future Holy Roman Emperor as a bribe, so they would keep on the right side of him! He saw the pointed arches on the Amalfi Cathedral and thought ‘Oh, I like those!’ and so asked the Amalfi merchants, ‘Send me the same craftsmen, send me the same materials – I want some of those at my monastery.’ He had them built at Montecasino. Then he was visited by the Abbott of Cluny, the most powerful Benedictine monastery in Europe, who saw them at Montecasino, and thought, ‘Oh I like those!’ and asked for the same thing, and a major building project began. It is known as ‘Cluny 3’, or the third version of Cluny, with a whole row of pointed arches. From that point onwards, the style of pointed arches became all the rage. If the biggest and most powerful monastery in Europe had them, of course, everybody wanted to have them. It was a fashion trend essentially. It had the additional advantage of not only aesthetically looking better, but it was stronger. That started the desire to build taller and taller churches, to let in more light. Now that’s another whole story that I must tell you about, that ties back to Syria, with this philosophy of light in gothic architecture. 

Rizwan: It is absolutely fascinating, and I just want to quickly touch on one other point on this influence. There’s a clear correlation with the movement of European pilgrims between the Holy Land, and back and forth, which is a very well-known trade route. In fact, it ties into the Silk Road. But thinking beyond the Holy Land, and looking at other cultural influences, if you think of Islamic architecture, particularly in Sub-Sahara Africa, if we look at the ‘Great Mosque of Djenne’, or other examples that are perhaps wider afield that are quite distinct and unique – did they in any way impact upon European architecture? or was it just a case of the lack of contact between these areas in comparison to the Holy Land that meant that those areas drew more influence than perhaps others?

Diana: Well, from my research, I didn’t find any influences that had come in from deeper into Africa. The only mosques in North Africa that do seem to play a bit of a role because of trading, is the Mosque of Kairouan and at Mahdia (both in Tunisia), because their use of the pointed arch again – they had seen it and become familiar with it in the trading ports there. 

Rizwan: Interesting. Now if we consider this cultural exchange throughout history, there is an incredible story of coexistence and connectivity between Europe and Asia, or the Christian and Muslim World. Rarely is this side of history taught to us, but rather aspects of conflict such as the crusades are well-known and familiar in popular culture. Why do you think this aspect of history is overlooked? Why is the more frequent and deeper-lasting cultural exchange between east and west forgotten whilst periodic conflicts remain popularised?

Diana: Well, sadly, I think we live in a world where everybody seems to be retreating into nationalist identities, and nationalists not wanting to acknowledge these past aspects. One of the things which struck me deeply in my research is just how much movement there was, centuries and centuries ago. We imagine that we are globalised now with the internet and everything else, but there is a huge amount of movement of people in both directions. 

Across the centuries from before the start of Christianity, there were influences on Christian architecture in the Holy Land that were from the preexisting culture. You have Mesopotamian elements even in the Damascus Umayyad Mosque – they were called merlons, these crenellations that are all over the top wall – and they appear again in the Cordoba Mezquite, as Abdul Rehman is copying it from Damascus. The Venetians take it on and it also appears along the top of the Doge’s Palace. What is clear, is that far more influences actually came from the East to the West than the other way around. Far, far more influences came from the East because, after all, this was the birthplace of civilisation. The area between the Tigris and Euphrates, this was the birthplace of civilisation; this is where most inventions came from.

Image of Doge’s Palace in Venice which incorporates ‘merlons’ into its architecture, a technique inspired from the Middle East
Doge’s Palace in Venice which incorporates ‘merlons’ into its architecture, a technique inspired from the Middle East

Rizwan: I wonder if there’s a sort of reluctance to accept this influence from the Middle East. As you mentioned, this national rhetoric or even European/pan-European rhetoric begins to take hold. Particularly in the context of 18th and 19th century, when European nations become the dominant global power and begin to assert European historical legacy. By attributing aspects of their historic background to the Middle East, doesn’t quite perhaps play into that narrative of asserting European dominance. Often the civilisations of Greece and Rome are promoted with greater interest in Europe both technically being ‘European’, but the major influences are clearly coming from the Middle East. It feels counterproductive to overlook this.

Diana: Sadly, our education system slightly reinforces that narrative. All we study about is ancient Rome and ancient Greece as if the civilised world stops there, and so there is an extent to which even in successive generations, until the syllabus is changed, people really need to understand the civilised world did not stop at Greece.

Rizwan: What’s even more unfortunate is how politicised this has become. I know examples from my nephews who at school, had a teacher trying to teach the history of the Middle East, but received such a backlash from some parents who were against this being taught. In effect, its entirely arbitrary to take an artificial line on a map and say ‘right, we can teach European history but we cannot discuss the wider history that forms part of Asia or the Middle East’. It is a shame, but hopefully, with books such as yours, we can start to readdress this narrative and bring these aspects more to light. In fact, I want to touch upon one example that I found quite interesting in the article that you featured with The Guardian. We talked about Venice, and you mentioned it being more Arab than European. You even mentioned how women wore the veil. Could you expand a bit on the context of Venice and its influence at the time and how you came to this opinion that actually, it felt as if it was more Arab than European at this time?

Diana: Yes, well this is thanks to the excellent work, as I mentioned before, of this professor of architectural history at Cambridge, Deborah Howard, and her book, Venice in the East, which is a beautifully illustrated book. She is the one who says this and demonstrates how the Venetians, love the architectural styles of the Middle East. That is why they use them in all their palaces – you go to Venice and it looks Islamic! All the pointed arches, the trefoil arches, you name it, every kind of arch is there. Not only that, but they liked the way of living too, and so they start to adopt courtyards and roof terraces that they see in the Middle East within the Islamic cities. You have narrow lanes where you have a lot of privacy and of course, it casts a lot of shade. If you walk through the old city of Damascus and any of the old Islamic cities, there are narrow, winding lanes and streets and there is always shade, even at the hottest time of year. 

A lot of Arabic words were imported into Venetian dialect, and some Syrian families were actually invited to become part of the Venetian ruling elite, which is a sort of special group of people. They let in about six or seven Syrian families, clearly made the major trading partners that they had, but Venetians had a very open attitude towards them. Even when the Pope, the Catholic Pope, was busy trying to ban trade with the Muslim ‘infidels’ as he called them, the Venetians simply just ignored him. They continued running trips to the Holy Land for pilgrims, it was all a money-making exercise. The Venetians were clearly very money-driven; they were traders par excellence, they really were! They used to run pilgrim ‘package tours’ to the Holy Land and encourage pilgrims to spend about three weeks in Venice beforehand visiting various shrines so that they could spend money there. They also put them on the Venetian galleys, making sure these galleys stopped off at the Venetian colonies, like Rhodes, along the way so that the pilgrims would spend even more money. I mean, they had it all worked out! They even had guidebooks listing all the sites in Jerusalem, giving them [the pilgrims] a point scoring system with how many indulgences you would get at this building as opposed to that building, all to ease your path into Heaven! Of course, people were complete suckers for this kind of thing because they honestly thought this was the route to Heaven.

Image of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, which took inspiration from architecture in the Middle East
St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, which took inspiration from architecture in the Middle East

Rizwan: So, the birth of travel tourism came from the Venetians! Well, I think it is fascinating and there is so much we have covered. Finally, we talked earlier about the politicisation of a lot of history. Unfortunately, school curriculums almost channel this narrative of divide rather than a cultural exchange. There are so many examples of incredible cross-cultural exchange you have talked about; from Southern Spain and Venice, but even if you think of Malta and Sicily – how they had such strong influence from Arabs over centuries. Even today, Maltese (the language of Malta) basically sounds like Arabic. Much of Sicily continues to have remnants of Arab rule. In sum, just thinking about your work and the role of your book, how do you think we can shift perspectives and improve awareness of the historic cross-cultural connections between the East and West? I know you have been doing a lot of school talks; I think that’s fantastic because I think that’s where it really needs to begin, but how do you think that we can start to overcome this thinking in the long-term?

Diana: Yes, well I do think education is the key, and educating the younger generation is probably the best way to begin. The talks that I’ve been giving now for about three or four years are actually mainly to sixth forms. This again was something that started when I was writing my books. I would get invited to literary talks which are all well and good – you get to sell some books – but the audience there, I’m sorry to say, was mainly over sixty! They are mainly retired, they have got the leisure and the money to buy books, but they are not the decision-makers of the day. 

I remember saying in slight frustration once to a friend who was a teacher, ‘You know, I wish I could speak to a younger audience somehow.’ So she said, ‘Well, why don’t you come along and talk to our history set?’ – she happens to be a deputy head – and so I did. To be honest, I hated school; I hated school when I was younger and so the thought of going back to school and talking to schoolchildren filled me with dread! I gritted my teeth and said, ‘Ok, well I’ll just try it once’. And so I did it, and to my surprise, I quite enjoyed it. I liked the feedback, I liked the questions that they asked, and so I then thought, ‘Gosh! you know really, I’d quite like to do more of this’. I managed to get myself onto a school speakers’ website so that schools can then come and say we would like a talk on this. Unfortunately, none of this is going to change overnight because it does take time. You have to start somewhere. One of the reasons that The Guardian journalist liked the book was because he is well aware of this entire crowd of people; the very vociferous crowd on Twitter who have these sort of cultural heritage Twitter handles. They pose as people very concerned for architectural and cultural heritage, but actually, they are thinly veiled white supremacist and extreme right-wing nationalists who are really very ugly. Since the book came out, and it has had a bit of publicity, I have been trolled by these people. They have attacked my website – they are a pretty vociferous and vitriolic lot. I was really pleased in The Guardian article, that the author of it had said that my book ‘takes an eloquent sledgehammer to such ignorant, dogwhistle propaganda,’ I did like that, being described as an ‘eloquent sledgehammer’.

Rizwan: Thank you so much, Diana. Now I cannot wait to get a hold of a copy myself. I was speaking to you just before we started recording, and it is clearly doing very well. It has sold in many outlets already but I would urge everyone to also try to get hold of the book. You mentioned that there is a new order coming through, so hopefully, we should have a supply that people can access fairly soon. It is definitely something that merits attention, particularly in this day and age. Hopefully, we can all be part of your ‘eloquent sledgehammer’ against the tirade of hatred on social media! 

Diana: Thank you very much.

Diana’s new book entitled ‘Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe’ is available now from most major book outlets.