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West Asiatic Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1917 )

The ancient architecture of Western Asia of the historical period was being developed from about B.C. 4000 to the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in the fourth century before Christ.

In the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, stone and timber suitable for building were rare. There was, however, abundance of clay which, compressed in moulds and dried in the sun, was the material used for the palace platforms, which were faced with either sun-dried or kiln-burnt bricks. The Babylonians clothed their walls with a coat of glazed brickwork of many colours, whereas the Assyrians generally used slabs of glowing alabaster, on which they displayed those delicate carvings which are not only prized for their artistic qualities, but also give much valuable information. In both cases rough brickwork formed the core to which ornament was applied, in the same way that walls are covered with tapestry hangings. A form of wall ornament at Khorsabad was obtained by the constant repetition of half-columns or gigantic reedings, like half-tree trunks standing side by side, and it is tempting to refer this to a tree origin, were it not for the scarcity of timber in Babylonia and Assyria (p. 47 F). The arch, formed by corbelled horizontal courses or with radiating voussoirs (p. 47 C), was probably hit upon accidentally, and it may indeed be assumed that the arch was first resorted to by builders who, like the Chaldaeans, were compelled to employ small units of materials, such as bricks, because, unlike that of Egypt and Greece, the local geological formation did not supply stone in blocks of sufficient size to span wide openings. Arches therefore, whether used for vaulted drains under the platforms, or for palace entrances, were important features (p. 47 D). Columns were not used, for want of suitable stone, and indeed neither Babylonians nor Assyrians used stone constructively as did Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The imposing effect produced by towering masses of palace buildings and stepped ziggurats, planted on great platforms and approached by broad stairways and ramps from the plains below, must be left to the imagination ; but we can see, in the British Museum, not only colossal winged bulls that once flanked a palace portal, but also carved alabaster slabs which paved an audience chamber, and sculptured bas-reliefs from palace walls (p. 62).

Persia inherited many architectural forms from Assyria, and also borrowed some from Egypt and Asiatic Greece. Stone, which was abundant in the rocky upland country, was used in the many-columned palaces of Susa and Persepolis, and the ornate stone capitals may have been elaborated from a primitive wooden post and bracket supporting a cross beam (p. 56 B, D). These Persian palaces seem to have rivalled all that preceded them ; and they were the outcome of that love of beauty and luxurious surroundings that have been imaged in the later verses of Omar Khayyam. The glamour of mystery lies over these vanished palaces, but we can partly reconstruct them in imagination, for, though the bricks have returned to the mud whence they came, we know some-thing of the stone columns, window architraves, and monumental entrances of those light and airy palaces. We know too how the lovely Persian rose had its place in delicate floral design, while the gleaming blues and greens of antique Persian wall tiles make us realise indeed that " a thing of beauty is a joy for ever." Little was known of West Asiatic architecture till the nineteenth century, when excavations by Botta, Place, Layard, Loftus, Rawlinson and others have given some idea of their extent and character.

In Asia Minor there are remains of stone monuments of uncertain date with clear indications of a timber origin, both in design and detail. This is specially true of the two Lycian tombs in the British Museum (p. 18), one of which has a double podium supporting a sarcophagus with an arched roof, and here the stonework faithfully reproduces notched beams, tightening wedges and rafter ends of timber, and indeed a timber origin seems more likely in this fertile land than it would be in the alluvial swamps of Babylonia or of Assyria. A study of these Lycian tombs suggests afresh that aspect of architectural character in relation to nature forms which has already been traced in considering the temples of Egypt (p. 21). There are also various theories as to the influence of timber forms on Greek architecture, and it is significant that the reproduction of timber forms in stone was practised by the Bactrian Greeks in India in the second century B.C. (p. 789). Timber may then have been the original material in general use for primitive buildings, but it soon gave way to the more durable stone, and the nature of this material eventually governed architectural character.

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