A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 9

[Illustration: FIG. 32.--Babylonian brick; from the Louvre. 16 inches square on face, and 4 inches thick.]

Crude brick, burnt brick, and brick enamelled, those were the only materials at the command of the architect, in the cities, at least, of Chaldaea. A few fragments of basalt and diorite have certainly been found in their ruins, especially at Tello, recently excavated by M. de Sarzec; but we can easily tell from the appearance of these blocks that they played a very subordinate part in the buildings into which they were introduced.

Some of them seem to have been employed as a kind of decoration in relief upon the brick walls; others, and those the most numerous, appear to have been used in the principal entrances to buildings. Upon one face a semicircular hollow or socket may be noticed, in which the foot of the bronze pivots, or rather the pivot shod and faced with bronze, upon which the heavy timber doors and their casings of metal were hung, had to turn.

The marks of the consequent friction are still clearly visible.[137] The dimensions of these stones are never great, and it is easy to see that their employment for building purposes was always of the most restricted nature. They had indeed to be brought from a great distance. The towns upon the Persian Gulf might get them from Arabia.[138] Babylon and Nineveh must have drawn them from the upper valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates.[139]

But quarrying and transport involved an expenditure that prevented any thought of bringing these volcanic rocks into common use.

[Illustration: FIG. 33.--Brick from Khorsabad; Louvre. 12-2/3 inches square, and 4-4/5 inches thick.]

Compared with the towns of the lower Euphrates, Babylon was not far from mountains whence, by means of canals and rivers, she might have easily obtained a limestone of good quality. Even in these days, when commerce and industry have fallen so low in those regions, the gypseous alabaster from the neighbourhood of Mossoul is transported in no unimportant quantities as far as Bagdad. It is used for lining baths and those _serdabs_ to which the people retreat in summer.[140]

The remains of the great capital show no trace of dressed stone. And yet it was used during the second empire in some of the great public works undertaken by Nabopolassar and more especially by Nebuchadnezzar.

Herodotus, who saw Babylon, declares this in the most formal manner in his description of the bridge which then united, for the first time, the two banks of the Euphrates. While the river was bordered by quays of burnt brick, the bridge, says the historian, "was built of very large stones, bound together with iron clamps embedded in lead."[141]

That, however, was but one exception, and it was necessitated by the very nature of the work to be carried out. No cement was to be had which could resist the action of water for an indefinite period and maintain the coherence of brickwork subjected to its unsleeping attacks. In order to obtain piers capable of withstanding the current during the great floods, it was better too to use blocks of considerable weight, which could be held together by metal tenons or clasps.

It was but at rare intervals that buildings had to be erected in which the habits of ages had to be thus abandoned. Why is it that such works have perished and left no sign? The question may be easily answered. When the ruins of Babylon began to be used as an open quarry, the stone buildings must have been the first to disappear. This material, precious by its rarity and in greater request than any other, was used again and again until no trace of its original destination or of the buildings in which it was found remained.

In Assyria long chains of hills traversed the plain and stretched here and there as far as the borders of the two rivers, besides which the last buttresses of the mountains of Kurdistan came very near the left bank of the Tigris. These hills all contained limestone. Two sorts were found: one fine, hard, close grained, and a little shelly, the other softer and more friable.

For the decoration of his monumental doorways and the lining of his richest apartments, the architect chose and committed to the sculptor those fine slabs of gypseous alabaster of which so many examples are to be seen in the Louvre and British Museum. In the plains gypsum serves as a base or foundation for the wide banks of clay that spread over the country, and are much less thick than in the south of Chaldaea. Alabaster is there to be met with in great quantities, often but little below the surface of the soil.[142] It is a sulphate of chalk, gray in colour, soft and yet susceptible of polish. But it has many defects; it breaks easily and deteriorates rapidly on exposure to the air. The Assyrians, however, did not fear to use it in great masses, as witness the bulls in the Louvre and British Museum. Before removal these carved man-headed animals weighed some thirty-five tons, and some of those remaining at Khorsabad and Kouyundjik are still larger.

In Assyria as in Chaldaea the dark and hard volcanic rocks have only been found in a few isolated fragments. They were used by the statuary and ornamentist rather than by the architect, and we cannot say for certain where they got them. We know, however, that basalt and other rocks of that kind were found in the upper valleys of the streams that flowed into the two great rivers.[143]

The Assyrian architect had therefore only to stretch out his hand to win stone of a sufficiently varied nature from the soil of his own country or the flanks of its mountains. It was, of course, mediocre in quality but it had powers of resistance that fitted it for use in certain positions. At the first glance it is difficult to understand why so little use was made of it. But in truth stone was for the Assyrian no more than an accessory and complementary material; the bodies of his structures were never composed of it; it was mainly confined to plinths, pavements, and the internal linings of walls.

In spite of its apparent singularity this determined exclusion is to be easily explained. The Assyrian invented nothing. His language and his writing, his religion and his science, came from Chaldaea, and so did his art. When the kings of Resen, of Calech, and Nineveh, took it into their heads to build palaces, they imported architects, painters, and sculptors, from the southern kingdom. Why, it may be asked, did those artists remain so faithful to the traditions in which they had grown up when they found themselves planted among such different surroundings? The answer is, that nothing is more tenacious of life than those professional habits that are transmitted from one generation to another by the practical teaching of more or less close corporations, besides which we must remember that the Chaldaean methods were excellently well fitted for the satisfaction of those impatient princes at whose orders the works were undertaken. For the quarrying, dressing, and fixing of stone, a special and rather tedious education was required. The manufacture and laying of bricks was comparatively easy. A few weeks were sufficient to learn all that was to be learnt about the kneading and moulding of the earth, its desiccation in the sun or burning in the kiln. Provided that experienced men were forthcoming to superintend the latter operation, millions of good bricks could be made in the year.[144] All this required no lengthy apprenticeship. Their arrangement in horizontal courses or grouping at stated intervals, into those lines of battlements with which every wall was crowned, was done by the men of the _corvee_. Certain parts of the building, such as arches and vaults, required more care and skill, and were left, no doubt, to experienced masons and bricklayers, but, with these exceptions, the whole work could be confided to the first-comers, to those armies of captives whom we see in the bas-reliefs labouring in chained gangs like convicts.

Working in this fashion, even the most formidable works could be completed with singular rapidity. In Assyria, as in Chaldaea, a prince was no sooner seated firmly upon the throne than his architects set about erecting a palace which should be entirely his own. He had no wish that any name but his should be read upon its walls, or that they should display any deeds of valour but those due to his own prowess. In the life of constant war and adventure led by these conquering sovereigns, speed was everything, for they could never be sure of the morrow.

That considerations like these counted for much in the determination of the Assyrian architects to follow a system that the abundance of durable materials invited them to cast aside can hardly be doubted. They did not dare to rouse the displeasure of masters who disliked to wait; they preferred rather to sacrifice the honour and glory to be won by the erection of solid and picturesque buildings than to use the slowly worked materials in which alone they could be carried out.

Assyria was in all respects better provided than Chaldaea. Nature itself seemed to invite her to throw off her too docile spirit of imitation and to create an art of her own. Her possession of stone was not her only advantage over her southern neighbour, she had timber also; at least the Ninevite architect had to go a much shorter distance than his Babylonian rival in order to find it. From the summits of the lofty mounds, at whose feet he established his workshops, he could catch a distant view of mountain chains, whose valleys were clothed with forests of oak and beech, pine and cypress. There was nothing of the kind within reach of Lower Mesopotamia. The nearest mountains, those which ran parallel to the left bank of the Tigris but at a considerable distance, were more naked, even in ancient times, than those of Kurdistan and Armenia. From one side of the plain to the other there were no trees but the palm and the poplar from which timbers of any length could be cut. The soft and fibrous date-palm furnishes one of the worst kinds of wood in the world; the poplar, though more useful, is not much less brittle and light. From materials like these no system of carpentry could be developed that should allow great spaces to be covered and great heights to be reached. When Nineveh and, after her, Babylon, had conquered all Western Asia, she drew, like Egypt before her, upon the forests of Lebanon. There she obtained the beams and planks for the ceilings and doors of her sumptuous palaces.[145] The employment, however, of these excellent woods must always have been rare and exceptional. Moreover, other habits had become confirmed. When these new resources were put at the disposition of architecture, the art was too old and too closely wedded to its traditional methods to accept their aid. In the use of wood, as in that of brick, Assyria neglected to make the best of the advantages assured to her by her situation and her natural products.

If Chaldaea was ill-provided with stone and timber, she had every facility for procuring the useful and precious metals. They were not, of course, to be found in her alluvial plains, but metals are easy of transport, especially to a country whose commerce has the command of navigable highways. The industrial centres in which they are manufactured are often separated by great distances from the regions where they are won from the earth. But to procure the more indispensable among them the dwellers upon the Tigris and Euphrates had no great distance to cover. The southern slopes of Zagros, three or four days' journey from Nineveh, furnished iron, copper, lead, and silver in abundance. Mines are still worked in Kurdistan, or, at least, have been worked in very recent times, which supply these metals in abundance. The traces of abandoned workings may be recognized even by the hasty and unlearned traveller, and a skilful engineer would, no doubt, make further discoveries.[146] Mr. Layard was unable to learn that any gold had been won in our days; but from objects found in the excavations, from inscriptions in which the Assyrians boast of their wealth and prodigality, from Egyptian texts in which the details of tributes paid by the Roten-nou, that is by the people of Syria and Mesopotamia, are given, it is clear that in the great days of Nineveh and Babylon those capitals possessed a vast quantity of gold, and employed it in a host of different ways. In the course of several centuries of war, victory, and pillage, princes, officers, and soldiers had amassed enormous wealth by the simple process of stripping the nations of Western Asia of every object of value they possessed. These accumulations were continually added to, in the case of Babylon, by the active commerce she carried on with the mineral-producing countries, such as the Caucasus, Bactriana, India, and Egypt.

There are some architectures--that of the Greeks for example--that preserve a rare nobility even when deprived of their metal ornaments and polychromatic decoration. The architects of Babylon and Nineveh were differently situated. Deprived of metals some of their finest effects would have been impossible. The latter could be used at will in flexible threads or long, narrow bands, which could be nailed or riveted on to wood or brick. They may be beaten with the hammer, shaped by the chisel, or engraved by the burin; their surfaces may be either dead or polished; the variety of shades of which they are capable, and the brilliance of their reflections, are among the most valuable resources of the decorator, and the colouring principles they contain provide the painter and enameller with some of his richest and most solid tones. In Chaldaea the architect was condemned by the _force majeure_ of circumstances to employ little more than crude or burnt brick and bad timber; in Assyria he voluntarily condemned himself to the limitations they imposed. By the skilful and intelligent use of metals, he managed to overcome the resulting disadvantages in some degree, and to mask under a sumptuous decoration of gold, silver, and bronze, the deficiencies inherent in the material of which his buildings were mainly composed.


[127] G. CURTIUS is of opinion that the word keramos, and consequently its derivatives (kerameus, kerameia, kerameike, &c.,) springs rather from a root CRA, expressive of the idea to _cook_, than from the word kerannumi, to mix, knead (_Grundzuge der Griechischen Etymologie_, p. 147, 5th edition).

[128] See _Nahum_ iii. 14.

[129] Even these dimensions were sometimes passed. The Louvre possesses an Assyrian brick rather more than 17-1/2 inches square. See DE LONGPERIER, _Notice des Antiquites Assyriennes_ (3rd edition, 1854, 12mo), No. 44.

[130] VITRUVIUS, 1. ii. ch. 3.

[131] PLACE, _Ninive et l'Assyrie_, vol. i. p. 225. The vault of the gallery discovered by LAYARD in the centre of the tower that occupied a part of the mound of Nimroud was constructed in the same fashion.

_Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon_, p. 126.

[132] PLACE, _Ninive et l'Assyrie_, vol. i. pp. 211-224.

[133] _Genesis_ xi. 3.

[134] LAYARD, _Discoveries_, pp. 506 and 531.

[135] See, for Chaldaea, LOFTUS, _Travels and Researches_, p. 133; and for Assyria, PLACE, _Ninive et l'Assyrie_, vol. i. p. 250, and vol. ii. plates 38 and 39. As an example of the varieties of section presented by these bricks, we may cite those found by M. de Sarzec in the ruins of Tello, which belonged to a circular pillar. This pillar was composed of circular bricks, placed in horizontal courses round a centre of the same material.

Elsewhere triangular bricks, which must have formed the angles of buildings have been found. TAYLOR, _Notes on the Ruins of Mugheir_ (_Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society_, vol. xv. p. 266). At Abou-Sharein, this same traveller found convex-sided bricks (_Journal_, &c., vol. xv. p. 409).

[136] PLACE, _Ninive_, &c., vol. i. p. 233.

[137] Some of these fragments are in the Louvre. They are placed on the ground in the Assyrian Gallery. Their forms are too irregular to be fitted for reproduction here. But for the hollow in question, one might suppose them to be mere shapeless boulders. LAYARD noticed similar remains among the ruins of Babylon, _Discoveries_, &c., p. 528.

[138] M. OPPERT is even inclined to think that some of them came from the peninsula of Sinai and the eastern shores of Egypt (_Revue Archeologique_, vol. xlii. p. 272). The formation of the Arabian hills is not yet very well known, and we are not in a position to say for certain whence these rocks may have come. It seems probable however, that they might have been obtained from certain districts of Arabia, from which they could be carried without too great an effort to within reach of the canals fed by the Euphrates, or of some port trading with the Persian Gulf.

[139] LAYARD, _Discoveries_, &c., p. 528.

[140] LAYARD, _Discoveries_, p. 116.

[141] HERODOTUS, i. 186. DIODORUS (ii. viii. 2), quoting Ctesias, speaks in almost the same terms of this stone bridge, which he attributes to Semiramis.

[142] BOTTA, _Monuments de Ninive_, vol. v. p. 3.

[143] In the valley of the Khabour, the chief affluent of the Euphrates, LAYARD found volcanoes whose activity seemed only to have been extinguished at a very recent epoch. Long streams of lava projected from their sides into the plain. _Discoveries_, p. 307.

[144] As for the simple and rapid nature of the process by which crude bricks are manufactured to the present day in Persia, see TEXIER, _L'Armenie et la Perse_, vol. ii. p. 64.

[145] As to the employment in Assyria of cedar from the Lebanon, see FRANcOIS LENORMANT, _Histoire Ancienne_, vol. ii. p. 191, and an inscription of Sennacherib, translated by OPPERT, _Les Sargonides_, pp. 52, 53. Its use in Babylon is proved by several passages of the great text known as the _Inscription of London_, in which Nebuchadnezzar recounts the great works he had caused to be carried out in his capital (LENORMANT, _Histoire_, vol. ii. pp. 228 and 233). We find this phrase among others, "I used in the chamber of oracles the largest of the trees transported from the summits of Lebanon." LAYARD (_Discoveries_, pp. 356-7) tells us that one evening during the Nimroud excavations, his labourers lighted a fire to dry themselves after a storm, which they fed with timbers taken from the ruins. The smell of burning cedar, a perfume which so many Greek and Latin poets have praised (_urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum_, VIRGIL, _aeneid_, vii. 13), apprised him of what was going on. In the British Museum (Nimroud Gallery, Case A), fragments of recovered joists may be seen. They are in such good preservation that they might be shaped and polished anew, so as to again bring out the markings and the fine dark-yellow tone which contributed not a little to make the wood so precious. It was sought both for its agreeable appearance and its known solidity; and experience has proved that the popular opinion which declared it incorruptible had some foundation.

[146] LAYARD, _Nineveh_, vol. i. p. 223, and vol. ii. pp. 415-418.

-- 2.--_The General Principles of Form._

If in our fancy we strip the buildings of Chaldaea and Assyria of all their accessories, if we take from them their surface ornament and the salience of their roofs, the bare edifice that remains is what geometricians call a _rectangular parallelopiped_.

Of all the types created by this architecture, the only one of which we still possess a few fairly well preserved examples is that of the palace.

It is therefore the best known of them all, and the first to excite attention and study. Now, upon the artificial mound, the wide terrace, over which its imposing mass is spread, the palace may be likened to a huge box whose faces are all either horizontal or vertical (Plate V.). Even in the many-storied temples, whose general aspect is modified of course to a great extent by their height, the same element may be traced. We have endeavoured to restore some of these by collating the descriptions of the ancient writers with the remains that still exist in many parts of Mesopotamia (Plates II., III., and IV.). Their general form may be described as the box to which we have compared the palace repeated several times in vertical succession, each box being rather smaller than the one below it. By these means their builders proposed to give them an elevation approaching the marvellous. The system was in some respects similar to that of the pyramid, but the re-entering angles at each story gave them a very different appearance, at least to one regarding them from a short distance. Only now and then do we find any inclination like that of the sides of a pyramid, and in those cases it applies to bases alone (Plate IV.). As a rule the walls or external surfaces are perpendicular to their foundations.

We may, perhaps, explain the complete absence from Chaldaea of a system of construction that was so universal in Egypt by the differences of climate and of the materials used. Doubtless it rains less in Mesopotamia than even in Italy or Greece. But rain is not, as in Upper Egypt, an almost unknown phenomenon. The changes of the seasons are ushered in by storms of rain that amount to little less than deluges.[147] Upon sloping walls of dressed stone these torrents could beat without causing any great damage, but where brick was used the inconveniences of such a slope would soon be felt. Water does not fall so fast upon a slope as upon a perpendicular wall, and a surface made up of comparatively thin bricks has many more joints than one in which stones of any considerable size are employed. As a rule the external faces of all important buildings were revetted with very hard and well burnt bricks. But the rain, driven by the wind, might easily penetrate through the joints and spread at will through the core of mere sun-dried bricks within. The verticality of Assyrian and Chaldaean walls was necessary, therefore, for their preservation. Without it the thin covering of burnt brick would have been unable to do its proper work of protecting the softer material within, and the sudden storms by which the plains were now and again half drowned, would have been far more hurtful than they were.

The Chaldaean palace, like the Egyptian temple, sought mainly for lateral development. Its extent far surpassed its elevation, and horizontal lines predominated in its general physiognomy. There was here a latent harmony between the architecture of nature and that of man, between the great plains of Mesopotamia, with their distant horizons, and the long walls, broken only by their crenellated summits, of the temples and palaces. There must, however, have been a certain want of relief, of visibility, in edifices conceived on such lines and built in such a country.

This latter defect was obvious to the Mesopotamians themselves, who raised the dwellings of their gods and kings upon an artificial mound with a carefully paved summit.[148] Upon this summit the structure properly speaking rested, so that, in Chaldaea, the foundations of a great building instead of being, as elsewhere, sunk beneath the soil, stand so high above it that the ground line of the palace or temple to which they belong rises above the plain to a height that leaves the roofs of ordinary houses and even the summits of the tallest palms far below. This arrangement gave a clearer salience and a more imposing mass to structures which would otherwise, on account of their monotony of line and the vast excess of their horizontal over their vertical development, have had but little effect.

[Illustration: FIG. 34.--Temple; from a Kouyundjik bas-relief. Rawlinson, vol. i. p. 314.]

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