This doorway from the madrassah of the Mamluk Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad was built in the 1290s in Cairo. It seems a perfectly Islamic-looking structure … except that at its heart is actually a Gothic gate from the great crusader city of Acre, now in Israel, which the sultan carried away as war-spoils when he captured the place in 1291. And the reason this piece of Crusader construction looks so at home in Cairo is that Gothic architecture, that trademark of Western European culture, may actually be a deliberate rehash of Arab styles. When the early crusaders got to the Holy Land, they read the Islamic architecture they found there as of a piece with the buildings of Jesus’s own time, and copied the style as a sign of a return to an authentic, originary Christian culture. This, at least, is the radical argument of my friend Alexander Nagel, a prof at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU now on assignment in the Middle East, where he’s blogging at SpiritoPellegrino.com. (Read his argument at greater length there.) We know we got zero from the Arabs, and Greek philosophy, and much of medieval music and food—but could it be that even Chartres and Westminster Abbey are Islamophilic, too?—even if they didn’t know it.
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