Architecture and sculpture

Better preserved than monuments in the great cities of Antioch and Edessa are rural monuments in Syria, especially those of the limestone massif of the north. In the fourth to sixth centuries this was a well populated area, at the peak of its prosperity in the second half of the sixth century, just before it was abandoned in the early seventh century because of Islamic incursion. The now 'dead cities' had been, under the Byzantine Empire, thriving towns, villages and communities of farmers. Their estates and smallholdings depended on the production and export of grain and wine, and of olive oil in particular. Their architecture in stone is a case study in the organization, settlement patterns and buildings of a self-sufficient society, as it emerged out of the Greco-Roman world, adopted Christianity and adapted its physical environment to its economic, physical and spiritual needs.

Although there were close links between Syrian and Byzantine architecture it would be a mistake to deny the former's independent features. These include the almost exclusive use of stone, in preference to the brick and mortar of Byzantine architecture. Design elements are different too, the emphasis being on the exterior of the building, with its sculpted bands and lintels, as opposed to the interior of the church, as in Byzantium. There were no galleries, and relics were kept in separate chapels rather than under the altar as in the West. The Eucharist was kept in a niche in the sanctuary wall, and several churches had ablution fountains. A particularly characteristic piece of liturgical furniture found in some Syrian churches was the bema. Sited in the centre of the nave, this low, semicircular, enclosed, platform had a door on the east side and a pulpit structure on the west side, where biblical lessons were read, sermons given and psalms sung.

Settlements in towns and villages arose organically, but with a number of common architectural elements. Churches were built - with separate structures functioning as martyr's chapels and baptisteries - alongside houses, communal and administrative buildings, funerary monuments and baths. Monasteries, originally comprising a group of hut cells around a chapel, developed into a standard arrangement of the conventual church, communal buildings, areas of habitation and tombs; examples are at Deir Turmanin, Kafr Derian and Deir Sim'an. In the case of pilgrimage shrines an additional lodge or upper room was sometimes located over the entrance to the holy place or tomb of the saint, for monks or visitors to commune with the saint. The ecclesiastical and the secular rubbed shoulders; bazaars and inns were particularly well preserved between

Antioch and Aleppo, in, for example, Dar Oita, which was restored in 436. In some places, for example at Sergilla (473) and Babisqa, these secular establishments also included baths.

The first churches were house churches, the earliest example being that of Oirqbize, dating from the beginning of the fourth century. Rectangular in shape, it is orientated from east to west, with separate entrances for men and for women on the south side. Basilicas became the prevalent architectural form in the mid-fourth century. By the end of that century the basilica was prescribed as rectangular, on an east-west axis, twice as long as broad, with a nave and aisles supported on two rows of columns supporting arches, on the top of which were walls rising from the nave with windows at the top. The apse was vaulted and flanked by two side chambers, that to the north the diaconicon or sacristy, that to the south the martyr's chapel. At the end of the fourth century other features appear, including an external baptistery, lodging house, and tower.

One of the main structural elements of Syrian churches that developed in this area was that of the piers supporting arches, a feature which first appears in the basilica at Oalb Lozeh, and which divides its nave and two side aisles. Other characteristic features of this church were the flat wooden roof of the nave, with a double-pitched roof outside and a tiled sloping roof over each of the side naves, the tripartite narthex, the sculpted decoration around the doorways, and the protruding apse at the east end with engaged columns (Figure 19.1).

External architectural decoration was, indeed, a special feature of Syrian ecclesiastical architecture. Over time this decoration became increasingly elaborate, comprising moulding running around lintels, articulating the length of the structure's fa├žade, windows, lintels, and doors, as well as carved capitals. Consistency between various churches and groups of churches suggests that the same teams of masons and stonecutters were employed. While these are anonymous, the names of some architects are known. Fragmentary painted plaster has been found in some churches, indicating that they were once painted; examples are the central nave at Oalb Lozeh, the south branch of the cruciform church at Oal'at Sim'an, and along the exterior wall surface of the church of Taqle. Mosaics would also have been employed, probably made by workers coming from the towns. A prominent example of the early use of mosaic work by Miaphysites is in the Church of Mar Gabriel near Oartmin in the T 'ur cAbdin. Commissioned by the Emperor Anastasius in 512 the sanctuary vault show s vines issuing from amphorae placed in the four corners, on a gold ground, with crosses in the centre, east and west. The lunette on the south side depicts an altar with eucharistic vessels, under a ciborium lit by hanging lamps. Cypress trees on either side symbolize paradise. Here the triumph over death was expressed through a metaphorical representation of the liturgy.

The most famous site in Northern Syria, lying about 60 km north of Antioch, is that of St Symeon Stylites at Oal'at Sim'an. This site commemorates the stylite saint, Symeon the Elder, who lived on a column, attracting people from far and wide to come and benefit from his wisdom. At his death in 459 the body of St Symeon was taken to Antioch where it was, according to the chronicler John Malalas, eventually housed in a purpose-built church. But in 476 work commenced at the pilgrimage centre around his column to accommodate the crowds who continued to visit it. The column was encased within a structure topped with an octagonal drum, most probably open to the sky. Extending from it, placed symmetrically, are four basilicas, faced with porticoes (Figure 19.2). Although no liturgical descriptions of Oal'at Sim'an exist, it is certain that the eastern basilica was used for the eucharistic liturgy, thereby functioning as a sanctuary, while the faithful occupied the other three arms of the church. The octagon therefore occupied the same position - although not of course function - as the bema in other Syrian churches. Ornamental sculpted bands and sculpted mouldings are characteristic of churches of the area. It remained an important shrine until its almost total destruction by the Hamdanid emir of Aleppo in 985.

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