Church Buildings in Asia. Syria and Armenia

It is in the province of Syria that these developments can most easily be observed, particularly in areas where the remote and hilly nature of the country has acted as a guarantee against subsequent rebuilding. Antioch, the capital, has little to show and the churches discovered nearby display a classical sophistication of the kind that varies little around the coasts of the Aegean. Further inland a robust, practical style of building gradually yields to the charm of Greek refinement while maintaining its characteristic sturdiness and a certain discipline in applying ornament only to those parts of a church where it was deemed appropriate.

The type of material lying to hand dictated the local characteristics; buildings of the chalky heights of northern Syria differ markedly from those in the Hauran district in the south, where slabs of basalt form the roofs of thin elongated churches built on a framework of arches thrown across the nave. But for all the local differences, churches in Syria bear a strong family resemblance to one another. Made from large blocks of stone, admirably cut and laid, they merge easily with their surroundings and rely for their effect upon sensible proportion rather than upon architectural novelties.

Unlike pagan temples standing apart in lordly isolation, most Syrian churches combine with the houses around them to make up a community of dwellings. It is an unsafe generalization to maintain that the simpler buildings are necessarily the oldest, but the first primitive type of church, consisting of a single nave, is barely to be distinguished from an ordinary private house or from the andron, the village meeting hall which served the purposes of a covered market. And the church is often but one of a group of related structures including a baptistery, a residence for the clergy and a storeroom.

Private houses in Syria were customarily built as cubes with one or two rooms on the ground floor and a portico fronting them; this pattern was repeated, if necessary, in a second or third storey. The little church of Qirk Bizze, in the mountains about forty miles east of Antioch, is of precisely the same general type and, reasonably enough, archaeologists at first interpreted it as a villa parallel with a second house separated from it by a narrow lane. Built almost certainly in the middle of the fourth century, it is typical of the next stage in church development that follows on the primitive adaptation at Dura, even though some of the interior furnishings may have been added rather later.

Qirk Bizze church, set within a walled courtyard, consists of a rectangle forming a single room, 13 metres long by 5.5 metres wide. In common with many other Syrian churches, it has no western entrance, but there are two doorways on the south side, the eastern being the more ornate. The interior shows signs of well-developed ecclesiastical usage. There is an ambo of horseshoe form, equipped with a bench and, at the middle point, a simple throne for bishop or reader, the whole structure occupying what must have been an inconveniently large part of the floorspace. The entry to the square-ended sanctuary was marked by two steps and by a triumphal arch, later modified to include a screen with columns and doorways. An opening to the south of the sanctuary led into a small rectangular martyr-shrine, while a few receptacles for relics, of indeterminate date, were found in the sanctuary itself.

Unpretentious churches of the Qirk Bizze type, looking from the outside like so many private houses but lavishly arranged for liturgical uses within, are the natural product of Syria as of other countrified districts, but the increasing wealth and ambition of the Christian communities, together with a certain inventiveness and taste, caused churches to acquire marked variation in size and complexity while still following one general pattern. Development can be traced the more easily since a number of Syrian churches bear an inscription which records the date of their foundation and occasionally the name of the architect who was the leading craftsman in a guild of itinerant stonemasons.

A certain Julianus, for example, was responsible for the great church at Brad in the period 395-402 ad. This establishment is on a very different scale from Qirk Bizze. The overall length, omitting the western portico, is 39 metres and the width of 27 metres is divided by rows of eight columns into nave and two side aisles. A horseshoe ambo occupies a large part of the central nave while the sanctuary assumes what came to be the standard Syrian form—a wide but shallow semicircular apse flanked by rectangular sacristies on either side. The attractiveness of the church lies in the precision of its proportions rather than in any elaborate treatment of the squared ashlar blocks of which it is composed. It has an exceptionally large number of entrances—four on the south, two on the north and three at the west end—but only the central doorway on the west side has anything like a formal frame.

The decoration within is limited to the triumphal arch in front of the apse and to the capitals on top of the columns. To the south of the church extends a huge courtyard, irregular in form and marked off by columns while at each end of this enclosure there arises a cluster of such buildings as a clergy residence and a hostel for visitors. A martyr-shrine was attached to the north-east corner of the church perhaps a century after the original construction, and the whole site was clearly designed with some magnificence for a varied round of vigorous activity.

A greater refinement distinguishes the work of Marcianus Cyris, who produced a group of churches along the mountain route eastwards from Antioch to Aleppo during the period 390-420 ad. Marcianus retains the prevailing style of Syrian architecture: a robust structure composed of large stone blocks, a threefold nave divided on each side by .half a dozen columns with lofty arches, a sanctuary apse kept within the squared end of the building and entered by way of a decorated triumphal arch. But windows tend to become more frequent and greater richness is shown in the bands of decoration which frame the doorways. These may include a string of pearls, intertwining ribbons, a sort of dog-tooth moulding, flourishes of laurel-leaves—all surviving examples of the late Greek spirit translated into the sturdier and more sombre idiom of the Middle East.

 






Date added: 2022-12-11; views: 247;


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