Ancient Greek Architecture Was Profoundly Influenced by the Ancient Near East

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To answer this question, it is vital that we define the boundaries of the ancient near east. Two prominent countries, Mesopotamia and Egypt, seem to have been subjected to an appearance of ‘monumental architecture and sculpture’ at almost the same time, according to Henri Frankfort in his publication The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (Fourth Edition 1970, p. 11), with the other countries being Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Persia. The Mesopotamians, whose civilisation began in the Protoliterate period (3500-3000 B. C. , built out of the readily available mud-brick obtained from the alluvial plain between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, which was dried and baked in the Sun. This was used to construct ‘larger and more permanent’ structures than simple shelters (p. 18). A. W. Lawrence in Greek Architecture (Fifth Edition, 1996) observes that Greek architecture was worthless until the first ‘approximate attempt at aesthetic architecture’ which was ‘a facade of burnt brick’ at Tiryns (p. 3). This would seem to be the first, if not definitely direct, example of Mesopotamian, and indeed ancient near eastern influence.

One of the most fundamental influences of ancient near eastern architecture can be found in Troy, Asia Minor. An early house plan, typical of Trojan dwellings, consists of a long rectangular hall accessed by a porch, defined by extensions of the longest walls. Frankfort (p. 208) observes that homes in Asia Minor were in general designed on a ‘very rigid plan’ like below, a portion of Troy at Hissarlik before the second millennium B. C. The rooms placed behind one another, with a porch leading into a main chamber and sometimes a room further behind.

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We will see that the Greek ‘megaron’ plan and ‘in antis’ temple plan is based on this scheme, although A. W. Lawrence (p. 7) says there is ‘no firm evidence’ that Trojan culture directly influenced Greek architectural evolution. It seems likely, however, that these houses indeed provided the scheme for later architects to turn into ‘an art form’ as Frankfort (p. 208) says, especially since the plan of the megaron is found over the wide area of mainland Greece and south-west Asia Minor (Lawrence, p. 7). One such example is at Tiryns, a citadel of Mycenean culture, late thirteenth century B.C, for which the megaron suite may have been based on Trojan homes and palaces thanks to voyages from Greece (Lawrence, p. 43). A. W. Lawrence (p. 43) thinks that the ‘striking resemblance’ between this Mycenean megaron and the Trojan building could be due to ‘similarity of requirements’ yet this plan will be seen to be a recurring theme. In the diagram a porch is built thanks to extended walls, corresponding to Trojan planning, with the major difference being that the Myceneans and Greeks retained the shape of the stone ends of the walls rather than facing them with wood.

They called an end to these walls an ‘anta’ (Lawrence, p. 7). The porch leads to an anteroom which, through a central doorway, provides access to the main hall at the rear. Immediately we can see the similarity between this Mycenean Greek layout and the ancient near eastern Trojan palaces, with multiple rooms leading into one another aligned in a rectangle. Also, the presence of two columns fronting the porch in line with the end of the longitudinal walls in antis (Lawrence, p. 62) may not be an entirely Greek innovation either.

Henri Frankfort observes that the building below, the palace of Niqmepa of the Mittanian Era (1450-1360 B. C. ) in northern Syria, was an example of architecture that developed into the bit-hilani, the origins of which ‘are found in Syrian architecture of the second millennium B. C. ’ (pp. 253-254). This structure was noticeable for its portico at the entrance – an entrance porch whose roof is supported by columns, seen here labelled ‘1’. A. W. Lawrence states that the people of the Greek island of Crete were trading with Syria and Egypt during the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600 B. C. which helped begin civilization in Europe. Consequently, their palaces around this time were ‘profoundly influenced by oriental architecture’ (p. 3). The Tiryns citadel was Mycenean, however, so it would seem that aspects of architecture such as its portico entrance were indirectly influenced by the ancient near east via Cretan construction. Indeed, Lawrence acknowledges that ‘the obvious choice is Crete’ (p. 45) since there is an anteroom between the porch and the main hall, whereas there was no such intermediate room in buildings such as Trojan palaces and the Syrian palace of Niqmepa.

The ‘pier-door partition’ between the porch and the anteroom in Tiryns is also alleged to be Cretan. Near Eastern influence over Cretan architecture will also be discussed. The relationship between the Greek temple and the ancient near eastern porch-portico-hall plan is a clue of the principle oriental influence. The same Trojan house-palace plan that spawned the Greek megaron is in fact a precursor of how Greek temples were planned, as A. W. Lawrence says: ‘of all the prototypes, that which contributed most to the eventual temple-type was the megaron’ (p. 8). It is possible that this was due to memory of Mycenean palaces such as Tiryns, or due to colonization of the Greeks on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor in the Dark Ages (Lawrence, p. 61). This may of course have rejuvenated the importance of the homes and palaces found in this region of the ancient near east. At first, Lawrence proposes, the Greek temple followed the form and arrangement of Dark Age dwellings (p. 58), but developed into a common and established form like shown.

One can see the derivation of the porch and the cella – the location for the Greek deity – from the megaron prototype. In fact, the cella was developed from the naos in Egyptian architecture – the highly charged interior space where the Egyptian statues were kept. Connections with Egypt may not stop here. We notice that there are no interior columns in the Trojan megaron prototype, and Henri Frankfort notes that colonnades in general were rare in Mesopotamia (p. 128), let alone in the interior of buildings.

However the main chamber in Egyptian plans such as these does indeed boast interior columns, even if they are not necessary to support roofs of such spans. It is clear that Greek temple architecture owes much to Egypt in this respect, not least because the free-standing column itself was first used in this region of the near east. A. W. Lawrence’s observation that the Greeks ‘constantly visited the pyramids and temples of Egypt’ (p. 214) would imply that Egyptian influence was due to direct contact with their culture.

The fact that the proclaimed masterpiece of Greek architecture – the Parthenon – retains this now tried-and-tested scheme of portico-porch leading to a cella with interior columns indicates that a combination of early Trojan plan and Egyptian use of interior columns was a constant factor of Greek temple architecture. It is also possible that Egyptian influence was responsible for newfound aspiration for Greek symmetry: A. W. Lawrence states that ‘strict formality and symmetry must have been very alien’ for the Greek Cretans from Middle Minoan I (just after 2000 B. C. , and there is ‘little evidence of borrowing from Egypt’ until much later than this time (pp. 13-14). It is unclear whether the pteron – the peristyle columniation around the main body of the temple (Lawrence, p. 63) – is a Greek innovation, as the oldest known temple surrounded as such is a ‘Heraion’ at the Ionian island of Samos, 800 B. C. on the eastern coast of Asia Minor, which is where the Greeks colonized during the Dark Ages (1150-800 B. C. ).

Ancient Near Eastern influence over ancient Greek architecture was not restricted to mere plan; however Lawrence describes the effects as ‘comparatively trivial’ (p. 14) for post-Bronze Age architecture. The Cretan palaces of Middle Minoan I-II (2000-1700 B. C. ) show similarities with Mesopotamia in their construction of walls in that both cultures share a disdain for long, monotonous stretches. The Mesopotamians’ use of buttresses that articulated the wall was a purely practical scheme, but along with stepped recesses in walls to emphasize an entrance, this was a regular feature of Mesopotamian temples over time (Frankfort, pp18-19) and is a possible prototype for the Cretans to make their walls less plain by breaking them up by ratio into sections.

The Greek’s use of orthostats – facing-slabs of stone that protruded outwards (Lawrence, p. 13) – were the Greek parallel of the Mesopotamian buttresses, and indeed orthostats consequently became common in the ancient near east. But Greek architecture in this period owed more to Mesopotamian architecture: all three of the important Cretan palaces, those at Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia, used a scheme that was ‘novel in Crete’ at the time but ‘traditional in both Egypt and Asia’ (Lawrence, p. 13) which was a unified plan which centred around a main courtyard.

The layout of the palace at Knossos is a case in point – although at this time symmetry had yet to make its way into Greek architecture. The plan focuses on this main outdoor space with other rooms gathering around it, similar to the Mesopotamian scheme. In both these diagrams, one can also see how long stretches of walls are recessed at intervals. The remaining significant consideration is the degree of influence the ancient near east had over Greek city planning. A. W. Lawrence states that there is little knowledge of Greek layout of towns before around 470 B.C. (p. 190), but what he does know is that most cities consisted of a lower and higher part – the acropolis, which was the Greek’s version of a ‘primeval hill’ or ‘sacred mountain’ comparing with the Mesopotamian’s fortified ‘temenos’ or sanctuary. This is confirmed by Lawrence declaring the acropolis ‘the spiritual centre’ (p. 108). There is no doubt that Greek fortification was due to ancient near eastern influence, since Lawrence acknowledges that it was the rise of the Persian Empire that encouraged its development (p. 174).

There is one important distinction between Mesopotamian and Greek cities: Greek cities were divided into the agora – a collective commercial and administrative centre (Lawrence, p. 190) – and the acropolis, where the temples such as the Parthenon at Athens can be found. Mesopotamian cities had no such functional segregation – if we take this plan view of Babylon (2000 B. C. onwards) as an example we see it is completely surrounded and walled off, with the processional routes occurring within these boundaries. The Greeks were more inventive with their planning of the city.

The separation of commercial and administrative from spiritual allowed a processional route from the agora to the acropolis, in other words, from outside the spiritual realm rather than starting from inside it. This created a more powerful journey from profane to the sacred. Hence while the ancient near east influenced Greek cities in terms of fortification and the desire to construct a connection between sacred and profane – all Mesopotamian cities were ‘given a token elevation above the soil’ even if there was no Ziggurat (Frankfort, p. 22) – the Greeks developed this further using the principles already learnt.

Arguably, the degree to which the Greeks were otherwise influenced is superficial. It is unlikely that the round structures of the Tholos tombs of the second millennium B. C. were an ancient near eastern influence, as no important circular buildings existed in this region, especially Egypt (Lawrence, p. 42). Therefore, this typology was ‘almost certainly a Mycenean innovation’, and Greek circular buildings from the 6th Century B. C. onwards were likely influenced by this shape. It is in decorative and aesthetic elements that the ancient near east further inspired the Greeks, who developed it through attention to detail.

For example, the Doric temple frieze, prevalent from the 6th Century B. C onwards, originates from 8th Century B. C. pottery and near eastern ivories (Lawrence, p. 66). This is confirmed by Henri Frankfort, who states that Phoenican arts and crafts, which were carried by the Greeks to the west, contained Egyptian themes (p. 310). The ‘triglyphs’ on these friezes – the protruding vertical slabs separated by the inset ‘metopes’ – are alleged by Lawrence to derive from the sections of straight lines in this imported early pottery.

But the Greeks were the innovators in positioning each element of the frieze exactly right in accordance with the positions of the columns to create a unified aesthetic appearance. They did use two Egyptian principles with their columns: creating vertical lines by ‘fluting’ in a concave manner, and ‘entasis’, bulging the column outwards to a slight degree ‘against exclusively upward movement’ (Lawrence, p. 76). The Greeks used this latter technique to correct perspective that would make the columns appear curving slightly inwards would they have been cut completely straight.

Therefore, the Greek’s importation of ancient near eastern architectural elements is definitely an important factor, yet they used their temple designs to be seen ‘externally more than internally’ (Lawrence, p. 76). While the ancient Egyptian plans seen previously show that their columns were mainly interior and structural features, the Greeks used them in a highly innovative manner – ‘each line points towards one which turns at a different angle and obliges the eye to follow it; some lines, moreover, ought to be constructed as to lead in either direction simultaneously’ (Lawrence, p. 6). This quote sums up perfectly the answer to the question: while ancient Greek architecture owes much to the ancient near east for their planning schemes and use of individual elements, it is the Greeks themselves who, through their search for perfection of proportion, perspective and function, created a ‘new sort of architecture’.

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