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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Reinventing the Wheel

A Frankish wheel window reused in the Sabil Sulaiman in Jerusalem (left) and two imitations in the Mosque of Omar, Jerusalem and the Mahmudiyah Mosque, Jaffa

In nature, imitation has very practical functions. Mimicking of appearance, smell, sound and movement serves a variety of purposes. Some types of insects, such as the mantis, imitate the appearance and colour of leaves, branches or flowers in order to avoid being eaten. Certain flowers like the bee orchid imitate the form of insects in order to attract potential pollinators. Some fish imitate rocks so as to avoid predators, cuckoos are able to lay eggs that imitate a host bird's eggs so that it will not identify them and attempt to remove them from the nest. There are birds, fish and butterflies that have eye-like designs on parts of their bodies to give a false impression to predators that they are observing them. The male lyrebird can accurately mimic virtually any sound in an effort to impress a female.

With humans, imitation is used by children in learning how to react to the challenges of life and continues to be applied into adulthood in order for an individual to achieve a sense of belonging to a group, and in order for that the group to accept the individual into the fold; a highly important behavioural pattern for social animals. To those ends we use imitation in our language, accent, dress, food, music, architecture. That is why houses in a London suburb are so different from those in a suburb of Damascus, Beijing or Mexico city. It is also why within those suburbs the houses are by-and-large, similar to one another.

The Mosque of Omar, a fourteenth century building in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was renovated by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid I (1839-1860) and it was possibly by him that the new western gate, which imitates another Jerusalem monument, the Sabil Sulaiman (Sulaiman's Fountain), was added. Around the turn of the 20th century, during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876 – 1909) an expansion of the Mahmoudiya Mosque, the largest mosque in Jaffa, included the construction of a new gate facing the famous clock-tower. Named the Gate of the Governors", its design was also based on the Sabil Sulaiman in Jerusalem.

It was the entire early sixteenth century Sabil Sulaiman that was being imitated by these gates, and both of these instances are evidence of the admiration Ottoman architects had for Ayyubid architecture. But the sabil incorporates spolia; a Roman sarcophagus for its basin below, and above, its most prominent feature, a twelfth century Frankish wheel window. The wheel window is what makes the fountain. It is a beautifully carved piece of Romanesque art, the pillar spokes radiating out from a magnificent flower-shaped roundel formed from three rows of acanthus leaves. And so, the sabil itself, which stands opposite the Bab as-Silsila (Gate of the Chain) on the western side of the Temple Mount, displays an Ayyubid admiration of Frankish decorative sculpture, an admiration that is demonstrated by the abundant incorporation of Frankish spolia in Ayyubid and Mamluk structures in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

As to the window itself, it clearly originated in a twelfth century church located in the vicinity of the Temple Mount. The Church of St Giles has been suggested, having stood, according to Ernoul, on Temple Street "to the left, on the bridge",* the bridge being the one leading to the Porta Speciosa (the medieval gate to the Temple Mount). It is one of two wheel windows to have survived from Frankish Jerusalem, the more beautiful of the two. The other is on a Frankish chapel added to the eastern side of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Wheel windows were Romanesque precursors of the more complex and elaborate Gothic rose windows that were placed above the portals in the western walls of churches, serving both as splendid decoration of the facade and an important source of interior illumination.

The Ayyubid use of Crusader spolia, in particular perhaps, spolia taken from Frankish churches, was not merely admiration of Frankish sculpture. It was also a statement of the ascendancy of Islam over Christianity. With the Ottomans this subtlety was no doubt lost. The Ottoman architects, in their rather poor imitation of an Ayyubid monument, were inadvertently imitating Crusader church art.

Detail of the Frankish wheel window in the Sabil Sulayman, Jerusalem

*Denys Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, vol. 3, The City of Jerusalem, Cambridge, 2007, p. 167.

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