Minarets, six of them, could launch into orbit if they were not so grounded. The cupola is the mother ship, domed to sit forever on the sand. Under the sulphur streetlamps not much moves at the mosque. There’s a insect quality to the structure, pods five abreast, three at the far end, within its marble perimeters a courtyard of rectilinear beauty. Patiently it awaits the dawn and the return of the one, true God. Without question, the cupola is the architectural centrepiece, a naturally-occurring figure of the most technically challenging proportions. Yet it is its history and not its design that defies all probability. In short, the origins of the dome are about as curvilinear as the thing itself. Let me show you how.
They built this glorious house in the image of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. The Ottoman’s built the Blue Mosque in the image of Justinian’s Haghia Sofia. The church of Saint Sofia owed its image to the Pantheon in Rome. 1st century Roman engineers who put together this, still today the largest unreinforced concrete dome on Earth, must have known of the beehive tombs of Mycenae that were the final resting place of Agamemnon, he who led the 10-year siege against the city-state of Troy around 1,200 years before the Roman golden age. The Mycenaeans must have known of the architectural wonders of the Near and Middle East: of Babylonia, Assyria and before that Sumeria, the land of the first men; of Ur, the first city and reputed birthplace of Abraham. Around the same time, sometime in the late bronze age, in what is now the Sultanate of Oman, beehive tombs were being built for what we presume were high-status tribesmen. As far as simple Bronze Age cupola design representing a breakthrough in protoarchitecture, it is hard to conceive of an earlier instance of the cupola that these days sits snug within the minarets as this.
And so, man and his proclivities for making self-supporting domed shapes from mud, stones and cement with ever more ambition – the self-same structures that bees and birds have been doing with twigs and resin for a lot longer – takes in a long curvilinear history. It started one hour SW of here some five thousand years ago, and here it ends five thousand on in perhaps its most triumphant, geometrically completed form: the mosque outside my window.