Qantara Qantara

Wood

In Mediterranean

Wood is an organic material of plant origin that has been part of human life from the very beginning. It is one of the oldest building materials, as well as, in the presence of fruit, an important source of food. Wood and charcoal are combustible, sources of heat energy whose use may go beyond the domestic context: wood is thus one of the essential links in the chain of production of most artisanal activities (metalwork, ceramics, glass, etc.). Wood can be examined from many angles, but whatever one is chosen, the relationship between its different facets and its many uses must be taken into account.

Our theme here essentially comes within the province of archaeology; through this multidisciplinary science we will be able to summarise the data that have reached us and interpret them in order to illustrate the various uses of wood throughout the centuries, and in the end, the technological and artistic achievements of man thanks to the working of wood in the Mediterranean basin. Over the last few decades, anthracology, dendrochronology and carbon-14 dating have allowed us to obtain reliable data about the species used and the age of the fragments of wood found in various sites, ancient constructions and archaeological excavations. These data have proved to be crucial in the interpretation of remains.

In the geographical region under consideration, the Mediterranean was the principal thoroughfare and the channel for cultural exchanges for all the countries on its shores. Describing the history, the movement of persons and goods, and the social, political and cultural phenomena of the Mediterranean region since prehistory would clearly be complicated, but attention can at least be drawn to the nerve centres where the most important events in the region took place.

The great civilisations that appeared during the Bronze Age in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the Greco-Roman empires that dominated the classical period laid the foundations of today’s world, raising sites as far away as Cadiz in Spain and Jerash in Jordan to the rank of protagonists. The dismemberment of the Roman Empire and the birth of smaller political entities gradually led to the many regions differentiating themselves; each of them entered the Middle Ages endowed with their own slight differences that more often than not ended up being characteristics of the new realities. The Greco-Roman stamp that established itself in these territories during antiquity did not, however, vanish in any of the areas of the former empire, surviving to this day.

Ancestral traditions were connected with the working and use of wood: one must be familiar with the performance of this material to arrive at excellent results, sometimes so successful that they have survived the millennia in good condition despite their fragility. The practice no doubt enabled men to get the best out of wood: one must pay attention to the way that it is cut, dried, and stored, as well as to the various ways of treating it in order to improve it. Of course, one cannot put all this into practice or arrive at such conclusions without having access to the raw material, wood.

Environmental conditions have changed considerably over the ages; certain regions today look completely different to what they looked like in the past. The changes that wooded areas have undergone are due to human activities. Besides the olive tree, various types of conifers thrived in the Mediterranean basin, including in unfavourable conditions; they supplied the populations that exploited them with wood as well as fruit (pine nuts) and resin. It may sometimes seem rather odd to list the various species that we have always lived with and that, now rare, seem to be exotic elements used without apparent justification in the replanting of forests. The pinus halepensis, or Aleppo pine, in southern Spain is a clear example of this; its presence is attested in the dry, forested areas typical of the Mediterranean climate, from Europe and Asia Minor to North Africa where it grows at sea level. The cedrus is native to the Middle East and the Himalayas; the varieties closest to us are the Cyprus cedar, the Atlas cedar and the cedar of Lebanon. This tree was so important for Lebanon that it appears in the centre of the country’s flag. The last example we will mention is the cypress, cupressus sempervirens, native to the eastern Mediterranean region, including Cyprus, southern Greece, southern Turkey and North Africa. It is a tree laden with history associated to several symbolic systems in the Greek and Latin world, as well as in Judaism and Christianity. As well as for its medicinal properties, it has been used since ancient times in shipbuilding because of its hardness and damp resistance; Alexander the Great used cypress to build the Euphrates fleet, and the Ottoman Empire destroyed a large part of the cypress woods of Anatolia and North Africa in order to build and repair its ships.

Not all the Mediterranean regions, however, had forested areas that were large enough to be exploited; the scarceness of wood in certain areas was offset by importation, which was never a problem, even during ancient times. Egypt is perhaps the most obvious example of this: from the third millennium BC, it seems that it maintained constant maritime trading relations with the rest of the Mediterranean through the port of Byblos. From this port, and in close collaboration with Tyre, cedar of Lebanon was imported for use in shipbuilding, furniture-making, and the decoration of temples and sculpted tombs such as the one known as that of “master of the people” (Sheikh el-Beled, twenty-fourth century BC), and tombs adorned with reliefs: for example, the mastaba of Hesire (5th and 6th dynasties). Cedar was also used to produce the unguents and resins essential to funerary rites and embalmment. In exchange, Byblos received from Egypt gold plate and jewellery, granite, papyrus rolls and linen fabrics.

From the same period there is evidence of the use of wooden shelves in the royal archives of the city of Ebla, about 55 kilometres from Aleppo, one of the most important urban centres of antiquity.

The structures built in the Minoan palaces (Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros) are good examples of the antecedents of Greek architecture. Wood was part of the vertical and horizontal elements: in the porticoes, it was used as a vertical supporting element shaped like a flattened cone; inside, the pillars, roof beams and wall frames were made of polychrome painted wood. As for Roman art, certain authors, such as Vitruvius, wrote treatises describing the models generally used for the building of temples, theatres, baths, and palaces all over the empire. In Pompeii and Herculaneum, cities petrified by the lava of Etna, wooden objects that had survived the flames were rare; they include the recently discovered wooden throne of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Other traces of wooden creations have survived, such as those of the beams used in the buildings that, along with mural paintings, provide information that is essential to the study of Roman architecture and furniture.

Thus, it is not surprising that the Umayyads who reached the West had a good knowledge of the qualities and various uses of wood. Contrary to what one might think, the Muslims who went to Spain, in addition to their knowledge of the uses of the structures characteristic of the art of the entire Roman Empire, had already worked coniferous wood, even though they were natives of semi-desert regions generally thought to contain few trees. Although they had amply demonstrated their faculties for assimilation and adaptation, the influence of the Romanisation that made itself felt both in the East and in the lands where they had settled left a very clear mark on all the new works executed on their initiative in the peninsula, as illustrated by the famous mosque of Cordova. Despite the conservation difficulties, architectonic materials from old buildings were reused throughout the Middle Ages, both in Christian and Muslim territories. During this period, as in the past, the supply of wood from distant lands was not a problem; it was part of a movement of economic exchanges that was much more extensive than traditionally thought. This has been observed, with regards to the Nasrid period, during recent studies, including that carried out by the team of Professor Almagro Gorbea in the Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo in Granada (thirteenth–fourteenth centuries).

In the modern and contemporary periods, wood continued to be the main raw material in the construction of buildings and the production of furniture and decoration. This preponderance was only recently challenged, with the utilisation of new materials, in part favoured by the shortage of wood. However, wood was not forgotten and projects as important and international in scope as the new library of Alexandria made use of it. Wood was used not only in new artistic creations, but also in objects inspired by tradition; it was sometimes made the most of in restorations of ancient works, such as, for example, the Marinid buildings of Morocco, and in the contemporary sculpted wood ceilings of Spain, which were inspired by treatises written in the sixteenth century. In short, wood is still important in the countries of the Mediterranean basin to this day; the activities related to the survival of ancient traditions in the domains of cabinetwork and carpentry are greatly appreciated, as are the possibilities offered by new treatments and technologies.

C.L.P