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The Most Important Buildings of Early Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic Cultures

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The Most Important Buildings of Early Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic Cultures

We have been impacted every parts of our lives by influence of Early Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic cultures, which is not only architecture but religion, art, and so on. Especially, influence of these cultures can be found all over the world in today’s architecture. Before talking about the architectural importance of these cultures, we should briefly know the relationship among these three cultures in terms of historical views. The start point of the three cultures was Early Christian culture, produced by Christians or under Christian patronage between about 350 and 525. After 550 at the latest, Christian architecture is classified as Byzantine, or of some other regional type, and the Islamic architecture was heavily influenced by the Byzantine architecture. As the following of historical times, the three cultures are inseparable factors each other. These factors have descended to today’s architecture.

First of all, as the start point of these three cultures, Early Christian culture is one of the important periods that show how these cultures had descended. Christian architecture developed drastically from its lowly beginnings through its illustrious history. Early Christians held meetings in converted Roman houses. The exterior would appear as a common Roman dwelling, marked only by the Cross painted above the door. The insides, however, were decorated and painted with Christian symbols and Biblical accounts. As Christianity became more accepted, they were able to experiment with their buildings. Like these historical factors, there is a significant Early Christian buildings; Old St. Peter’s in Rome [1]. Since many of the graves in Rome were at the outskirts of the city or in cemeteries outside the walls, the Christianization of Rome created an entirely new geographical profile previously unheard-of in the history of Western urbanization. It was no longer a forum, agora, or palace that dominated the city and its image, but rather the dozens of monasteries, baptisteries, and churches scattered in clusters in the farther reaches of the city and its environs.

Whereas the St. John Lateran in Rome [2] is a basilica that had been established by imperial flat as the official ecclesiastical seat of the Pope, Bishop of Rome, it continues to serve as the political, religious, and administrative center of the Church. Constantine founded the original church over the tomb of St. Peter around 320 CE. Though a basilica, St. Peter’s had a slightly different shape than St. John Lateran, reflecting its status as a martyrium. A broad flight of stairs led to the atrium, built on a vast platform over the sloping ground. The platform itself was constructed over a Roman necropolis, with the tops of the various tomb structures cut off and the intermediate spaces filled in. The church itself, because of its use, was 112 meters in Lateran. The nave can be described as a covered street with colonnades on both sides. The columns were not built for the church but were taken from pre-Christian Roman buildings. The nave became a place where those who could afford the cost could be buried, and the floors were soon carpeted with graves. Part street, part graveyard, and part sanctuary, on feast days, it became the site of boisterous family celebrations. The rather dark nave, illuminated only by high clerestory windows, led not to an apse, as at St. John Lateran, but to a large transept, which was a unique space. As its focus, over the tomb of St. Peter in the crypt below and just in front of the apse, was a baldachino, or canopy, resting on four columns.

Though today the nave-and-transept combination might seem common, that was not the case in the 4th century. The transept only became ubiquitous after the Carolingians made it a central part of their churches in differentiated the more popular martyrium church from an imperial basilica like St. John Lateran. The building’s significance lies in part in the difficulties involved in its construction. The use of concrete had by that time been forgotten, and vaulting was thus impossible. The art of stone masonry itself was diminished; even for a building commissioned by the emperor, the columns had to be taken from Roman buildings. Despite these limitations, and perhaps even because of them, the building achieved directness and majesty; it was one of the first buildings in the evolving Mediterranean world that was meant from its inception to highlight the mass appeal of the new religion. This was no dark and imitate “house of the gods” in the Hellenistic tradition, nor was it a place of personal reflection in the Buddhistic sense. Rather, it was a space in which large-scale communal ritual overlapped with the message of imperial glory.

Moreover, Byzantine architecture is one of three major forces in the architectural world during the Middle Ages of Europe. Chronologically, the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. This date marks the beginning of the Middle Ages. However, before its fall, the empire was divided into the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. In 476, the “Western Roman Empire” fell, while the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capital became Constantinople, preserved Roman culture (and architecture) and became the Byzantine Empire. Though this civilization wasn’t the first to concentrate their architecture on religious themes, it was a strong feature among Byzantine architects (as with any aspect of medieval society). Most works were to glorify the Church, in this case, the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Emperor. Also, there are two important buildings of Byzantine architecture; one is the Hagia Sophia (“sacred wisdom,” 532-37CE), and another is St. Vitale, Ravenna. Firstly, the Hagia Sophia [3] was, from the date of its opening, considered one of the greatest buildings in the Western world.

Little is known for certain about its predecessor, which was dedicated by Constantine in 360 CE but damaged in civil strife. For the new church, Justinian called in Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, who produced a daring and lofty domed structure still largely intact today. Sheathed in marble and gold, its splendor made it one of the most talked about buildings in the Christian world. One visitor, Procopius, writing in the 6th century, when the building was newly finished, stated, “The dome must surely seem not to rest upon solid masonry but to cover the space beneath with its golden dome suspended from heaven.” Some skeptics thought they had been right when an earthquake destroyed the dome in 557 CE, barely twenty years after its dedication. But undaunted, Justinian had a new one built, though the second one was more steeply pitched. The structural system is simple but ingenious. A 30-meter square forms the center. At the corner, piers rise up to support four arches, between which are pendentives that hold a dome scalloped with forty ribs. Windows line the base of the dome, making it seem to float. The east and west arches are closed off with a screen of columns and windows. The undersides of the east and west arches, however, seem to have blown away, allowing one to look into vast, three-apsed buildings on both sides.

The only difference between east and west is that on the eastern side, the final 8 meters of the apse boldly project from the perimeter wall that otherwise, like a box, contains its precious spatial cargo. The deep galleries on the north and south, which form spacious corridors parallel to the nave, help create the sense of drama that pervades the building. From a structural point of view, they serve to divide the buttressing into segments. The vaults, made of brick, are think and lightweight. There is still considerable uncertainty about the statics that govern the building’s integrity, because the semi-domes are too thin to be of much assistance. But the combination of supporting half-domes, quarter-domes, and massive piers were enough, and in the days before computers and earthquake impact studies, the audacity of the system is remarkable. Later, from the 8th century on, various types of buttresses were added to the exterior to prevent problems. The use of windows is similarly complex. The window at the east end of the apse, the lights along the base of the dome, and those on the north and south all allow light to stream directly into the nave. But the large windowless openings under the supporting arch at the west end are filled only with grille work.

Under the north and south tympana, the colonnaded columns stand in the shadows, backlit from the windows in the outer wall. Impressive as the complex structural system of the Hagia Sophia is, the architects made every effort to make it appear effortless. The marble cladding and the mosaics would have obliterated any sense of oppression or weight. From the dark-gray marble of the pavement to green marble with white veins, dark-blue marble with yellow veins, and reddish columns, to the silver and gold of the mosaics, the eye moves from surface to surface as if structure simply did not exist. The first dome was covered with a gold mosaic. The second one had a large figure of a cross embedded in its decoration. The windows were filled with glass tinted blue, red, green, brown, yellow, and purple. The light was thus a subdued one. Even the patterned marble floor, unlike the floor of the Pantheon, denies a sense of stability and has been described by ancient commentators as a wavy sea. Though a good deal of the marble panels has survived, few of the mosaics have, since most were taken down or plastered over during its conversion to a mosque. From the outside, with its staggered heaping of volumes, a visitor would not expect an interior space of this dimension and scale.

In fact, past the narthex the space rises forcefully, creating the feeling of being at the bottom of a vast canyon, with the church floor a type of stage on which the Entrance of the Mysterires was performed. Nighttime illumination must also have been impressive. From the base of the dome, brass chains swept down to support a metal ring equipped with flat silver disks pierced to hold glass vessels for oil lamps. Within this vast candelabrum hung another, smaller crown of lights, while higher up, a great silver disk acted as a reflector. The church was sited just north of the palace complex at the terminus of the main avenue that ran through the city. Apart from the Hagia Sophia, very little of the palace survives today. Plus, a building that is often quoted as a parallel to SS. Serguis and Bacchus is the Basilica of St. Vitale (538-45CE) in Ravenna [4]. It was built during the brief time in the 6th century when Ravenna was the seat of Theodoric’s rule as titular head of the Western Empire. It was financed by a wealthy local banker whose monogram appears on the capitals of the ground floor. St. Vitale, known as a prime example of Byzantine architecture in the West, is clearly linked iconographically to Constantinople. The central area is an octagon supported by piers, between which double-height bays swell out and away from the center. The surfaces were richly decorated with marble panels and mosaics of extraordinary splendor and grandeur, in the Byzantine style.

Though the double-shell plan with its wedge-shape piers is similar to SS. Sergius and Bacchus [5], at St. Vitale a prosthesis and diaconicon were added to the north and south of the apse. The sanctuary is also given greater prominence and is more remote from the central space. The ambulatory and gallery were originally not vaulted, placing greater emphasis on the piers, which are buttressed to their backs. To compensate for the mass of the piers, the architects replaced the rhythmic alternation of semicircular and straight screens with a continuous row of semicircular niches, which are deeper than the ones at SS. Sergius and Bacchus and thus give the space an airier feeling. The dome of St. Vitale has more or less the same width as that of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. It is, however, considerably higher and more vertical in proportion: the bottom of the dome and the top of the arches underneath are separated by several meters and do not touch, as they do at SS. Sergius and Bacchus. The exterior is of plain brick, as was typical of Byzantine architecture, but unlike Armenian architecture, the dome is not visible from the outside. Today the basilica is most famous for its Byzantine-type mosaics showing a solemn and stately procession in which Emperor Justinian and his consort, representing regal authority, bring offerings.

Lastly, Islamic architecture has encompassed a wide range of both secular and religious styles from the foundation of Islam to the present day, influencing the design and construction of buildings and structures within the sphere of Islamic culture. The principle architectural types of Islamic architecture are; the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace and the Fort. From these four types, the vocabulary of Islamic architecture is derived and used for buildings of lesser importance such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture. In terms of historical views, in 630C.E. Muhammad’s army reconquered the city of Mecca from the Banu Quraish tribe. The holy sanctuary of Ka’ba was rebuilt and re-dedicated to Islam, the reconstruction being carried out before Muhammad’s death in 632C.E. by a shipwrecked Abyssinian carpenter in his native style.

This sanctuary was amongst the first major works of Islamic architecture. The walls were decorated with paintings of Jesus, Mary, Abraham, prophets, angels and trees. Later doctrines of Islam dating from the eighth century and originating from the Hadith, forbade the use of such icons in architecture, specifically those of humans and animals. In the 7th century, Muslim by time the religion of Islam spread throughout the region. The Muslim’s first need was for somewhere to worship – a mosque. The simple layout provided elements that were to be incorporated into all mosques and the early Muslims put up simple buildings based on the model of the Prophet’s house or adapted existing buildings, such as churches for their own use. One of the most important buildings is the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem [6].

With the Islamic conquest of Palestine and Jerusalem in the third decade of the 7th century, Caliph Abd al-Malik brought in the best masons and craftsmen available to design the Dome of the Rock, which is today the oldest Islamic building to have survived intact in its original form. Completed in 691 CE, it encloses a huge rock at its center, the highest point of Mt. Moriah, from which, according to tradition, the prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven at the end of his Isra to Jerusalem. In the older, Jewish tradition, this is the Foundation Stone, the symbolic
underpinning upon which the world was created, as well as the place of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. This same location is also where numerous important events in the life of Christ are believed to have occurred. The site is therefore holy to the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions. The building, which is Byzantine in conception and Sassaninan in ornamentation, can be entered on all four points of the compass. The dome reaches 20 meters across the rock and is borne on a drum that rests on a double system of pillars and columns, the middle one circular, the outer one octagonal. The two rings, composed of piers and columns, are rotated so that the four piers of the inner ring face the arches of the outer octagonal ring, creating a dynamic interplay between square and circular geometries. The dome and drum are not of brick or stone, but of wood.

The dome is covered with golden copper-alloy plates, and the drum with shimmering mosaic patterns of blue, red, green, and gray. The interior, in the Byzantine manner, was decorated with mosaics, with a marble veneer in the lower section. Though technically a mosque, the building is much more. It is not only a geometrical and paradisiacal enclosure and a celebration of a spot of particular reverence but also a parallel to the Ka’aba in Mecca. Unlike that building, which can be circumambulated but not entered, this one can indeed be entered; yet because of the presence of the rock, the center of the building remains inaccessible. Furthermore, on gazes not at a rock, but at the peak of the mount; the architecture thus creates the feeling of suspending the viewer in space around that peak. The history of the building site has been much debated. It was first consecrated by the Israelites when they built the First and Second Temples. After the Second Temple was razed by the Romans in 70 CE, Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter there that was perhaps connected to an octagonal structure that served as the foundation of the Dome of the Rock; but this has not yet been archaeologically proven. The crusaders consecrated the building as a Catholic church, but with their defeat, the site reverted back to Islam.

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