A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 10

Such an arrangement would appear superfluous in the case of those towers in the shape of stepped pyramids, whose summits could be carried above the plain to any fanciful height by the simple process of adding story to story. But the Mesopotamian constructor went upon the same system as in the case of his palaces. It was well in any case to interpose a dense, firm, and dry mass between the wet and often shifting soil and the building, and to afford a base which by its size and solidity should protect the great accumulation of material that was to be placed upon it from injury through any settling in the foundations. Moreover, the paved esplanade had its place in the general economy. It formed a spacious court about the temple, a sacred _temenos_ as the Greeks would have called it, a _haram_ as a modern Oriental would say. It could be peopled with statues and decorated with mystic emblems; religious processions could be marshalled within its bounds.

[Illustration: FIG. 35.--Tell-Ede, in Lower Chaldaea. From Rawlinson's _Five Great Monarchies_.]

The general, we may almost say the invariable, rule in Mesopotamia was that every structure of a certain importance should be thus borne on an artificial hill. An examination of the ruins themselves and of the monuments figured upon the bas-reliefs shows us that these substructures did not always have the same form. Their faces were sometimes vertical, sometimes inclined; sometimes again they presented a gentle outward curve (see Fig. 34); but these purely external differences did not affect the principle. In all the river basins of Mesopotamia, whether of the Euphrates, the Tigris, or the smallest affluents of the Persian Gulf, whenever you see one of these _tells_, or isolated mounds, standing above the general surface of the plain, you may be sure that if you drive a trench into it you will come upon those courses of crude brick that proclaim its artificial origin. Rounded by natural disintegration and scarred by the rain torrents, such a hillock is apt to deceive the thoughtless or ignorant traveller, but an instructed explorer knows at a glance that many centuries ago it bore on its summit a temple, a fortress, or some royal or lordly habitation (Fig. 35).

The distinguishing feature of the staged towers is their striving after the greatest possible elevation. It is true that neither from Herodotus nor Diodorus do we get any definite statements as to the height of the most famous of these monuments, the temple of Belus at Babylon;[149] Strabo alone talks of a stade (616 feet), and it may be asked on what authority he gives that measurement, which has been freely treated as an exaggeration.

In any case we may test it to a certain extent by examining the largest and best preserved of the artificial hills of which we have spoken,[150] and we must remember that all the writers of antiquity are unanimous in asserting its prodigious height.[151] We run small risk of exaggeration, therefore, in saying that some of these Chaldaean temples were much taller than the highest of the Gizeh Pyramids. Their general physiognomy was the reverse of that of the Mesopotamian palaces, but it was no less the result of the natural configuration of the country. Their architect sought to find his effect in contrast; he endeavoured to impress the spectator by the strong, not to say violent, opposition between their soaring lines and the infinite horizon of the plain. Such towers erected in a hilly country like Greece would have looked much smaller. There, they would have had for close neighbours sometimes high mountains and always boldly contoured hills and rocks; however far up into the skies their summits might be carried, they would still be dominated on one side or the other. Involuntarily the eye demands from nature the same scale of proportions as are suggested by the works of man. Where these are chiefly remarkable for their height, much of their effect will be destroyed by the proximity of such hills as Acrocorinthus or Lycabettus, to say nothing of Taygetus or Parnassus.

It is quite otherwise when the surface of the country stretches away on every side with the continuity and flatness of a lake. In these days none of the great buildings to which we have been alluding have preserved more than a half of their original height;[152] all that remains is a formless mass encumbered with heaps of _debris_ at its foot, and yet, as every traveller in the country has remarked, these ruined monuments have an extraordinary effect upon the general appearance of the country. They give an impression of far greater height than they really possess (Fig. 36). At certain hours of the day, we are told, this illusion is very strong: in the early morning when the base of the mound is lost in circling vapours and its summit alone stands up into the clear sky above and receives the first rays of the sun; and in the evening, when the whole mass rises in solid shadow against the red and gold of the western sky. At these times it is easy to comprehend the ideas by which the Chaldaean architect was animated when he created the type of these many-storied towers and scattered them with such profusion over the whole face of the country. The chief want of his land was the picturesque variety given by accidents of the ground to its nearest neighbours, a want he endeavoured to conceal by substituting these pyramidal temples, these lofty pagodas, as we are tempted to call them, for the gentle slopes and craggy peaks that are so plentiful beyond the borders of Chaldaea. By their conspicuous elevation, and the enormous expenditure of labour they implied, they were meant to break the uniformity of the great plains that lay about them; at the same time, they would astonish contemporary travellers and even that remote posterity for whom no more than a shapeless heap of ruins would be left. They would do more than all the writings of all the historians to celebrate the power and genius of the race that dared thus to correct and complete the work of nature.

[Illustration: FIG. 36.--Haman, in Lower Chaldaea. From Loftus.]

When the king and his architect had finished one of these structures, they might calculate upon an infinite duration for it without any great presumption, and that partly because Chaldaean art, even when most ambitious and enterprising, never made use of any but the simplest means. The arch was in more frequent use than in Egypt, but it hardly seems to have been employed in buildings to which any great height was to be given. Scarcely a trace of it is to be discovered either in the parts preserved of these structures or in their sculptured representations. None of those light and graceful methods of construction that charm and excite the eye, but must be paid for by a certain loss of stability, are to be found here. Straight lines are the inflexible rule. The few arches that may be discovered in the interior exercise no thrust, surrounded as they are on every side by weighty masses. In theory the equilibrium is perfect; and if, as the event has proved, the conditions of stability, or at least of duration, were less favourable than in the pyramids at Memphis or in the temples at Thebes, the fault lies with the inherent vices of the material used and with the comparatively unfavourable climate.

In the absence of stone the Chaldaean builder was shut off from many of the most convenient methods of covering, and therefore of multiplying, voids.

Speaking generally, we may say that he employed neither _piers_, nor _columns_, nor those beams of limestone, sandstone, or granite, which we know as _architraves_; he was, therefore, ignorant of the _portico_, and never found himself driven by artistic necessities to those ingenious, delicate, and learned efforts of invention by which the Egyptians and Greeks arrived at what we call _orders_. This term is well understood. By it we mean supports of which the principal parts, base, shaft, and capital, have certain constant and closely defined mutual relations. Like a zoological species, each order has a distinctive character and personal physiognomy of its own. An art that is deprived of such a resource is condemned to a real inferiority. It may cover every surface with the luxury of a sumptuous decoration, but, in spite of all its efforts, a secret poverty, a want of genius and invention, will be visible in its creations.

The varied arrangements of the portico suggested the _hypostyle hall_, with all the picturesque developments it has undergone at the hands of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the people of modern Europe. In their ignorance of the pier and column, the Chaldaeans were unable to give their buildings those spacious galleries and chambers which delight the eye while they diminish the actual mass of a building. Their towers were artificial mountains, almost as solid and massive from base to summit as the natural hills from which their lines were taken.[153] A few small apartments were contrived within them, near their outer edges, that might fairly be compared to caves hollowed in the face of a cliff. The weight upon the lower stories and the substructure was therefore enormous, even to the point of threatening destruction by sheer pulverisation. The whole interior was composed of crude brick, and if, as is generally supposed, those bricks were put in place before the process of desiccation was complete, the shrinkage resulting from its continuance must have had a bad effect upon the structure as a whole, especially as the position of the courses and the more or less favourable aspects of the different external faces must have caused a certain inequality in the rate at which that operation went on. The resistance would not be the same at all points, and settlements would occur by which the equilibrium of the upper stages might be compromised and the destruction of the whole building prepared.

Another danger lay in the violence of the sudden storms and the diluvial character of the winter rains. Doubtless the outsides of the walls were faced with well burnt bricks, carefully set, and often coated with an impenetrable enamel; but an inclined plane of a more or less gentle gradient wound from base to summit to give access to the latter. When a storm burst upon one of these towers, this plane became in a moment the bed of a torrent, for its outer edge would, of course, be protected by a low wall. The water would pour like a river over the sloping pavement and strike violently against each angle. Whether it were allowed to flow over the edges of the inclined plane or, as seems more probable, directed in its course so as to sweep it from top to bottom, it must in either case have caused damage requiring continual watchfulness and frequent repairs. If this watchfulness were remitted for an instant, some of the external burnt and enamelled bricks might become detached and leave a gap through which the water could penetrate to the soft core within, and set up a process of disintegration which would become more actively mischievous with every year that passed. The present appearance of these ruins is thus, to a great extent, to be explained. Travellers in the country agree in describing them as irregular mounds, deeply seamed by the rains; and the sides against which the storms and waterspouts that devastate Mesopotamia would chiefly spend their force are those on which the damage is most conspicuous (see Fig. 37).

Even in antique times these buildings had suffered greatly. In Egypt, when the supreme power had passed, after one of those periods of decay that were by no means infrequent in her long career, into the hands of an energetic race of princes like those of the eighteenth or twenty-sixth dynasties, all traces of damage done to the public monuments by neglect or violence were rapidly effaced. The pyramids could take care of themselves. They had seen the plains at their feet covered again and again with hordes of barbarians, and yet had lost not an inch of their height or a stone of their polished cuirass. Even in the temples the setting up of a few fallen columns, the reworking of a few bas-reliefs, the restoration of a painting here and there, was all that was necessary to bring back their former splendour.

[Illustration: FIG. 37.--Babil, at Babylon. From Oppert.]

In Chaldaea the work undertaken by Nabopolassar and his dynasty was far more arduous. He had to rebuild nearly all the civil and religious buildings from their foundations, to undertake, as we know from more than one text, a general reconstruction.[154] A new Babylon was reared from the ground.

Little of her former monuments remained but their foundations and materials. Temples richer than the first rose upon the lofty mounds, and, for the sake of speed, were often built of the old bricks, upon which appeared the names of forgotten kings. Nothing was neglected, no expense was spared by which the solidity of the new buildings could be increased, and yet, five or six centuries afterwards, nothing was left but ruins.

Herodotus seems to have seen the great temple of Bel while it was still practically intact, but Diodorus speaks of it as an edifice "which time had caused to fall,"[155] and he adds that "writers are not in accord in what they say about this temple, so that it is impossible for us to make sure what its real dimensions were." It would seem, therefore, that the upper stories had fallen long before the age of Augustus. Even Ctesias, perhaps, who is Diodorus's constant guide in all that he writes on the subject of Chaldaea and Assyria, never saw the monument in its integrity. In any case, the building was a complete ruin in the time of Strabo. "The tomb of Belus," says that accurate and well-informed geographer, "is now destroyed."[156] Strabo, like Diodorus, attributes the destruction of these buildings partly to time, partly to the avenging violence of the Persians, who, irritated by the never-ending revolts of Babylon, ruined the proudest and most famous of her temples as a punishment. That the sanctuary was pillaged by the Persians under Xerxes, as Strabo affirms, is probable enough, but we have some difficulty in believing that they troubled themselves to destroy the building itself.[157] The effort would have been too great, and, in view of the slow but sure action of the elements upon its substance, it would have been labour thrown away. The destruction of an Egyptian monument required a desperate and long continued attack, it had to be deliberately murdered, if we may use such a phrase, but the buildings of Mesopotamia, with their thin cuirasses of burnt brick and their soft bodies, required the care of an architect to keep them standing, we might say of a doctor to keep them alive, to watch over them day by day, and to stop every wound through which the weather could reach their vulnerable parts. Abandoned to themselves they would soon have died, and died natural deaths.

Materials and a system of construction such as those we have described could only result, in a close style of architecture, in a style in which the voids bore but a very small proportion to the solids. And such a style was well suited to the climate. In the long and burning summers of Mesopotamia the inhabitants freely exchanged light for coolness. With few and narrow openings and thick walls the temperature of their dwellings could be kept far lower than that of the torrid atmosphere without.[158]

Thus we find in the Ninevite palaces outer walls of from fifteen to five-and-twenty feet in thickness. It would have been very difficult to contrive windows through such masses as that, and they would when made have given but a feeble light. The difficulty was frankly met by discarding the use of any openings but the doors and skylights cut in the roofs. The window proper was almost unknown. We can hardly point to an instance of its use, either among Assyrian or Chaldaean remains, or in the representations of them in the bas-reliefs. Here and there we find openings in the upper stories of towers, but they are loop-holes rather than windows (Fig.


[Illustration: FIG. 38.--A Fortress. From Layard.]

At first we are inclined to pity kings shut up within such blind walls as these. But we must not be betrayed into believing that they took no measures to enjoy the evening breeze, or to cast their eyes over the broad plains at their feet, over the cities that lay under the shadows of the lofty mounds upon which their palaces were built. At certain times of the year and day they would retire within the shelter of their thickest walls and roofs; just as at the present moment the inhabitants of Mossoul, Bassorah, and Bagdad, take refuge within their _serdabs_ as soon as the sun is a little high in the heavens, and stay there until the approach of evening.[160]

When the heat was less suffocating the courtyards would be pleasant, with their encircling porticoes sustaining a light covering inclined towards the centre, an arrangement required by the climate, and one which is to be found both at Pompeii and in the Arab houses of Damascus, and is sure to have been adopted by the inhabitants of ancient Chaldaea. Additional space was given by the wide esplanades in front of the doors, and by the flat roofs, upon which sleep was often more successfully wooed than in the rooms below. And sometimes the pleasures given by refreshing breezes, cool shadows, and a distant prospect could be all enjoyed together, for in a certain bas-relief that seems to represent one of those great buildings of which we possess the ruins, we see an open arcade--a _loggia_ as it would be called in Italy--rise above the roof for the whole length of the facade (Fig. 39).[161] There are houses in the neighbourhood of Mossoul in which a similar arrangement is to be met with, as we may see from Mr. Layard's sketch of a house in a village of Kurdistan inhabited by Nestorians (Fig.

40). It includes a modified kind of portico, the pillars of which are suggested or rather demanded by the necessity for supporting the ceiling.

[Illustration: FIG. 39.--View of a Town and its Palaces. Kouyundjik. From Layard.]

Supposing such an arrangement to have obtained in Mesopotamia, of what material were the piers or columns composed? Had they been of stone their remains would surely have been found among the ruins; but no such things have ever come to light, so we may conclude that they were of timber or brick; the roof, at least, must have been wood. The joints may have been covered with protecting plates of metal by which their duration was assured. We have a curious example of the use of these bronze sheaths in the remains of gilded palm-trees found by M. Place in front of the _harem_ at Khorsabad. He there encountered a cedar trunk lying upon the ground and incased in a brass coat on which all the roughnesses of cedar bark were imitated. The leaves of doors were also protected by metallic bands, which were often decorated with bas-reliefs.

[Illustration: FIG. 40.--House in Kurdistan; from Layard.]

Must we conclude that stone columns were unknown in Chaldaea and Assyria? As for Chaldaea, we have no positive information in the matter, but we know that she had no building stone of her own. The Chaldaean sculptor might indeed import a few blocks of diorite or basalt, either from Arabia, Egypt, or the valleys of Mount Zagros, for use in statues which would justify such expense; but the architect must have been restricted to the use of material close at hand. In Assyria limestone was always within reach, and yet the Assyrians never succeeded in freeing themselves from traditional methods sufficiently to make the column play a part similar to that assigned to it by the peoples of Egypt and Greece. Their habits, and especially the habit of respect for the practices and traditions of Chaldaea, were too strong for them. Their use of the column, though often tasteful and happy, is never without a certain timidity. One is inclined to think they had an inkling of the possibilities latent in it, but that they lacked the courage necessary to give it full play in the interiors and upon the facades of their large palaces and towers. In the bas-reliefs we find columns used in the kiosques built upon the river banks (Fig. 41), and in the pavilions or chapels studded over the royal gardens (Fig. 42). The excavations, moreover, have yielded pedestals and capitals which, rare as they are, have a double claim to our regard. The situations in which they have been discovered seem to show that columns were sometimes used in front of doorways, to support porches or covered ways extending to the full limits of the esplanade; secondly, their forms themselves are interesting. Close study will convince us that, when copied by neighbouring peoples who made frequent and general use of stone supports, they might well have exercised an influence that was felt as far as the aegaean, and had something to do with one of the fairest creations of Greek art.

We thus catch side glimpses of the column, as it were, in small buildings, in the porches before the principal doors of palaces, and in the open galleries with which some of the latter buildings were crowned (Fig. 39).

In all these cases it is nothing but a more or less elegant accessory; we might if we pleased give a sufficiently full description of Mesopotamian architecture without hinting at its existence.

[Illustration: FIG. 41.--Temple on the bank of a river, Khorsabad; from Botta.]

We cannot say the same of the arch, which played a much more important _role_ than it did in Egypt. There it was banished, as we have seen, to the secondary parts of an edifice. It hardly entered into the composition of the nobler class of buildings; it was used mainly in store-rooms built near the temples, in the gateways through the outer walls of tombs, and in underground cellars and passages.[162] In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, the arch is one of the real constituent elements of the national architecture.

[Illustration: FIG. 42.--Temple in a Royal Park, Kouyundjik; from the British Museum.]

That the Chaldaean architects were early led to the invention of the arch is easily understood. They were unable to support the upper parts of their walls, their ceilings or their roofs, upon beams of stone or timber, and they had to devise some other means of arriving at the desired result. This means was not matured all at once. With most peoples the first stage consisted probably in those corbels or off-sets by which the width of the space to be covered was reduced course by course, till a junction was effected at the top; and sometimes this early stage may have been dispensed with. In some cases, the workman who had to cover a narrow void with small units of construction may, in trying them in various positions and combinations, have hit upon the real principle of the arch. This principle must everywhere have been discovered more or less accidentally; in one place the accident may have come sooner than in another, and here it may have been turned to more profit than there. We shall have to describe and explain these differences at each stage of our journey through the art history of antiquity, but we may at once state the general law that our studies and comparisons will bring to light. The arch was soonest discovered and most invariably employed by those builders who found themselves condemned, by the geological formation of their country, to the employment of the smallest units.

The Chaldaeans were among those builders, and they made frequent use of the arch. They built no long arcades with piers or columns for supports, like those of the Romans, and that simply because such structures would have been contrary to the general principles of their architecture. They made no use, as we have already explained, of those isolated supports whose employment resulted in the hypostyle halls of Egypt and Persia, in the naves of Greek temples and Latin basilicas. The want of stone put any such arrangement out of the question. We have, then, no reason to believe that their arches ever rested upon piers or upon the solid parts of walls freely pierced for the admission of light. The type from which the modern east has evolved so many fine mosques and churches was unknown in Chaldaea. In every building of which we possess either the remains or the figured representation the archivolts rest upon thick and solid walls.

Under these conditions the vault was supreme in certain parts of the building. Its use was there so constant as to have almost the character of an unvarying law. Every palace was pierced in its substructure by drains that carried the rain water and the general waste from the large population by which it was inhabited down into the neighbouring river, and nearly all these drains were vaulted. And it must not be supposed that the architect deliberately hid his vaults and arches, or that he only used them in those parts of his buildings where they were concealed and lost in their surroundings; they occur, also, upon the most careful and elaborate facades. The gates of cities, of palaces and temples, of most buildings, in fact, that have any monumental character, are crowned by an arch, the curve of which is accentuated by a brilliantly coloured soffit. This arch is continued as a barrel vault for the whole length of the passage leading into the interior, and these passages are sometimes very long. Vaults would also, in all probability, have been found over those narrow chambers that are so numerous in Assyrian palaces were it not for the universal ruin that has overtaken their superstructures. Finally, certain square rooms have been discovered which must have been covered with vaults in the shape of more or less flattened domes.

[Illustration: FIG. 43.--View of a group of buildings; Kouyundjik; from Layard.]

We must here call attention to the importance of a bas-relief belonging to the curious series of carved pictures in which Sennacherib caused the erection of his palace at Nineveh to be commemorated. Look well at this group of buildings, which seems to rise upon a platform at the foot of a hill shaded with cypresses and fruit-laden vines (see Fig. 43). The buildings on the right have flat roofs, those on the left, and they seem the most important, have, some hemispherical cupolas, and some tall domes approaching cones in shape. These same forms are still in use over all that country, not only for public buildings like baths and mosques, but even here and there for the humblest domestic structures. Travellers have been often surprised at encountering, in many of the villages of Upper Syria and Mesopotamia, peasants' houses with sugar-loaf roofs like these.[163]

We need not here go further into details upon this point. In these general and introductory remarks we have endeavoured to point out as concisely as possible how the salient characteristics of Assyrian architecture are to be explained by the configuration of the country, by the nature of the materials at hand, and by the climate with which the architect had to reckon. It was to these conditions that the originality of the system was due; that the solids were so greatly in excess over the voids, and the lateral over the vertical measurements of a building. In this latter respect the buildings of Mesopotamia leave those of all other countries, even of Egypt, far behind. They were carried, too, to an extraordinary height without any effort to give the upper part greater lightness than the substructure; both were equally solid and massive. Finally, the nature of the elements of which Mesopotamian architects could dispose was such that the desire for elegance and beauty had to be satisfied by a superficial system of decoration, by paint and carved slabs laid on to the surface of the walls. Beauty unadorned was beyond their reach, and their works may be compared to women whose attractions lie in the richness of their dress and the multitude of their jewels.


[147] OPPERT (_Expedition scientifique_, vol. i. p. 86) gives a description of one of these storms that he encountered in the neighbourhood of Bagdad on the 26th of May.

[148] LAYARD, _Nineveh and its Remains_, vol. ii. p. 119. When one of these mounds is attacked from the top, the excavators must work downwards until they come to this paved platform. As soon as it is reached no greater depth need be attempted; all attention is then given to driving lateral trenches in every direction. In Assyria the mass of crude bricks sometimes rests upon a core of rock which has been utilized to save time and labour (LAYARD, _Discoveries_, &c., p. 219).

[149] See HERODOTUS, i. 181-184; and DIODORUS, ii. 9.

[150] By such means M. OPPERT arrives at a height of 250 Babylonian feet, or about 262 feet English for the monument now represented by the mound in the neighbourhood of Babylon known as Birs-Nimroud. _Expedition scientifique de Mesopotamie_, vol. i. pp. 205-209, and plate 8.

[151] Homologeitai d' hupselon gegenesthai kath' huperbolen.--DIODORUS, ii.

9, 4.

[152] The mound called Babil on the site of Babylon (Plate I. and Fig. 37) is now about 135 feet high, but the Birs-Nimroud, the highest of these ruins, has still an elevation of not less than 220 feet (LAYARD, _Discoveries_, p. 495).

[153] See LAYARD'S account of his excavation in the interior of the pyramidal ruin occupying a part of the platform which now surmounts the mound of Nimroud. From two sides trenches were cut to the centre; neither of them encountered a void of any kind (_Nineveh and its Remains_, vol. ii.

p. 107). At a later period further trenches were cut and the rest of the building explored (_Discoveries_, pp. 123-129). The only void of which any trace could be found was a narrow, vaulted gallery, about 100 feet long, 6 wide, and 12 high. It was closed at both ends, and appeared never to have had any means of access from without.

[154] See LENORMANT, _Histoire Ancienne_, vol. ii. pp. 228 and 233.

Translations of several texts in which these restorations are spoken of are here given.

[155] tou kataskeuasmatos dia tou chronou diapeptokotos (ii. 9, 4).

[156] STRABO, xvi. 5.

[157] DIODORUS, after describing the treasures of the temple, confines himself to saying generally, "all this was afterwards spoiled by the king of Persia" (ii. 9, 19).

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