What is Stellataxis?

Greetings,  hypothetical reader! Welcome to my obscure blog.

“Stellataxis” is intended to convey something like a “taxonomy of stars”. “Taxis” is Greek for “order” or “arrangement”, and “stella” of course means star.  The main focus of the site is this blog on Islamic geometrical patterns, where I will, among other things, discuss my views on how various different pattern families are related to one another. This is analogous (sort of) to cladistics in biology—hence the title. There are a number of other parts of the site more or less vaguely envisioned, which I hope to  realize sooner or later, as they say in the blogosphere. Glossary and Bibliography should begin to show signs of life soon, and I’ll also be developing sections devoted to my Islamic architecture-inspired furniture, and to my adventures making polyhedra models. But the melancholy truth is that I have little extra time to devote to this project, and thus the pace of progress may be a bit glacial.

Islamic geometrical pattern can be difficult to write about, which is why I’ve been editing this post for months. There are a large number of intersecting strands to the story, influencing one another in complicated ways; and yet, though the subject is rather technical, there is no universally accepted nomenclature. Most books on the topic spend the first chapter or two setting the stage, but I don’t think this translates well to the blog format. On the other hand, anyone likely to have read even this far will already have some background knowledge of the subject, so my solution will be to just dive in to a facet of the field that is currently fascinating to me, and see where it leads. Those who would like to develop their understanding in a more structured way will find the following books helpful:

“Islamic Design; a Genius for Geometry”, by Daud Sutton, is a small, inexpensive book that does a magnificent job of distilling an enormous amount of complex information into an easily assimilated and beautifully illustrated package.

“Arabesques; Decorative Art in Morocco”, by Jean-Marc Castera, is a huge, expensive coffee-table book, which exhaustively investigates pattern-families of the Maghreb, with an emphasis on four-fold zellij. Hundreds of gorgeous color photos, with an exegisis that is clear, engaging, and largely accurate.


 Four-fold & five-fold patterns in Morocco and Andalusia


Within the remarkable aesthetic continuity of Islamic architectural decoration, spanning dozens of countries and well over a thousand years, a number of societies developed their own distinctive, idiosyncratic styles. Everywhere, the triple canon of geometry, floral arabesque, and calligraphy were interwoven to create the characteristic hierarchy of textures that exemplifies the form. Yet each major society evolved its own focus and emphasis. For example, Transoxiana excelled at combining star polygons of seemingly incompatable symmetries; and Persia is know for self-similar five-fold meta-patterns. In the Maghreb, loosely comprising Northern Africa and Southern Spain, the geometrical branch of the decorative discipline was marked by, among other things, a preference for parallel lines, a fondness for rigor, and an exhaustive exploration of the possibilities of patterns generated by 4-fold symmetry and  √2 relationships. This latter aspect reached its full flowering through the medium of zellij: panels comprised of numerous small, hand-cut polygonal tiles, organized in symmetrical patterns of endless variety and beauty. Zellij panels based on 5-fold, 6-fold, and other symmetries are also common, but the 4-fold system dominates.  Here are four representative photos of 4-fold zellij panels, two simple and two complex, taken from David Wade’s indispensable archive:























Over the next many posts, I will explore the following question: What novel patterns might be generated by taking the techniques, protocols and strategies that the traditional Maghrebi designers developed to elaborate the four-fold realm, and applying them to the five-fold realm? For it is a puzzling fact that the range of expression of five-fold pattern in the Maghreb seems radically impoverished when compared to the profligacy of its four-fold cousin. The question itself may seem confusingly abstract, but have no fear: in future posts I will go into great detail to make clear exactly what I mean. For now, I will leave you with three examples of patterns I have created in the pursuit of this idea. These, together with the pattern that forms this blog’s banner, expand the five-fold family in ways that to my knowledge have never before been realized, yet were created using ideas that have been on public display for centuries.


Fig. 2