A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 13

We are inclined to think that both systems were occasionally found in a single building. The tunnel vault and the joisted ceiling were equally well suited to the long galleries of Assyrian palaces. In one room, or suite of rooms, nothing but brick may have been used, while in others wood may have had the preference. Still more probably, one architect may have had a predilection for timber, while another may have preferred clay vaults. In either case the general arrangement, what we may call the spirit of the plan, would remain the same.

When wooden roofs were used were they upheld by wooden uprights or by columns of any other material? Botta was at first inclined to say yes to this question, but he did not attempt to conceal that excavation had discovered little to support such an hypothesis.[220] Such pillars, were they of stone, would leave traces among the ruins in the shape of broken columns; were they of burnt bricks (and there could be no question of the crude material), those bricks would be found on the spot they occupied and would easily be recognized by their shape, which, as we have already shown, would have been specially adapted to the work they had to do.[221] The points of junction with the pavement would also be visible. If we contend that they were of wood, like those of the house figured above, we must admit that, at least in the more carefully built houses, such precautions as even the peasants of the Yezidis do not neglect must have been taken, and the timber columns raised upon stone bases which would protect them from the sometimes damp floors. Neither these bases nor any marks of their existence have been found in any of the ruins; and we are therefore led to the conclusion that to search for hypostyle halls in the Assyrian palaces, would be to follow the imagination rather than the reason.

If we admit that architects made no use of columns to afford intermediate support to the heavy roofs, we may at first be inclined to believe that wooden ceilings were only used in very narrow apartments, for we can hardly give a length of more than from twenty-four to twenty-seven feet to beams that were called upon to support a thick covering of beaten earth as well as their own weight.[222] Perhaps, however, the skill of their carpenters was equal to increasing the span and rigidity of the beams used by a few simple contrivances. One of these is shown in our Fig. 60, a diagram composed by M. Chipiez to give an idea of the different methods of construction used by, or, at least, at the command of, the Assyrian builder.

All the rooms were surmounted by flat roofs, and our horizontal sections show how these roofs were accommodated to the domes or the timber ceilings by which they were supported. On the left of the engraving semicircular vaults are shown, on the right a timbered roof. The arrangement of the latter is taken from an Etruscan tomb at Corneto, where, however, it is carried out in stone.[223] A frame like this could be put together on the spot and offered the means of covering a wider space with the same materials than could be roofed in by a horizontal arrangement. Further back rises one of those domes over square substructures whose existence seems to us so probable. Behind this again opens one of the courts by which so much of the area of the palace was occupied. The composition is completed by a wall with parapet and flanking towers.

[Illustration: FIG. 59.--Fortress; from Layard's _Monuments_, 1st Series.]

After considering the method employed for roofing the palace apartments, we come naturally to investigate their system of illumination. In view of the extravagant thickness of their walls it is difficult to believe that they made use of such openings as we should call windows. The small loop-holes that appear in some of the bas-reliefs near the summits of towers and fortified walls were mere embrasures, for the purpose of admitting a little air and light to the narrow chambers within which the defenders could find shelter from the missiles of an enemy and could store their own arms and engines of war (see Fig. 59). The walls of Khorsabad even now are everywhere at least ten feet high, and in some parts they are as much as fifteen, twenty, and five-and-twenty feet, an elevation far in excess of a man's stature, and they show no trace of a window. Hence we may at least affirm that windows were not pierced under the same conditions as in modern architecture.[224]

[Illustration: FIG. 60.--Crude brick construction; compiled by Charles Chipiez.]

And yet the long saloons of the palace with their rich decoration had need of light, which they could only obtain through the doorways and the openings left in the roof. When this was of wood the matter was simple enough, as our diagram (Fig. 60) shows. Botta noticed, during his journey to his post, another arrangement, of which, he thinks, the Assyrians may very well have made use.

[Illustration: FIG. 61.--Armenian "Lantern;" from Botta.]

"The houses of the Armenian peasantry," he says, "are sunk into the ground, so that their walls stand up but little above the level of the soil. They are lighted by an opening that serves at once for window and chimney, and is placed, as a rule, in the centre of the roof. The timber frame of this opening is often ingeniously arranged (Fig. 61). Four thick beams, but very roughly squared, intersect each other in the middle of the house. Across their angles slighter joists are placed, and this operation is repeated till a small dome, open at the top, for the entrance of light and the escape of smoke, has been erected."[225]

[Illustration: FIGS. 62-65.--Terra-cotta cylinders in elevation, section and plan; from Place.]

In the case of vaults how are we to suppose that the rooms were lighted? We can hardly imagine that rectangular openings were left in the crown of the arch, such a contrivance would have admitted very little light, while it would have seriously compromised the safety of the structure. According to M. Place the desired result was obtained in more skilful fashion. In several rooms he found terra-cotta cylinders similar to those figured below. These objects, of which he gives a careful description, were about thirteen and a half inches in diameter and ten inches in height. We may refer our readers to the pages of M. Place for a detailed account of the observations by which he was led to conclude that these cylinders were not stored, as if in a warehouse, in the rooms where they were afterwards found, but that they formed an integral part of the roof and shared its ruin. We may say that the evidence he brings forward seems to fairly justify his hypothesis.

Penetrating the roof at various points these cylinders would afford a passage for the outer air to the heated chamber within, while a certain quantity of light would be admitted at the same time. The danger arising from the rains could be avoided to a great extent by giving them a slightly oblique direction. To this very day the Turkish bath-houses over the whole of the Levant from Belgrade to Teheran, are almost universally lighted by these small circular openings, which are pierced in great numbers through the low domes, and closed with immovable glasses. Besides which we can point to similar arrangements in houses placed both by their date and character, far nearer to those of Assyria. The Sassanide monuments bear witness that many centuries after the destruction of Nineveh the custom of placing cylinders of terra-cotta in vaults was still practised. In spite of its small scale these circles may be distinguished in the woodcut of the Sarbistan palace which we have borrowed from Coste and Flandin (Fig.


These same writers have ascertained that the architects of Chosroes and Noushirwan employed still another method of lighting the rooms over which they built their domes. They gave the latter what is called an "eye," about three feet in diameter, through which the daylight could fall vertically into the room beneath. This is the principle upon which the Pantheon of Agrippa is lighted; the only difference being one of proportion. In Persia, the diameter of the eye was always very small compared to that of the dome. If we are justified in our belief that the constructors of the Parthian and Sassanide palaces were no more than the perpetuators of systems invented by the architects of Nineveh and Babylon, the Assyrian domes also may very well have been opened at the summit in this fashion. In the bas-relief reproduced in our Fig. 42, the two small cupolas are surmounted with caps around a circular opening which must have admitted the light. Moreover, the elaborate system of drainage with which the substructure of an Assyrian palace was honeycombed would allow any rain water to run off as fast as such a hole would admit it.[227]

Whatever may be thought of these conjectures, it is certain that the architects of Nineveh--while they did not neglect accessory sources of illumination--counted chiefly upon the doors to give their buildings a sufficient supply of light and air. As M. Place says, when we examine the plans of Sargon's palace at Khorsabad we are as much astonished at the size of the doorways as at the thickness of the walls.[228]

"There is not a single doorway, even of the smallest chambers, even of the simple ante-rooms for the use of servants and guards, that is not at least six feet or more wide; most of them are ten feet, and those decorated with sculptures even wider still." In their present ruinous state, it is more difficult to say for certain what their height may have been. Judging, however, from the ruins and from the usual proportions of height and width in the voids of Assyrian buildings, the doors at Khorsabad must have risen to a height of between fifteen and twenty-two feet. "Such measurements are those of exceptionally vast openings, especially when we remember that most of them gave access, not to state apartments, but to rooms used for the most ordinary purposes, store-rooms, ante-rooms, kitchens, serving-rooms of all kinds, and bedrooms. When we find architects who were so reluctant as those of Assyria to cut openings of any kind in their outer walls, using doorways of these extravagant dimensions, we may surely conclude that they were meant to light and ventilate the rooms as well as to facilitate the circulation of their inhabitants."[229]

Even in halls, which were lighted at once by a number of circular eyes like those described and by a wide doorway, there would be no excess of illumination, and the rooms of Assyria must, on the whole, have been darker than ours. When we remember the difference in the climates this fact ceases to surprise us. With our often-clouded skies we seldom have too much light, and we give it as wide and as frequent passages as are consistent with the stability of our buildings. The farther north we go the more strongly marked does this tendency become. In Holland, the proportion of voids to solids is much greater than it is on the facade of a Parisian house, and the same tendency may be traced from one end of Europe to the other. But even in Central Europe, as soon as the temperature rises above a certain point, curtains are drawn and jalousies closed, that is, the window is suppressed as far as possible. And is not that enough to suggest a probable reason for the want of windows characteristic of an Oriental dwelling? An explanation has been sometimes sought in the life of the harem and in the desire of eastern sovereigns to withdraw themselves from the eyes of their subjects. The idleness, almost amounting to lethargy, of the present masters of the East has also been much insisted on. What, it is asked, do these men want with light? They neither read nor work, they care nothing for those games of skill or chance which form so large a part of western activity; absolute repose, the repose of sleep or stupefaction, is their ideal of existence.[230]

These observations have hardly the force that has been ascribed to them.

The harem is not the whole palace, and even in the modern East the _selamlik_, or public part of the house, is very differently arranged from the rooms set apart for the women. The hunting and conquering kings of Assyria lived much in public. They appeared too often at the head of their armies or among the hounds for us to represent them--as the Greek tradition represented Sardanapalus--shut up within blind walls in distant and almost inaccessible chambers. We must guard ourselves against the mistake of seeking analogies too close between the East of to-day and that of the centuries before the Greek civilization.

The people who now inhabit those countries are in a state of languor and decay. Life has retired from them; their days are numbered, and the few they have yet to live are passed in a death-like trance. But it was not always thus. The East of antiquity, the East in which man's intellect awoke while it slumbered elsewhere, the East in which that civilization was born and developed whose rich and varied creations we are engaged in studying, was another place. Its inhabitants were strangely industrious and inventive, their intellects were busied with every form of thought, and their activity was expended upon every art of peace and war. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that the Chaldaeans, who invented the first methods of science, that the Assyrians, who carried their conquests as far as the shores of the Mediterranean, that those Phoenicians who have been happily called "the English of antiquity," had any great resemblance to the Turks who now reign at Bagdad, Mossoul, and Beyrout.

But the climate has not changed, and from it we must demand the key to the characteristic arrangements of Mesopotamian palaces. Even now most of the buildings of Mossoul are only lighted from the door, which is hardly ever shut. Some rooms have no direct means either of lighting or ventilation, and these are the favourite retreats in summer. "I was enabled," says M.

Place, "to convince myself personally of this. In the consul's house there were, on one side of the court, three rooms one within the other, of which the first alone was lighted from without, and even this had a covered gallery in front of it, by which the glare was tempered. In the dog-days, when the mid-day sun rendered all work a punishment, the innermost of these three rooms was the only habitable part of the house. The serdabs, or subterranean chambers, are used under the same conditions. They are inconvenient in some ways, but the narrowness of the openings, through which light, and with it heat, can reach their depths, gives them advantages not to be despised."[231]

The crude brick walls of ancient Assyria were far thicker than the rubble and plaster ones of modern Mossoul, so that more light could be admitted to the rooms without compromising their freshness. It seems to be proved that in at least the majority of rooms at Khorsabad the architect provided other means of lighting and ventilation besides the doorways, wide and high though the latter were. He pierced the roof with numerous oblique and vertical openings, he left square wells in the timber ceilings, and circular eyes in the domes and vaults. If these were to fulfil their purpose of admitting light and air into the principal rooms, the latter must have had no upper stories to carry. At Mossoul, walls are much thinner than at Nineveh, and interiors are simpler in arrangement and decoration.

The twenty or five-and-twenty feet of clay of the Assyrian walls would make it impossible to give sufficient light through the doors alone to the sculptures and paintings with which the rooms were adorned. We cannot doubt that a top light was also required. The rooms of the palaces must, therefore, have succeeded one another in one horizontal plan. Slight differences of level between them were connected by short flights, usually of five carefully-adjusted steps.[232] In spite of all its magnificence the royal dwelling was no more than a huge ground floor.

With such methods of construction as those we have described, it would have been very difficult to multiply stories. Neither vaults nor timber ceilings could have carried the enormous masses of earth of which even their partition-walls for the most part consisted, so that the architect would have had no choice but to make his upper chambers identical in size with those of his ground floors. This difficulty he was not, however, called upon to face, because the necessity for providing his halls and corridors with a top light, put an upper floor out of the question. No trace of such a staircase as would have been required to give access to an upper story has been discovered in any of the Assyrian ruins,[233] and yet some means of ascent to the terraced roofs must have been provided, if not for the inhabitants of the chambers below--who are likely, however, to have passed the nights upon them in the hot season--at least for the workmen whose duty it was to keep them in repair.

Some parts of the palace, on the other hand, may have been raised much above the level of the rest. Sir Henry Layard found the remains of such chambers in the palace of Assurnazirpal at Nimroud.[234] In the bas-relief from Kouyundjik, reproduced in our Fig. 39, an open gallery may be noticed at a great height above the soil. But neither this gallery nor the chambers discovered at Nimroud form what we should call a "first-floor." Layard did not conduct his excavations like an architect, and he fails to give us such information as we have in the case of Khorsabad, but he tells us that the chambers in question formed the upper part of a sort of tower projecting from one angle of the facade. In the building represented on the Kouyundjik relief, the gallery is also upheld by the main wall, and stands upon its summit. From these observations we may conclude that when the Assyrian architect wished to erect chambers that should have a command over the buildings about them and over the surrounding country, he placed them, not over his ground-floor, but upon solid and independent masses of bricks.

The staircase, then, could not have had the internal importance by which it is distinguished in architectural systems that make use of several stories.

On the other hand, it must have played a very conspicuous part externally, in front of the outer doors and the facades through which they were pierced. Fortresses, palaces, temples, all the great buildings of Chaldaea and Assyria, were built upon artificial mounds, upon a wide platform that required an easy communication with the plain below. This could only be obtained by long flights of steps or by gently inclined planes. Steps would do for pedestrians, but horses, chariots, and beasts of burden generally would require the last-named contrivance. All who have attempted restorations have copied the arrangement of these stairs and sloping roads from the ruins of Persepolis, where the steps, being cut in the rock itself, are still to be traced. The brick slopes of Mesopotamia must have commenced to disappear on the very day that their custodians first began to neglect their repair.

Some confirmation, however, is to be found, even in the buildings themselves, of the hypothesis suggested by their situations. At Abou-Sharein, for instance, in Lower Chaldaea, the staircase figured on the next page (Fig. 66) may be seen at the foot of the building excavated by Mr. Taylor; it gave access to the upper terrace of what seems to have been a temple.[235] Here the steps are no more than about twenty-six inches wide, but this width must often have been greatly surpassed elsewhere.

Indeed, in the same building the first story was reached by a staircase about seventy feet long and sixteen wide. The stone steps were twenty-two inches long, thirteen broad, and one foot deep. They were fixed with great care by means of bronze clasps. Unfortunately the explorer gives us neither plan nor elevation of this monumental staircase.

[Illustration: FIG. 66.--Outside staircases in the ruins of Abou-Sharein.]

Layard believed that, in passing the Mesopotamian mounds, he could often distinguish upon them traces of the flights of steps by which their summits were reached.[236] On the eastern face of the palace of Sennacherib, he says, the remains of the wide slopes by which the palace communicated with the plain were quite visible to him.[237] One of these staircases is figured in a bas-relief from Nimroud; it seems to rise to a line of battlements that form, no doubt, the parapet to a flat terrace behind.[238]

Finally, in another relief, the sculptor shows two flights of steps bending round one part of a mound and each coming to an end at a door into the temple on its summit. The curve described by this ramp involved the use of steps, which are given in M. Chipiez's _Restoration_ (Plate IV.). An interesting series of reliefs, brought to England from Kouyundjik, proves that in the palace interiors there were inclined galleries for the use of the servants. The lower edges of the alabaster slabs are cut to the same slope as that of the corridor upon whose walls they were fixed, and their sculptures represent the daily traffic that passed and repassed within those walls.[239] On the one hand, fourteen grooms are leading fourteen horses down to the Tigris to be watered; on the other, servants are mounting with provisions for the royal table in baskets on their heads.[240]

The steps of basalt and gypsum, that afford communication between rooms of different levels at Khorsabad, are planned and adjusted with great skill and knowledge.[241] The workmen who built those steps took, we may be sure, all the necessary precautions to prevent men and beasts from slipping on the paved floors of the inclined galleries. These were constructed upon the same plan as the ramps of M. Place's observatory, on which the pavement consists of steps forty inches long, thirty-two inches wide, and less than an inch high. Such steps as these give an inclination of about one in thirty-four, and the ramp on which they were used may be more justly compared to an inclined plane, like that of the Seville Giralda or the Mole of Hadrian, than to a staircase. One might ascend or descend it on horseback without any difficulty.[242]

By this example we may see that although the Assyrian builder had no materials at his command equal to those employed by the Greek or Egyptian, he knew how to make ingenious and skilful use of those he had.

We should be in a better position to appreciate these qualities of invention and taste had time not entirely deprived us of that part of the work of the Mesopotamian architects in which they were best served by their materials. Assyria, like Egypt, practised construction "by assemblage" as well as the two methods we have already noticed. She had a light form of architecture in which wood and metal played the principal part. As might have been expected, however, all that she achieved in that direction has perished, and the only evidence upon which we can attempt a restoration is that of the sculptured monuments, and they, unhappily, are much less communicative in this respect than those of Egypt. In the paintings of the Theban tombs the kiosks and pavilions of wood and metal are figured in all the variety and vivacity derived from the brilliant colours with which they were adorned. Nothing of the kind is to be found in Mesopotamia. Our only documents are the uncoloured reliefs which, even in the matter of form, are more reticent than we could have wished. But in spite of their simplification these representations allow us to perceive clearly enough the mingled elegance and richness that characterized the structures in question.

[Illustration: FIG. 67.--Interior of the Royal Tent; from Layard.]

Thus in a bas-relief at Nimroud representing the interior of a fortress, a central place is occupied by a small pavilion generally supposed to represent the royal tent (Fig. 67).[243] The artist could not give a complete representation of it, with all its divisions and the people it contained. He shows only the apartment in which the high-bred horses that drew the royal chariot were groomed and fed. Before the door of the pavilion an eunuch receives a company of prisoners, their hands bound behind them, and a soldier at their elbow. Higher up on the relief the sculptor has figured the god with fish's scales whom we have already encountered (see Fig. 9). To him, perhaps, the king attributed the capture of the fortress that has just fallen into his hands.

It is not, however, with an explanation of the scene that we are at present concerned; our business is with the structure of the pavilion itself, with the slender columns and the rich capitals at their summits, with the domed roof, made, no doubt, of several skins sewn together and kept in place by metal weights. The capitals and the two wild goats perched upon the shafts must have been of metal.

As for the tall and slender columns themselves, they were doubtless of wood. The chevrons and vertical fillets with which they are decorated may either have been carved in the wood or inlaid in metal.

[Illustration: FIG. 68.--Tabernacle; from the Balawat Gates.]

The pavilion we have just described was a civil edifice, the temporary resting place of the sovereign. The same materials were employed in the same spirit and with a similar arrangement in the erection of religious tabernacles (see Fig. 68). The illustration on this page is taken from those plates of beaten bronze which are known as the _Gates of Balawat_ and form one of the most precious treasures in the Assyrian Galleries of the British Museum.[244] They represent the victories and military expeditions of Shalmaneser II. In the pavilion that we have abstracted from this long series of reliefs may be recognized the field-chapel of the king. When that cruel but pious conqueror wished to thank Assur for some great success, he could cause a tabernacle like this to be raised in a few minutes even upon the field of battle itself. It is composed of four light columns supporting a canopy of leather which is kept in form by a fringe of heavy weights.

Rather above the middle of these columns two rings give an opportunity for a knotted ornament that could also be very quickly arranged, and the brilliant colours of the knots would add notably to the gay appearance of the tabernacle. Under the canopy the king himself is shown standing in an attitude of worship and pouring a libation on the portable altar. The latter is a tripod, probably of bronze, and upon it appears a dish with something in it which is too roughly drawn to be identified. On the right stands a second and smaller tripod with a vessel containing the liquid necessary for the rite.

The graphic processes of the Assyrian sculptor were so imperfect that at first we have some difficulty in picturing to ourselves the originals of these representations; in spite of the care devoted to many of their details, the real constitution of these little buildings is not easily grasped. In order to make it quite clear M. Chipiez has restored one of them, using no materials in the restoration but those for which authority is to be found in the bas-reliefs (Fig. 70).

M. Chipiez has placed his pavilion upon a salient bastion forming part of a wide esplanade. Two staircases lead up to it, and the wall by which the whole terrace is supported and inclosed is ornamented with those vertical grooves which are such a common motive in Chaldaean architecture. In front of the pavilion, on the balustrade of the staircase, and in the background near a third flight of steps, four isolated columns may be seen, the two former crowned with oval medallions, the two latter with cones. The meaning of these standards--which are copied from the Balawat Gates[245]--is uncertain. In the bas-reliefs in question they are placed before a stele with a rounded top, which is shown at the top of our engraving. This stele bears a figure of the monarch; another one like it is cut upon a cylinder of green feldspar found by Layard close to the principal entrance to Sennacherib's palace (see Fig. 69).[246]

Though practically absent from the great brick palaces, the column here played an important and conspicuous part. It furnished elegant and richly decorated supports for canopies of wool that softly rose and fell with the passing breeze. Fair carpets were spread upon the ground beneath, others were suspended to cross beams painted with lively colours, and swept the earth with the long and feathered fringes sewn upon their borders.

[Illustration: FIG. 69.--The Seal of Sennacherib. Cylinder of green feldspar in the British Museum.]

The difference was great between the massive buildings by which the Mesopotamian plains were dominated, and these light, airy structures which must have risen in great numbers in Chaldaea and Assyria, here on the banks of canals and rivers or in the glades of shady parks, there on the broad esplanades of a temple or in the courts of a royal palace. Between the mountains of clay on the one hand and these graceful tabernacles with their slender supports and gay coverings on the other, the contrast must have been both charming and piquant. Nowhere else do we find the distinction between the house and the tent so strongly marked. The latter must have held, too, a much more important place in the national life than it did either in Egypt or Greece. The monarch spent most of his time either in hunting or fighting, and his court must have followed him to the field.

Moreover, when spring covers every meadow with deep herbage and brilliant flowers, an irresistible desire comes over the inhabitants of such countries as Mesopotamia to fly from cities and set up their dwellings amid the scents and verdure of the fields. Again, when the summer heats have dried up the plains and made the streets of a town unbearable, an exodus takes place to the nearest mountains, and life is only to be prized when it can be passed among the breezes from their valleys and the shadows of their forest trees.

[Illustration: FIG. 70.--Type of open architecture in Assyria; composed by Charles Chipiez.]

Even in our own day the inhabitants of these regions pass from the house to the tent with an ease which seems strange to us. At certain seasons some of the nomad tribes betake themselves within the walls of Bagdad and Mossoul and there set up their long black tents of goats' hair.[247] Judging from the bas-reliefs they did the same even in ancient Assyria; in some of these a few tents may be seen sprinkled over a space inclosed by a line of walls and towers.[248] Abraham and Lot slept in their tents even when they dwelt within the walls of a city.[249] Lot had both his tent and a house at Sodom.[250] Every year the inhabitants of Mossoul and the neighbouring villages turn out in large numbers into the neighbouring country, and, during April and May, re-taste for a time that pastoral life to which a roof is unknown.

The centuries have been unable to affect such habits as these, because they were suggested, enforced, and perpetuated by nature herself, by the climate of Mesopotamia; and they have done much to create and develop that light and elegant form of building which we may almost call the architecture of the tent. In these days and in a country into whose remotest corners the decadence has penetrated, the tent is hardly more than a mere shelter; here and there, in the case of a few chiefs less completely ruined than the rest, it still preserves a certain size and elegance, but as a rule all that is demanded of it is to be sufficiently strong and thick to resist the wind, the rain, and the sun. It was otherwise in the rich and civilized society with which we are now concerned. Its arrangement and decoration then called forth inventive powers and a refined taste of which we catch a few glimpses in the bas-reliefs. It gave an opportunity for the employment of forms and motives which could not be used at all, or used in a very restricted fashion, in more solid structures, such as palaces and temples.

Of all these that which most closely results from the necessities of wooden or metal construction is the column, and we therefore find that it is in this tent-architecture that it takes on the characteristics that distinguish it from the Egyptian column and give it an originality of its own.


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