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Syrian Secrets rising from the ashes of Notre-Dame

1024px-Incendie_Notre_Dame_de_Paris Notre-Dame fire

Notre-Dame roof and spire aflame on 15 April 2019, but structure intact. Photo from Wikipedia LeLaisserPasserA38.

Who would have thought that last year’s catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame de Paris would reveal so many secrets from its ash? A team of scientists has been gathered under the leadership of a military general to conduct deep background research into the fabric of the cathedral, hoping to understand how on earth the medieval masons and craftsmen made the building stand up. Nothing was written down, no plans were used. The study will take an estimated six years, helping to guide the restoration work.

The fire also sparked my own desire to study further. This time last year I wrote an article explaining the architectural backstory of the cathedral, how, like all medieval Gothic cathedrals, the origins of its twin towers flanking a monumental west entrance, its pointed arches, its rose windows, its ribbed vaulting can all be traced to the Middle East. Now, after extensive research, I have discovered many more connections, all of them unexpected. The full results will appear in my forthcoming book Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture shaped Europe:  https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/stealing-from-the-saracens/

Meanwhile, here are just a few pointers, to give the flavour. Let’s start with the stained glass, thankfully still intact after the fire. Recent analyses of stained glass in the main cathedrals of England and France between 1200 and 1400 all show the same high plant ash composition typical of Syrian raw materials. High-grade Syrian plant ash soda, known as ‘the cinders of Syria’, was considered superior to the pre-Islamic Egyptian natron ash used by the Romans and the Byzantines in their glass manufacture, and all Venetian glass analysed from the 11th to the 16th centuries shows its consistent use, by law. Medieval Continental Europe imported the raw materials for all its glass since there was no known local source.

Coloured glass windows have been an integral and innovative element of Islamic architecture since the 7th century, starting with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock which carried coloured glass in its many high windows. They were known as shamsiyyat (from Arabic for sun) and qamariyyaat (from Arabic for moon), showing how the solar and lunar imagery of windows continued into European religious architecture. The Templar knights adopted the Dome of the Rock as their chief Christian shrine after the First Crusade, mistaking it for the Temple of Solomon, an error which resulted in many churches being modelled on a Muslim shrine. Notre-Dame’s famous rose windows on its west and north facades date from 1225-50 and are designed for the light to radiate out from the centre, hence the so-called Rayonnant style.

1280px-Gothic-Rayonnant_Rose-6 North rose window Notre Dame c1250

Notre-Dame Rayonnant-style North Rose Window, c1250, photo from Wikipedia, by Zachi Evenor and Julie Anne Workman, Aug 2010.

Light was also at the core of Gothic cathedral design.  Saint-Denis in north Paris was where the wealthy and powerful Abbot Suger first used Illuminationist thinking as the guiding principle in his new basilica. But who was Denis?

Paris_-_Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_-_Portail_de_la_Vierge_-_PA00086250_-_003 Notre Dame St Denis head

The martyr Denis, Bishop of Paris, holding his head after decapitation on Montmartre, Notre-Dame, Portal of the Virgin, photo from Wikipedia by Thesupermat, Sept 2011.

The Abbot and his contemporaries believed him to be a disciple of Paul, who later became confused with the first Bishop of Paris and patron saint of France, martyred on Montmartre. Centuries later, scholars realised that Denis’s influential work the Celestial Hierarchies, was in fact a hoax, written by a 5th century Syrian mystic monk calling himself Denis in order to get his philosophy noticed. As a result he is known in ecclesiastical circles as Pseudo-Denis, but his trick worked. Today the Basilica of Saint-Denis is universally acknowledged as the first true example of ‘Gothic’ with tall pointed arches enabling the lofty elegant choir. It was used thenceforth as the burial place of French kings.

1024px-Coeur_de_la_Basilique_de_Saint-Senis Saint Denis choir by Bordeled

Basilica of Saint Denis, the first, new, light-filled ‘Gothic’ choir, based on the philosophy of Denis, a 5th century Syrian mystic, photo from Wikipedia by Bordeled, July 2011.

The very symbol of French nationhood and French royalty is the fleur-de-lis. But where was that first seen as an emblem? On the plains of Syria the Crusaders copied the local sport of ‘jarid’, knightly jousting tournaments on horseback where the players attempted to dismount each other with a blunt javelin. Heraldry and the use of family or dynastic symbols was already in use under the Ayyubids and the fleur-de-lis first appeared in its true heraldic form, the three separate leaves tied together in the middle by a band, as the blazon of Nur al-Din ibn Zanki and on two of his monuments in Damascus. Later Mamluk helmets often had nasal guards terminating in a fleur-de-lis. The boy king of England, Henry VI, was crowned king of France aged ten inside Notre-Dame in 1431, against a backdrop of fleur-de-lis.

Sacre_Henry6_England-France_02 Henry VI of England Fleur-de-lis

Coronation of the boy king Henry VI as king of France inside Notre-Dame, against a backdrop of fleur-de-lis, photo from Wikipedia public domain.

Notre-Dame’s central portal carries a stone-carved allegory of Alchemy, a statue of a woman holding books with a ladder and staff. The very word comes from the Arabic al-kimya’ and in medieval times the Middle East was widely acknowledged as the home of advanced experimental science. The use of plant ash in glass was itself a kind of alchemy, an experiment in which the addition of the alkaline (from qily another Arabic word) plant called ushnaan to the silica of the crushed pebbles of the Euphrates produced the world’s finest and most delicate glass, based at Raqqa, the centre of the Syrian glass industry from the 9th to the 14th century. The addition of further chemicals coloured the glass, cobalt for blue, copper oxide for turquoise, manganese for purple/pink and so on.

Alegoría_de_la_alquimia_en_Notre-Dame Alchemy Allegory Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame Allegory of Alchemy on the central portal, photo from Wikipedia by Chosovi, April 2006.

But the ashes of ushnaan also had other properties. They had been used since biblical times as a cleaning agent (Aramaic shuana) where there was no access to water, both in personal hygiene and in clothes laundry. To this day it remains an essential natural ingredient in the Syrian soap industry, as the plant grows especially well south of Aleppo round the salt lake of Jaboul. This is what gives Aleppo soap such a wonderfully soft and silky feel on the skin. It even has the bubbles trapped inside just like the Syrian glass.

IMG_20200302_1634507 Stained glass Canterbury Cathedral c1180 V&A

Stained glass c1180 from Canterbury Cathedral, showing the trapped bubbles from the plant ash. These bubbles also gave the glass extra strength, making it less liable to fracture.  Photo by Diana Darke, taken 3 March 2020 in the V&A Museum, London

The team of scientists at Notre-Dame have made their own unlikely cleaning discovery – that the best way to remove the toxic yellow lead dust from the stained glass windows without danger to the colours is to use baby wipes from Monoprix. The commercial chemical wipes risked being too abrasive. Gentle Aleppo soap would no doubt be even better. How fitting it would be if the cathedral could be cleaned using the very same plant ash that is already inside its stained glass windows.

IMG_20200331_1023356

Syrian soap from Aleppo, with bubbles, made using Syrian plant ash known as ushnaan, famous for its natural cleansing properties, photo by Diana Darke, taken 31 March 2020

A version of this article first appeared in Middle East Eye on 14 April 2020:

https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/syrian-secrets-notre-dame

The heritage of Notre Dame – less European than people think

12314734-6925015-image-a-283_1555360722531 notre dame on fire

It was striking last night, as Paris’s landmark site of Notre Dame Cathedral burned before our eyes, how few seemed to know that Notre Dame’s architectural design, its twin towers flanking an elaborate entrance, its rose windows, its rib vaulting and its spire (la fleche) owe their origins to Middle Eastern predecessors.  Tributes flowed in from round the world, praising the cathedral’s status as an icon of our shared European heritage and identity. “All of us are burning,” declared President Macron to the French nation.

Let’s start with the twin tower design. The earliest example stands on a hillside in northwest Syria, in Idlib province, in a church built from local limestone in the mid-5th century. It’s called Qalb Lozeh (‘Heart of the Almond’ in Arabic) rightly praised as one of the best preserved examples of Syrian church architecture, a magnificently proportioned broad-aisled basilica, the forerunner of what came to be known as the Romanesque period.

Qalb Lozeh facade with twin towers (Attribution Bertramz, 2009)

When Gertrude Bell first saw it in 1905 she described its “towered narthex, the wide bays of the nave, the apse adorned with engaged columns, the matchless beauty of the decoration and the justice of proportion preserved in every part… this is the last word in the history of Syrian architecture, spoken at the end of many centuries of endeavour… the beginning of a new chapter in the architecture of the world. The fine and simple beauty of Romanesque was born in North Syria.” Later scholars like George Tchalenko, Georges Tate and Jean-Pierre Sodini conducted extensive surveys.

In belated recognition of its importance it was included in 2011 within a UNESCO World Heritage Site labelled Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Locally they are known as the ‘Dead Cities’, clusters of nearly 800 Byzantine stone-built settlements with over 2,000 churches dating from the 4th-6th centuries. Their wealth was built on wine and olive oil production, with many stone presses still extant. They were renamed the ‘Forgotten Cities’ by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism before the war, and there were even hiking holidays under discussion, with planned homestays in the villages to bring income back to these remote rural areas.

Inside the church is divided into three, with a central nave, echoes of the Trinity everywhere in the design – the three aisles, three pillars on each side of the nave, three facade windows, three apse windows and three arches dividing the nave from the side aisles. The arches rest on squat square piers with strong capitals to bear the weight of the upper storey with its clerestory windows. The nave would originally have had a wooden roof, long since gone, but the vaulted dome over the semi-circular apse still survives.

Qalb Lozeh was thought to have been built as a pilgrim staging post en route to the famous St Simeon Stylites, some 35km to the northeast. Pilgrims, monks and merchants travelled constantly between Syria and Europe – influences were fluid, as were borders. Frankish (modern French) Crusaders saw these church designs (as well as local military architecture) in the 12th century, and brought many ideas back with them to Europe, where they were developed further.

What we today call the Gothic arch, prevalent in Notre Dame and in all the great cathedrals of Europe, was an architectural design first seen in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo and passed via Amalfi merchants to Sicily. With their advanced knowledge of geometry and the laws of statics Muslims developed both the horseshoe (also known as Moorish) arch (first seen in the Damascus Umayyad Mosque then further developed by the Umayyads in Andalusia in the Cordoba Mezquita) and the pointed arch to give more height than the classical arch. The first building to use them in Europe was the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 1071, financed by Amalfi merchants. It then moved north to the Church of Cluny which boasted 150 pointed arches in its aisles. The fashion quickly spread from these, two of the most influential churches in Europe, as this pointed ‘Gothic’ arch was stronger than the rounded arch used by the Romans and the Normans, so allowed the construction of bigger, taller, grander and more complex buildings like the great cathedrals of Europe.

Other borrowings from Muslim designs, also to be found in Notre Dame, include ribbed vaulting (traced to the 8th century Abbasid Palace of Ukhaydar in Iraq and later entering Europe via the Toledo and Cordoba mosques in Muslim Spain), rose windows (first seen at the 8th century Umayyad palace of Khirbat Mafjar (Hisham’s Palace) in the West Bank near Jericho,

Hishams_Palace_window_Author_MDarter rose window

and the spire (which collapsed so spectacularly on Notre Dame as the timber roof gave way beneath it). The first known spire is on top of the northern Minaret of the Bride in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built in the early 8th century.

070309_IMG_5405_Damascus-Umayyad-Mosque_999x with spire

In England the first ever spire was on top of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1221. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London then rebuilt in 1710 by Sir Christopher Wren, an avowed admirer of Muslim architecture who conducted an extensive comparative study of Gothic, Moorish and Ottoman styles. “The Goths,” he said, “were rather destroyers than builders: I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen (Arab Muslim) style.” The combination of dome and tower in his masterpiece of St Paul’s, together with the structure of the domes in the aisles, shows this strong Muslim influence, also clearly visible in Notre Dame.

Related links:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47942786

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47953795

Sources:

Monuments of Syria, Ross Burns (IB Tauris 1999)

The Origin of the Two-tower Facade in Romanesque Architecture, Herwin Schaefer (The Art Bulletin 1945)

Muslim Heritage in Our World, ed. Professor Salim Al-Hassani (Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation 2006)

The Desert and the Sown, Gertrude Bell (Dutton 1907)

Discussion of the Islamic Origin of the Gothic Style (from Parentalia: or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens, by Mathew Bishop 1750)

An Islamic History of Europe, Rageh Omar (BBC4, 5-19 August 2005)

 

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