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A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 12

Long and narrow rooms may have been roofed with beams of palm or poplar resting upon the summits of the walls. As for the large halls, in the centre they would be open to the sky, while around the opening would run a portico, similar to that of a Roman atrium, whose sloping roof would protect the reliefs with which the walls were ornamented.[193]

[Illustration: FIG. 50.--Present state of one of the city gates, Khorsabad.

Perspective compiled from Place's plans and elevations.]

As to this, however, doubt had already been expressed by an attentive and judicial observer like Loftus; who thought that the arch had played a very important part in the architecture of Mesopotamia.[194] As he very justly remarked, the conditions were rather different from those that obtained in the maritime and mountainous provinces of Persia; there was no breeze from the gulf or from the summits of snowy mountains, to which every facility for blowing through their houses and cooling their heated chambers had to be given; the problem to be solved was how best to oppose an impenetrable shield against a daily and long continued heat that would otherwise have been unbearable. Now it is clear that a vault with its great powers of resistance would have been far better fitted to support a roof whose thickness should be in some reasonable proportion to the massive walls, than a ceiling of bad timber. In our day the mosques, the baths, and many of the private houses of Mossoul and Bagdad have dome-shaped roofs. Without going as far as Mesopotamia, the traveller in Syria may see how intelligently, even in the least important towns, the native builder has employed a small dome built upon a square, to obtain a strong and solid dwelling entirely suited to the climate, a dwelling that should be warm in winter and cool in summer.

We must also point out that the state in which the interiors of rooms are found by explorers, is more consistent with the hypothesis of a domed roof than with any other. They are covered to a depth of from fifteen to twenty feet with heaps of _debris_, reaching up to the top of the walls, so far as the latter remain standing.[195] This rubbish consists of brick-earth mixed with broken bricks, and pieces of stucco. Granting wooden roofs, how is such an accumulation to be accounted for? Roofs supported by beams laid across from one wall to the other, could never have safely upheld any great weight. They must have been thin and comparatively useless as a defence against the sun of Mesopotamia. On the other hand if we assume that vaults of pise were the chosen coverings, all the rest follows easily. They could support the flat roof with ease, and the whole upper structure could be made of sufficient thickness to exclude both the heat and the rain, while the present appearance of the ruins is naturally accounted for.

Those who have lived in the East, those, even, who have extended a visit to Athens as far as Eleusis or Megara, must have stretched themselves, more than once, under the stars, and, on the flat roofs of their temporary resting-places, sought that rest that was not to be found in the hot and narrow chambers within. They must then have noticed, as I have more than once, a large stone cylinder in one corner. In Greece and Asia Minor, it will be in most cases a "drum" from some antique column, or a funerary _cippus_, abstracted by the peasantry from some neighbouring ruin. This morsel of Paros or Pentelic has to perform the office of a roller. When some heavy fall of rain by wetting and softening the upper surface of the terrace, gives an opportunity for repairing the ravages of a long drought, the stone is taken backwards and forwards over the yielding pise. It closes the cracks, kills the weeds that if left to themselves would soon transform the roof into a field, and makes the surface as firm as a threshing-floor.

The roofs of Assyrian buildings must have required the same kind of treatment, and we know that in the present day it is actually practised. M.

Place mentions rollers of limestone, weighing from two to three hundredweight, pierced at each end with a square hole into which wooden spindles were inserted to facilitate their management.[196] A certain number of these rollers were found within the chambers, into which they must have fallen with the roofs. As soon as the terraces ceased to receive the care necessary for keeping down the weeds and shrubs and keeping out the water, the process of disintegration must have been rapid. The rains would soon convert cracks into gaping breaches, and at the end of a few years, every storm would bring down a part of the roof. A century would be enough to destroy the vaults, and with them the upper parts of the walls to which they were closely allied by the skill of the constructor. The disappearance of the archivolts and the great heaps of _debris_ are thus accounted for. The roof materials were too soft, however, to damage in their fall the figures in high relief or in the round that decorated the chambers beneath, or the carved slabs with which their walls were lined. In spreading itself about these sculptures and burying them out of sight and memory, the soft clay served posterity more efficiently than the most careful of packers.

Among the first observers to suspect the truth as to the use of the vault in Mesopotamia, were Eugene Flandin, who helped Botta to excavate the palace of Sargon,[197] and Felix Thomas,[198] the colleague of M. Place.

The reasons by which M. Thomas was led to the conclusion that the rooms in the Ninevite palaces were vaulted, are thus given by M. Place, who may be considered his mouthpiece.[199]

He does not deny that some of the Khorsabad reliefs bear the marks of fire, but he affirms, and that after the experience of four digging campaigns, that the conflagration was much less general than might be supposed from the statements of some travellers. He failed to discover the slightest trace of fire in the hundred and eighty-four rooms and twenty-eight courts that he excavated. The marvellous preservation of the reliefs in many of the halls is inconsistent, in his opinion, with the supposition that the palace was destroyed by fire; and if we renounce that supposition the mere action of time is insufficient to account for the disappearance of such an extent of timber roofing, for here and there, especially near the doorways, pieces of broken beams and door panels have been found. "The wood is not all in such condition as the incorruptible cedar of the gilded palm-trees, but wherever it certainly existed, traces of it may be pointed out. In advanced decomposition it is no more consistent than powder, it may be picked up and thrown aside, leaving a faithful cast of the beam or post to which it belonged in the more tenacious clay."

[Illustration: FIG. 51.--Fortress; from the Balawat gates, in the British Museum.]

All this, however, was but negative evidence. The real solution of the problem was first positively suggested by the discovery of vaults in place, in the drains and water channels, and in the city gates. The bas-reliefs in which towns or fortresses are represented also support the belief that great use was made of arched openings in Assyria, and the countries in its neighbourhood (see Fig. 51). As soon as it is proved that the Assyrians understood the principle of the arch, why should it any longer be denied that they made use of it to cover their chambers? It is obvious that a vault would afford a much better support for the weight above than any timber roof.

In the course of the explorations, a probable conjecture was changed into complete certainty. The very vaults for which inductive reasoning had shown the necessity were found, if not in place, at least in a fragmentary condition, and in the very rooms to which they had afforded a cover--and here we must quote the words of the explorers themselves.

In the most deeply buried quarters of the building, the excavations were carried on by means of horizontal tunnels or shafts. "I was often obliged,"

says M. Place, "to drive trenches from one side of the rooms to another in order to get a clear idea of their shape and arrangement. On these occasions we often met with certain hard facts, for which, at the time, we could give no explanation. These facts were blocks of clay whose under sides were hollowed segmentally and covered with a coat of stucco. These fragments were found sometimes a few feet from the walls, sometimes near the middle of the rooms. At first I was thoroughly perplexed to account for them. Our trenches followed scrupulously the inner surfaces of the walls, which were easily recognizable by their stucco when they had no lining of carved slabs. What then were we to make of these arched blocks, also coated with stucco, but found in the centre of the rooms and far away from the walls? Such signs were not to be disregarded in an exploration where everything was new and might lead to unforeseen results. Wherever a trace of stucco appeared I followed it up carefully. Little by little the earth under and about the stuccoed blocks was cleared away, and then we found ourselves confronted by what looked like the entrance to an arched cellar.

Here and there these portions of vaulting were many feet in length, from four to six in span, and three or four from the crown of the arch to the level upon which it rested. At the first glance the appearance of a vault was complete, and I thought I was about to penetrate into a cellar where some interesting find might await me. But on farther examination this pleasant delusion was dispelled. The pretended cellar came to an abrupt end, and declared itself to be no more than a section of vaulting that had quitted its proper place.... The evidence thus obtained was rendered still more conclusive by the discovery on the under side of several fragments of paintings which had evidently been intended for the decoration of a ceiling."[200]

It is clear that these curvilinear and frescoed blocks were fragments of a tunnel vault that had fallen in; and their existence explains the great thickness given by the Assyrian constructor not only to his outer walls, but to those that divided room from room. The thinnest of the latter are hardly less than ten feet, while here and there they are as much as fifteen or sixteen. As for the outer walls they sometimes reach a thickness of from five and twenty to thirty feet.[201] The climate is insufficient to account for the existence of such walls as these. In the case of the outer walls such a reason might be thought, by stretching a point, to justify their extravagant measurements, but with the simple partitions of the interior, it is quite another thing. This apparent anomaly disappears, however, if we admit the existence of vaults and the necessity for meeting the enormous thrust they set up. With such a material as clay, the requisite solidity, could only be given by increasing the mass until its thickness was sometimes greater than the diameter of the chambers it inclosed.

M. Place lays great stress upon the disproportion between the length and width of many of the apartments. There are few of which the greater diameter is not at least double the lesser, and in many cases it is four, five, and even seven times as great. He comes to the conclusion that these curious proportions were forced on the Assyrians by the nature of the materials at their disposal. Such an arrangement must have been destructive to architectural effect as well as inconvenient, but a clay vault could not have any great span, and its abutments must perforce have been kept within a reasonable distance of each other.

Taken by itself, this argument has, perhaps, hardly as much force as M.

Place is inclined to give it. Doubtless the predilection for an exaggerated parallelogram agrees very well with the theory that the vault was in constant use by Mesopotamian architects, but it might be quoted with equal reason by the supporters of the opposite hypothesis, that of the timber roof.

Our best reason for accepting all these pieces of evidence as corroborative of the view taken by MM. Flandin, Loftus, Place, and Thomas is, in the first place, the incontestable fact that the entrances to the town of Khorsabad were passages roofed with barrel vaults; secondly, the presence amid the debris of the fragmentary arches above described; thirdly, the depth of the mass of broken earth within the walls of each chamber; finally, the singular thickness of the walls, which is only to be satisfactorily explained by the supposition that the architect had to provide solid abutments for arches that had no little weight to carry.

It is difficult to say how the Assyrians set about building these arches of crude brick, but long practice enabled their architects to use that unsatisfactory material with a skill of which we had no suspicion before the exhumation of Nineveh. Thanks to its natural qualities and to the experienced knowledge with which it was prepared, their clay was tough and plastic to a degree that astonished the modern explorers on more than one occasion. The arched galleries cut during the excavations--sometimes segmental, sometimes pointed, and often of a considerable height and width--could never have stood in any other kind of earth without strong and numerous supports. And yet M. Place tells us that these very galleries, exactly in the condition in which the mattock left them, "provided lodging for the labourers engaged and their families, and ever since they have served as a refuge for the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages.

Workmen and peasants have taken shelter under vaults similar to those of the ancient Assyrians. Sometimes we cut through the accidental accumulations of centuries, where the clay, far from having been carefully put in place, had rather lost many of its original qualities. Even there, however, the roof of our galleries remained suspended without any signs of instability, as if to bear witness that the Assyrian architect knew what he was about when he trusted so much to the virtues of a fictile material."[202]

We may refer those who are specially interested in constructive methods to M. Place's account of the curious fashion in which the workmen of Mossoul will build a pointed vault without the help of any of those wooden centerings in use in Europe. In our day, certainly, the masons of Mossoul use stone and mortar, but their example none the less proves that similar results may once have been obtained in different materials.[203] A vault launched into mid-air without any centering, and bearing the workmen who were building it on its unfinished flanks, was a phenomenon calculated to astonish an architect. Taking everything into consideration the clay vaults of Khorsabad are no more surprising than these domes of modern Mossoul.[204]

We cannot say for certain that the Assyrian builders made use of domes in addition to the barrel vaults, but all the probabilities are in favour of such an hypothesis.

A dome is a peculiar kind of vault used for the covering of square, circular, or polygonal spaces. As for circular and polygonal rooms, none have been found in Assyria, but a few square ones have been disinterred. On the principal facade of Sargon's palace there are two of a fair size, some forty-eight feet each way. Thomas did not believe that a barrel vault was used in these apartments; the span would have been too great. He sought therefore for some method that would be at once well adapted to the special conditions and in harmony with the general system. This he found in the hemispherical dome.

All doubts on the subject were taken away, however, by the discovery of the bas-relief (Fig. 43) reproduced on page 145, in which we find a group of buildings roofed, some with spherical vaults, some with elliptical domes approaching a cone in outline. This proves that the Mesopotamian architects were acquainted with different kinds of domes, just as they were with varieties of the barrel vault.

It has been guessed that this bas-relief, which is unique in its way, merely represents the brick-kilns used in the construction of the palace of Sennacherib. To this objection there is more than one answer. The Assyrian sculptures we possess represent but a small part of the whole, and each fresh discovery introduces us to forms previously unknown. Moreover, had the sculptor wished to represent the kilns in which the bricks for the palace were burnt, he would have shown the flames coming out at the top. In reliefs of burning towns he never leaves out the flames, and in this case, where they would have served to mark the activity with which the building operations were pushed on, he would certainly not have omitted them. Again, is not the building on the left of the picture obviously a flat-roofed house? If that be so we must believe, before we accept the kiln theory, that the sculptor made a strange departure from the real proportions of the respective buildings. The doorways, too, in the relief are exactly like those of an ordinary house, while they bear no resemblance to the low and narrow openings which have been used at all times for kilns. Why then should we refuse to admit that there were vaults in Nineveh, when Strabo tells us expressly that "all the houses of Babylon were vaulted."[205]

Thomas invokes the immemorial custom of the East to support the evidence of this curious relief:--the great church of St. Sophia, the Byzantine churches and the Turkish mosques, all of which had no other roof but a cupola. In all of these he sees nothing but late examples of a characteristic method of construction which had been invented and perfected many centuries before at Babylon and Nineveh.

From the monuments with which those two great cities were adorned nothing but the foundations and parts of the walls have come down to our day; but the buildings of a later epoch, of the periods when Seleucia and Ctesiphon enjoyed the heritage of Babylon, have been more fortunate. In the ruins which are acknowledged to be those of the palaces built by the Parthian and Sassanid monarchs, the upper structures are still in existence, and in a more or less well preserved condition. In these the dome arrangement is universal. Sometimes, as at Firouz-Abad (Fig. 52), we find the segment of a sphere; elsewhere, as at Sarbistan (Fig. 53), the cupola is ovoid. Our section of the latter building will give an idea of the internal arrangements of these structures, and will show how the architect contrived to suspend a circular dome over a square apartment.[206]

These monuments of an epoch between remote antiquity and the Graeco-Roman period were built of brick, like the palaces of Nineveh.[207] The exigencies of the climate remained the same, the habits and requirements of the various royal families that succeeded each other in the country were not sensibly modified, while the Sargonids, the Arsacids and the Sassanids all ruled over one and the same population.

[Illustration: FIG. 52.--The Palace at Firouz-Abad; from Flandin and Coste.]

[Illustration: FIG. 53.--The palace at Sarbistan; from Flandin and Coste.]

The corporations of architects and workmen must have preserved the traditions of their craft from century to century, traditions which had their first rise in the natural capabilities of their materials and in the data of the problem they had to solve. The historian cannot, then, be accused of going beyond the limit of fair induction in arguing from these modern buildings to their remote predecessors. After the conquest of Alexander, the ornamental details, and, still more, the style of the sculptures, must have been affected to a certain extent, first by Greek art and afterwards by that of Rome; but the plans, the internal structure, and the general arrangement of the buildings must have remained the same.

[Illustration: FIG. 54.--Section through the palace at Sarbistan; from Flandin and Coste.]

There is nothing hazardous or misleading in these arguments from analogy; from the palace of Chosroes to that of Sargon is a legitimate step. Some day, perhaps, we may attempt to pursue the same path in the opposite direction; we may endeavour to show that the survival of these examples and traditions may very well have helped to direct architecture into a new path in the last years of the Roman Empire. We shall then have to speak of a school in Asia Minor whose works have not yet been studied with the attention they deserve. The buildings in question are distinguished chiefly by the important part played in their construction by the vault and the dome resting upon pendentives; certain constructive processes, too, are to be found in them which had never, so far as we can tell, been known or practised in the East. We can hardly believe that the chiefs of the school invented from the foundation a system of construction whose principles were so different from those of the Greeks, or even of the later Romans. They may, indeed, have perfected the system by grafting the column upon it, but it is at least probable that they took it in the first place from those who had practised it from time immemorial, from men who taught them the traditional methods of shortening and facilitating the labour of execution.

The boundaries of Asia Minor "march" with those of Mesopotamia, and in the latter every important town had buildings of brick covered with domes. The Romans frequented the Euphrates valley, to which they were taken both by war and commerce; their victories sometimes carried them even as far as Ctesiphon on the Tigris, so that there was no lack of opportunity for the study of Oriental architecture on the very spot where it was born. They could judge of and admire the beauty it certainly possessed when the great buildings of Mesopotamia were still clothed in all the richness of their decoration. The genius of the Greeks had come nigh to exhausting the forms and combinations of the classic style; it was tired of continuous labour in a narrow circle and sighed for fresh worlds to conquer. We can easily understand then, how it would welcome a system which seemed to afford the novelty it sought, which seemed to promise the elements of a new departure that might be developed in many, as yet unknown, directions. If we put ourselves at this point of view we shall see that Isidore and Anthemius, the architects of St. Sophia, were the disciples and perpetuators of the forgotten masters who raised so many millions of bricks into the air at the bidding of Sargon and Nebuchadnezzar.[208]

Whatever may be thought of this hypothesis, there seems to be little doubt that the Assyrians knew how to pass from the barrel vault to the hemispherical, and even to the elliptical, cupola. As soon as they had discovered the principle of the vault and found out easy and expeditious methods of setting it up, all the rest followed as a matter of course.

Their materials lent themselves as kindly to the construction of a dome as to that of a segmental vault, and promised equal stability in either case.

As to their method of passing from the square substructure to the dome we know nothing for certain, but we may guess that the system employed by the Sassanids (see Fig. 54) was a survival from it. It is unlikely that timber centerings were used to sustain the vaults during construction. Timber was rare and bad in Chaldaea and men would have to learn to do without it. M.

Choisy has shown--as we have already mentioned--that the Byzantine architects built cupolas of wide span without scaffolding of any kind, each circular course being maintained in place until it was complete by the mere adherence of the mortar.[209]

M. Place, too, gives an account of how he saw a few Kurd women build an oven in the shape of a Saracenic dome, with soft clay and without any internal support. Their structure, at the raising of which his lively curiosity led him to assist, was composed of a number of rings, decreasing in diameter as they neared the summit.[210] The domes of crude brick which surmounted many of the Kurd houses were put together in the same fashion, and they were often of considerable size. When asked by M. Place as to how they had learnt to manage brick so skilfully, the oven-builders replied that it was "the custom of the country," and there is no apparent reason why that custom should not date back to a remote antiquity. The Assyrians had recourse to similar means when they built the domes of their great palaces. They too, perhaps, left a day for drying to each circular course, and re-wetted its upper surface when the moment arrived for placing the next.[211]

[Illustration: FIG. 55.--Restoration of a hall in the harem at Khorsabad, compiled from Place.]

From the existence of domes--which he considers to be almost beyond question--M. Place deduces that of semi-domes, one of which he assigns to the principal chamber of the harem in the palace at Khorsabad (Fig. 55).

Feeling, perhaps, that this requires some justification, he finds it in a modern custom, which he thus describes:--"In the towns of this part of the East, the inner court of the harem is, as a rule, terminated at one of its extremities by a vault entirely open at one side, in the form of a huge niche. It is, in fact, the half of a dome sliced in two from top to bottom; the floor, which is elevated a few steps above the pavement of the court, is strewn with carpets and cushions so as to form an open and airy saloon, in which the women are to be found by their visitors at certain hours. This divan is protected from rain by the semi-dome, and from the sun by curtains or mats hung across the arched opening. This arrangement may very well be dictated by ancient tradition. It is well suited to the climate, a consideration which never fails to exercise a decisive influence over architecture."[212]

[Illustration: FIG. 56.--Royal Tent, Kouyundjik. British Museum.]

[Illustration: FIG. 57.--Tent, Kouyundjik. British Museum.]

And yet there would, perhaps, have been room for hesitation had no support to this induction been afforded by the figured monuments; for the inhabitants of the province of Mossoul have deserted the traditions of their ancestors in more than one particular. They have given up the use of crude brick, for instance, so far, at least as the walls of their houses are concerned. They have supplied its place with stone and plaster, hence their dwellings are less fresh and cool than those of their fathers. In such a question the present throws a light upon the past, but the two have distinctive features of their own, even when the physical characteristics of the country have remained the same. The best evidence in favour of the employment of such an arrangement in Assyria is that of the bas-relief. We there not infrequently encounter an object like those figured on this page.

Sometimes it is in the midst of what appears to be an entrenched camp, sometimes in a fortified city. Its general aspect, certain minor details, and sometimes an accompanying inscription, permit us to recognize in it the marquee or pavilion of the king.[213] Now the roofs of these structures evidently consist of two semi-domes, unequal in size and separated by an uncovered space. If such an arrangement was found convenient for a portable and temporary dwelling like a tent, why should it not have been applied to the permanent homes both of the king and his people?

Arches still standing in the city gates, fragments of vaults found within the chambers of Sargon's palace at Khorsabad, the evidence of the bas-reliefs and the existing methods of building in Mesopotamia--all concur in persuading us that the vault played an important part in the constructions of Assyria, and consequently in those of Chaldaea; but we should not go so far as to say that all the rooms in the palace at Khorsabad and elsewhere were covered with barrel vaults, domes, or semi-domes. Our chosen guides, have, we think, allowed themselves to be a little too absolute in this particular; it is quite possible that by the side of the vaulted chambers there were others with wooden roofs. This conclusion is suggested partly by Sir H. Layard's discovery of considerable quantities of wood ashes in the palaces he excavated, partly by the evidence of ancient texts that wood was often used throughout this region to support the roofs at least of private houses. We may quote, in the first place, some remarks in Strabo's account of Susiana, which the Greek geographer borrowed from one of his original authorities: "In order to prevent the houses from becoming too hot, their roofs are covered with two cubits of earth, the weight of which compels them to make their dwellings long and narrow, because although they had only short beams, they had to have large rooms, so as to avoid being suffocated." This same writer, in speaking of these roofs, describes a singular property of the palm-tree beams. The densest and most solid of them, he says, instead of yielding with age and sinking under the weight they have to support, take a gentle upward curve so as to become better fitted than at first for the support of the heavy roof.[214]

The necessity for the presence of a thick roof between the sun and the inside of the rooms is here very clearly affirmed. It will also be noticed that the general form of apartments in Susiana and Assyria did not escape the observer in question. As he saw very clearly, the great disproportion between their length and their width was to be explained as easily by the requirements of a wooden roof as by those of a clay vault.

In his attempt to describe Babylon, Strabo says[215]: "In the absence of timber, properly speaking, beams and columns of palm-wood were used in the buildings of Babylonia. These pillars were covered with twisted ropes of rushes, over which several coats of paint were laid. The doors were coated with asphalte. Both doors and houses were very high. We may add that the houses were vaulted, in consequence of the absence of wood.... There were, of course, no tile roofs in countries where it never rains,[216] such as Babylonia, Susiana and Sittacenia."

Strabo himself never visited Mesopotamia. This we know from the passage in his introduction, in which he tells us exactly how far his voyages extended, from north to south, and from east to west.[217] When he had to describe Asia from the Taurus to India, he could only do so with the help of passages borrowed from various authors, and in the course of his work it has sometimes happened that he has brought into juxtaposition pieces of information that contradict each other.[218] Something of the kind has happened in the lines we have quoted, in which he first speaks of pillars and timber roofs, and ends by declaring that all the Chaldaean houses were vaulted, although vaults and timber could not exist together. The truth is, in all probability, that one system of covering prevailed here and another there, and that the seeming contradiction in the text is due to hasty editing. We may conclude from it that travellers had reported the existence of both systems, and that each was to be explained by local conditions and the varying supply of materials.

The two systems still exist side by side over all Western Asia. From Syria to Kurdistan and the Persian Gulf the hemispherical cupola upon a square substructure continually occurs. The timber roof is hardly less frequent; when the apartment in which it is used is of any considerable size it is carried upon two or three rows of wooden columns. These columns rest upon cubes of stone, and a tablet of the same material is often interposed between them and the beams they support. A sort of rustic order is thus constituted of which the shaft alone is of wood. We reproduce a sketch by Sir H. Layard in which this arrangement is shown. It is taken from a house inhabited by Yezidis,[219] in the district of Upper Mesopotamia called _Sinjar_ (Fig. 58).

[Illustration: FIG. 58.--Interior of a Yezidi house; from Layard.]

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