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West Asiatic Architecture - Comparative Analysis

( Originally Published 1917 )

A. Plans.—The Assyrians, who throughout this comparative table are taken to include Babylonians, erected temples and palaces on artificial platforms, reached by flights of steps, 30 to 50 ft. above the plain, for defence and protection against malaria (p. 48 A). Halls and rooms grouped round open quadrangles were long and narrow, so as to be easy to vault(p. 48 H). Ziggurats, (pp. 47 A, 55 A), which rose tower-like in diminishing terraces to the temple observatory at the top, had their angles to the cardinal points, thus differing from Egyptian pyramids whose sides were so placed. Assyrian buildings were designed for both internal and external effect, in contrast with Egyptian temples which, behind the massive entrance pylons, were enclosed by a plain and forbidding girdle wall which gradually decreased in height from front to back. The Persians, like the Assyrians, placed their palaces on lofty platforms, often partly rock-cut and partly built-up, but the style of palaces at Susa and Persepolis (p. 56 A, C) was influenced by that of Egyptian temples, and the vast halls had widely spaced columns which suggest timber roofs, in contrast to the corridor-like, vaulted apartments of Assyrian palaces.

B. Walls.—Assyrian walls were composite structures of sun-dried bricks faced with kiln-dried bricks, which contrast with the massive stone walls of the Egyptians and the solid marble walls of the Greeks. Palace walls were frequently sheathed internally with alabaster bas-reliefs which record military and sporting exploits. External walls were plainly treated, sometimes with alternating vertical projections and reoesses or with half-cylinders, and the top was often finished with battlemented cresting, while towers flanked palace entrances and occurred at short intervals along the walls (p. 48 A, B, D, F). The Persians built their walls of brick, which as at Persepolis have crumbled away, but the massive stone blocks of door and window architraves and the broad stone stair-ways have in many instances withstood the ravages of time and weather. The highly glazed and coloured brickwork, as found at Susa and Persepolis (p. 56 F, G), was applied to give that surface finish to the walls which in Greece was obtained by polishing the surface of the marble to great brilliancy.

C. Openings.—Assyrian doorways were spanned by semicircular arches, here first met with as ornamental features, suitable to the nature of brick construction. At palace entrances the arches were enhanced by decorative archivolts of coloured bricks (pp. 47 D, F, 48 n, D). It is to be noted that the pointed arch was employed as early as B.C. 722 in the drains under the great palace at Khorsabad (p. 47 C), and indeed Assyria seems to have been the original home of this feature. Windows were not in use, but light was admitted through doors and probably through pipe-holes in walls and vaults (p. 48 .0). The Persians used horizontal stone lintels for doors and windows, in contrast to the arches of the Assyrians, and some may still be seen among the ruins at Persepolis where large doorways are surmounted by cornices similar to the Egyptian gorge (p. 56 A).

D. Roofs.—Assyrian roofs, supported on brick vaults over the halls, were externally flat and were probably rendered waterproof by means of bitumen (p. 48 A). As is still usual in the unchanging East, they were used as a resort in the cool of the evening and were concealed behind battlemented cresting. Strabo states that the houses of Babylon were vaulted, as at Khorsabad (p. 48j), and the dome was probably employed over small compartments, as represented on wall slabs from Nineveh, and it is indeed a traditional Eastern form, owing to its suitability for clay and brick construction (p. 47 B). Persian roofs, of which, however, none remain, were, it is believed, also flat and probably of timber ; for at Susa and Persepolis they appear to have been supported on comparatively slender and widely spaced columns (pp. 55 C, 56 A).

E. Columns.—The Assyrians could not have used columns, as in all the excavations no columns or even bases have been found; indeed in Assyrian architecture the brick-built tower, and not the column, is the outstanding feature. Columns may, however, have been used in smaller buildings, such as the little fishing pavilion which, as represented on a slab from Khorsabad, has columns with an early form of the Ionic scroll (p. 47 H). The Persians on the contrary used columns, widely spaced and comparatively slender, as they had only to support the weight of timber and clay roofs, instead of ponderous stone slabs, as in Egypt (pp. 55 C, 56 A, B, D). The Persians invented a most distinctive type of column, probably founded on those they had seen in Thebes, but with high moulded bases, fluted shafts, and capitals of reourring vertical scrolls, perhaps derived from Asiatic Greek buildings, such as the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus (B.C. 550) (p. 101). Sometimes these columns were surmounted by twin bulls, unicorns, horses, or griffins, on the backs of which were placed the cross-beams of the roof. This peculiar and somewhat grotesque treatment has been supposed to have had a timber origin in which the capital was formed either of a long beam or of a fork which was the simplest type of bracket capitals.

F. Mouldings: Assyrians, like Egyptians, had no general use for mouldings, as their architecture was on too vast a scale for such treatment, and moreover the glazed tiles and marble slabs which protected the perishable brick walls were sufficient decoration without mouldings (pp. 47 G, 48 G). It is noticeable too that mouldings only came into general use after they had been evolved and standardised by the Greeks. Persians were susceptible to the influence both of Egyptian and Greek models, and allowed themselves much latitude in adapting and combining various motifs, and the conglomerate character of the style is nowhere more conspicuous than in their use and application of mouldings. There is at Persepolis a curious melange attributable to this dual source in which carved bases, moulded capitals, and Ionic-like volutes are combined with the Egyptian " gorge " cornice over doorways (p. 56 B, D).

G. Ornament.—The Assyrians used as their chief architectural ornament chiselled alabaster slabs which show an extraordinary refinement of line and detail far superior to Egyptian carvings, and these, both in treatment and colouring, undoubtedly influenced Greek bas-reliefs (p. 62). These slabs, some of which are in the British Museum, form an illustrated record of Assyrian pursuits (p. 62 A, G, J). The well-known pavement slab from Nineveh (p. 62 C), with rosettes, palmettes, and border of lotus buds and flowers, shows a decorative art, doubtless derived from Egyptian sources, but tempered by the art of Greece. The Assyrians displayed their skilled craftsmanship not only in stone carving, but also in bronze working, as shown in the gates of Shalmaneser II (B.C. 860–825) which are in the British Museum. The external ornament of Assyrian palaces appears to have been concentrated around the main entrance (p. 48 B), in the sculptured monsters which guarded the kingly threshold, and in the brilliantly glazed and coloured archivolt of the archway (pp. 47 D, E, F, 48 E, 62 E). The Persians continued the use of flanking monsters to doorways, as in the Propylaea at Persepolis, and of carved dadoes to stairway walls. The outstanding feature of ornament as developed by the Persians is their mastery in the preparation and application of pure colour to glazed bricks, as in the " Archer " and " Lion " friezes from Susa, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris (p. 56 F, G), or as in the bas-relief from Persepolis (p. 56 E). Persians, like Assyrians, reserved ornament for special positions ; whereas the Egyptians spread it broadcast over their unbroken wall surfaces. The Greeks, as we shall see, followed the Assyrian method in concentrating ornament, allocated it to entablature, frieze, and pediment, and standardised it in the " Orders of Architecture," which, as regards the variation of detail, must be regarded from the point of view of ornament, though their raison d'etre is essentially constructive.

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