Stealing from the Saracens is at its best in its sympathetic appreciation of Islamic architecture, such as the Cordoba Mezquita, the great gem of the Islamic conquest of Andalusia with its forest of marble, jasper, and granite columns and luminous cross-vaulting of the Capilla de Villaviciosa, all designed to rival the Great Mosque of Damascus. Darke writes appreciatively of the different aims of the architects of the Mezquita as opposed to those of the northern gothic cathedrals, comparing the former to “an organic web, a complex vision of infinity” versus the “spatial hierarchy” of the latter. Although the Mezquita was turned into a cathedral after Cordoba was conquered by Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, it retained many of its original features, adapted to new uses, just as many elements of the former mosque were appropriated from earlier building materials on the same site. Darke observes that the mosques of Cordoba and Toledo mark the first steps towards gothic rib and fan vaulting that led to the fifteenth-century vaulting of the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, but, again, the connections are more indirect than direct.
Not much in Stealing From The Saracens is particularly new and the author acknowledges that, pointing to other sources and scholars. It has long been conceded, for instance, that the pointed arch so characteristic of gothic was an eastern import, something thought to have been brought back by the Crusaders imitating the buildings they ransacked on their raids, though Darke traces the roots of exchange to before the crusades, through trade routes with Sicily and Amalfi.
“My aim is not to denigrate European architecture and its many brilliant achievements,” she writes. “My purpose has been to show that no one ‘owns’ architecture, just as no one ‘owns’ science.” (Nor, one could say, the tabbiness of cats.) Which reasonable point, I’m sure, will not be enough to stop a torrent of rage from some quarters. But for most sane people her book is a useful reminder of the interconnectedness of civilisation.