Every society is built on top of existing knowledge. What separates us, as humans, from our ancient ancestors is our ability to retain this knowledge in form of both spoken word and written text, both of which allow us to work on top of our predecessors’ achievements instead of constructing them from the ground up every generation. This can be seen in virtually any field, from writers having to pay attention of to the intricacies of sentence structure in relation to the greats, to the bricklayer understanding the basic alchemical effects of mixing mortar, knowing that it will dry in a set amount of time. This effect can be seen in what every society, past or present, leaves behind, but, for those in the past, how we can see this best is through what they’ve left behind. Because the most prevalent remains of a civilization left after its decline is often the buildings it leaves behind, they function as an excellent lens to look at the society as a whole.
Architecture, referring specifically to that of the creation of buildings variety, not the programmatic logical flow variety, is how these buildings that are left standing after hundreds of years remain doing so. Good architecture can change based on region, as different materials are more prevalent in different areas of the world, and different weather patterns can drastically change the requirements of the building itself.
With all of this in mind, I went about creating a presentation about architecture specifically of the Byzantine Empire, from around the time of Constantine onward. As the Empire at the time was effectively a branch of the Roman Empire, in addition to sharing a similar region and climate, the architects of the time were able to borrow a page from their books on how to construct standard dwellings for the people, in addition to grander, more grandiose structures.
One of the most notable buildings of the time was the Hagia Sophia. Translating to “Holy Wisdom”. Part of a triad of churches, including Hagia Irene, which predated it, and was built in the grounds of the Great Palace, and Hagia Dynamis, which was built in Athens, the techniques used in its construction served as a blueprint for Byzantine and Turkish architectural styling for centuries to come. In order to understand the scale of its construction, one must wrap their head around the techniques of which were iterated on to achieve such a feat of engineering.
Going back in time a bit, in order to create large covered gathering spaces in the time of the Roman Empire, some sort of support would have been used – otherwise, the entire structure would collapse inward on itself. Although it wasn’t necessary for smaller, personal dwellings, as they were often small enough that they could hold themselves up, anything larger than a single standard room would need some sort of column support system to keep it standing. This was often done with standard columns, which can support a huge amount of downward force, or arches, which use their shape to hold their own weight in an almost hemispherical shape, which is a much more stable structure than the corners created from columns alone. This approach worked fairly well for medium sized structures, and would hold the weight very predictably – this can be seen through the fact that you can still find Roman Structure, such as the Colosseum, standing to this day. This issue with this approach is that, for any larger covered structure, the light from any apertures on the side wouldn’t be able to the center of the structure, and the columns stretching from floor to ceiling would make larger, more concise gatherings more difficult. The solution to all this arose in the Byzantine Empire, in the form of pendentives.
The idea behind them was simple, and relied of fairly standard geometry. In order to get a dome as the covering on the ceiling, can apertures could be added to admit light, while keeping out the elements, a dome has to be supported. As the weight of them, especially for a single one, covering a large space, can be considerable, simply placing columns at regular intervals would allow the space between them to sag, causing structural instability. Rounding corner of the room into a quarter sphere, in a technique called a squinch, functioned for smaller domes, and has the right general concept, but fell apart at a larger scale. The kicker arrived in the fact that the architects were placing the dome, a hemisphere, which is a fairly stable geometric construction, atop a cube, which is among the weakest. To rectify this, the technique of pendentives was created. The idea was simple. Combine curved arches in a way that they effectively a hemisphere, and place the dome, a hemisphere itself, atop this. Because four grounding points were used, it had a similar structural shape to that what was used to by the general population, but because the top of the construction formed a circle for the dome to sit on, the entirety of the dome was supported evenly.
Through small details like a single architectural technique such as that, we can get a brief glimpse at the minds at the time. Although the structure was built thousands of years ago, by looking at the innovation and thoughts that went into its creation, and how the problem had to be solved step by step, we can get insight into what makes us truly human.