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Volume 15, Number 3May/June 1964

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Civilization took a giant step forward when men in the ancient Middle East found a better way to

Light Up The Night

Written by The Editors

In all man's legends and folklore, as well as in his religions, a connection was made between darkness and danger, between light and well-being. Crouching in his cave, surrounded by the cries of nocturnal beasts, primitive man waited for the reassuring light of day. His first light came from the sun and moon, but eventually fire was tamed and used for its warmth, then for its light.

In caves, a flaming branch lighted the night's darkness, permitting the artist to work, women to sew, the craftsman to hew and carve, and cultural progress to begin its upward climb. No one knows the precise moment when man first chanced upon portable and producible light, but a parallel line of development may be traced between human achievement and the production of light. Nowhere is this better to be seen than in the Middle East, the cradle and ancient nursery of man.

By comparing the portable devices used to produce light through the ages, it's possible to see successive stages in human progress. In some of the earliest levels of excavated antiquity in the Middle East, small crude bowls, blackened on one side, are evidence that man had moved from his hearth fire and flaming torch and was able to light the rest of his home more efficiently and safely. The introduction of the fiber wick, probably a piece of twisted bark at first, permitted a revolution in lighting, for now oil could be burned, the fuel could be stored and replenished easily, and the danger of fire was reduced. The crude bowl lamp was used for many centuries, becoming refined in its shape only when the potter's wheel brought symmetry. The wick evolved into a cord of twisted flax or cotton, floating in the bowl, with one end drooping over the edge to support the yellow flame.

But as early as the great Pyramid Age, lamps in the Middle East grew sophisticated. The bowl became shallower, a lip was pinched into one side, better to hold up the wick, and the lamp began to move from sheer usefulness in design to beauty as well.

Improvement of the oil lamp continued during the Early Bronze Age to the extent that the typical Syro-Palestinian lamp, by about 2000 B.C., was a four-lipped lamp with a small foot. Pottery refinement permitted an even better outward appearance of the lamp, even without any great improvement in the light which it produced. With the coming of the Late Bronze Age, the Western world began to make overtures to the more ancient civilizations of the Middle East, and ornateness in decoration characterized ceramic efforts. By the flickering light of the lamp, Cypriote swans could be seen preening themselves on the plates and bowls the proud housewife placed upon her low table for "company" meals.

The Aegean Sea peoples ushered in the Iron Age in the Middle East, about 1200 B.C., establishing themselves along the coastal plains north of Egypt and extending to Anatolia. They introduced new decorative motifs to the whole area. Although the basic oil lamp continued in use, its shape began to change. Still characteristic of this period was the old "saucer lamp," but its tip began to be pinched closer together and it gradually developed a larger foot to stand on. Dating can even be done on the basis of the height of the foot of such a lamp. From the days of David through the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian conquests in the early sixth century B.C., scribes and priests continued their toil, probably pausing to praise each refinement in the simple oil lamp as an aid to literary development. The palaces of kings and the simple dwellings of the common man all depended on the oil lamp to brighten the dark hours of the night. Steadier now, on its flat disc foot, the "saucer lamp" still gave its flickering light, and the wide saucer-like oil bowl offered a potential threat to the housewife's floors.

By the time Alexander the Great arrived in the Middle East to avenge the slight given the Greeks by Darius and Xerxes, he found the local peoples using "folded lamps"—a new and spectacular achievement in household lighting fixtures! The opposite sides of the rim of the saucer had now been brought together on each side of the wick spout and overlapped, like an envelope. Now the wick was held in place, protruding from a small hole on one side and the oil was kept from spilling by the overlapped sides of the bowl. These lamps were filled through another hole, opposite the wick. Both grace and utilitarian demands were met by this simple device. This lamp type was the forerunner of a fully closed lamp, which soon appeared all over the ancient world.

Commonly called "Graeco-Roman," the fully closed lamps were cast from molds in two separate parts—a base and a top—and then joined together when the two parts were partially dry. The completed lamp was then fired in the kiln and decorated with colored glazes and paints. A small nozzle, with a hole for the wick, extended from the front of the base. Another hole in the top of the lamp permitted the lamp to be filled. These lamps set the pattern for succeeding generations in the Middle East, as they had already done in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds—in pottery for the poor and in metal for the rich.

An infinite variety of styles developed in terms of shape, number of wick nozzles, handles, and, particularly, in decoration. The artists of the age used lamps as a new "canvas" upon which to fashion pictures illustrating history, mythology, architecture, current events, and similar scenes. Such lamps even became the first real "greeting cards"—serving to convey greetings, with set messages, to friends, business acquaintances, and neighbors, on the Roman New Year Day throughout the Empire.

Because they were produced from molds, these lamps could be mass produced, using semi-skilled labor. By standardizing parts, as well, a single base shape could be fitted with a great variety of tops, as the market and whims of high fashion dictated.

Local peoples soon copied the new and more expensive "imported" models. First by styling their own molds directly from the foreign types, and then by designing styles of their own. The Middle Easterners ignored representations of Roman deities and turned to the classical grape-and-leaf, rosette, or other designs more truly at home in the Middle East. Handles also became more exotic, in size and shape, providing a new surface to decorate with leaves, human and divine faces, animal heads, and similar details.

The excavated sites of the entire ancient world have provided thousands of molds and complete lamps and with them the index to chronology. Probably the best known groups were those found at ancient Corinth. Other sites, farther to the east, have also produced potters' workshops and salesrooms literally piled high with the ubiquitous molded lamp. These finds, in company with the reports of ancient travelers, attest to the demand for light in this period of history. Temples were crowded with votive lamps, housewives kept them on stands or shelves, and tombs even had small niches carved into their walls to accommodate lamps placed there by mourning relatives and friends.

With the rise and spread of Islam, the molded lamp underwent new changes, sometimes appearing in an elongated shape like a pointed slipper, and, more and more, with colorful glazes applied over the whole lamp. As glass came into prominence in the decorative techniques of Islamic art in general, masterpieces of metal and glass began to grace both mosques and private residences. Motifs reflected the opulence, and the piety, of the days of the Arabian Nights, with enamels and precious metals worked into the glass chimneys and oil reservoirs. Hanging lamps, in particular, came into vogue, and many splendid examples may still be seen in the Middle East today.

Although the candle was invented—substituting a solid fat for the liquid fuel of the oil lamp—the lamp remainedthe most common form of lighting device for the world at large until the 1700's, with very little change in basicdesign. Modifications of bowl and wick, with the addition of mechanical devices for controlling the flame, and theuse of new fuels, gradually took place in the eighteenth century. But it was not until 1879 that the oil lamp—and its gas-operated cousin—was really displaced. With the invention of the incandescent electric light bulb, the lamp began to wane in its importance. But it has only been in the last few decades of the present century that the lamp has fallen into second place as a lighting device. Even today, lamps brighten the homes of countless thousands, as well as providing illumination for campers, hunters, and others.

This article appeared on pages 13-15 of the May/June 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: LAMPS, OIL

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1964 images.