USU 1320: History and Civilization
SECTION 5: Culture and Space
When they arrived in ramparted Uruk,
Be it a house or a palace, library, temple or fortress, to historians there's no place like home, because few things last the way architecture does. Architectural structures have frequently survived catastrophes which have destroyed other types of evidence. For instance, when the forces of nature obliterate all human and written remains in a building, even when they eat away the façade and roof, the foundations are often preserved. Or if some party has intentionally demolished an edifice, its upper levels sometimes topple over and protect the lower ones. Moreover, because the needs of housing tend to change constantly over time, there's an almost continual call for new construction so that enough buildings are erected or rebuilt during every age to frame and highlight the manner in which a society has evolved.
Besides that, the history of civilization is itself largely a study of human settlements. What's occurred outside of cities—the life of those in the country, nomadic peoples and communities with diffused populations—has for the most part been lost over time, lacking as it does the great government buildings and record-keeping centers so common in densely inhabited areas and on which our knowledge of history depends to a large extent. Instead, our vision of what-really-happened-in-the-past centers on the history of cities for the most part, and since a metropolis is often remembered for the buildings it contains—think of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colosseum in Rome, the Empire State Building in New York City—the structuring of space becomes an important factor in the assessment of a civilization's growth and development.
Because it's not possible here to explore every way in which buildings attest to a civilization, this section will focus on the intersection between architecture and religion. But that's not as limited a prospect as it may seem at first, since many of the ancient edifices surviving today were temples or holy structures of some sort. Furthermore, there's much to be gained on other fronts by studying the many different ways people have constructed sacred space. Important changes in taste, thought and social organization are visible far down the halls of antiquity's houses of worship.
"Man fears time. Time fears the Pyramids." Arab proverb
"I'm almost more interested now in how the Pyramids built Egypt, than Egypt the Pyramids." Mark Lehner, Harvard Semitic Museum
Since very early times, the Pyramids have played a central role in Egyptian culture and life. Constructed around 2500 BCE, just half a millennium after the dawn of Egyptian civilization itself, all of them are situated on the west bank of the Nile facing the setting sun, an appropriate choice for monuments designed to be the resting places of the dead. In light of that, many of them have shrines nearby where the living may honor their ancient ancestors and, perhaps, reflect on their own mortality.
While the three which lie on the Giza plateau near modern Cairo are the most famous and recognizable of the Egyptian pyramids, they are hardly the only ones the Egyptians built. Pyramids are also found at Saqqara, Dashur, Meidum and several other sites along the western shore of the Nile River. Nor did the ancient Egyptians see the pyramids as a uniform group or refer to them collectively—there is, in fact, no Egyptian word for "pyramid," a Greek term in origin—rather, to the people of ancient Egypt each such structure represented a discrete holy site having its own name and purpose. For instance, the ancient Egyptians called the Great Pyramid at Giza Akhet-Khufu, "The Horizon of Khufu." Khufu—or in Greek Cheops—was the king for whom the Great Pyramid was built.
Although in his Histories Herodotus recalls Cheops as a cruel ruler who forced his subjects to build the Great Pyramid over a relatively brief two decades of rule—brief at least by the standards of Old Kingdom potentates, one of whom, it appears, reigned ninety years—it must be noted that this story almost certainly derives from propaganda meant to deprecate the real Khufu after his lifetime. Especially unlikely are Herodotus' reports about the king prostituting his own daughter to assemble the stones for construction of the Great Pyramid. These are good examples of invented histories which evolved from scandal and bias.
We now know exactly who built the pyramids at Giza: not space aliens, enslaved Hebrews, or people from the lost continent of Atlantis but the Egyptian people themselves who took on the project out of devotion to their god-king. Recently, archaeologists have discovered not only records of these pyramids' construction but the graves of the very workers who cut and dragged the stones, who planned and engineered the design, who worked the kitchens and fed the other workers, and the overseers who managed the whole process. We even know the names of some of these workers and the teams into which they were divided as they assembled these structures. From all this, it's clear that what raised "The Horizon of Khufu" and the other pyramids from the sand was an architectural hysteria of some sort, a building rage that swept the nation of Egypt in the middle of the third millennium BCE, leaving the pyramids in its wake.
And the greatest of these has been aptly termed "the Great Pyramid," Cheops' funerary monument. 144 meters high and 230 along each side, it covers thirteen acres at its base. The individual stones which compose it weigh up to sixteen tons each, and there are something on the order of two and a half million total, meaning that more than a hundred thousand would have to have been set into place each year of Khufu's reign in order for it to have been completed by the time of his death. That amounts to cutting, moving and situating just under three hundred sixteen-ton stones a day for over two decades without interruption, stones that fit together so precisely a knife won't go in between them. It is clearly the work of a nation engaged in something it considered "great."
The geometric artistry of Akhet-Khufu is no less impressive. It rises at an almost perfect 52° angle, creating a figure which symbolized to the Egyptians a ray of light. As such, it was originally crowned with a golden capstone, which would have gleamed in the bright light of the Egyptian day, making it visible, no doubt, for miles around. That, along with much of its outer casing, is now unfortunately lost, but the reason why it was built this way is not.
In the ages immediately preceding its construction, the Egyptians had witnessed the rise of a religious sect dedicated to Ra, the god of the sun. According to the tenets of this Ra cult, the soul of a dead king ascended into the heavens and traveled alongside the god in a sun-boat as he made his daily journey across the sky. The Egyptian name for the Great Pyramid reflects exactly this, "the Horizon of Khufu," implying that Khufu could use the pyramid as a means to climb into heaven. Thus, the king is the human incarnation of the rising sun and the Great Pyramid his dawn. Though popular in some quarters, this notion ran contrary to the view promulgated in traditional Egyptian religion that souls upon death descended to the Underworld. Such a revolutionary notion cannot have gone without some sort of protest or challenge.
Seen from this perspective, the pyramids represent a fascinating admixture of two discordant belief-systems, one involving the soul of the deceased descending below the earth and the other centering on its ascension into the realm above. The pyramids are an attempt to incorporate both. In accordance with the idea that the soul upon death enters the netherworld, the body of a deceased king was laid to rest beneath the bulk of the pyramid, which can then be seen as a highly elaborate tombstone of sorts. The shrines around it feed this notion by giving his descendants a place to worship and nurture his guiding spirit lying somewhere below them.
On the other hand, the new and more innovative aspect of the pyramid lies in its sun-ray design, the most visible part of the structure above the ground. This is evidence of the second belief-system, stemming from the growth of the Ra cult. Soaring upward, the pyramid intentionally directs the eye—and more important at the time, the king's soul—to heaven where it will accompany Ra each day in his passage across the sky. As part of this conception of the afterlife, several boats have been found buried near the Great Pyramid, presumably for Khufu's soul to ride in his flight to join with Ra.
The end result of all this was that at this moment in Egyptian history the dead king's body was both buried under ground for a journey to the netherworld and given the equipment necessary for being launched into space to orbit with the sun. To Khufu, it must have seemed a little disconcerting to be headed in two directions at the same time, which helps to explain a puzzling aspect of the Great Pyramid. Khufu may not have actually ended up using the monument for his burial, but was interred in some other place which the Egyptian historical record unfortunately does not disclose. If so, understanding the design for what it was in the day clarifies Khufu's choice. Not unaware of his tomb's implicit duplicity, evidently he chose not to risk his soul on a resting place that rested on two opposing eternities. Being caught between such worlds forever would be a truly horrifying fate.
Whatever the what-really-happened, controversies like this are a pervasive feature of human civilization. Societies constantly evolve, which results in antagonisms between old and new ways. As the fires of controversy stir and rage, dissension must at times be set aside unresolved, at least long enough to put a dead king somewhere out of sight, even if that means building burial structures like the pyramids which end up pointing in two directions at once.
This helps us see the Great Pyramid for what it really is: less a crisp snapshot of a simple, worshipful people hauling stones in maniacal dedication to their god-king, and more a blurry video of a society which, although deeply imbedded in tradition, is in the same instant facing a revolution in its fundamental vision of life. All in all, it's no wonder the ancient Egyptians were so frantically devoted to building the Great Pyramid that they'd move that many heavy stones each day for twenty years. It was their way of working through their problems and, without architecture of this sort, historians would have little notion such an issue ever existed in ancient Egypt.
In Athens stands a holy structure which was for its day no less revolutionary. The Parthenon marks an important turning point in the history of Western architecture not only for inaugurating a new type of building design, but also because it suggests that the ancient Greeks had begun to embrace a novel way of looking at the world. The Parthenon symbolizes in stone the Ionian Revolution—the same ideology which shaped Herodotus' Histories and sparked Greek philosophy (see Chapter 2)—for, just as the Ionian philosophers first described the world in non-religious terms, the architects of this temple clearly embraced a new view of life that looks to earth before heaven.
Indeed, the gods are not the principal audience before which this temple plays; rather, the target demographic of this sacred edifice is humankind, flawed and frail though it be. As such, the outstanding feature of the Parthenon is its design which systematically compensates for the distortions inherent in human vision. It rises up in a grand but warped manner, leaving the impression of an ideal structure but one which is, in fact, consciously skewed to achieve the appearance of flawlessness. This mode of construction—modern scholars call it optical symmetry—results in a building that looks perfectly balanced but is not. To understand the full scope of this achievement and all that this holy edifice signifies, one must see it in its full historical context.
Like the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon is both a traditional and revolutionary structure. As with most of Greek architecture, it has roots in construction techniques well attested in previous cultures, Egypt in particular. For instance, the post-and-lintel system—essentially, a block of stone or wood called a "lintel" spanning the top of upright columns or "posts"—dominated all classical Greek and Egyptian architecture. But after inheriting this technique, the Greeks effected significant changes.
For instance, to ensure stability in a post-and-lintel structure, the Egyptians often set massive columns side by side, creating a dense, forest-like effect. This was not only a safer way to build, but it also reflected the monumentality of their world view. That is, the imposing, close-packed pillars of an Egyptian temple appropriately bespeak the sense of eternity and otherworldliness that features so strongly in the rest of their civilization, as if it were certain to stand forever. Impassive to time and humanity, it rejects the "airiness" inspiring later Greek and Roman architecture and gives the visitor little space or cause to look beyond its infrastructure but instead looks down, seeking to smother and overwhelm or, at the very least, outlast the puny ephemeral tide of mortality washing about its foundations.
Early Greek construction and design, in fact, resemble Egyptian archetypes in a design mode called heavy Doric style. This is seen nowhere better than at the Temple of Hera in Paestum (Sicily) which was built by Dorian Greeks sometime around 460 BCE. In contrast, at about the same time the other major "race" within Greek world, the Ionians, began building in a very different way, perhaps as part of their general tendency of challenging their Dorian cousins or simply just to overturn tradition and create something original. In any case, Ionians architects brought a new lightness, the aforementioned "airiness," to their structures by thinning the columns and spacing them out. This draws the worshiper's eye aloft, lending a sense that the buildings is breathing or flying upwards, as opposed to the suffocating enormity of earlier Egyptian-style architecture.
The consummate example of this new mode of construction is the Parthenon, which means in Greek the "Virgin Temple." It was built during the Classical Age ostensibly to honor Athens' eponymous deity, the chaste goddess Athena, but in fact it is more of a monument to the grandeur of humanity than any denizen of heaven. And the Parthenon is situated well to announce this theme, high above Athens on the Acropolis (the rocky upcropping in the middle of Athens) where, like the Pyramids of Giza, it is visible for miles around.
The Parthenon is in many ways the product of one man's daring and genius, Pericles, the greatest Athenian statesman of the fifth century, and its construction, though quick, was not easy. First, he had to convince his fellow citizens to rebuild the temple which Xerxes had destroyed during the Second Persian War (see above, Section 2)—many had wanted to leave the site bare in bitter remembrance of Persian atrocities—and then, to pay for its construction, he was forced to siphon off funds from the treasury of the Delian League, the confederation of "free" Greek states which Athens had formed after the Persian Wars. Though this alliance was originally intended to keep out any further incursions from Persia, it persisted into the Classical Age, well past the threat of Persian recrimination, and as time went on, money kept accumulating in its treasury. Politicians like Pericles began to look for ways to put the Delian League funds to "good use," as for instance, the refurbishment of downtown Athens. So, over the protests of many a veteran and most of the member-states making up the Delian League, the Parthenon rose from the rocky Acropolis, a tribute to Athenian ingenuity in architecture and finance. It is, in sum, a monument to both art and artfulness.
Constructed in less than two decades (447-432 BCE) which represents quite a rapid pace by ancient standards, the Parthenon encompasses many of the ideals of the Classical Age expressed through the medium of marble. For example, the Greeks' sense of their own superiority over barbarians saturates the artwork which once decorated this temple. Around the entire temple under its awnings originally ran metopes, ninety-two separate friezes detailing the triumph of man over beast, a metaphor for both the human conquest of irrationality and the Greeks' victories over the Persians—to the Classical Athenians these concepts amounted to the same thing—by comparison, the actual buildings housed within this magnificent structure are quite humble. There is a shrine to Athena with her statue inside and a storeroom at the back for the goddess' holy artifacts. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about this building is the difference between what's inside and outside.
Ultimately, however, neither the interior nor the façade of the Parthenon are what amazes most, but its design, an architectural triumph like few others. Not only are the supporting pillars spaced apart so as to lend a feeling of lightness to the structure, they are also set at irregular intervals conforming to the way humans see. Thus, these columns look as if they are spaced out regularly when, in fact, they aren't, the optical symmetry mentioned above. Also, their shafts are not absolutely straight but bow a little outward, again to conform to the human eye which captures light on a curved surface. Images must arc slightly in order to appear perfectly rectilinear to us.
So then, if it's a temple to anything, the Parthenon is a monument not only—or even mainly!—to Athena but to the crooked grandeur of human perfection, a tribute not to some divinity or abstract principle of geometry but an architectural invocation of the Greek philosopher Protagoras' axiom, "Man is the measure of all things," the guiding principle of the Classical Age. Where other temples in antiquity are designed to house a god or lure some deity from heaven with offers of divine comfort on earth, the Parthenon instead bids the mortals standing before it to reflect on their own being, to "know yourself" as Apollo, the Greek god of reason, commands. It's hard to imagine a louder, more obvious declaration of all that comes of confidence in rationalism and pride in human achievement than this "virgin temple," a fabrication of craft and graft.
If, on the other hand, any ancient building presents a mystery full of glories hidden behind its façade, it's the Pantheon in Rome. The inscription on the front of this impressive structure announces that it was constructed by a man named M.AGRIPPA, undoubtedly Marcus Agrippa, the general who engineered the military successes which brought Augustus Caesar to power in the last decades of the first century BCE (see Chapter 3). That suggests the temple was built in the first days of the Roman Empire, perhaps as early as the 20's BCE.
But, as many an art historian will attest, neither the style nor the imagery of the Pantheon conforms with the architectural style prevalent in that day. For one, it's a masterpiece of engineering, capped with an enormous dome encasing the largest interior space ever in Roman history. Were it really Agrippa's creation, that alone would put its technical expertise decades ahead of its time. Even more remarkable, for all the violence visited on this structure across centuries of invasion and neglect, the dome has yet to fall—it's one of the few roofed buildings left intact from antiquity—so not only its design but also its strength and resiliency confirm the architect's consummate mastery of his science.
Moreover, the brilliance of this building's conception is unparalleled, which, to grasp its genius fully, one must see in the way an ancient architect would have. A dome, for instance, is an extension of the arch—when rotated about its highest point, an arch creates a hemisphere—and to highlight this aspect, the dome of the Pantheon is set on a cylinder of the same height as the superstructure itself so that a perfect globe would fit inside exactly, with its lowest point just touching the floor. Overall, the Pantheon represents the supreme execution of mature artistry and craft, a creation that was surely born at Rome's quiet mid-afternoon, the luxurious Pax Romana, not the cultural triage that dominated Augustus' early reign.
Furthermore, the design and iconography—iconography includes all the imagery informing a structure—strives for a universalism better suited to an established empire, hardly the unsettled state of Augustus's first years in power. The original purpose for which the Pantheon was built shows this clearly. It was created to house the images of the many different deities found throughout the Roman domain, giving each a special niche around the interior. The name of the temple itself alludes to this fact —Pantheon is Greek for "all (pan-) gods (-theon)"—and in every respect, this building looks at the Empire inclusively, in a way more typical of Romans long after Agrippa's day. All in all, if it was built for any single purpose, it calls for harmony in a realm where Augustus was happy just to have peace. Yet its façade reads "Marcus Agrippa built this."
The answer to this conundrum came to light only recently. Deep within the supporting structure of the dome were found bricks stamped with the insignia of a consul—a consul is a high-level Roman magistrate—who is attested to have held office many years after Augustus' reign, in the days when Hadrian, a different emperor, ruled (117-138 CE). If Hadrian, not Augustus or his retinue, were the driving force behind the Pantheon, we have an important clue in unraveling this architectural mystery.
For one thing, by the time Hadrian donned the imperial purple, he inherited a stable, if rancorous dominion. The Roman Empire was by then the acknowledged ruler of the known world—its power stretching from Britain to Mesopotamia, from North Africa to the coasts of the Black Sea—and Hadrian was arguably the perfect man to rule this world. Cosmopolitan and learned, just and merciful, he spent the majority of his reign touring his empire, collecting art and helping to consolidate Rome's cultural legacy.
Among his most famous artifacts are his luxurious, art-filled villa near Rome and the series of defenses he ordered built across northern England, today known as Hadrian's Wall. Unlike his great namesake, this Caesar came, he saw and conserved, not conquered. So it only makes sense that Hadrian was the one to build a temple to "all gods." He had, after all, seen the shrines and churches of many deities living within his realm. All in all, a Pantheon is just the sort of temple a Hadrian would build.
Its design adds further evidence that this emperor's genius lies behind the Pantheon. At the top of the dome is a circular opening called the oculus—oculus means "eye" in Latin—which lets in a round shaft of light that at different times of year illuminates different niches and was meant to function originally in at least two distinct ways. First, it acted as a spotlight which over the course of the year gave fair and measured visibility to the various deities, foreign and native, whose statues inhabited the niches around the dome's interior. Second, the oculus also served as a calendar marking time, uniting the Roman world under the aegis of the only absolutely equitable system of measurement they knew, the clock of heaven itself. So it's a good guess that the answer to the Pantheon's riddle is Hadrian: the emperor, the tourist, the collector, the consolidator, the man who sought to bring cultural and religious unity to the panoply of cults his empire embraced.
But why, then, is Agrippa's name on the front? The answer to that riddle is not nearly so hard as the first. In constructing the Pantheon, Hadrian was, in fact, refurbishing a temple built a century before by Marcus Agrippa, and because the emperor's all-encompassing love of Rome included also a respect for the glory of the Roman past, Hadrian left the facade of Agrippa's old temple in place and merely added what lies behind it: the awe-inspiring dome, the statues' niches, the calendrical oculus and the global perfection which so stunned barbarian marauders pillaging Rome several centuries later that they stopped dead in their tracks upon entering the building, utterly overwhelmed with its wonder, and couldn't bring themselves to destroy it.
Thus, in the end, the Pantheon is a masterpiece unsigned. Like a Medieval cathedral, it's the work of many geniuses, men who do not as a rule engrave their names on their art but ascribe its brilliance to God—or, in Hadrian's case, to all gods. And so again a holy structure does not just stand, but stands for something, building on inspiration and rising towards some hope, in this case a plea for religious and cultural unity. It was a message most pertinent to Hadrian's world which for all its seeming tranquillity seethed with dissenting voices and murmurs of protestation against Rome's stern dominion. This was the Empire's final answer to the laments of Tacitus and others who longed for the freedom to dissent and rebel, no matter the carnage that ensued.
If anything then, the Pantheon is Hadrian's architectural prayer for peace, a cultural synthesis to match the quiet and order which the Romans had imposed through force. And typical of this sage and seasoned ruler, his wish could not have been more salient or far-sighted. For it was, in fact, the disenfranchised and despised, those branded "barbarian" and denied a role in Rome's triumphal pageant, who would later bring the Empire down, among them a people whose deity was never given a niche in the Pantheon, but that wasn't Hadrian's fault. These people's god insisted on having no statue.
The later Romans corrected that oversight and gave the Christian God his architectural due. The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul in modern Turkey)—hagia sophia means "holy wisdom" in Greek—is arguably both the last great Roman structure and the first great Medieval church and, like so much of the Byzantine civilization which built it, this sacred edifice straddles time. That is, in form it looks back to the Roman Pantheon but its design is informed throughout with the sort of religious iconography which would dominate architecture in the Middle Ages to come. If no longer a Christian church—today it serves as an Islamic mosque—its structure still reveals its original purpose and reflects the age when it was first conceived.
Built during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (r. 527-565 CE; see Chapter 1), Hagia Sophia was the consummate building of its day. Outstripping even the Pantheon in size, it encompasses an enormous interior space and, like its pagan predecessor, is topped with a soaring dome. Justinian and Hagia Sophia, in fact, share much in common: both sat at the center of life in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, but both in their own way looked to the West with hungry eyes. That is, just as Justinian sought to reclaim Italy from the barbarians who had overrun it in the generation preceding (after 476 CE), the architects of Hagia Sophia strove to best the monuments of ancient Rome. Moreover, Justinian's ultimate failure to assert his rule in Italy underlay the very construction of the church itself, because in building it the emperor hoped to turn his capital at Constantinople into a "new Rome" in the East, a city which would rival and even surpass the city he tried but couldn't reclaim as his own.
Like the other structures we've examined, this building's design reflects the disposition of its age. From the outside, Hagia Sophia is actually not much to look at, which is exactly the point. By the time Christianity triumphed in the later stages of the Roman Empire, exteriors of every sort had come to be distrusted, seen as facades and shells that delude the eye and distract from the real truth of inner being, what's in a person's heart, what God sees. Thus, as visitors approach Hagia Sophia, they find an unimpressive structure, a building which, to be perfectly honest, looks rather dumpy.
Then they go inside. One of most astonishing spaces ever conceived, the church has recessed windows around the base of its enormous dome which from beneath cannot be seen and leave the impression that the dome has no supporting walls, but instead floats on shafts of light, held up only by God's will and luminous presence. There is no Bach cantata, no Renaissance fresco, no way in any form of art to affirm the divine presence more clearly, or demonstrate the importance of the interior life so central in Christian worship. Like the Pantheon, then, Hagia Sophia uses light to send its message, a prayer expressed as a building, another plea for peace but not for an Empire so much as the soul of the worshipper inside.
Now, walk inside a Medieval cathedral and look up, because that's what you're meant to do. Virtually everything in a cathedral's designed to direct your eye, your heart, your soul upwards, to heaven. The stained glass admits the light of the sun, tinted to focus your vision and your mind more clearly on the images God sends down: the angels, the doves and covenants that construe divine reality, that blinding, elusive, higher truth. More than that, the roof vaults upwards aspiring—as you should—to the grandeur soaring over your head. It's hard to imagine a building that functions better at what it was built to do. Those who have any sensibility for things religious will find it hard not to pray in such a structure.
It became a source of pride among European cities in the Middle Ages that their cathedral had the highest ceiling, or tallest spire, or more stained-glass windows than any other. This competition, however, was not really about architecture but devotion. The soaring interiors of Medieval cathedrals reflect the changing heart of Western Civilization, as the inner life, not public achievement or beauty or renown, came to be the measure of a person's success on earth, "as it is in heaven." Like their human counterparts, the interiors of buildings began to take precedence over their exteriors.
Looking back over time at the holy structures of Western Civilization, one can see this shift even more clearly. The Pyramids and other Egyptian sacred sites erected in deep antiquity foreshadow the perfect-looking Greek temples that followed later. The outward appearances of the Great Pyramid and the Parthenon are their central feature, idealized visions of what mattered to the Egyptians and the Greeks, what they needed to say and to hear in stone.
But as time passed, so did wondrous veneers, which opened the door to and into new and revealing interior realms. A pagan monument, which was dedicated to Roman concord and "all the gods" of the Empire and held an eyeful of secrets under its dome, was translated into the luminous miracles buttressed inside later Medieval cathedrals. The domes and ceilings vaulting atop houses of prayer are, in essence, maps for hope in ascendance, but then so were earlier pagan shrines, also founded with the aim of transcendence but built in harmony with a different world view, one that looked out rather than in. More than just a change of holy robes, these transformations in sacred space measure the evolution of our culture, constructing the journey of our souls westward, above and beyond.