Qantara Qantara


In Byzantium


Several traditional construction techniques—characterized by a certain conservatism—coexisted in the Byzantine Empire. The central tradition of Byzantine architecture consisted of alternating courses of rubble stone and courses of brick; this technique was used from the fifth to the fourteenth century. Another combinative technique, known as ‘cloisonné’, became widespread in Greece and the Balkans from the tenth century. Bricks were laid around each stone in such a way as to entirely frame them. However, the construction of edifices in bonded ashlar was characteristic of Syro-Palestinian edifices, and buildings in a large part of Asia Minor, Armenia, and Georgia. The preference for a particular material was not only due to its availability, but also to the continuation of local traditions.


In Georgia and Armenia, an original style of architecture developed. Many monuments dating from the fifth or sixth century to the fourteenth century have survived in this architecturally productive region. In the seventh century, when the Byzantine Empire entered a period of decline and there was almost no architectural activity until the ninth century, these regions seemed to be less affected by the crisis. The territories, which were periodically either integrated into the Empire or autonomous, also experienced periods of Persian, Arab, and Turkish rule.


Construction in ashlar rendered the surfaces particularly suitable for coating; ashlar has obvious aesthetic and classicizing qualities, and, in addition, facilitated the development of carved motifs on facades. The famous monastery (popularly known as Qalat Semon, the ‘Fortress of Simeon’) established on the site where Saint Simeon Stylites erected a pillar in Syria is a good example of this tradition. Other types of dressing were used, some of which were very modest, as found in the Byzantine villages in Syria, for example. The use of stone had its limits; it was difficult to construct high spans and reach sufficient heights for the construction of vaults and cupolas.


However, the use of stone wasn’t confined to the construction of walls and vaults in Syro-Palestinian, Armenian, and Georgian edifices. Throughout the Empire, columns, capitals, and door lintels were made of stone, as well as liturgical installations in churches, floors, and wall coverings. When the necessary means were available, marble was used for these elements. Very often, antique or Paleo-Christian objects and materials were reused.


Byzantine architectural sculpture inherited forms from the classical repertoire. However, the Byzantines didn’t only modify and reuse antique elements—they also developed major artistic innovations, as attested by the architectural sculpture in the Church of St. Polyeuct in Constantinople, dating from the sixth century. This marked the development of a new style, which was inspired by oriental forms and found lasting popularity. Although there are some rare examples of sculpture in the round, this practically disappeared after the sixth century.


Opus sectile—a way of making decorations using precisely cut pieces of polychrome stone, shaped individually to fit the pattern or design—was used to ornament the walls. There are some very fine examples of opus sectile work with stylized vegetal motifs in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was built between 532 and 537. But, like sculpture in the round, this type of decorative work practically disappeared after the sixth century. Marble slabs or more modest stone slabs were used for the floors. Pieces of marble were also assembled in the same way as the opus sectile on the walls, but using a different technique and style; this type of floor covering is found in the Monastery of Pontocrator in Constantinople, which was built between 1118 and 1136. Pieces of polychrome marble were used to ornament the dados of church walls throughout the course of Byzantine history. Pieces of marble from the same block were often laid side by side and symmetrically to create—through a sort of mirror effect—various abstract forms. The Byzantines’ pronounced taste for this type of decoration—and for marble in general—is attested by the ecphrases, which very often describe it in detail, and the painted imitations of marble found in more modest buildings.


From a geological point of view, ‘marble’—derived from the Latin marmor, originating from the Greek marmaros, ‘shining stone’—designates metamorphosed limestones or dolomites, i.e. they’ve been transformed at high temperatures and/or pressures. However, the Ancients, and often archaeologists themselves, use the term marble to refer to all sorts of other hard stones capable of taking a polish, such as porphyry, serpentine, and granites.


Marbles of various colours from the Mediterranean Basin were used to decorate luxury edifices during the Byzantine Middle Ages. However, archaeologists often have difficulty in finding traces of continued activity in the marble quarries after the sixth century; some of the quarries even seem to have ceased extracting marble earlier than this. Literary texts and some archaeological remains show, however, that marble extraction continued after the sixth century. However, because of the Empire’s demographic and economic decline, it was no longer possible—and probably no longer necessary—to maintain the Antique levels of marble production. Indeed, the wide availability of materials for reuse from unused and dilapidated buildings, and the decrease in architectural activity made marble extraction a superfluous activity. Generally speaking, marble extraction in the Byzantine Empire after the sixth century was limited, and most of the pieces of marble were reused from other buildings. In Western Europe, the activity in the marble quarries resumed with vigour in the twelfth century when Gothic architecture began to develop. Despite the architectural revival at the end of the ninth century, there’s no evidence to indicate that a similar phenomenon occurred in the Byzantine Empire.


Mamara marble [1] is the most characteristic material used in Byzantine architecture. It’s quite a good quality, mutli-purpose marble, which is light grey with dark grey, often bluish veins. Extracted in large quantities from the first century AD, it was widely used throughout the Mediterranean and particularly in Constantinople from the fourth century. In the Middle Ages, this marble was primarily reused, as activity in the Meso- and Late-Byzantine periods has never been established for the Proconnesus quarries.


The extraction of less expensive construction stone is better documented than the extraction of marble. Generally speaking, stones that were easy to extract and shape, like limestones and sandstones, were used for construction work. These types of stone continued to be extracted locally, even though reused stone was still widely used.

The techniques in the Middle Ages were more or less the same as those used in Antiquity, but the methods were less effective: both the quantity and average size of the extracted blocks were reduced. Moreover, during the Byzantine period it appears the stone wasn't extracted systematically but rather according to actual requirements. The wide use of bricks in Byzantine architecture is another factor that would explain why the quarries declined—or the practice may even have resulted from their decline.

L. B.


In Byzantium


‘The Proconnesian Production of Architectural Elements in Late Antiquity, Based on Evidence from Marble Quarries’, N. Asgari, G. Dagron.


Constantinople and its Hinterland. Papers from the Twenty-seventh Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, C. Mango, April 1993, Oxford, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 263–288.


‘Marble’, S. Ćurčić, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 2, New York/Oxford, 1991, pp. 1295–1296.


‘Marble Trade’, A. Cutler, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 2, New York/Oxford, 1991, p. 1296.


Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, R. Krautheimer, London, 1986.


Byzantine Architecture, C. Mango, London/Milan, 1986.


Master Builders of Byzantium, R. Ousterhout, Princeton, 1999.


‘Le commerce des marbres à l’époque protobyzantine’, in Hommes et richesses dans l’Empire byzantin. IVe-VIIe siècle, J.-P. Sodini, Paris, 1989, pp. 163–186

‘Le goût du marbre à Byzance: sa signification pour les Byzantins et les non-Byzantins’, Etudes Balkaniques. Cahiers Pierre Belon, 1, J.-P. Sodini, Paris, 1994, pp. 177–201.


[1] Marmara Island (called Proconnesus in ancient times) is located in the Sea of Marmara between the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits and therefore near Constantinople.