NO ONE could doubt the good intentions that motivated this book. Inspired by the outpouring of grief that attended the devastating fire at Paris’s great cathedral of Notre-Dame in April 2019, Diana Darke tweeted a contribution to the debate. “Notre-Dame’s architectural design,” she wrote, “like all Gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria’s Qalb Lozeh 5th century church.”
It was an innocent enough comment, apparently intended to draw attention to the universal significance of Notre-Dame. But many were curious and still more furious at the suggestion that this quintessentially French edifice, this icon of European architecture, owed anything to the Orient. Now, the author’s 200 or so characters on Twitter have spawned a sprawling 400-page volume elaborating at some length on this idea.
Stealing from the Saracens begins with Christopher Wren and his argument that Gothic architecture was more correctly seen as “Saracenic”: inspired by the Islamic buildings encountered by the Crusaders. It is an intriguing idea and seems superficially helpful to Diana Darke’s argument. In fact, however, Wren’s conjecture leads her into a profound conceptual confusion from which the book never wholly recovers. Instead of arguing, as her original comment implied, that the Gothic architecture of Western Europe owed much to foreign example (which is true), she maintains that it was almost wholly based on Islamic models (which is not).
Along the way, this expansive text takes in a huge amount: not just Notre-Dame, and not only the buildings of the Middle Ages. A particularly telling passage seeks to demonstrate the Islamic influences on the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. Darke writes interestingly about the churches and mosques of Southern Spain and Northern Cyprus. She is especially moving when she describes the ancient buildings of Syria — and the risks that they currently face. The book is also very well illustrated.
In the end, this is a missed opportunity. The insistence that everything can somehow be traced to the Saracens is not only unconvincing: it also stops her from telling a much more interesting story. Not least, emphasising a single Islamic tradition occludes a tremendous and fascinating diversity of experience and style. More importantly still, both the Islamic world and Western Christendom shared a common debt to Byzantine, Roman, and ancient Greek architecture — and this, in turn, owed something to the art of Egypt, India, and elsewhere. This is not theft, but a shared inheritance.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic architecture shaped Europe
Church Times Bookshop £22.50