It is thought that the origin of this decorative technique may derive from the Byzantine use of alternating courses of white ashlar stone and orange baked brick. The technique of ablaq seems to have originated in southern Syria where volcanic black basalt and white limestone naturally occur in equal quantities.
The first recorded use is in repairs to the north wall of the Great Mosque of Damascus which are dated to 1109. In 1266 Sultan Baybars built a palace known as Qasr Ablaq which was built out of bands of light and dark masonry. Although the building has not survived, it demonstrates that the term ablaq was used to describe masonry of this type. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries this became a characteristic feature of Mamluk architecture in Egypt, Syria and Palestine. At this stage red stone is also used so that some buildings are striped in three colours, red, black and white. Ablaq continued to be used in the Ottoman period and can be seen in buildings such as the Azzam palace in Damascus.
A difference between its use in the Mamluk and the Ottoman periods is that earlier on it was restricted to facades, doorways and windows whereas in the Ottoman period it is used for overall decoration, sometimes including the floors. The technique was also used in Spain and can be seen in the voussoirs of the arcades of the Great Mosque in Cordoba which are red and white.
The technique also seems to have been invented in Europe in the mid-twelfth century although it is not certain whether it was invented independently or copied from Syria. Important European examples are the thirteenth-century churches of Monza, Siena and Orvieto and a four-storey palace in Genoa.