Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Ancient World - Ishtar Gate

The World's Greatest Architecture - Past & Present

Ishtar Gate, Babylon

Although the city of Babylon existed in the 3rd millennium BC, it only became important in the first half of the 18th Century BC, when Hammurabi made it the capital of an empire comprising most of Mesopotamia, from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Anatolia. It was raided and sacked by the Hittites and others in succeeding centuries and was dominated by Assyria from the 9th century until the fall of Assyria in 612 BC. Under a dynasty of Chaldean kings, notably Nebuchadnezzar II, it again became a major political power in the Near East.

The new Babylon, whose ruins, first seriously excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, can still be seen on the River Euphrates about 55 miles south of Baghdad, was essentially the creation of Nebuchadnezzar. Straddling the river and guarded b a three part wall, it covered an area of up to 12 miles in circumference, and contained such fabulous structures as a seven stages ziggurat that has been popularly identified with the Tower of Babel and Nebuchadnezzar's palace with its alleged Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In fact, excavations have shown that the palace was much smaller than might have been expected.

The main entrance to the city was through the Ishtar Gate, which led to the Processional Way, the main central avenue that bisected the city. The glazed brickwork, decorated with heraldic animals, sometimes in relief, adorned the Processional Way and Nebuchadnezzar's palace, as well as the Ishtar Gate which, carefully restored, is now in the National Museum in Berlin. The animals, not only real ones such as lions and bulls but also obscure mythical ones, were originally modeled on a large panel of soft clay. The panel was then cut into bricks, fired, and reassembled on the wall. Colors, on a deep blue background, are bright and varied. The technique was not new, but it had never been employed on such a large scale before. It so impressed the Persians, who under Cyrus the Great captured Babylon in 539 BC, that they took Babylonian craftsmen back to decorate their capital at Susa.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Ancient World - Temple of Amun, Karnak

The World's Greatest Architecture - Past & Present

Temple of Amun, Karnak

Little remains to be seen of the ancient city of Thebes, capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, but the two great temples of Luxor and especially Karnak, which stand close by on the east bank of the River Nile, are notable exceptions.

The temples of ancient Egypt were not places of worship but dwelling places for the gods. Few temples earlier than this have survived, and it can often be assumed that the surviving building, as at Karnak, replaced an earlier one, perhaps dating back to the Old Kingdom, and for about 1,500 years the style hardly changed. These temples are huge, Karnak in fact being the biggest, and are built along an axis. The main entrance takes the form of a pylon gateway, leading to a colonnaded court and a hypo-style hall. Walls bear rich decorations, typically in low-relief, representing rites of the cult, deeds of the pharaoh, and sometimes more domestic scenes. They form an integral part of the building.

The Egyptians were not interested in experimenting with interior space, and the vast hall is somewhat cramped by the profusion of columns. But it was merely a hall, in the sense of an anteroom. Beyond lay the holiest chamber, the sanctuary, comparatively dark and narrow, where the cult statue in which the god resided was housed within a shrine. Ordinary people were not admitted, but at festivals, which were extremely elaborate, the images of the gods were carried outside the temple to make contact with them. The annual ceremony at Karnak, when the image of the god was carried by water to Thebes, lasted for a month. It was conveniently celebrated during the Flood season, when no work could be done in the fields.

The great temples, something like medieval monasteries, were substantial, largely self-contained units, containing craftsmen's workshops and schools. In the 12th century BC, the Temple of Amun at Karnak employed about 10,000 people.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Ancient World - Abu Simbel

The World's Greatest Architecture: Past & Present

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel lies about 174 miles south of Aswan, in ancient Nubia. The region was first conquered by the Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom, and was ruled by them, with intervals, until the late 8th century, when the position was reversed and the Nubians briefly ruled Egypt, until drive out by the Assyrians.

The great temple of Abu Simbel was built during the long reign of Ramses II and proclaims the formidable power of that might pharaoh. On the rock-cut facade are four colossi of Ramses, each about 65 ft high, accompanied by comparatively tine figures of his family, who cluster at his feet like satellites around a planet. The plan of the temple is in the customary form, with two large, hypo-style halls, surrounded by other chambers and apartments. The temple was built so that at the most important festivals of the year, 20 February and 20 October, the rays of the sun would shine directly along the main axis to illuminate the sanctuary. The inner walls were decorated with painted low-reliefs celebrating the activities of the divine king, including his famous battles against the Hittites in Syria, the first military campaign in history that can be reconstructed from surviving records. There is also a rather more attractive, smaller temple, dedicated to Ramses' chief wife, Nefertari.

The proposal to build the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s threatened Abu SImbel with inundation, and a remarkable rescue effort was mounted under the auspices of UNESCO. The entire complex was dismantled in pieces and raised to a position 200 ft higher, where it was reassembled and protected from the vast piles of rock introduced to emulate its original setting by a gigantic concrete dome. The whole operate took four years and cost over $40 million, a modern technological achievement to match the skill and effort of the original temple builders.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Ancient World - The Ziggurat of Ur

                          The World's Greatest Architecture: Past & Present

Ziggurat, Ur

The Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia are generally credited with being the earliest of ancient civilizations, followed closely by those of Egypt, China and the Indus valley. the focus of Sumerian life was the temple, the house of the god who ruled the city, the king of that time being merely his agent. In southern Mesopotamia, little stone or wood was available for building, but what did exist in huge quantity was alluvial mud, from the frequent flooding of the river. In the generally dry climate such material, which would be practically useless in more temperate regions such as northern Europe, lasts a remarkably long time, although, of course, it does not last as well as stone. The reason why the ziggurat at Ur is comparatively well preserved is that its sloping walls were carefully faced with sun-dried bricks set in mortar made from mud. An interesting feature is that the facing of the wall is interrupted at intervals by shallow vertical channels which, experts suggest, were made to allow the mud-brick core to 'breathe', preventing cracking during the wet season. The remaining lower stages have recently been restored to their original appearance.

The ziggurat was originally built by Ur-Nammu, a king of the 3rd Dynasty, during the last two centuries of the 3rd millenium BC, when Ur was the leading Mesopotamian power. It is roughly 1,000 years later than the earliest giant temples of the Sumerians such as those at Eridu and Uruk. the form of the earlier buildings - basically a monumental temple with buttressed sides raised on a huge platform - led to the ziggurat, or temple tower, which was the essential form at Ur. Ziggurats were often built on the same sites as archaic temples and have many features recalling them in form.

The great ziggurat at Ur is essentially a truncated pyramid, built in a series of platforms of diminishing area, and accessed by stairways. On the topmost platform would have been the temple of the Moon god Nanna, the chief god of Ur, although there is not trace of it now. The large temple enclosure includes royal residences and the royal tombs, which have yielded treasures of extraordinary sophistication.

Ziggurat, Ur, Iraq, Architecture, The Ancient World

Ziggurat, Ur, Iraq, Architecture, The Ancient World

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Ancient World - The Great Pyramid of Giza

                   The World's Greatest Architecture: Past & Present

                                      The Great Pyramid of Giza

Although Egyptian architecture remained remarkably constant for nearly 3,000 years, there were changes. Pyramids, built chiefly to contain the bodies of pharaohs, were restricted to the Old Kingdom. They developed from the earlier, low, flat-topped mastaba but, due partly to the menace of thieves, were replaced in about the 18th Century BC by tombs cut deep in the rocks, which were unfortunately not thief-proof either.

About 100 pyramids are known today, but the great majority are no more than piles of rubble. The earliest is the Step Pyramid, or Ziggurat, of Zoser, a king of the 3rd Dynasty of about 2800 BC, which was originally about 200 ft high. The true pyramid, with four smooth sides on the plan of a square sloping inwards to a point, developed in the 4th Dynasty. there is reason to think, however, that the most notable survivals, the three pyramids at Giza on the outskirts of modern Cairo, are the finest. They were regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world, and are the only survivor of the seven.

The largest and oldest of the three is the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Measuring 756 ft along each side at the base, it rose originally to a height of 482ft. It covers an area of about 13 acres, more than the five largest European cathedrals put together, and is said to contain about 2,300,000 blocks of stone with an average weight of 2.5 tonnes. Buried deep within were three separate chambers, reached by intimidating, angled passages and heavily buttressed against the oppressive weight of stone.

Though still in awe-inspiring sight, it is not untouched by time, and the encroachment of the city is a growing threat to its integrity. Today, it has lost about 39ft of its original height, and it lacks its outer layer of smooth and dazzling limestone, appropriated by the builders of Cairo. Though about 4,500 years old, the Great Pyramid remains one of the largest and most splendid of human works.

Pyramid, Egypt, Architecture, Ancient World, Giza

Pyramid, Egypt, Architecture, Ancient World, Giza

The Ancient World - Stonehenge

The World's Greatest Architecture: Past & Present


Stonehenge, which stands amid the bleak expanse of Salisbury Plain in southern England, is the most famous megalithic monument in Europe. The earliest construction began before 3000 BC, and the building remained in use, sporadically at least, for nearly two millenia. It consists basically of an incomplete circle of roughly worked standing stones up to 22ft above the ground and arranged in a ring.

Archaeologists distinguish three main periods of construction. In Period I, Neolithic workmen using picks made from antlers dug a circular ditch nearly 327ft in diameter, backed by a circular wall. Two large stones, one still surviving, marked the entrance. In Period II, about 2100 BC, two concentric circles of 80 bluestone pillars weighing up to four tonnes each were erected in the center. Period III, 100 years later, saw the erection of the circle of sarsen uprights capped by sarsen lintels, fashioned with stone hammers, which largely form the monument as it is today, after centuries of climatic erosion and pillage by builders. There is no natural stone nearby. The sarsen stones came from the Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles away, but the only known source for the huge bluestones is South Wales. Numerous theories, many patently absurd, have been put forward to explain how the monument was constructed and what its purpose was. It certainly had nothing to do with the Druids, who did not appear on the scene until centuries later, and this puzzle is unlikely to be solved, though it is generally accepted that Stonehenge was a place of worship. The construction of Period II is aligned with the rising sun at the summer solstice, which is clearly not a coincidence, but its significance remains a mystery. It has been widely supposed that the bluestones were brought overland to the site by rollers and by water on a raft. An attempt to reproduce this operation in 2000, however, ran into serious difficulties. Another theory hold that bluestones were a relic of the Ice Age, deposited on Salisbury Plain thousands of years earlier by glaciation.

Stonehenge, Architecture, Bluestone, Mystery, Sarsen, England

Stonehenge, Architecture, Bluestone, Mystery, Sarsen, England

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