The Early Christian/Late Antique period is usually defined as beginning in roughly 250 — the later empire beginning with Diocletian, Roman emperor from 284 to 305), but the end of the period is contested. Frequently the end of the period is identified as 526/7 when Justinian becomes the Byzantine emperor (AD 526/7-565) or 632 the date coincident with the rise of Islam in the Middle East. We must also mention the date of 476 when Romulus Augustulus was deposed, the last emperor of the west at
Ravenna, the traditional end of the Roman Empire in the West. During the last 20 or 30 years there has been an enormous amount of scholarly research on the Late Antique Postclassical period – some prominent scholars at Princeton, the University and the Institute for Advanced Study, now prefer to extend the period to AD 800 with the
coronation of Charlemagne in Rome. We needn’t be concerned here with the exact dates but researchers should be aware of the controversy in defining the early Christian/late antique period. This bibliography includes resources to about 500, as Deborah Brown’s presentation and bibliography begins with 500AD but remember periodization varies enormously in the early Christian centuries.
In Syria, particularly the central portion, the Christian architecture of the third and eighth centuries produced a number of very interesting monuments. The churches built by Constantine in Syria–the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (nominally built by his mother), of the Ascension at Jerusalem, the magnificent octagonal church on the site of the Temple, and finally the somewhat similar church at Antioch-were the most notable Christian monuments in Syria. The first three on the list, still extant in part at least, have been so altered by later additions and restorations that their original forms are only approximately known from early descriptions. They were all of large size, and the octagonal church on the Temple platform was of exceptional magnificence. The columns and a part of the marble incrustations of the early design are still visible in the “Mosque of Omar,” but most of the old work is concealed by the decoration of tiles applied by the Moslems, and the whole interior aspect altered by the wood-andplaster dome with which they replaced the simpler roof of the original.
Christian architecture in Syria soon, however, diverged from Roman traditions. The abundance of hard stone, the total lack of clay or brick, the remoteness from Rome, led to a peculiar independence and originality in the forms and details of the ecclesiastical as well as of the domestic architecture of central Syria. These innovations upon Roman models resulted in the development of distinct types which, but for the arrest of progress by the Mohammedan conquest in the seventh century, would doubtless have inaugurated a new and independent style of architecture. Piers of masonry came to replace the classic column, as at Tafkha (third or fourth century), Rouheiha and Kalb Louzeh; the ceilings in the smaller churches were often formed with stone slabs; the apse was at first confined within the main rectangle of the plan, and was sometimes square. The
exterior assumed a striking and picturesque variety of forms by means of turrets, porches, and gables. Singularly
enough, vaulting hardly appears at all, though the arch is used with fine effect
. Conventional and monastic groups of buildings appear early in Syria, and that of St. Simeon Stylites at Kelat Seman is
an impressive and interesting monument. Four three-aisled wings form the arms of a cross, meeting in a central octagonal open court, in the midst of which stood the column of the saint. The eastern arm of the cross forms a
complete basilica of itself, and the whole cross measures 330 × 300 feet. Chapels, cloisters, and cells adjoin the main edifice.
Circular and polygonal plans appear in a number of Syrian examples of
the early sixth century. Their most striking feature is the inscribing of the circle of polygon in a square which forms the exterior outline, and the use of four niches to fill out the corners. This occurs at Kelat Seman in a small double church, perhaps the tomb and chapel of a martyr; in the
cathedral at Bozrah, and in the small domical church of St. George at Ezra. These were probably the prototypes of many Byzantine churches like St. Sergius at Constantinople, and San Vitale at Ravenna, though the exact dates of the Syrian churches are not known. The one at Ezra is the only one of the three which has a dome, the others having been roofed
The interesting domestic architecture of this period is preserved in whole towns and villages in the Hauran, which, deserted at the Arab conquest, have never been reoccupied and remain almost intact but for the decay of their wooden roofs. They are marked by dignity and simplicity of design, and by the same picturesque massing of gables and roofs and porches which has already been remarked of the churches. The arches are broad, the columns rather heavy, the mouldings few and simple, and the scanty carving vigorous and effective, often strongly Byzantine in type.