BMCR 2022.06.10

Les chapiteaux corinthiens du Liban. Formes et évolution du Ier au IVe siècle p.C.

, Les chapiteaux corinthiens du Liban. Formes et évolution du Ier au IVe siècle p.C. Mémoires, 58. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2020. Pp. 354. ISBN 9782356133328 €45,00.

The study of Corinthian capitals has long demonstrated their special place in ancient architectural heritage. Due to the capitals’ complexity and the skill required to carve their intricate vegetal ornament, they represent considerable investment in the decoration of an ancient building. To the archaeologist, they also provide valuable material for stylistic analyses and, thus, for the dating of ancient buildings. It is not surprising, therefore, that such capitals have received a great deal of scholarly interest through regional corpora and stylistic studies. It is within this framework that Hany Kahwagi-Janho now provides us with “the most complete corpus possible of all the Corinthian capitals in Lebanon” (p. 240).

Kahwagi-Janho draws upon his experience as an architect, having studied in detail the remains of Tyre and other sites in Lebanon, often in close collaboration with the Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO). This work led to his PhD research, completed at Sorbonne University, Paris, examining the architecture of the hippodrome at Tyre, and a second book‑length study on Tyre’s monuments extra muros.[1] The present survey has benefitted from his expert, first-hand knowledge of the region and from several instances where it was possible to use scaffolding for the study and documentation of the capitals in situ. Such cases include capitals in the sanctuary of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek and on the Roman Arch of Tyre, usually out of reach for close observation.

The volume assembles 870 Corinthian capitals with known provenance, regarding at least the site of origin. Capitals without such provenance, including many in private collections, are excluded. Those assembled cover the period from the first century BC to the beginning of the fourth century AD; however, by far the largest number can be more narrowly dated between the first and early third centuries AD. Organization of the book is straightforward: after a short introduction, including basic information on the state of research, all sites are briefly presented; the main substance of the volume then covers the typology of the capitals, spanning almost two-thirds of the entire volume (pp. 33–170); further aspects of decoration and production are explained in greater detail on the following pages. Ninety-two plates of photographs illustrate almost all of the capitals, again arranged according to their typology. The author has not provided a catalogue, although a database was used to compile the volume (p. 18). Consequently, it is difficult and often impossible to use the volume to find the current location of a capital at a given site or to access easily its measurements. Beyond the typological section, it is also hard to locate specific capitals in the plates, as the text mostly provides no references to plate numbers, and no index or concordance is given. A welcome step towards open-access provision could be taken by making the database available in a repository.

The introduction provides a thorough and well-informed account on research into Corinthian capitals, both in general and specifically with regard to their occurrence and style in the Levant. Great weight is rightly given to David Schlumberger’s 1933 paper, which fleshed out stylistic development in the region.[2] Moshe Fischer and Jacqueline Dentzer-Feydy are also duly credited for their pioneering studies on Corinthian capitals in Israel and the Hauran.[3] However, political issues aside, it is difficult to understand why none of the more recent studies conducted in Israel are mentioned, such as that by Orit Peleg-Barkat;[4] nor are references given to the study by Christine Strube of building decoration in the region of the so-called Dead Cities in Syria.[5]

The second part of the book begins with very short introductions to all 40 sites from which the Corinthian capitals originate. The uneven distribution of the capitals within the borders of modern Lebanon is discussed using a detailed and informative map. The map shows the locations of the 40 sites across five of the six modern governorates into which Lebanon was divided until 2003 (Beirut grouped with Mount Lebanon). Immediately, it becomes clear that the use of Corinthian capitals is primarily an urban phenomenon: only around 100 capitals of the whole corpus stem from smaller sites or extra-urban sanctuaries. Baalbek, the cult centre of Jupiter Heliopolitanus and with a territory encompassing the whole of the valley of Beqa’a, has 392 examples; this number increases to 464 if we add the 72 capitals reused in the Umayyad construction of Anjar, which perhaps come from Baalbek. Tyrus has 181 capitals; modern Beirut, the first Roman colony Berytus, has 97; and Byblus has 40. These numbers aptly mirror the political, religious, and economic significance of the four sites.

The typological study constitutes the core of the book. After presenting the few late Hellenistic examples, a single capital in Baalbek’s Umayyad mosque, and the ensemble from Ain al-Jouj at Baalbek,[6] further discussion is divided with good reason into two sections dealing with capitals made from imported marble and those made from local stone, respectively. The marble capitals all come from coastal towns and their immediate hinterland. They can easily be linked to typologies such as those established by Moshe Fischer, since they were often imported in a finished or advanced state. The earliest imported marble capitals (‘Type I-it’) come from the bâtiment à gradins in Berytus and, interestingly, refer to Italian models of the late first or early second century AD. They may well be Italian imports, extremely rare in the East; however, no marble analysis has been conducted. The 25 examples of the following types (dubbed ‘Type II-it’, ‘Type III-it’, and ‘Type IV-it’) date to ca. AD 90–130 and have close parallels in Asia Minor; again these are found almost exclusively in Berytus. Then, the main thrust of imports from the Proconnesian quarries arrives at the Lebanese coast between the Hadrianic period and the end of the Severan period. Almost 300 examples are known: at least half are from Tyrus, underlining the increasing importance of the town in the second century; 43 are from Berytus; and a few are from Byblus, mostly connected to its nymphaeum. Using detailed measurements, the author argues that the capitals conform to eight standard sizes; unfortunately, I find this difficult to verify because the entire data set is not presented.

The typological analysis of the 360 ornamental capitals made from local material starts with a thorough discussion of Baalbek: the author acknowledges three different design variants among the capitals of the Temple of Jupiter of the first century AD and the same number of variants for those of the so-called ‘Temple of Bacchus’ of the second century AD. The different models bear witness to the sheer length of time it took to construct these buildings. Noteworthy also is the variability of the dimensions of these capitals, which diverge by up to 15% within the same building. The style of capitals from outside Baalbek is often influenced by the city, and of those from the coast by the micro-Asiatic imports; they also show relatively significant stylistic variation, demonstrating that only at Baalbek was a school of stonemasons in continuous operation (summary on pp. 140–144). The author devotes a lot of effort to the study of the proportional system within each capital and its chronological significance. He is able to confirm and elaborate upon the stylistic developments already described by Schlumberger, and the well-known tendency of the increasing height of the rows of acanthus leaves (summarized in table 89 on p. 132).

Blocked-out capitals with smooth leaves constitute a particularly interesting group, which are included and discussed in full detail. Overall, 175 capitals conform to this group, and this book enables their frequency to be evaluated using solid data for the first time. They are almost absent at the Lebanese coast, where they can be found used for the sandstone arch at Tyrus; however, they appear frequently in the mountain sanctuaries, at Baalbek, and in the Beqa’a Valley, where they make up almost one-third of all Corinthian capitals. At first, these are simply undecorated versions of the usual Corinthian types, but in the second century they were often simplified further, branching into their own stylistic development. In addition to the parallels found in Palestine and Syria, noted by the author, further reference could be made to their frequent occurrence in Cilicia and on the southern coast of Asia Minor, making them a prominent phenomenon of the wider region.[7]

The fourth part of the book is dedicated to a selection of decorative motifs including the early fine-toothed acanthus and the early predecessors of wind-blown acanthus, and to a technical speciality: the two-piece capital, explained here convincingly as having been motivated by the geological stratification of the chosen varieties of stone. Subsequently, some of the main components of the capitals and the syntax and iconography of their decoration are discussed in detail, perfectly illustrated by photographs:[8] the helices, abaci, fleurons, and caules, as well as the rare figural capitals, often decorated with eagles. The author does not neglect the ‘long biographies’ of many of the capitals, explaining some of their most common forms of reuse as ashlars or, hollowed out, as baptismal fonts, basins or troughs: a phenomenon most common in the Levant, but rarely commented upon.

The final section is dedicated to evidence for the organization of the worksites. Again, detailed observation provides a clear overview of the techniques employed to carve, lift, and dowel the blocks. I give only a few additional comments: (1) when listing the tools of the workmen (pp. 223–224), the most evident are missing, namely the different varieties of flat chisel and gouge; (2) it seems to me that most of the 18 ‘mason’s marks’, rather than being marks of their makers, represent Greek numbers from 1 to 20, used for numbering and assembling; (3) it is noteworthy that only about one-third of all capitals show dowel holes, and that lewis holes for lifting are surprisingly rare: they appear almost exclusively at the large temples at Baalbek and at Qsarnaba.

In summary, the study constitutes the most complete survey to date on Corinthian capitals in Lebanon and provides an excellent overview on all aspects of the topic. It will certainly remain the best source of reference on the material for a long time to come. It is from this solid base that comparisons can now be made with adjacent regions, such as Antioch and the Orontes valley, and from which material evidence can be related to historical development and topography.


[1] H. Kahwagi-Janho, L’hippodrome romain de Tyr, Étude d’architecture et d’archéologie, Mémoires 30 (Bordeaux: Ausonius, 2012); H. Kahwagi Janho, Les monuments romains de Tyr extra muros. Étude architecturale de la route antique, de l’arc monumental et de l’aqueduc (Bordeaux: Ausonius, 2016).

[2] D. Schlumberger, ‘Les formes anciennes du chapiteau corinthien en Syria, en Palestine et en Arabie’, Syria 14 (1933) 283–317.

[3] M. Fischer, Das korinthische Kapitell im alten Israel in der hellenistischen und römischen Periode. Studien zur Geschichte der Baudekoration im Nahen Osten (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1990); J. Dentzer-Feydy, ‘Les chapiteaux corinthiens normaux de Syrie méridionale 1’, Syria 67 (1990) 633–663.

[4] For example: O. Peleg-Barkat, ‘The Introduction of Classical Architectural Decoration into Cities of the Decapolis: Hippos, Gadara, Gerasa and Scythopolis’, Aram 23 (2011) 425–445.

[5] C. Strube, Baudekoration im nordsyrischen Kalksteinmassiv 1. Kapitell-, Tür- und Gesimsformen der Kirchen des 4. und 5. Jahrhunderts n. Chr., Damaszener Forschungen 5 (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1993).

[6] The piece in the Archäologische Sammlung der Universität Freiburg (Germany) is not a close parallel as stated on p. 34 but does indeed belong to the very same ensemble.

[7] For example E. Equini Schneider (ed.), Elaiussa Sebaste 2. Un porto tra Oriente e Occidente, Bibliotheca archeologica 37 (Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2003) 365–366, 399, 628–631; D. Kaplan, Doğu dağlık Kilikia Bölgesi Roma Imparatorluk Dönemi Detaylandırılmamış Korinth Başıkları (Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 2014).

[8] On syntax and iconography in architectural decoration see G. A. Plattner, ‘Werkstatt und Muster. Zur Methoder der Scheidung von Arbeitsprozessen und Stilelementen’, in: J. Lipps and D. Maschek (eds.), Antike Bauornamentik. Grenzen und Möglichkeiten ihrer Erforschung, Studien zur antiken Stadt 12 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2014) 53–68.