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.
Saturday is fast fading. The minarets still shine like Saturn rockets while out at sea the tankers chart a course along the edge of the known world. The winter sun will corkscrew down behind the mountains in around three hours from now and the purpose for the bronze cast of the crescent moon – al hilal – that juts from the top of the minaret will become clear as faith in the night sky.
How the sun does its parabola, is that the trajectory of love? It comes for a day: warms the dumbstruck in the morning with its pastel harmonies, dazzles at noon when the heat of passion ramps up, sustains itself throughout the afternoon, and then starts playing reddened tricks on the landscape, fading in power and intensity as dusk falls.
Here where the sky is flawless 350 days of the year the clouds do not arrive to obscure its path. The Arabian sun sets the human agenda with its moves, the quickness of its ascent, its peak power, followed by a slower, sometimes more dignified descent. Only when it disappears did we know it was there. Only when it burned us did we know that it was colour and not paleness we always needed. Only when its glare overwhelmed us with its everything did we realise that in its absence all we felt was underwhelmed. But best of all, even when at day’s end and it sinks behind the jagged mountains, our grin catches the moonlight knowing that while one sun comes to an end a new love will enter our skies, if not when it rises but whenever it chooses to shine.
Light is a rare thing when everything around is illuminated. If you don’t venture out into it you’ll never know if it had right kind of waves to truly penetrate.