(How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe)
When Notre-Dame in Paris caught fire in April 2019, the world was transfixed with horror at the sight of a medieval European treasure consumed by flames. The same spark ignited in Diana Darke a desire to write a book, once she saw how little the cathedral’s architectural backstory was understood. No one seemed to know that the origins of virtually all Notre-Dame’s Gothic architectural features lay much further east, yet the building was described by all the commentators as a symbol of French national identity.
Christopher Wren, architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, freely admitted in his memoirs that he used what he called ‘Saracen’ vaulting in the dome, because it was ‘the best’. He went further and wrote that what we call ‘the Gothic style should rightly be called the Saracen style’. Wren himself never travelled – except once to Paris, to escape the 1665 Great Plague in London – so he had to rely on the reports and drawings of others to reach his conclusions.
But as a Middle East specialist who has been fortunate enough to visit all the key buildings now scattered across Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Diana has benefited from a lifetime’s first-hand experience of both touching and studying the stones. After graduating in Arabic from Oxford University, she went on to complete an MA in Islamic Art and Architecture at SOAS, London. The talk is fully illustrated and can be delivered by Zoom or in person.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, gave this endorsement to Diana’s newly published Stealing from the Saracens (2020) which was Book of the Year 2020 in The Spectator, The New Statesman and the BBC History Magazine:
“As exhilarating as it is learned, this splendidly illustrated book shows how our cultures – including our religious cultures – interact and interweave in ways that challenge all kinds of assumptions we might make about our history. By studying our past, Darke poses essential questions about the possibility of a shared and humane civilisation in the future”.