Inside the 5th century Syrian Church that influenced Notre-Dame Cathedral's architecture

Inside the 5th century Syrian Church that influenced Notre-Dame Cathedral's architecture
Published: 13 June 2019 - 6:17 a.m.
By: Rima Alsammarae

In Qalb Loze, a Druze village in northwestern Syria, sits a fifth century church among Byzantine-era ruins that's said to have inspired the Notre-Dame Cathedral's architecture.

Once referred to as the start of "a new chapter in the architecture of the world" by British diplomat, explorer and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, and the source of "the fine and simple beauty of Romanesque", the Qalb Loze church is one of the most intricate examples of church architecture among the "Dead Cities" of Syria -- a series of abandoned ancient villages that date between the first and seventh centuries AD.

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The earliest example of the Syrian model of the broad-aisled basilica, the builders of the Qalb Loze church used sweeping transverse arches resting on piers, which allowed for a freer integration of the three spaces, instead of dividing the nave from the side aisles by rows of columns.

Representing the development of a Syrian style of architecture as an offshoot from the Byzantine, the plan of the church is simple. It features a wide nave that is separated from smaller side aisles by the aforementioned arches and that ends on its east end in an apse with a hemispherical stone vault.

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According to Archnet, the Syrian church is entered on its west side via a monumental porch with a single large stone portal whose lintel is decorated with carving.

The south side of the church also has entrances that lead directly onto the south side aisle. Illuminating the side aisles and the nave are a series of clerestory windows.

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In a tweet, Diana Darke, a Syria specialist and expert on the Middle East, wrote that "Notre-Dame's architectural design, like all Gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria's Qalb Lozeh 5th-century church -- Crusaders brought the 'twin tower flanking the rose window' concept back to Europe in the 12th century."

Later in a blog post, Darke expanded, writing that the twin tower design of Notre-Dame is one of the main features that can be traced back to Syria, while the Gothic arch associated with European cathedrals was first seen in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, passed on via Amalfi merchants to Sicily.

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Other borrowings from Muslim designs, Darke wrote, which can also be found in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, include ribbed vaulting (traced back to the eighth century Abbasid Palace of Ukhaydar in Iraq) and rose windows (first seen at the eighth century Umayyad palace of Khirbat Mafjarin the West Bank near Jericho).

Additionally, the design of the spire, now collapsed due to the recent fire, can be drawn back to the northern Minaret of the Bride in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built in the early eighth century.

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Some remnants of the architectural sculpture remain: in addition to acanthus decoration on the piers supporting the arches of the nave, door lintels bore carved vegetal motifs and medallions with crosses. Also, the extrados of the apse archway was adorned with an elegant frieze consisting of several registers, including acanthus patterns and a vince scroll emerging from a chalice.

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