From Minaret to Steeple

Posted by sepoy on November 30, 2009 · 5 mins read

Why is the knowledge of history always the first casualty?

Richard J. H. Gottheil. "The Origin and History of the Minaret". Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Mar., 1910): 152-4.

It is a well-known fact that the early Christian basilica had no towers attached or superposed. The same is true of the earliest Byzantine churches in Italy - the classic home of the campanile. Even to this day there are none attached to the cathedral of Parenzo (535-543), of Prado (571-586) or to that of San Lorenzo at Milan (6th century), which are among the earliest examples of church architecture in the West. ... The oldest campaniles are supposed to date from the beginnings of the ninth century - those of Santa Maria della Cella at Viterbo and Sant Ambrogio at Milan: though that of Sant Apollionare in Classe is held by some to be of the eighth century. The campanile of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo is however reliably dated between 850 and 878.

It is therefore a pertinent question - whence did this addition to church architecture come? The writer of the article "Kirchenbau" in the Protestantische Real-Encyclopädie is of opinion that it was an original conception both in Italy and in the Frankish Empire, and that it had no connection whatsoever with the East. I understand this to be be also the meaning of Adolf Fäh's words: Ein neues Element bilden die meist kreisrunden Türme". But one might well ask in return - if they were not necessary as belfries, what purpose did they serve? In Ravenna they could hardly be needed as towers of defence, since the whole city was enclosed by a wall. Nor could they be used as light-houses; for that purpose they were too far distant from the shore. It is certainly peculiar that the rise of the campanile or church tower synchronizes with the coming of the Arabs into the Mediterranean. The first Arab raid upon Sicily is said to have taken place in the year 701; and though Sicily and certain parts of Southern Italy did not come under their direct rule until the Aghlabites were strong in Africa during the ninth century, Arab influence permeated the Eastern Mediterranean long before that. I do not know what authority there is for the statement that the columns for the basilicas at Ravenna were made in Istria by oriental workmen; but Ravenna was a great centre from which Oriental influences passed on into Europe - not only in art, but also in decoration, in mosaics, and in miniatur-painting as well. The basilica of St. Mark at Venice, supposed to contain the remains of the saint brought thither in 828 from Alexandria, is adorned with columns garnered in the East; and the campanile has an "ascent by a continuous inclined plane built between an inner and outer wall and turning with a platform at each angle of the tower" which reminds one at once of the ascent in the Pharos at Alexandria. Like the minaret, the campanile could be either round or square. Most of the early examples are round; but square ones are not wanting, e.g., at San Giovanni Evangelista, San Francesco and San Michele in Affricisco in Ravenna. And like the minaret, the campanile was at first not an integral part of the church building. It was generally placed near to it, sometimes even leaning upon it; until in the church spire it became almost a necessary part of every Christian place of worship.

It seems to me, therefore, that a possible explanation of the sudden appearance of the campanile in Italy during the eighth and ninth centuries, would be that they are due to Mohammedan influence. Whether this influence came from Egypt, or from Syria and Mesopotamia, or even from the Maghreb, is a point upon which I should not like to insist. But this much does seem to follow from a study of history of the monuments, that the old idea of the Ziggurat or tower in some way connected with worship at a shrine has filtered down to us through the Mohammedan minaret and finds its expression to day in our church steeple.


Megan | November 30, 2009

The cathedral in Seville is built on top of a mosque (the mosque in turn is built on top of a visigoth temple). The spire is literally the minaret from the old mosque.

Jonathan Dresner | November 30, 2009

History has no respect for partisans, does it?

Conrad Barwa | November 30, 2009

Why is the knowledge of history always the first casualty? Because it is WAR, Baby!

Change | November 30, 2009

The arab regimes are probably thrilled by the Swiss decision. They will allow street protests just like they allowed all those protests during the Mohammed cartoon controversy.

Welcome To The Islamic Republic Of Switzerland – Do You Want Your Burqa In Black Or Blue? « The Spinning Head | November 30, 2009

[...] steeple traces its own history to the Islamic minaret. Our friends at Chapati Mystery kindly posted a piece written by the historian Richard J. H. Gottheil. called “The Origin and History of the Minaret” in the [...]

Nikolai | November 30, 2009

yeah, the autocrats are gonna love the Swiss decision. anything to distanct the populous from their own failings. speaking of islamic history/influence on europe, Michael Morgan's 'Lost History" would be a good volume for English-speaking Western Muslims in their early teens. ( ) not exactly "A Cambridge History of..." but it's good for a younger audience

iiinteresting « online rihla | December 01, 2009

[...] 2009 December 1 by ummsqueakster At Chapti Mystery – From Minaret to Steeple It is a well-known fact that the early Christian basilica had no towers attached or superposed. The [...]

The Other View | on Minarets | December 01, 2009

[...] 2) sepoy at chapatimistery has dug up some background info. [...]

Yes man | December 01, 2009

Someone has got to debunk this "graveyard of empires" theme that's been going around. Afghanistan has been controlled by british and the persians for years through proxies. Of course they never really wanted to directly control it, who does? It has no natural resources or strategic worth.

Conrad Barwa | December 02, 2009

It has no natural resources or strategic worth.<? Doesn't it have one of the largest copper deposits in the world at Ayanak? Plus we are told that it has some considerable reserves of natural gas and precious stones in the north. But I agree that natural resources isn't one of the major reasons that have drawn powers to the country. I think it depends on what you mean by 'controlled by proxies' foreign backed rulers by the British didn't last long and British occupations did alright as long as they didn't upset the regional power structures and disbursed generous amounts of cash to keep the tribal leaders and notables happy. When these things didn't happen or were stopped, trouble started. The Brits also never managed to exert any real control over the NWFP, they had to continually mount military incursions from the 1880s till the 1930s using large numbers of troops in the old 'butcher and bolt' strategy. I don't know enough about the Persians, they might have been more successful

Minarets and madness « Inversion Layer | December 03, 2009

[...] Mystery quotes an intriguing passage on the development of the church steeple. In this passage, from “The Origin and History of the [...]

RJ Houston | December 03, 2009

Does anyone see the irony in the passage of this law in Switzerland.....the country that has a symbol of Christianity, a cross, in its flag?