Amazing articles on just about every subject...

West Asiatic Architecture - Examples

( Originally Published 1917 )

West Asiatic Architecture has been divided into three tolerably distinct periods :

The Babylonian (Chaldaean) period (c. B.C. 4000-1275).

The Assyrian period (B.C. 1275-538).

The Persian period (B.C. 538-333).


Temples of the Babylonian period, of which such surprising discoveries have recently been made—as of the plans of the Temples of Marduk, and Ashur on the sites of ancient Babylon and Ashur—seem to have formed the centre, not only of religious, but of commercial and social life, and to have served as granaries, storehouses, and even as money banks. We must exercise imagination as to their appearance, as none exist ; but the " Code " of Khammurabi tells us that numerous officials and vestal virgins were attached to them. Remarkable pyramidal towers, known as ziggurats (holy mountains) were also erected (pp. 47 A, 48 A, H, 55 A), from the summit of which the powerful class of astrologer-priests observed the heavenly bodies and formulated their prognostications. Traces of ziggurats, which were of different types, have been found on most of the Chaldaean city sites, such as Mugheir (Ur of the Chaldees), Nippur, Tello (Eninnu), and Warka (Erech) and it is noticeable that, whereas in the pyramids the sides were oriented, in the ziggurats the angles faced the cardinal points.

The Ziggurat, Birs-Nimroud (Borsippa), rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, when excavated by Sir Henry Rawlinson was in a sufficiently recognisable condition to be described as typical of others. It stood 272 ft. square, and was 160 ft. high, crowned with a temple shrine to the god Nebo. Four receding stories have been traced, round which a sloping terrace reached the top, but a cylinder record on the site shows that there had been seven stories glowing in glazed bricks of seven different colours and dedicated to the seven heavenly planets. We cannot fail to connect these Babylonian ziggurats with the Bible story of the building of the Tower of Babel. It is recorded in Genesis xi. 4 that the " children of men " attempted to build a tower which should " reach to heaven," and it is worth noting that in Egypt and Western Asia, both remarkable for their monotonous level stretches of country, man should have sought to break the sameness of the landscape by massive pyramids and terraced towers.

The City of Babylon (Babel = the gate of god) became the capital of the Empire about B.C. 2000, and was as amazing in size as in construction ; for, according to Herodotus, it occupied an area of 200 square miles —an estimate which may .well be exaggerated. The excavations of Professor L. W. King have revealed parts of the older city which indicate that, as early as B.C. 2000, there was a system of town-planning. Streets running parallel to the river were crossed by others at right angles, thus making blocks of buildings as carefully laid out as anything in the city of New York. Towers were the outstanding architectural features, and Babylon is said to have had 250 towers besides too bronze gates in its immense encircling city walls, on whose lofty crest, 300 ft. high, it is asserted that a four-horse chariot could turn. Temples there were of vast dimensions, and greatest of all was the Temple of Marduk (Baal), the city god, adjacent to a great terraced tower often assumed to be the Tower of Babel. Old Herodotus states that Babylon had its via sacra spanned by the Gate of Ishtar. The houses were three or four storeys high, while the magnificence of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar has passed into fame, chiefly by reason of its so-called " hanging gardens," which have fascinated succeeding generations by giving a Peter-Pan touch of fairydom to this ancient city. These gardens were probably raised on a series of supporting arches, some 75 ft. high, and thus carried out the desire of the Babylonians to break the monotony of their featureless, level country. The wonder of these flowering gardens was increased by the engineering skill which, according to Strabo, raised water to fertilise them by a screw pump from the Euphrates below. The great wonder-city of Babylon was doomed to destruction, and it became a quarry for the building of other towns, such as Ctesiphon and Bagdad. It had its day of pomp and power, and its name has passed into a by-word by reason of the vice and luxury which are chronicled as preceding its downfall. Whatever may have been the moral issues involved, it is quite evident from a material point of view that the mud bricks of which the whole city was built could not—like enduring stone—resist attacks of enemies, ravages of fire, or decaying influences of time and weather, and thus Babylon returned to the mud of which it was built, and only mounds now indicate its ancient site. Legends are woven round the country where the cradle of man has been located ; history emerges vaguely from chronicles, and archaeology has only recently begun to elucidate the truth about the early days of man in Mesopotamia ; but the wonders of Babylon have ever held their own with the Tower of Babel. Both have been at times almost relegated to the region of myths, but excavation and investigation have shown the reason for the Tower and the reality of Babylon.


Palaces of warrior-kings were the chief buildings of Assyria, while temples sink in importance compared with these great palaces.

Nineveh (Kouyunjik), the capital, 25o miles north of Babylon, has remains of three palaces built by Sennacherib (B.C. 705-681), Esarhaddon (B.C. 681–668), and Ashur-bani-pal (B.C. 668–626) . They were discovered by Botta (A.D. 842) and Layard (A.D. r845), and the bas-reliefs in the British Museum show not only warlike pursuits, but building operations, while some still bear traces of the action of the fire which destroyed Nineveh in B.C. 609 (pp. 47 B, 62 J).

Nimroud (Calah), the foundation of which is recorded in Gen. x. 11, twenty miles south of Nineveh, had a palace built by Ashur-nasir-pal (B.C. 885-86o), from which there are remarkable wall slabs in the British Museum (p. 62 A, E, F, G, H), another by Shalmaneser II (B.C. 86o-825), and yet another by Esarhaddon, who had built a more splendid palace at Nineveh. All these were explored by Layard in A.D. 845, and latterly by Dr. Andraea.

The Palace of Sargon, Khorsabad (B.C. 722–705) (pp. 47, 48), ten miles north-east of Nineveh, excavated in A.D. 1864 by Place, provides the best idea of Assyrian palaces. It covers the greatest area of any so far explored ; for, with its various courts, chambers, and corridors, it appears to have occupied 25 acres and to have contained some 700 rooms. Like all Assyrian palaces it stood some 50 ft. above the plain, on a plat-form of sun-dried bricks faced with stone, and was reached by broad stairways and sloping ramps for horses and chariots. The three entrance portals to the principal court were flanked with great towers and guarded by man-headed winged bulls or lions 12 ft. 6 ins. high, which supported a bold semicircular arch decorated with brilliantly coloured glazed bricks. From these massive monsters, which are now in the British Museum, it would seem that the most impressive creations of Assyrian architecture were concentrated on the palace portals, not only to inspire awe and wonder in the beholder, but to ward off the approach of evil. The palace had three distinct groups of apartments corresponding to the usual divisions of palatial residences in modern Persia, Turkey, or India, viz.: (i) the Seraglio or palace proper, which included the king's residence, state halls, men's apartments, and reception rooms, with ten courts, sixty rooms, and numerous corridors ; (ii) the Harem with the private family apartments ; and (iii) the Khan or service chambers, all arranged round the principal court of about 21 acres. In the state rooms a sculptured and perhaps coloured dado of alabaster, 9 ft. high, lined the lower portion of the walls, above which they were probably left plain. There was also the usual temple observatory or ziggurat on the west side of the platform. We conclude that, as in Egypt, sufficient light reached the interiors without the use of windows ; for none have been discovered, nor are they shown on bas-reliefs except in towers, but numerous terra-cotta pipes have been found which were probably inserted in domes, vaults, and walls to admit light and air, as they still are in the East. The method of roofing was formerly much in dispute, due to the objective association which assigned to Assyria the trabeated construction of Egypt. It will, however, be seen from the plan (p. 48 H) that only open courts are planned in squares, while covered-in rooms are long and narrow. Further, the immense thickness of walls (28 ft.) was more than was required to keep out even the heat of the Assyrian plains, and this strength was probably designed to support not timbers, but a heavy vaulted roof—a roof indeed of the same shape and structure as has been found in the drains and water channels under the platforms, as well as in the entrance arches of palaces and city gates. So far for hypothesis ; but now there come the discoveries by Place of huge blocks of compressed clay with stucco-covered soffits, which would seem to have fallen from above and would definitely suggest and enforce the conclusion that they were fragments of a roof vaulting, and that these narrow rooms were vaulted with the clay of the country and not covered with timber, which was very scarce. The internal construction was thus evidently one of walls and vaults and not of columns and architraves ; for no bases even of columns have been excavated. The vaulted nature of the roofing supported on continuous walls, which was once a disputable matter, would therefore now seem to be a proved certainty. A bas-relief found by Layard depicts buildings with domes, both spherical and elliptical, and from this it would appear that the dome, as well as the vault, was in use among the Assyrians, though to what extent we have at present no evidence (p. 47 B).


Palaces and tombs at Susa and Persepolis suggest that the Persians adopted certain features from the conquered Assyrians, such as raised platforms, sculptured monsters, slabs of bas-relief, besides glazed and coloured brickwork which it is their glory to have brought to perfection.

The Palace Platform, Persepolis (p. 56 A, C) is a remarkable structure, 1,500 ft. by 1,000 ft. in extent and 40 ft. above the plain, partly hewn out of the solid rock and partly built up of large blocks of local stone laid without mortar, but held together by metal cramps. The approach on the north-west was by a magnificent flight of steps, 22 ft. wide, shallow enough for horses to ascend. The Propylaea (p. 56 C) built by Xerxes (B.C. 485–465) formed a monumental entrance, flanked by man-headed bulls and massive piers glowing in glazed bricks, and through this gateway passed foreign ambassadors, subject princes, and royal retinues to the palaces on the platform. Among these stood out the " Hall of the Hundred Columns " (p. 55 C) built by Darius (B.C. 521-485), which, according to Plutarch, was burnt by Alexander the Great. It was probably the audience hall or throne room of the palace and was 225 ft. square, enclosed by a brick wall, I i ft. thick, in which there were some 44 doorways and windows. The walls flanking the entrance portico were enlivened with topical bas-reliefs representing the king with his retinue receiving ambassadors. The flat cedar roof was supported upon 100 columns, 37 ft. high, of which only one remains in situ, and they recall the hypostyle halls of Egyptian temples, but have a character all their own with moulded bases, fluted shafts, and curious, complex capitals with vertical Ionic-like volutes and twin bulls supporting the roof-beams (p. 56 B, D). The Palace of Darius (p. 56 C), the earliest built on the platform, was rectangular in plan with a portico of sixteen columns. The stone lintels and jambs of doors and windows, as well as the bases of the portico columns, still exist, though the rubble walls have crumbled away. The Palace of Xerxes (B.C. 485) (p. 56 C), though it consisted only of a central hall and three columned porticoes, was of great size, with an area of some 24,000 square ft. The Palace was further raised on a podium 10 ft. high, reached by four flights of steps. Columns of porticoes and hall, which originally numbered seventy-two, though only seventeen remain, were 65 ft. high with bell-shaped bases and fluted shafts. Those of the north portico and great hall had elaborate capitals of Ionic volutes set on end and surmounted by double bulls, while those of the east and west porticoes consisted only of double bulls or griffins. Flower gardens, orange groves, and summer pavilions formed the luxurious surroundings of all the palaces of Darius and Xerxes at Persepolis.

The Tomb of Darius, Naksh-i-Rustam (p. 55 B), eight miles north of Persepolis, is one of four rock-hewn sepulchres of the great Achaemenian kings, and was probably suggested to Darius (d. B.C. 485) by the Tombs of the Kings at Thebes, which he saw when serving under Cambyses in Egypt. It reproduces the facade, 50 ft. wide, of the small palace of Darius at Persepolis, with four columns of the double-bull type, central doorway with Egyptian-like cornice, and upper compartment in which two rows of figures in relief support a prayer platform surmounted by a bas-relief of the king (8 ft. high) before an altar, with uplifted arm worshipping the sun-god whose image appears above him.

Susa, the administrative capital of the ancient Persian Empire, has remains of great palaces of Xerxes and Artaxerxes, and here were found by M. Dieulafoy those world-famous friezes of glazed brickwork in green, yellow, and blue, known as the " Lion frieze " and the " Archer frieze," notable instances of the traditional beauty of Persian decoration, and now the treasures of the Louvre Museum, Paris (p. 56 F, G).

The Tomb of Cyrus, Pasargadae (B.C. 529), which that monarch made the capital of Persia, is of unusual design, with its single chamber (10 ft. by 7 ft.) perched on a high stylobate of six steps, not unlike the Lycian tombs or the small Greek temples. This little tomb has been made famous by Strabo, Herodotus, and Pliny, and was visited by Alexander the Great on his way to India, who then saw the treasures, tapestries, and gilded sarcophagus of the king which, on his return, had been desecrated and rifled.


(B.C. 312—A.D. 642)

The architecture which succeeded that of the Persians is interesting, though not of great importance, and most of our knowledge of the subject is derived from the works by Dieulafoy and Perrot and Chipiez.

The Seleucid Dynasty (B.C. 312-280), which succeeded on the death of Alexander, did not produce any noteworthy type, but during the Sassanian Dynasty (A.D. 226-642), when the principal city was Ctesiphon, a number of buildings were erected which form a connecting link between Assyrian architecture on the one hand and Byzantine on the other.

The Palace, Sarvistan (A.D. 350) (p. 61) is an interesting Sassanian building, and an idea of its general appearance may be obtained from the restored view (p. 61 G). The principal feature consisted of a triple-arched portico behind which rose a beehive dome of brick with openings for light and ventilation, and a long barrel vault over each side compartment, reminding one of Assyrian palaces. In this building the central dome over the square hall is carried by means of roughly corbelled angle semi-domes (p. 61 H), originally plastered over, while the side compartments have curious stumpy columns, supporting lofty arches.

The Palace, Feruz-abad (A.D. 450) (p. 61) was a structure of some importance, with an entrance leading into three domed halls, beyond which is a court. The transverse section (p. 61 C) shows the arrangement of the domes, and the roughly formed angular semi-domes which enable the circular domes to be applied to square compartments; while the exterior restored (p. 61 A, B) gives an idea of the general appearance of the building.

The Palace, Ctesiphon (A.D. 550) (p. 61) must have been an interesting structure, built of coloured brickwork, but is now only a ruin, consisting of a great central arched portal (p. 61 M), about 83 ft. wide, leading into a throne room, 160 ft. deep, flanked by side walls no less than 24 It. thick, and covered with a remarkable vault, elliptical in form, and obviously founded on Assyrian prototypes. The lower courses of this vault, and indeed of all Sassanian domes, appear to have been built in horizontal layers to avoid the oblique pressure resulting from radiating voussoirs. It is indeed considered probable that this great vault of brick is a reproduction of the native architecture formed with bundles of reeds and rammed earth, as built to this day in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates. The facade of this remnant of the palace (p. 61 L, m) consists of a wall 112 ft. 6 ins. high, arranged with tiers of pilasters and arches divided by string courses, not unlike Roman facades.

Discoveries of the remains of various Sassanian palaces have been made of recent years. The Palace of Khosrau II, Dastagerd, was identified in A.D. 1840 by Rawlinson, and recent visitors have told how the ruin of this and probably of many other palaces has been completed by carrying off the bricks for use in building modern villages. The ruins of Dastagerd consist of a narrow range of substructures nearly 2,000 ft. in length, massively built of large bricks and hard mortar, with rudely pointed arches, and protected at intervals by bastions on one side and fronted by porches on the other.

The architecture of the Saracens in Persia is dealt with on p. 844.


The chief characteristics of Hebrew architecture would seem to have been derived from Babylon on the east and Egypt on the west, through the seafaring and trading Phoenicians. The structural part of the style followed the Egyptian and Phoenician practice of cutting out tombs in the rock, and to this succeeded the use of huge, quarried blocks of stone, such as those in the arch which Robinson discovered in Jerusalem. The Palace of David and the Temple of Solomon, both at Jerusalem, were of the Phoenician type of architecture, a style which had its origin in cutting piers in the living rock. They were placed on a mighty natural platform partly built up on one side, like that at Persepolis. The Temple at Jerusalem was the great monumental structure commenced by Solomon (B.C. 1012), and the elaborate Biblical description of its parts (1 Kings vi—vii, and 2 Chronicles, iii—iv) mentions entrance pylons, courts, and the brazen twin columns of Jachin and Boaz. The Temple was added to by Herod (B.C. 8) and its lofty site is now partly occupied by the Dome of the Rock or so-called Mosque of Omar (p. 837).

There is little left in Syria of ancient Jewish architecture, and all has been obliterated or changed by Romans, Early Christians, Saracens, and Crusaders. The chief monuments of antiquity are the rock-cut tombs round Jerusalem and the remarkable series at the rock-cut city of Petra, numbering over 750, some of which date back to the sixth century B.C. and show Egyptian influence in pylons and cavetto cornices, while later tombs show Greek and Roman influence. These Bible countries passed successively under the influence of Greece and the rule of Rome, whose architecture, as in the group of temples at Baalbek and the temples and colonnades at Samaria (Sebastieh) is distinct from native types. The round towers of the Roman gate at Samaria have been found to have been erected on older Greek towers which had taken the place of still older Hebrew towers.

Home | More Articles | Email: