Architecture and Colors of Nisa. Recent excavations and new vision
Planning in the Old Nisa have the local traditions and connected to Iranian or Central Asian style of that period. The availability of the craftsmen and material in the area influenced this choice. The most used material for the construction was the mud brick, 40 X 42 X13 cm in dimensions what had some variations in different buildings of the citadel. The beaten clay used for masonries or minor details, in particular in the late Parthian period. Initially, stone and wood employed and respectively used for column bases and shafts. Gypsum and stucco elements used to fix the decorative elements in terracotta - merlons, assembled capitals, metopes or slabs and shaped bricks fixed on cornices and friezes on the walls.
The decorative apparatus is a synthesis of western and eastern traditions. The decorative schemes affected by western influences (Greek- Seleucids) constitute the same form but lost in substance. These are usually stripped of their original practical function and becoming purely decorative modules. For example, the assembled capitals made with terracotta leaves, in line with Arsacid court taste. It is a refined taste, characteristic of an official and ceremonial architecture in the context of a royal foundation. Misunderstood substance in adopted elements, as happened with the astragalo in the stone socle of the Red Building, revealed by Italian expedition. Reinvented elements; in the case of some metopes with figured elements and the dynastic symbols.
The Parthian period left small number of written sources about its empire and about Nisa in particular and the excavation of the site are still problematic to untie the puzzles. It is not yet clear the foundation date of the Nisa or when it was abandoned. The universally used mud brick architecture (except – terracotta for baked bricks in the bases and shafts for columns in one building or decorative slabs and merlons) at the site, requires continuous labor force to maintain the buildings during the very long span of time, in the extremely variable atmospheric conditions during the year and the high seismicity of the region. This presents additional difficulty for the archeologists for the punctual reconstruction of the sequence of the different building phases.
Given the three main phases, none of the buildings can be chronologically related with precision to the erection of the complexes of the monumental sector in the middle part of the tell. In the northern sector of the hill, the Square House probably remained in use throughout the whole Arsacid period, though changing its function during the three main building phases. While the destination of the Square House in its first building phase has been debated for long and still today remains not univocal between the scholars, almost everyone agrees on the fact that in a second phase, the building became a sort of treasury or storehouse for royal furnishings and objects.
The Square House planning includes that of functional buildings of eastern Iran and Central Asia, rather than the palatial tradition of the Achaemenid architecture. Italian archeologist Invernizzi has shown that Square House is probably the one that is most closely linked to the formal principles of the Central Asian architectural tradition, both in its plan and in its decoration.
The southwestern complex planning seems generally based on similar principles. The complex also includes storerooms and rooms with functional facilities as low benches, small basins (plastered or in baked bricks), grindstones and fireplaces. The planning made up of a central quadrangular open space surrounded by rows of rooms on each side. The dimensions of the excavated area are now close to those of the Square House, but the plan show the different modularity; there are not any columns or any particular decoration as in the monumental complexes of the site, the use of terracotta architectural details is minimum and only some for the north side, as attested until now. The rooms are clearly functional structures whose orthogonal plan is mainly aligned with the defensive walls of the citadel, to the south and west, forming unusual parallelogram: the scheme belong to a purely Central Asian tradition. Of course, this reconstruction is a conjecture until the very end of the excavations (Italian archeologists suppose the existence of an entire block or district along the southwestern part of the fortified curtain). None of the architectural decorative elements (metopes, terracotta, plaques…) has even been recovered in situ, in its original place on the walls. Almost all the fragments coming from the structures in the southwestern corner originate from the northern rooms.
Since 1960 excavations, the central sector is well known. In the same time, it is the one with the most complex and uncertain chronology.
In general, Red Building and some walls bellow the Square Hall attributed to a first building phase or possibly to more than one Parthian building phase. V.N. Pilipko (worked in Nisa 2001-2008) attributes the Round Hall, the Tower Building and the Square Hall to the second great building phase, which later underwent various modifications. However, there is uncertainty; the oblique alignment of the Square Hall with respect to the Tower and the Red Buildings. This irregular axis is not recorded in the first plans of YuTAKE expedition, which showed a strictly orthogonal alignment between the buildings.
The eastern side of the Square Hall follows the natural slope, with a progressive rotation of the south- north axis towards the west, following the contours of the terrain. However, the form and structure of the terrain and the pre-existence of earlier structures in the sector are not the factors explaining the different orientation of the buildings themselves, since the preparation of the foundation terrace of the Square Hall intended to regularize the area and to incorporate the remains of pre-existing structures. Therefore, it is still not clear why the ancient architects, after massive work of substructure, did not proceed in line with the buildings to the south, especially when Square Hall was one of the most important architectural spaces, the great central courtyard.
The further observations determine that the facade of the Square Hall stick out about 0,6-0,9 m from the mud brick platform. Moreover, the two blocks of buildings (in the south and the north-east) organized according to different topographical and planning principles: the southern block is compact, rigorously orientated and aligned with respect to the defensive walls and contains buildings which are interconnected by roofed internal corridors. This progressive rotation of axis towards the west continues in the northern sector of the hill, where the western and eastern walls of the Square House run parallel to the fortification walls.
The facade of the Tower Building, built at some stage against the Red Building, is perfectly aligned with this. The two buildings seem to be planned on the similar distributional principles, although their functions were likely different. Even the adjacent porticoes of the Tower and the Red Buildings formed a harmonious whole.
The Round Hall despite its unique plan and the fact that it breaks the regularity in the succession of the corner projection with the Red Building, fits harmoniously into the juxtaposition with the Red Building.
On the contrary, the Square Hall presents an architectural conception based on different criteria, though the presence of the great tetrastyle Square Hall at first sight recalls some schemes of the sector to the south. It has a less compact conception, that is not based on orthogonal axes, it is without great facade porticoes and the covered corridor which link the various buildings. This requires further research to confirm the theory of the absolute contemporaneity of the Square Hall and the Tower Building, what have not direct connection between.
The Parthian architects in Old Nisa, had a practical imagination that aims at the simple and the functional. The main features of the planning- constant repetition, symmetry and orthogonal axes, it lead to a dominance of centric layouts, rigorously squared and compact. Even the unique planning of the Round Hall, with its central circular hall covered with an elliptical mud brick dome, confined within a square perimeter.
The secondary entrances or accesses usually lead at the back or at the side. The main entrances are generally placed on the axis of the geometrical center of the building. This is correct in the Round Hall, the Tower Building and the Square Hall. In the Red Building, the axis of the portico is only slightly off the center line with respect to the main entrance. The entrance is off centre position also in Northeastern building (so called Palace) and in the Square House in the northern part of the hill.
The central planning – in some cases the geometrical center – are predominant. It roughly coincides with the central hall, the main space of the building, whose importance emphasized by its being in the centre of the composition and served by several passageways. The architectural layout made up of a number of juxtaposed and independent buildings, differentiated in their functions and sometimes belonging to different Arsacid building phases. They are closely connected by passages which run along perimeter lines of the corridors and which are the principal means of communication, since the inner rooms are often not interconnected.
Then, these corridors served to connect and at the same time to isolate the central spaces of the buildings, through which it is not necessary to pass in order to move from one sector to another of the building or from one building to another. The Red Building, the Round Hall and the Tower Building have long passageways running along perimetral corridors giving access to the central spaces, which usually have a more direct entrance. These passageways closely link the three buildings, what confirm that they were in use during the same period, even though the Red Building belongs to an earlier building phase. In this complex design of internal passageways, the southern block is therefore an autonomous sector. As there are not passageways providing a direct link with the Square Hall and the structures further to the northeast.
The buildings of central ensemble of Old Nisa seem to be based on common principles and the main halls have similar dimensions, though they are different. The proportions and measurements are never equal. The Round Hall about 17 m in diameter, the tetrastyle hall of the Square Hall is about 19 m, the central square block of the Tower Building is about 20 m, the central rectangular tetrastyle hall of the Red Building measures about 15 X 17 m.
Even the intercolumniations of the porticoes on the facades or of the internal rooms are never constant. There is not also a clear basic module in Nisa. G.A. Pugachenkova found a basic module of 228 cm for the Square House and a second basic module of about 15,5 cm in the diameter of the outer columns of the Necropolis Temple of New Nisa. However further excavations showed no single module seems to be adopted for all buildings of Parthian Nisa. Nisean architecture strives for harmony of proportions and spaces are always rhythmically distributed, scholars can not recognize here an order, in the sense of a canon of fixed numerical relationships.
In the central ensemble of Old Nisa the inner walls of the buildings preserved to 3-4 meters height. If the reconstruction of the roofing of the main buildings still remain conjectural, the elevation of the walls can therefore be assumed with a certain reliability, at least to the considerable height. YuTAKE reconstructive models based on the first analyses of the site. However further excavations raised new questions with respect to the first reconstructive drawings, since 1960. For example, recent Italian research at the Round Hall demonstrate that a semi-elliptical mud brick dome was plausible and Yutake expedition showed a wooden roofing. However, V.N Pilipko still support Pugachenkova version of roofing's reconstruction.
Having the old and new data, the general characteristics of the Nisean buildings show the functional criteria, proportions and consistence.
The Tower and the Red Buildings, which gave onto the central courtyard, must have formed a continuous facade, alternating the gaps of the porticoes with the solid masses of the projecting avant-corps, to the eyes of anyone approaching the main entrance of the complex. The Round Hall may have had a portico (half columns!!?) on the upper level of the facade, which recalls the columned facade which archeologists have reconstructed for the second floor of the Tower and the entrance portico on its southern side.
The rear facades of some buildings reserved on a less monumental scale with columns framing the entrances or using colored plaster. The lateral wings of the building are often built against each other, and where they are free standing, they do not have any particular subdivisions.
The use of the order at Nisa has mainly decorative aims, especially on the facades: the porticoes and colored surfaces create chromatic effects which underline the latitudinal development and vertical subdivision of the architectures, rather than servicing for an architectural and functional organization of the spaces. The interior and exterior of the Nisa, have a division of the facades into two or more registers or bands, which are clearly distinguished by the decoration, where sculpture and wall painting play an important role. Colour serve to highlight the subdivision of the architectures and the presence of their various constituent (not structural) elements.
In the buildings of Nisa prevails a sense of frontality of the facades, which are rarely plain, usually enriched by porticoes between projecting foreparts or rooms, emphasized by the color. Then, the sense of frontality heightened by the predominantly lateral development of the building, enhanced by a decoration organized in horizontal bands. At the same time, however, the chromatic subdivision into horizontal registers, which is also emphasized by the arrangement of friezes made of terracotta elements, serves to create a rhythmic vertical development of the wall, by identifying the different sections of the masonries with different meanings: socle, dado, portico-facade and roofing.
This increased especially in the interiors, where the height of the columns, supporting the roof and the presence of a rich figured decoration on the upper part of the masonries, focused attention on the vertical development of the surfaces of the walls. The Square Hall in its final stage, had the white lower part and above part rhythmically interrupted by half-columns and the gallery of statues, the painted decorations which crowned them and the colors of the roof beams supported by quarter-foil powerful columns attracted attention to where the profusion of elements and colors was the greatest. This organization of the decoration in the interiors seems to be reversed with respect to what happens on the facades. The outer fa?ade gives greater prominence to a latitudinal development, albeit subdivided into superimposed registers or orders, whereas the architecture of the interior alternates the perception of horizontal space with a strong ascensional impulse, up the walls of the rooms to the ceiling. One of the main factors in the definition of the fa?ade and the perception of the interior spaces of the building of Nisa was the use of color, both on the walls and on some floors.
The most data concerning facades, revealed for the Temple at New Nisa and the Red Building in Old Nisa. The significant data on the interior rooms collected from the Square Hall, the Tower Building and the Red Building. The Tower Building had the complex cycle of paintings, yielded during the excavations, but the final report is not yet ready for clear reconstructive model of the building. The Round Hall lower part was certainly white, but small fragments of purple plaster found in the lower floor levels suggest a plausible bipartition of the wall of the circular hall. What not illustrated in the YuTAKE reconstructions of the interior: Puganchenkova reconstructive models; the reconstructive drawing in 1958 showed that statues not colored; the drawing in 1967 showed the niches on the upper gallery as plastered in purple red and the same color applied on the wooden ceiling of the hall).
The building of New Nisa clearly presents the horizontal partition of the facades, typical for the architecture of Nisa in whole. The purple color of the back wall of the portico, alternating with the black of the stylobates and of the half columns, accentuates the clear separation between the lower part, rhythmically broken up by the free supports and a plain upper part of the building, which to imagine to have been interrupted solely by the window openings.
The Red Building opens the same scheme in its facade portico, where the colors are even more accentuated, with use of wood to stone, terracotta, mud brick and gypsum. The stone socle running along the front of the raised portico and the base of its back wall is decorated with typically western motifs (bead-reel-flutings), albeit in a new position: instead of upper parts of brick work as in normal frieze, but low like a dado. The wooden columns of the portico rested on stone bases of the Achaemenid type, colored red, while their shafts were decorated by a lively polychromy (red, ochre, gold leaves and black) related to the Iranian model. For the capitals of the columns should be mentioned some fragments of polychrome terracotta leaves found in the area of the portico, which here as elsewhere in Nisa have formed Corinthian capitals (may be second building phase???)
The strongly pictorial effect and lively polychromy of the facade give unity to the different materials used in the composite architecture. The sequence of colors on the facade wall was a polychrome dado- the naturally greyish green stone colored in red, ochre and black. Then purple or ochre plaster. Finally blue color on the top of the walls or more likely, on the roof beams of the portico (the same as in the Hellenistic Mediterranean world, for example reconstructed house in the site museum of Pella).
Large monochromatic surfaces were reserved for the rear (south) facade of the building and for the interior, where at least four rooms had purple plaster on the lower part of the walls or purple and ochre on the floor surface. Colored plasters on the floors and walls are well known in the architecture of the Achaemenid epoch. At Nisa, the coloured plasters are executed with great care. They are tough but also delicate, especially in the case of the floors. Red plasters recur at New Nisa Necropolis and in the Square Hall. The fine and fragile decorations suggest that this kind of finishing was intended for particular rooms, whose use was reserved to a few people. The purple color related with the strong significance, linking to royalty from Achaemenid period. The other aspects of the color are debated between the use to a sacral, a funerary or a secular sphere.
The central tetrastyle of the Red Building had white walls, interrupted only by niches with a red background on the western wall. The chromatism was accentuated in the columns and in the roof beams. One of the room of the Red Building, being in the exceptional state of conservation, gives the idea of reconstructive model of decorative schemes used at Nisa. Here, the walls preserved to the height of 4 m, the plaster of the lower wall still visible to 2.20 m high. The upper section of the painted decoration, organized in bands, collapsed on floor retaining the original sequence of colors. The reconstruction is therefore reliable up to 4 m, it remains hypothetical for the top of the walls that were probably just finished with a white plastering. The walls of the room subdivided into coloured horizontal bands, of varying widths, often crowned by narrower pictorial strips which alternate geometric motifs of obvious western derivation.
The most complex and varied case is that of the Square Hall, as is known for the final phase of building. Here the polychrome decoration of the tetrasyle hall is on the upper level of the walls and includes monochrome plasters crowned by bands with geometric motifs, as well as statues, columns and architectural elements partly or wholly covered with color.
Nisa planning has the functionality following the Iranian and Central Asia traditions of architecture. However, there is new solution as the Round Hall. At the decorative level of the architectural elements, there is visible side of borrowed elements from the west and other side is the autonomous, independent part of the Parthians (the local region and style of life). Order, the applied elements and colors used exclusively for decorative purpose to create the virtual partition of the facades. Structurally united superimposed levels have only superficial distinction. The decoration has the main purpose to enrich the architecture, to highlight the frontality of the structure or to accentuate the visual effect of the interior spaces.