Qantara Qantara


In Byzantium

Brick has a special place as a construction material in the history of Byzantine architecture. Brick was abundantly produced during the Roman Empire, and this practice endured in Constantinople, the Balkans and Italy, as well as on the western coast of Asia Minor. In these regions, brick and rubble stone were mainly used for buildings, unlike in other regions of the Byzantine Empire where the use of freestone predominated. The choice of one material over another is explained by its availability, as well as by the weight of tradition.

Brick-making was a long process. The clay had to be extracted, and then transported to the place where the bricks would be made. The choice of the location of the brickworks was dictated by practical constraints. It had to be near where the clay was extracted or near where the bricks were used and/or sold. To facilitate transport, proximity to a watercourse or a port was also necessary, as the production of bricks required a large quantity of water. The clay was processed and mixed with water. The bricks were then moulded in wooden structures on a work surface covered with sand to prevent the clay from sticking. After they were removed from the mould, the bricks were left to dry for up to four weeks. They were then fired, usually in closed kilns. The fire was fed for at least twelve hours. It took several days for the kiln to cool, and then the bricks could be removed. It took one or two weeks—sometimes even three weeks, depending on the size and quantity of bricks—from the moment the bricks were placed in the kiln to the moment they were taken out. This is how bricks were produced in Constantinople from Late Antiquity. This technique changed little subsequently.

These bricks were square with a smooth face and a sand-struck face. They sometimes bore fingerprints, footprints or even traces of animals, evidence that they were dried outside. Standard examples measure 32 to 38 cm per side and were 3.5 to 5 cm thick. Although the size of the bricks changed over time, it was not constant enough to be a good criterion for dating buildings. Because of the composition of the types of clay generally used and the firing methods, Byzantine bricks were usually orange-brown or red in colour.

As during the Roman period, the bricks were sometimes stamped. Such bricks were produced in the provinces, but most of those that have survived come from the capital and the surrounding area. However, only part of the production was stamped. The stamps took varied forms and most often comprised one or two shortened personal names. These inscriptions sometimes mentioned the post of these individuals, but do not tell us about the role they played in the production process. It remains difficult to interpret the meaning of these stamps. The production of stamped bricks continued until the seventh century. The end of this practice coincided with the decline in architectural activity that occurred during this period. These stamps, whose function was linked to inventory control and orders, probably became superfluous as soon as production declined.

The cost of producing bricks was relatively high; thus, as for other materials, Byzantine builders often reused them. Bricks were used not only for the construction of religious buildings but also for public buildings, palaces or even houses.

Several bricklaying techniques were used in Byzantine masonry. The most widespread, used from the fifth to the fourteenth centuries, consisted of alternating courses of rubble stone and courses of brick. This technique had several variants. Generally, it consisted of putting up the two faces of a wall with rubble stone to a certain height then filling it with mortar and rubble, using an ancient technique inherited from Roman builders. Then a few courses of bricks were laid across the width of the wall, in such as way that they reinforced its cohesion. The rest of the wall was built using the same process.

Brick was rarely used alone between the fifth and twelfth centuries. The church of San Vitale in Ravenna, consecrated in 547, or the church of Myrelaion in Constantinople, dating from around 920, were built in this manner.

A third technique, known as “cloisonné”, became widespread in Greece and the Balkans from the tenth century. Bricks were laid around each stone in such as way as to frame them all round; this method was used, for example, for the church of Daphni, Greece (c. 1100).

The recessed-brick technique consisted of laying a course of bricks on two that were set back from the face of the wall. These recessed courses were hidden under mortar, so that the joints seemed much thicker than the bricks, as may be seen in the ramparts of Nicaea.

Brick was also used for embellishments, which could highlight the outline of certain parts of the building: window and door frames, fascia and so on. Bricks were laid in various manners to create all sorts of motifs, such as meanders, waves, dogtooth patterns, crosses and individual medallions. Brick was also used for inscriptions, even imitating Kufic script in a purely ornamental way. Pseudo-Kufic inscriptions may be found, for example, on the walls of the church of the Panagia in the monastery of Hosios Loukas, Greece. Relatively sober until the tenth century, the façades of Byzantine buildings became more highly decorated, particularly under the Palaeologus family (1261–1453).

With the exception of a few regions where freestone was favoured, domes, vaulting and arches were built exclusively out of brick. When we consider the ease of use and lightness of the material, the reasons are obvious. The use of brick for the great vaults of Roman architecture was a relatively late phenomenon and perhaps has its origins in Sasanian Persian architecture.

L. B.


Bardill, J., Brickstamps of Constantinople, Oxford / New York : Oxford University Press, 2004

Ćurčić, S., « Brickwork Techniques and Patterns » in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, I, New York / Oxford, 1991, p. 323


Kazhdan, A., « Bricks » in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, I, New York / Oxford, 1991, p. 322-323


Krautheimer, R., Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, Londres : Penguin Books, 1986


Mango, C., Byzantine Architecture, New York : Harry N. Abrams, « History of world architecture »1974


Mango C., « Byzantine Brick Stamps », American Journal of Archaeology, 54, 1, 1950, p. 19-27


Ousterhout, R., Master Builders of Byzantium, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1999


Ward-Perkins, J. B., « Notes on the Structure and Building Methods of Early Byzantine Architecture », in Studies in Roman and Early Christian Architecture, Londres : The Pindar Press, 1994, p. 323-375