When European visitors to Ottoman Thessaloniki, in modern day Greece, described the city, the features which most captured their attention were the minarets. Exotic and highly visible the minaret captured the imagination of travellers searching for the Oriental, giving the city (in the words of one guidebook) the air of a fairy-tale:
“Are not the white minarets and the mysterious old houses, the storks on the roof, the beggar at the fountain, the very cobble-stones and above all, the deep blue sky and the star-strewn night the very essentials of magic and romance?” (Mazower, p.190).
Before the minaret arrived in the modern European imagination as the epitome of foreign mystery, however, the structures had already travelled the world in tandem with the spread of Islam. Their diversity of forms, adapting to local conditions, illustrates not only the ingenuity of their architects, but also the flexibility of a building type whose origins are still characterised by uncertainty.
The minaret, so far as we know, was not a feature of the first mosque-site, the house of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, but appeared for the first time in the Great Mosque of Damascus, built by the Umayyad Caliphs (who ruled the Muslim world from 661-750 CE). Unfortunately, however, these original structures do not survive, and today the mosque’s minarets date from the 9th century onwards in a variety of styles.
The oldest extant minaret stands in the Mosque of Uqba, in Tunisia, and was built in the 8th century. It’s square base is typical of minarets in North Africa and Spain, and rises in three sections with a balcony at the top. The precise function of these earliest minarets, however, is uncertain, as several terms for towers existed. Manar, the origin of our word minaret, was at this time used to mean a signpost or marker, whereas the structure which housed the muezzin (who calls the faithful to prayers) was called the midhana.
This varied terminology demonstrates that minarets were not built only as platforms for the call to prayer, but also functioned as local landmarks, watch-towers, and commemorative structures.
The last purpose is exemplified by another minaret, in Jam, Afghanistan. Today it’s location is extremely remote, but when it was built in the 1190s, it lay near to the city of Firuzkuh. Wonderfully preserved, the minaret is 62 meters tall and is constructed from elaborate brickwork, some of which preserves inscriptions in Arabic. Its patrons were the Ghurids, a dynasty that ruled this area of Central Asia and clashed often with its neighbours, the Khwarazm-Shahs to the north and the Chauhan kings in India to the south. It seems to have been built to celebrate a victory over the latter, both to acknowledge God’s gift of victory and to symbolise the triumph of Islam.
Its circular base and slender silhouette demonstrate the great variety of forms which had developed in only a few hundred years. Aside from the square and circular bases, minarets in the mediaeval period could appear spiralled, like the one erected in Samarra, or take inspiration from Chinese architecture. (A pagoda-like structure in the Huajuexiang Mosque is a suspected minaret.)
Those seen by travellers at Thessaloniki, however, most probably resembled the Ottoman minarets of Istanbul, though on a smaller scale. These are extremely tall and narrow towers, designed to complement the domed roof-scapes so popular with Ottoman architects. In the capital, Istanbul, their number was used to indicate the status of a mosque’s founder–particularly if it was the sultan, and their design was simplified and replicated in provincial centres.
They also helped to distinguish the skyline of Istanbul as seen from the European centre of Galata, just across the Golden Horn. From watch-towers and platforms for the call to prayers, therefore, the minaret evolved into an expression of imperial cultural achievement and religious piety.
This remarkable flexibility attests to the huge distances travelled by Islam in the mediaeval period, which brought it into contact with a variety of cultures and contributed to its appeal in areas as distant as Morocco and China.
The quote is from A. Goff and H. Fawcett, Macedonia: A Plea for the Primitive, reproduced in Mark Mazower, Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews 1430-1950, (London, 2004).
Pinder-Wilson, Ralph, ‘Ghaznavid and Ghurid Minarets,’ Iran 39 (2001), pp.155-186.
Shatzman Steinhard, Nancy, ‘China’s Earliest Mosques,’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 67.3 (2008), pp.330-361.