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West Asiatic Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1917 )


I. Geographical.—The earliest civilisation of Western Asia flourished in the fertile plains of the twin rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, and to this district tradition assigns the Garden of Eden and the four rivers of the Book of Genesis. Inundation of the country, with destruction of crops and flocks, was an ever-present danger to the dwellers in the river plains, and this condition is set forth in the account of the building of the Ark by Noah before the time when a system of irrigation gave security to agriculturists. Here, too, in Ur of the Chaldees, was the home of Abraham before he set out on his travels to escape from the constant strife in his own country. Vigorous in its youth and growth, and complete in its decline and decay, this region has been both cradle and tomb of nations and empires. The plain of Mesopotamia (Gk. mesos = middle + potamos = river) was irrigated by canals from river to river, and thus the land became fertile enough to support the immense populations round Nineveh and Babylon. Geographically speaking, Babylonia and Assyria were one country which ancient writers called Assyria, and in Kings, Book II, Chap. xviii, Sennacherib describes it in glowing terms to the children of Israel as " a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vine-yards, a land of oil, olive, and honey," and all this abundance was the result of elaborate irrigation. But in the thirteenth century the barbarous Tartar invasion finally wiped out this ancient civilisation, with its architectural glories, its triumphs of irrigation and its agricultural prosperity, and reduced the country, which once blossomed as the rose, to a dismal tract of dreary desert alternating with miasmic marsh. Irrigation has been recently started again, and the Euphrates Dam, completed A.D. 19 13, is the great modern wonder of Babylon, designed to restore cultivation to this sterile district, while the Bagdad Railway opens up intercourse with the Western world. Meanwhile the Great War intervened, and once again Mesopotamia became a battle-ground till British supremacy was established, and now the British spirit of enterprise may breathe new life and prosperity into this long-stricken district after peace has succeeded the barren years of devastating war. Just as the pyramids and early monuments of Egypt clustered first round the delta of the Nile, so in Chaldaea the earliest buildings appear to have been at the mouth of the two famous rivers of Western Asia. In Egypt civilisation spread southwards from Memphis to Phil, whereas in Western Asia it advanced northwards from Babylon to Nineveh, and thus in both countries it followed the natural course, inland from the sea.

On the east of Babylonia and Assyria was ancient Persia, which, under Cyrus and Darius, extended over the high plateau of Iran from the Tigris to the Indus.

II. Geological.—Chaldaea or Lower Mesopotamia is an alluvial district of thick mud and clay deposited by the two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. Such soil, in which no stone was found and no trees would grow, was eminently suitable for the making of bricks, which thus became the usual building material in Babylonia. The walls were constructed of crude, sun-dried bricks faced with kiln-burnt and glazed bricks of different colours. There were bitumen springs at It on the Euphrates and elsewhere, and in early times hot bitumen or pitch was used as a cementing material, and mortar of calcareous earth in later periods. In Assyria there was plenty of stone in the mountains to the north, but the Assyrians followed the Babylonians in the use of brick ; though they generally faced the walls internally and externally, not with glazed bricks, but with alabaster or limestone slabs carved with low bas-reliefs and inscriptions, which are of great historic importance. In Persia there were hard, coloured limestones which were used in the building of Susa and Persepolis, and roof-timbers were obtained from Elam on the west, while Persian tiles have always been world-famous for their beauty of texture and colour.

III. Climatic.—Chaldaea was, by reason of its situation round the river deltas, a region of swamps and floods, besides which torrents of rain fell for weeks at a time, and these conditions were aggravated during the long summer by unhealthy, miasmic exhalations and by swarms of aggressive and venomous insects. Therefore elevated platforms, on which to build towns and palaces, were not only desirable, but essential. Assyria, nearer the mountains and farther from the river mouths than Chaldaea, had a similar climate, although with fewer swamps and less miasma, but any climatic difference had little effect on architecture, as the Assyrians followed the Babylonian style. The dry, hot climate of the high table-land of Persia was in striking contrast to the damp of the low-lying plains of Mesopotamia, and it accounts for the innovation of open columned halls in the palaces at Susa and Persepolis. Persia has been described as a country of sunshine, gardens, and deserts, with a climate ranging between extremes of heat and cold. The astronomer-poet of Persia, Omar Khayyam, though writing in the eleventh century of our era, indicates the national love of beauty as developed under the influence of climatic environment.

IV. Religious.—The polytheism of Babylonia and Assyria was variously expressed, in the worship of heavenly bodies, divisions of the universe, and local deities. The priests, as depositories of Chaldaean wisdom, arrogated to themselves the power of reading the stars, of divination, and of interpreting the will of the gods, and for these astrologer-priests the towering ziggurats were erected. Here, as in Egypt, the system of triads of deities was in force, and among Assyrian gods grouped in triads were Anu, god of heaven, Baal, god of earth, and Ea, god of water —the triad of the universe ; while another triad, Shamash, Sin, and Ishtar, personified the sun, moon, and the life-giving power. There was also a vague tendency to group gods in pairs, while the ethical side is indicated in attributes, such as justice or mercy, given to the various deities. The god, Ashur, in the north was exalted by Assyrians to the chief place in their pantheon, while the same position was accorded in Babylonia to Marduk, but there was a continuous struggle to make Babylon the religious centre with Marduk as chief god. Omen tablets and texts survive from about B.C. 3800 and to them we owe our knowledge of Babylonian methods of divination. Superstition and symbolism everywhere prevailed and it is evidenced in the man-headed bulls, placed as beneficent genii at palace entrances to ward off evil spirits. The Assyrians, in striking contrast to the Egyptians, were not great tomb-builders, as they had not the same strong belief in a future life. The primitive religion of Persia, which betrays the influence of Babylon and became incorporated in the religion of Zoroaster as far back as B.C. z000, was a system of ethical forces and represented good and evil at war from the beginning of time. The two protagonists were Ormazd, the creator of good, with his supporting gods, of whom Mithras became the most famous, and opposed to Ormazd was Ahriman, the destructive spirit, or power of evil. There appears to have been a tendency towards monotheism and to a belief in the final triumph of good. Fire was held by Zoroaster to be the manifestation of good, and fire worship needed no temples, but only altars for the sacrificial flame, and thus in Persia we must not look for temple remains, nor expect religion to have exercised much influence on architecture.

V. Social.—In Babylon a powerful priestly class arrogated to itself all the learning known as " Chaldaean wisdom," and " medicine men " or physicians were included in the priestly ranks. The Babylonians, settling at the mouth of the Euphrates, were traders in origin and traders they remained, and they employed slaves, not only for the building of palaces and their platforms, but also for that wonderful system of irrigation, and for the agriculture that was dependent on it, while in commerce they had hired men for transport trade by caravans and canals. Cuneiform or wedge-shaped characters on clay tablets or cylinders have proved more lasting than the Egyptian records on perishable papyrus, and among them are accounts of the proceedings in Babylonian law courts and endless business documents. The deciphering of the Babylonian " Code of Laws " of Khammurabi (c. B.C. 2250) has supplied a wonderful insight into habits, customs, and private life from the earliest times the family idea prevailed, women were free and respected, cities had rights and charters, there were feudal holdings, a system of police, and even a postal service. This " code " gives amazing pictures of an elaborate legal system, complete commercial life, landlord's responsibilities, and city dues. The people were divided into nobles with hereditary estates, a landless class of freemen, and lastly slaves—a social system not only Mediaeval, but almost modern in some aspects.

In Assyria a military autocracy with a conscript army was the dominating class, and Assyrians were fighters and sportsmen rather than traders. Irrigation and agriculture also occupied the Assyrians, and they built palaces on raised platforms by the work of captive slaves. Rawlinson calculated that 10,000 men worked for twelve years on the platform of Kouyunjik (Nineveh). Assyrian wall sculptures portray social conditions and form an illustrated history of the battles and exploits of monarchs ; there is little reference to religion, with its sacrificial rites, on the delicately incised slabs, which are devoted to war and the chase, and the trail of cruelty is over them all. The social economy of these ancient civilisations included carpenters, masons, smiths, makers of musical instruments, engineers,. scientists, mathematicians, poets, and musicians. Houses were doubtless of the primitive form still prevailing in the East, and wall tablets depict the simplest furniture in the way of chairs, couches, and tables.

The Persian domination was due to the military superiority of this hardy, upland race, which gradually imposed Persian civilisation on Western Asia under the rule of the Satraps. They were soldiers all ; land-owners as horsemen, and people as infantry. The traditions were now modified by Egyptian and Greek craftsmen who migrated to this new world-empire, of which Babylon continued the winter residence of the Kings ; while Susa was the capital, because Persepolis was too remote for government. The erection of royal palaces gave ample opportunity for the development of Persian architecture and decorative art.

VI. Historical.—There are three main periods of West Asiatic architecture :

(a) Babylonian period (c. B.C. 4000-1275). An early Sumerian king, Eannatum, seems to have brought about the first union of Babylonian cities, while the earliest Babylonian king of whom we hear is Sargon of Akkad (c. B.C. 3800), but little is known till about B.C. 2500, when rivalry existed between cities, until the great king Khammurabi in B.C. 2250 established the domination of Babylon, and formulated his " Code of Laws." The Babylonian power declined later under the attacks of Hittites and Kassites, until in B.C. 1700 Assyria became a separate kingdom.

(b) Assyrian period (B.C. 1275-538). The Assyrians next conquered Babylonia in B.C. 1275, and remained the great military power of Western Asia until the destruction of Nineveh about B.C. 6o6. Kings, like Tiglath-Pileser I (B.C. 1100) carried on campaigns to the north-west, and in northern Syria. Ashur-nasir-pal (B.C. 885-86o) waged war on every side, and removed the government from Ashur to Calah (Nimroud), where he built a palace and patronised art. His son Shalmaneser II (B.C. 86o-825) made himself master of Western Asia from Media to the Mediterranean, and from Armenia to the Persian Gulf, and then the Assyrians first came into conflict with the Israelites. It was during the campaign mentioned in I Kings xix. that Jehu, King of Israel, sent tribute to the King of Assyria. Tiglath-Pileser III (B.C. 745-727), referred to in 2 Kings xv. as Pul, extended his empire to the borders of Egypt and, as ally of Ahaz, King of Judah, made Hoshea, King of Israel, his vassal. Sargon (B.C. 722-705), most famous of Assyrian kings, was the first to defeat the army of the Egyptians, and like many a conqueror, ancient and modern, he was also a great builder, as is testified by his magnificent palace at Khorsabad (p. 54), and by his buildings at Calah and Nineveh. Sennacherib (B.C. 705–681), the famous son of Sargon, invaded Syria, defeated the Egyptian army, entered Judaea, laid siege to Jerusalem and forced King Hezekiah to pay tribute taken from the treasure of the Temple. In 2 Kings xix. there is a graphic record of the destruction of Sennacherib's army, probably by the plague, during his second campaign in Palestine. We read that the " Angel of the Lord went out and smote in the camp of the Assyrians . and behold they were all dead corpses." A wiser and a sadder man, King Sennacherib retreated to wage wars nearer home, and having destroyed Babylon in B.C. 689, and defeated the Greeks in Cilicia, he settled in Nineveh to worship his gods and to build a mighty palace, and was there assassinated by his sons. Esarhaddon, his son (B.C. 681–668), fought against Arabs and Medes, invaded Phcenicia, Edom, and Cilicia, and conquered Lower Egypt in B.C. 672. He too built great palaces at Calah (Nimroud) and Nineveh, and also temples to the gods. Ashur-banipal (B.C. 668–6z6) fought three campaigns in Egypt and sacked Thebes (B.C. 666). He extended the boundaries of his kingdom on the north and south, and the records of his last campaign were sculptured on the wall slabs of his palace at Nineveh, which are now in the British Museum. The Empire was then at the height of its power, but in B.C. 634, with the incursions of the Medes, decline set in until in B.C. 606 Nineveh was captured and destroyed, and the Assyrian Empire divided. The new Babylonian Empire only lasted for seventy years. Nebuchadnezzar II (B.C. 605–562) is famous for the destruction of Jerusalem and for the Babylonian captivity (B.C. 597–538), and is lastingly associated with the wonders of Babylon, its palaces, hanging gardens, and towered walls. After a short series of weak rulers, Babylon itself, under Belshazzar, to whom the prophet Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall (Dan. v.), was captured by the Persian King Cyrus in B.C. 538.

(c) Persian period (B.C. 538–333). The domination of Persia over Western Asia, and her struggles for a further extension of power, record her contact with Greece and Egypt. After the capture of Babylon (B.C. 538), Cyrus made war on Croesus, King of Lydia, and then the Greek colonists in Asia Minor fell under the rule of Persia. Cambyses (B.C. 529–5z1), his son, extended the Persian conquests to Egypt, and there seems no doubt that the impression produced by the marvellous buildings of Memphis and Thebes caused the introduction of the column into Persian architecture, though in the somewhat grotesque form seen in the halls of Susa and Persepolis. Next came Darius (B.C. 521–485), who carried Persian arms into Europe as far as the Danube. He also hankered after Greece, and in B.C. 494 captured Miletus, destroying the famous Ionic temple (p. 102). He defeated the allied Greeks at Ephesus, but was him-self defeated at Marathon (B.C. 490). Xerxes (B.C. 485–465), who pursued the same ambition, met with defeat by the Greeks, not only in the sea battle of Salamis (B.C. 480), but also in the land battle at Plata (B.C. 479). Under Alexander the Great (B.C. 333–323) Western Asia became a Greek province. Persia, however, after Alexander's death, passed under the Seleucid (B.C. 312–280) and Sassanian (A.D. 226–642) dynasties, and after the Arab conquest in A.D. 642 there arose various Perso-Mahometan dynasties which made Bagdad a new capital of great magnificence. All this intercourse and intermingling of nations and races, which in the earliest times was generally warlike in character, naturally had its effect in an intermingling of architectural features in the different countries (pp. 58, 832).

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