Geometric Patterns and Designs in Islamic Arts
Ercan Mensiz MD
Have you ever been attracted by the geometric ornamental patterns that adorn virtually every corner of historical Islamic buildings? If not, then we heartily recommend that you pay special attention to them at the first opportune moment. On the other hand, if you have been attracted to them, then have you ever thought about how they were drawn centuries ago? Most if not all of them are symmetrical and can be extended indefinitely. Their most fundamental building blocks are multipointed stars.
What is most mysterious about these designs is how exactly they were drawn. The most important tools that would have presumably been used for this purpose centuries ago would have been a ruler (straightedge) and a pair of compasses (calliper). There is no evidence that instruments to measure angles like protractors were known at the time. The artisans who designed these patterns guarded their technique like a professional secret, and its details have therefore not reached us. It is not even known whether or not they were educated. Interestingly, some western researchers have recently demonstrated how at least some of these patterns can be constructed using nothing more than a ruler and compasses. Nevertheless, it is not known if the same techniques were constructed by the original artists. And besides, for many highly complex designs, techniques of drawing them with the aforementioned two instruments remain to be discovered and are, for the moment, shrouded in mystery. Leaving aside planar patterns, the way in which curved surfaces such as domes were adorned with such motifs is altogether amazing.
İslamic geometric ornamentation can be found in a wide geography from Andalusia to the India and mid Asia. While they have been the focus of some attention on the part of western scholars, as mentioned above, and have even made inroads into school textbooks there, who in the Turkish or Muslim Worlds shows any interest in them? Searching the Internet in Turkish for “geometric ornamentation” yields few results. Searching for “Islamic geometric” brings up numerous sites in English, and there are also many English-language books and articles on the subject. I do not know about other languages.
Searches in Turkish might lead to the book İslam Sanatında Geometrik Süsleme (Geometric Ornamentation in Islamic Art) by Yıldız Demiriz, and that would be a good thing, for this book remains unique as a serious inventory analysis. It contains hundreds of designs. I congratulate Ms Demiriz, as her work has provided us with much needed guidance. We bought it instantly when we first encountered it in a bookstore. At the time we were working on vector graphics based upon calligraphic compositions. We made plans to convert the many geometric designs we find into vector graphics, but hesitated for a long time as we did not feel competent to undertake the project. The day finally came, however, and we took up drawing the vector graphics as a hobby.
As we completed 10, then 50, then 100 drawings, our admiration grew for the artists who designed the patterns. Despite our basic understanding of geometry and the help of our computer, it sometimes still took a long time for us to analyze the structure of a design. But when we did, the joy we felt was undefinable. A design that appeared to be the product of the repetition of a square would, upon careful scrutiny, reveal itself to be the product of the repetition of only one eighth of a square. Sometimes a design that seemed to be composed of stars and polygons would in fact be constructed by repeating a broken line at appropriate angles.
Viewing these patterns, each person will notice different details. The infinite repetitions of their modules are based upon grids of squares or regular hexagons. Here, it is worth remembering that regular hexagons are composed of six equilateral triangles. Grids of such triangles are also widely utilized.
Our aim was to lay the groundwork for a web site in Turkish dedicated to these patterns, and to promote them. Not being a professional architect, we cannot play a direct role in decorating buildings with these patterns, but perhaps we might inspire architects to use them. And why not, if we receive significant support? We can produce cut&paste artwork to hang on our walls as first time in the world. We cut our drawings from gold coloured foils, peel them and paste on dark coloured backgrounds to reach our result pictures meaning that our works are not prints. Let us cherish these patterns, and may our God Allah rest the souls of the artisans who first constructed them.
Note: Our drawings are based upon patterns we found under intense research but all of them are redrawn as vector graphics.
You can find one tenth of our images originally vector drawn in following link, we hope to add our more complex designs to our page in near future.