Long before the first digital pixel, architects and builders were using bricks and tiles to create pixelated patterns on structures. The technique, which is still in use today, is known as banna’i and was developed in the Middle East in the 8th century. The brick, as a building material, dates back to around 7500 BC in the upper Tigris area and Anatolia. To display text in banna’i, artisans employ mostly the Kufi calligraphic style, known for transforming the traditionally curved lines of Arabic into straight lines and sharp angles, alternating glazed and bare bricks to write out prayers (like fancy bitmap fonts) or replicate geometric patterns.
For example, this wall from the Jameh Mosque in Yazd, Iran, dating back to the 12th century, looks like an ancient video game of sorts but is actually pixelated Arabic prayers written in Kufi script using bricks.
To give you an idea of what Kufi calligraphy looks like before it’s been made into a bitmap font, here’s an 11th century example:
This graphical depiction of a similar banna’i wall at the Jameh Mosque in Isfahan highlights each word in a different color to differentiate them.
And here is actual brick and tilework from the same mosque, demonstrating this pixelated calligraphy style:
In the image below, you can see similar calligraphy lining the arch of the western entrance to Yazd’s Jameh Mosque, with a more traditional calligraphic style on the hand-painted tiles in the center.
Alternately, artisans have used this style to create elaborate geometric designs. Below are a few examples of both text and geometries, from three different locations I visited in Iran.
Jameh Mosque in Yazd
While the circle in the center displays a more traditional calligraphic style in tile, in this detail shot, you can see pixelated Kufi calligraphy translated to tile in the center of the design.
This archway is encrusted with more Kufi calligraphy in brick, evoking a basket-like appearance.
The inside of the dome is amazing to behold but was undoubtedly a logistical challenge to plan design-wise, especially considering the curvature and size of the dome, as well as the fact that it was made in the 12th century.
Looking up the side of the room inside the dome, we can see a number of different pixelated brick patterns alongside one another in harmony. The far left and right walls are both covered in pixelated prayers, while the rest is decorative geometry.
This amazing photo by talented photographer Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji does a much better job of showing the full scope.
In another section of the mosque, a technique that combines brick and plaster is employed, with Kufi text in the centers of the pattern.
Vakil Mosque in Shiraz
With construction begun in 1751, the Vakil Mosque features prime examples of pixelated geometric designs in brick and tile. Each of the ceilings of the arched walkways display perfect geometries, as do the walkways as a whole.
Though there is no text embedded in this pixelated design surrounding the prayer stand, these glazed bricks are reminiscent of another kind of brick we know and love: Lego. These were 18th-century Lego bricks.
Fatemeh Masoumeh Shrine in Qom
This famous shrine in Qom has taken many shapes and incarnation, with “modern” renovations beginning in the late 1700s. Though these examples below are strictly tilework and not brickwork, it’s amazing to think such fresh-looking colors and pixelated geometrics are from hundreds of years ago. In the first image, the center block, as well as the left and right stars bear holy words in Kufi calligraphy.
Domes and Minarets
Perhaps some of the most interesting instances of this pixelated brick and tilework is seen on the domes and minarets of shrines. Applying the angular shapes of the designs to such rounded surfaces produces a fascinating effect.
Below are the dome and minaret of the Shah Nematollah Vali Shrine in Kerman.
Seen below, the Qutub Minar in Delhi, India, is the tallest brick minaret in the world, soaring at more than 239 feet. While construction began in 1200 AD, in 1369 it was struck by lightning, destroyed, and rebuilt. The brickwork is astounding. A more traditional calligraphy style is used here, which retains the rounded edges and doesn’t look as pixelated, presumably by carving and reshaping the bricks.The second shot shows details from the balcony.
This stunning mosque outside Kerman, Iran, bears Kufi text over the main body of the minarets as well as at the base of the dome.
The Jameh Mosque of Abyaneh, Iran, pictured below, was originally built in the late 1300s, which is definitely hard to believe.
There are a ton more extraordinary examples, but we’ll wrap up by throwing a little physics in the mix with 14th-century brick wonder Menar-e-Jomban (which literally translates to “shaking minarets”) in Isfahan. These pair of minarets on either side of an iwan (vaulted hall) are made of brick and wood and are a fine example of coupled oscillations: when one minaret shakes, so does the other. The inside of each minaret is a narrow, steep spiral staircase of brick, with a wood and brick matrix at top. One person can climb up to the top inside, grab the bars at the sides, and begin shaking the structure, which shakes the opposite minaret, apparently due to the perfect ratio between the height and width of the minarets and the width of the iwan. Needless to say, Menar-e-Jomban, though a novel and cleverly engineered brick structure, has had to be repaired countless times due to tourist traffic.