How Marbelous!

The Wall Decoration of the Ancient Terrace Basilica

In Doliche, a soft limestone was the used for almost every building from the Hellenistic period to the Middle Ages. It was abundantly available and could be carved with great ease. Many quarries can be identified at close distance to the city and even within the urban area. The limestone, however, is of low quality and not very prestigious. Throughout antiquity, the most appreciated building material was marble, especially for public buildings, but also rich private mansions. However, no marble quarries existed in ancient Greater Syria. If people in Doliche and other cities of inland Syria wanted to use marble, they had to import it from Asia Minor, Greece, or North Africa. The transportation of the stone over such long distances and especially over land was very expensive. To lower the costs, not massive marble ashlars were used, but thin marble revetments slabs that covered the limestone walls.

The excavation of the terrace basilica at Doliche has yielded very rich finds of marble revetment slabs. During the last two weeks, hundreds of fragments have been recovered from the sanctuary and the apse. The finds indicate that large parts of the walls have been covered with marble slabs. White and coloured marbles were used. The slabs did not have uniform dimensions and their thickness ranged between 2 and 4 cm. In some instances, traces of paint that was applied to the slabs is still preserved.

Among the finds are many fragments of slabs carved in champleve technique. In this technique, geometric, floral, and faunal motifs have been incised in the marble plaques. Subsequently, the areas surrounding the ornaments were removed to a depth of several millimetres. The surface of the background was left rough and frequently coloured red while the ornaments had a very smooth white surface. The contrast in colour and texture between the two zones is eye-catching and aesthetically appealing.

The close examination of the stones will hopefully allow for a reconstruction of the wall decoration. It will help us to understand how the interior of the church looked like and which effect it had on the people attending service.

by Michael Blömer

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