Umayyad Arches, Vaults & Domes: Merging and Re-creation. Contributions to Early Islamic Construction History Ignacio Arce
INTRODUCTION Umayyad architecture and construction techniques are, up to a point, the result of a successful eclectic merging of Late Roman traditions and Partho-Sassanian ones, due to the need to establish new cities in the conquered territories and to create a new “aulic” imagery and an appropriate architectural framework for the new power. The seizing of key areas of the Byzantine empire (Syria, Egypt) and the whole of the Sassanian one (Mesopotamia, Persia and Central Asia), provided the new rulers with two endless sources of construction traditions, artisans and materials, that blended, and gave birth to new and idiosyncratic one. This merging process between eastern and western traditions, started much earlier, but gained momentum during two key periods that correspond to the disappearance of the Levant border between East and West that took place, respectively, under the rule of Alexander the Great and that of the Umayyads. The case of the structural roofing systems is a good example of this merging process that later became true hybridisation, with the translation of shapes and techniques into new building materials and vice-versa. Considered as a whole, they represent one of the most remarkable stages of technical development in the key transitional period from Late Antiquity to Early Medieval ages. For a general overview see Arce, 2006 [in press]. DIAPHRAGM ARCHES, RIBBED CROSS CEILINGS AND VAULTS. NEW ARCH TYPOLOGIES. Diaphragm arches A diaphragm arch consists of a self-standing arch placed transversally in a room, in order to reduce the span of the room ceiling. The resulting sections can be covered by a lintelled ceiling made of wooden or stone beams, trusses, or alternatively with barrel vaults resting on the arch and the perimetral walls. The widespread use of diaphragm arches with lintelled ceilings during the Nabatean and the Classical periods in the Levant (Syria and Palestine), and in particular in the Hawran region (S of
Syria), is possibly the result of an early Parthian import. This system has been since then systematically used in the region in cisterns and dwellings, especially if the span exceeded 5 m. Contrastingly, the solution using barrel vaults resting on the diaphragm arches, was probably introduced into the Levant from Persia by the Umayyads as no earlier samples of this variation exist in the region, while it is already present in the earliest Parthian samples at Ashur (fig. 1a) and at the Taq-i-iwan in Khark (Khuzistan), and at Sarvistan (Bier 1986, fig.87). The earliest (first decade of the 8th C.AD), and most outstanding samples of this solution in Umayyad period are found at Qasr Harane (Jordan), where almost all the rooms are covered using this system (Urice 1987). All the arches spring from a triple offset of prefabricated gypsum moldings that are cast separately on a piece of cloth (the prints of the fabric can be traced on the back), and then applied to the walls. This prefabricated moldings is composed of vertical sawtooth moulding between two fillets, being the pattern and the technique used, of clear Sassanian origin. There have been identified two building phases that use slightly different techniques: In the first one (fig.1c), the diaphragm arches are built with coarse-cut thin limestone slabs, and the barrel vaults resting on them are quite shallow (they are built with the same material in the fashion of the pitched-brick vaults). In the springers of the arch, the slabs corbel out at an increasingly greater angle, being build without centering. At the apex of the arch shoulders, the slabs are placed transversally, spanning the remaining central section of the arch. The gypsum-based mortar guarantees the quick bond between the slabs required for its construction. A similar technique is found in the relieving arches over the doors of this first...
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