In war-torn Syria, an ancestor of Notre-Dame still stands

An arched entrance flanked by two towers, elaborate carvings and a broad-aisled nave: a 5th century limestone church in northwestern Syria is the architectural forerunner of France’s famed Notre-Dame cathedral.

Hemmed by the village of Qalb Lozeh (Arabic for Heart of the Almond), the cathedral which goes by the same name is widely hailed as Syria’s finest example of Byzantine-era architecture.

And it is believed to have been the source of inspiration for Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals in Europe, including the Paris landmark Notre-Dame.

“It is the earliest known example of the twin tower facade flanking a highly elaborate arched entrance, the precursor to what became known as the Romanesque style,” says Middle East cultural expert Diana Darke.

Romanesque architecture evolved into the Gothic style that defines Notre-Dame, she tells AFP.

The layout of the church in northwestern Syria has many similarities with Notre-Dame, she says.

“The specific similarities between Notre-Dame and Qalb Lozeh are first and foremost, the twin tower design flanking the elaborate arched portal,” says Darke.

Inside Qalb Lozeh, “the similarities are in the pillars dividing the church into three broad aisles — the nave and side-aisles — a deliberate echoing of the Holy Trinity, with three sweeping arches resting on broad capitals to spread and distribute the weight which carried the clerestory windows and the original wooden roof over the nave,” she adds.

The abandoned church is within a cluster of 40 so-called “Ancient Villages of Northern Syria” which UNESCO has included on its World Heritage List since 2011.

Two years later as fighting ravaged Syria and its cultural heritage the villages were placed on UNESCO’s list of endangered sites.

UNESCO says the villages including Qalb Lozeh — home to pagan temples and ancient churches — illustrate “the transition from the ancient pagan world of the Roman Empire to Byzantine Christianity”.

Crusaders export design

Qalb Lozeh was built by Syrian Christians whose wealth was based on wine and olive oil production, says Darke.

The church was frequented by pilgrims and is thought to have been a key stop on the way to the nearby basilica of Saint Simeon the Stylite.

“Merchants, pilgrims and monks moved constantly between this area and Europe over the centuries,” she says.

“So it’s not surprising that the design ideas found their way gradually back to Europe, even before the crusaders of the 12th century,” she adds.

Syrian historian Fayez Kawsara said that crusaders brought Qalb Lozeh’s architectural style to Europe in the 12th century.

“Anyone who delves deep in the study of Gothic art and especially Gothic churches will find that this architectural style travelled to Europe (from Syria)” he says, pointing to the cathedral’s soaring arches, its detailed sculpting and its squared towers.

“The biggest proof of this is… Notre-Dame cathedral,” adds Kawsara.

Qalb Lozeh — which is much smaller in size than the Paris landmark, lies in the jihadist-held region of Idlib.

Children used the abandoned church as a playground and graffiti has been scrawled on the outside and inside walls of the cathedral.

Caretakers who guarded the church quickly left after Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011.

Since then it has fallen into neglect, says villager Issam Ibrahim.

“It was not being protected and as village residents, we took it upon ourselves to protect the site,” he says.

Wissam Mohammad, another resident, said the church holds important significance for the local community. “It is not just a pile of old stones. It is a symbol of Syria’s culture,” says Mohammad.

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