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EARLY CHRISTIAN WORK IN CENTRAL SYRIA

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Originally appearing in Volume V02, Page 391 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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EARLY CHRISTIAN WORK IN CENTRAL SYRIA Contemporaneously with the early developments of the Christian churches just described, another line of treatment was being evolved in central Syria, which would seem to have been quite independent of the others, though at first sight it hears considerable resemblance to the Byzantine style, and for that reason was probably classedand described under that head by Fergusson. But the leading characteristic of the Byzantine style is the dome over the centre of the church round which all other features are grouped, whereas in central Syria, with the exception of two examples—one a circular, the other a polygonal church—there are no domes. There is considerable Greek feeling in the mouldings and carvings of the capitals, but that is probably due to the fact that the masons were originally of Greek extraction. A comparison, for instance, of the design and carving of the largest church in central Syria, the famous building erected round the column of St Simeon Stylites at Kalat-Seman, dating from the 6th century, with any Byzantine church of the same date, shows very little resemblance, because the former was inspired more or less directly by the Roman remains in the country. A similar inspiration is found in the churches of St Trophime at Arles and St Gilles in the south of France, and at Autun and Langres in Burgundy. Both were founded on Roman work, and the mouldings of the pediments and archivolts and the fluting of the pilasters at Kalat-Seman, of the 6th century, are identical with what is found, quite independently, in Provence and Burgundy in the iith and 12th centuries. There is, however, another special characteristic found in the masonry of the churches in central Syria, which is peculiar to the whole of Palestine, and is found in the earliest remains there, as also in Roman work, and to a certain extent in much of the Mahommedan construction and in that of the Crusaders, viz. its megalithic qualities. Instead of building an arch in several voussoirs, they preferred to do it in three or five only, and sometimes would cut the whole arch out of a single vertical slab. If they employed voussoirs, they were not content with ordinary depth, shown by the archivolt mouldings, but made them three or four times as deep. The masons, in fact, would seem to have retained the traditional Phoenician custom of the country to employ the largest stones they were able to quarry, transport and raise on the building. Subsequently, in working down the masonry, they reproduced the architectural features they found in Roman buildings; this was done, however, without any knowledge as to their constructional origin or meaning; thus, in copying a Roman pilaster, the capital and part of the shaft would be worked out of one stone, and the lower part of the shaft and the base out of another. It is only from this point of view that we can account for the peculiar development given to the decoration of their later work, where archivolts, wood mouldings and window dressings are looked upon as simply surface decoration to be applied round doorways and windows, without any reference to the jointing of the masonry. The immense series of monuments, civil as well as religious existing throughout central Syria, were almost entirely unknown before the publication of the marquis of Vogue's work, La Syrie centrale, in 1865-1867. This work, illustrated with measured plans, sections and elevations, with perspective views, and accompanied by detailed descriptions of the various buildings, forms an invaluable record of an architectural style, more or less completely developed, which flourished from the 3rd to the beginning of the 7th century. An American archaeological expedition made further investigations in 1899-1900, and its report, written by Mr H. C. Butler, contains additional plans and a large number of photogravures, which bear testimony to the truth and accuracy of the engraved plates of the marquis de Vogue. The preservation of these central Syrian remains, more or less intact, is considered to have been due either to the desertion of all the towns in which they were situated by the in-habitants at the time of the Mahommedan invasion, or, according to Mr H. C. Butler, to the deforesting of the whole country about the commencement of the 7th century. The monuments and buildings illustrated may be divided into three classes,—ecclesiastical, including monasteries; civil and domestic; and tombs. It is in the two first that the principal interest is centred. Churches.—The earliest of these date from the end of the 4th century, and the latest inscription on a church is 609, so that a little over 200 years includes the whole series. With one or two small exceptions all the churches follow the basilican plan, with nave and aisles separated by arcades, the arches of which are carried by columns, four arches on each side in the smaller churches, ten in the largest. The churches are all orientated, and have generally a semi-circular apse, and occasionally a square or rectangular sanctuary at the east end, on either side of which are square chambers,—the diaconicon, reserved for the priests, on the south side, and the prothesis, on the north side, in which the offerings of the faithful were deposited. Except in the earliest churches, the entrance was generally at the west end, and was sometimes preceded by a porch. In addition to the west entrance, there were sometimes doorways leading direct into the north and south aisles, with projecting porticoes. About the middle of the 6th century a change was made in the design of the arcades in the nave, and rectangular piers with arches of wide span were substituted for the ordinary arcade with columns. The effect as shown in the engravings and photogravures is so fine that it is strange that the scheme was never adopted in the earlier Romanesque churches of Europe. The two more important examples are at Kalb-Lauzeh (fig. 31) and Ruweiha, but three or four others are known, and this plan was adopted in the basilica erected in the great court of the temple at Baalbek. All the churches are built in fine ashlar masonry, with moulded archivolts and architraves to doorways and windows, and moulded string courses and cornices of simple design. The principal decoration externally is found in the hood-mould or label round the windows, continued as a string-course and carried round other windows, and sometimes terminating in a disk with cross in centre. These hood-moulds are occasionally richly carved. All the churches in central Syria had open timber roofs which have now disappeared; this is proved by the sinkings in the end walls to receive the purlins, and the corbels provided to carry the tie beams. The apses were always covered with semi-domes. The three most important churches were those of Turmanin, Kalb-Lauzeh and Kalat-Seman. The plans of the two first are similar, except that in Turmanin the nave arcade is of the ordinary type, with seven arches carried on columns, while in Kalb-Lauzeh (fig. 32) there are three wide arches on each side carried on two rectangular piers and responds. Both have entrance porches (fig. 33), which are flanked by angle buildings carried up as towers in three storeys; these probably contained wooden stair-cases to ascend to an open gallery, which consisted of four columns in-antis between the angle towers above the porch. The north and south walls were quite plain, except for window and door dressings and string courses; the apse was richly decorated, with wall shafts superimposed between the windows, and carrying a projecting cornice with alternate corbels. The church at Ruweiha has a similar plan to that at Kalb-Lauzeh, but two transverse arches in stone are thrown across the nave, resting on abutments attached to the nave piers. The most remarkable example and by far the largest is the great basilica at Kalat-Seman (fig. 34), which was erected round the pillar on which St Simeon Stylites spent thirty years of his life. The base of the pillar stands in the centre of an immense octagonal court open to the sky. The plan consists of nave, transept and choir, all with side aisles, separated in the centre by the octagonal court which constitutes the crossing. The nave built on the side of a hill is raised on a crypt, and the principal entrance would seem to have been through the porch of the north transept, which occupies the full width of transept and aisles. There were, however, in addition two doorways with porches to each aisle, as well as portico and doors to the north transept. At the eastern end were three apses, the two outer ones, facing the aisles, being additions in the second half of the 6th century. St Simeon died in 459, and the church was probably begun shortly afterwards, but not completed till the 6th century. The archivolts of the great arches on each side of the octagonal court consist of architrave, frieze and cornice, copied from the arch of the propylaea at Baalbek or other Roman work. Here, as in the great southern porch, the classic nature of the detail9 is remarkable, the pilasters are all fluted, and the modillion and dentil, derived from Roman models, exist throughout. On the other hand, the carving of the foliage was certainly executed by Greek artists, and the well-known Byzantine capital, with the leaves bending under the influence of the wind, is here reproduced. The great apse externally retains its decoration with superimposed shafts and cornice, as in Turmanin and Kalb-Lauzeh. The monastery of Kalat-Seman was built on the south side of the great church, and many of the rooms had roofs of slabs of stone carried on arches across the room, a method of construction universally found in the Hauran, where the absence of timber necessitated this more permanent method of construction. The monasteries differ from the domestic work in being much plainer, and, instead of columns in the porticoes, having invariably square piers of stone. Among circular churches, the walls of the cathedral at Bozra are gone, so that the conjectural restoration shown in de Vogue's work is purely speculative, but in the church at Ezra (51o) the central octagon is covered by a high dome of elliptical section. An aisle is carried round the octagon with similar recesses on the diagonal lines; of Kalb-Lauzeh. the whole being enclosed in a square; in the apse at the east end the seats of the tribune are still preserved. Domestic Work.—The domestic work in central Syria is, in a way, even more remarkable than the ecclesiastical. Broadly speaking, there are two types of plan—those found in the towns and grouped together, and those which, with increased area, constituted a villa. At El Barah the average house occupied a site of about 8o ft. by 6o ft., of which about 30 ft. in width was occupied by an open court; facing this court, which was enclosed with high walls, is an open colonnade on two floors, which always faces south, occupies the whole front (8o ft.) of the house, and is the only means of approach to the rooms in the rear, three on each floor, side by side. In the centre of these rooms, 14 ft. wide each, an arch is thrown across on each floor. which carries slabs of stone covering the first floor and the roof ; the upper storey was reached probably by a timber staircase, now gone, but in poorer dwellings an external flight of steps in stone led to an upper floor. All the houses face the same way. The colonnade of the house consisted of about fifteen columns on each storey. Each column, including its capital and base, was cut out of a single stone; on the upper storey, between the columns, are stone vertical slabs forming a balustrade; the houses are all built in fine ashlar masonry with architraves and cornices to doors and windows, a luxury which in England could rarely be indulged in for ordinary houses. At El Barah, in an area of about 250 ft. by 15o ft. as shown by de Vogue, there are about loo monolith columns, 12 ft. high, on the ground storey alone. In a villa at El Barah the open court is surrounded on three sides by buildings, those at the east end of considerable extent and in three storeys. A smaller example at Mujeleia has two courts, one of them being for stables and other services; otherwise the residence of the proprietor is similar to the one above described. Here and there the fantasy of the artist has been allowed to revel in the carving of the balustrades, door lintels, &c. The capitals are of endless design, and show interpretations of Ionic and Corinthian capitals, in some cases not dissimilar to the Byzantine versions in St Mark's at Venice. Hostelries and public baths are amongst other civil buildings which are recognizable, the hostelries in some cases being attached to the monasteries. Tombs.—The principal tombs are either excavated in the rock, with an open court in front and an entrance portico, like the tombs of the kings at Jerusalem, and sometimes a superstructure of columns or a podium raised above them; or again they are built in masonry, and take the form of sepulchral chapels; in the latter case, if many sarcophagi have to be deposited, and the chapel is of great length, arches are thrown across, about 6 ft. centre to centre, to support the slabs of stone with which they are covered. This carries on the traditional custom of the Roman temples in Syria, the roofs of which, in stone, were similarly supported. Sometimes there will be two storeys, the upper one covered with a dome. Those which are peculiar to the country are square tombs, with a pyramidal stone roof all built in horizontal courses, and either enclosed with a peristyle all round, on one or two storeys, or having a portico in front with flat stone roof. The cornices, string courses and lintels of the doors of these tombs of the 4th and 5th centuries, are enriched with carving, showing strong Byzantine influence, though probably due to the employment of Greek artists. (R. P. S.)
End of Article: EARLY CHRISTIAN WORK IN CENTRAL SYRIA
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