How Architecture Reflects Ancient Cultures – History Essay

How Architecture Reflects Ancient Cultures – History Essay
“As men journeyed to the east, they came upon plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, ‘come, let us make bricks and bake them hard’; they used bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar.” As we look back thousands years back, history tells us a story

about people and how they struggled for food and shelter, how they, like Book of Genesis describe, found ways to use the environment to survive. To built shelter protecting from sun, wind and rain was one of the most fundamental humans needs. As this concern goes beyond necessity, people express their intellect and skills to find creative ways to shape material.

Civilization could be created only if people freed themselves from hunter gatherer economy. The freedom came with development of agriculture, which allowed people to live more sedimentary life. Few villages scattered across Asia Minor, especially two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. Severe geographical conditions forced people to create irrigation systems and more centralized government. As a result, first cities Uruk, Lagash, Umma, and others, formed first Civilization, Mesopotamia.
The city was distinguished by public buildings and strong city wall. The most distinctive buildings in the cities, called ziggurats, were rising into the sky and were possible to approach through ramps and stairs. “Fully developed, a ziggurat looked much like a modern stepped-back skyscraper or like a jagged pyramid.”(Vincent M. Scramuzza, 30) That’s what Herodotus wrote about them:
“On the summit there is a spacious shrine, inside which there is an exceptionally large bed, richly decorated, with a golden table beside it. No statue of any kind is erected there, and no one occupies the room at night except a single woman the god, so the priests say, has specially chosen for himself. They also say that the god comes to the room in person and sleeps on bed. I do not believe it myself.” (Herodotus)

Ziggurat also appeared in the Bible as a tower of Babel:
“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

There Babel was a symbol of diffusion of languages and beginning of kingdom whose name was “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”(Bible)
It is believed that Mesopotamians believed that the ziggurat was an initial base on which universe was built. Also they literally perceived ziggurat as “house of gods”. That suggests that people were highly religious. The structure of the building also shows that: it was built as several terraced stories on which a temple stood. Its purpose was to get the temple as close to the heavens and to provide an entrance to the temple through the steppes. The ziggurats were not built for public worshiping, but they were places through which gods could get closer to people. Ziggurats symbolized power of the gods, they were imitations of mountains and Mesopotamian people thought of them as the main power of the earth.

“Urban centers often grew because of their temples, which served religious needs of people, and also because of their administrative and economic functions.”(Karen Rhea, 102). Temple organized society and controlled most aspects of society and economy. Only priests were allowed to go inside the temple and take care of the ziggurat. As a result they were very powerful in the society. The temples were vertical bond between earth and heaven (spiritual function) and as a horizontal bond, through the priests, between the lands (economical function).
Above priests were kings – lugals. Kings had the highest authority in Mesopotamia. Kings were god’s representatives and therefore elected by gods to rule people. Palaces, such as Palace of Sorgon at Korsabad, showed high authority of the king.

Poor geographical conditions determined a warlike form of Mesopotamia. Records show quarrels over land, materials and other economic reasons, for example ancient proverbs show struggles of this type:
“If you go and take a field of an enemy, the enemy will come and take your field.”

“The city whose weapons are not strong the enemy before its gates shall not be thrust through.”

To protect the city from invaders Mesopotamians had to build a protective wall. Ancient descriptions left a good record about them, even they are destroyed now. The top of the wall was a roadway so that people could walk. It was built of two parts – the outer wall made of baked brick and interior wall made of mud brick and space in between filled with rubble. The entrance gate, for example Ishtar gate to Babylon, was decorated with glazed bricks showing bulls and dragons symbolizing the power of the king. King Nebuchadnezzar expressed his proud of the city walls around 590 B.C.:
“I built a mighty moat-wall of brick and bitumen, and linked it to the moat-wall built by my father. I built its foundations on the underworld. I made it as high as a mountain.”

Mountain as mentioned earlier was perceived as the highest power of the earth. Ziggurats, temples and palaces defended by fortified walls, describe highly stratified and warlike society conformable to the order of gods. Egypt Pyramids perpetuated static, never expecting to change society. Egypt was also influenced by religion and many aspects of the life had mythological explanation, but their outlook had more enjoyment and secureness in life. The pyramids built in Old Kingdom, like Khufu pyramid in Giza plateau, rose as high as 481 feet, was built from 2,300,000 blocks of stone and has been the tallest building for 4000 years. What made people built such vast buildings that would rise up high for so long that deserve to be called a symbol of eternity?

Secured life provided by Nile shaped a complicated and a vaguely understandable religion. Many deities’ secured peoples houses and lives, goods were truly divine and mystical, like god of sky (Ra), god of river (Osiris), who provides life and wealth. Rulers of people, Pharaohs, unlike the Mesopotamian kings, who were mortals, were gods on earth. Their duties were to make sure that the sun rises and Nile floods. Pyramids were built to contain pharaoh’s body after death and ensure happy and eternal afterlife. They were built to assist kings journey to heaven and its shape could be interpreted as a ramp to the sky. Also pyramid could be solar symbol representing rays of sun breaking through the sky. Whatever the interpretation, but it is obvious that kings were trying to build tallest building possible.

The pyramids reflect that rulers not only were able to develop very religious concepts about afterlife, but also the ability of its rulers to marshal the agricultural wealth of the land” (Chester G. Starr, 59). The king governed all aspects of people’s lives and the peasants who built pyramids left qualified, detailed, and honest work. They were not slaves, because they were taken care of for working for king and considered work for king as great honor and believed that it will earn happy afterlife.

The architecture of pyramids suggests “simplicity, concentration and the earthy riches of the civilized society that erected them.” (Chester G. Starr, 63). Even there was no law like Hamurrabi code, the society was more developed than Mesopotamian: “we owe [Egypt] a calendar of 365 days, […] 12 months of 30 days each were added 5 days at the end of the year”, 24 hour day, 360 degree circle. The accurate building technique shows accomplishments in math, geometry, and astronomy. The pyramids were built from limestone and cut with high precision. The sides of pyramid were laid precisely directing North, South, East, and West. The pyramids of Gizeh (Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure) lay precisely as {will find out later} asterism.
The kings of Middle and New Kingdoms continued to build complex buildings, but not as big projects as pyramids. For example The Temples of Carnak was a huge complex of temples, which served as religious centers, storage, service, workshop spaces, and gardens. This temple was not built by one Pharaoh; it was responsibility to enlarge the temple of the each ruler. I think this new religious complex served as an urban center also and was a necessity for Egyptians they started to interact with other states more.

I think that Egypt and Mesopotamia were similar in a way; just the reasons and conditions that formed these cultures were different. Geographical conditions determined the nature of Egypt and Mesopotamia – both were river valley cultures. One person’s cult was exalted and king had almost absolute power over people in both cultures. Even though the science progressed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, people’s knowledge was still limited and most aspects of the life were explained with religion. Even the architecture was expressed through vast buildings which were joints of earth with gods. These cultures are so different from a Aegean cultures, which was emerging around 1700 B.C.E.

The palaces and tombs found in Crete and mainland are archeological evidence of Minoan and Mycenaean cultures which laid the roots for Greek civilization. The complex of Knossos found in Crete suggests that Minoan culture consisted of small kingdoms. Large storage areas found within the palace suggest that economy was based on trades. The location (Crete was located at the crossroads) supports the evidence. Trades with Egypt influenced arts. Elegant architecture, vitality, grace and sophistication of the paintings show high cultural level of this civilization.

“A history of Greeks is one of the most improbable success stories in all of the world history. A small people inhabiting a poor country on the periphery of civilization of Egypt and near East, the Greeks created one of the world’s most remarkable cultures.” (Sarah B. Pomeroy, xiv) It is almost every area in arts, science, and politics that Greeks made fundamental contributions. Greece started developing as its cities Athens, Corinth, and Sparta started growing politically and ??? separate. A social unit has formed, named as polis, which means “city state”. Polis made Greece different from river valley civilizations and it became a political center allowing all citizens participate in political control. A new political system, democracy, emerged from the Greek word demos. Polis also left two important heritages: Socratic system and Platonic thought.
The growth of the city fueled more building projects. As agora was a place for politics, open-air theater was a place for drama, temple became as an example of architecture, which had all the attributes of Greek values – proportion, balance, grace, precision and subtlety. The heritage from Egypt influenced columned temple. Rectangular form of temple plan probably came from Protogeometric style, which was purely Greek. Thus, rectangular temple with low pitched roof and surrounding colonnade – the peristyle – became main form of temple.
Greece was not an integral state, each polis was separate state with its own political system, culture and economics, rather than it was united network.

Architecture also did not have one style; there were three orders, the Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian. The Doric was the earliest and the simplest one. It had plain capital and no base and associated with Dorian area of Greece, particularity Sparta and Corinth. The Ionian part of the culture was more open for influences from richer east and intellectual development. Flouted columns and vaulted capitals made Ionic architecture more elegant. Corinthian order developed later and was the most ornate with its richly carved capital bristling with acanthus leaves.
Contrary to Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greeks concentrated their attention to people and their life on earth. No vast buildings for worshiping gods, or kings were built. Temple was not an object of glory, but served as public building, where people gathered to celebrate and play games. The most popular ones were at sanctuaries of Zeus at Olympia and Apollo at Delphi. The games in honor of Zeus attracted many competitors to Olympia from all Greece. “Contests and rituals fostered the idea of Greeness, of sharing the same language, religion, customs, and values.”

Athenian system was challenged by Persian wars at the beginning of fifth century, and later by Peloponnesian wars between Sparta and Athens. However, Athenian power depended a lot on Delian League’s city states and their funds. On this substance Athens reached highest point of culture and economic. Achievements were reflecting a “perfect” society but at the same time it was filled with contradictions: Greece was democracy, but at the same time Imperialistic, exalted was freedom for people, but women and slaves were excluded. In architecture precision was within limits too. The temple, structurally, was not much different from temple of Karnak or Stonehenge. Instead trying to find more advanced building techniques Greeks were interested in fascinating details, like joining stones, and obsessed with mathematical proportions.

Between the Persian wars and Peloponnesian wars Greece reached the peak of its economy and culture. Athens at this time was the richest state in the Greece. Political control was in the hands of Perickles, who started building programs in Athens to establish political dominance in Greece. Parthenon, the most known building in the world was a result of political influences as Pericles spent the funds to beatify Athens instead of getting ready for another possible Persian attack:
“Greece was seen to be suffering a grievous insult and to be ruled by an open tyranny, as it watched the Athenians gilding their polis with the moneys which it had been compelled to contribute for the war and beautifying it like a wanton woman, decorated with precious stones and statues and thousand-talent temples.” (Plutarch, Pericles 12.I-2)

Parthenon – a masterpiece of Ichtinius was precise in proportion and detail. The whole building system was optical correction, so that the lines of the building would appear straight from far. To achieve that the architect swelled the columns at the middle, leaned them outwards, and made the corner columns bigger, because the sun is shining directly at them and make them look smaller. All the curved lines would straighten out as watched from distance to make the building look perfectly rectangular. At the same time the building was exquisitly intertwined with nature and had that romantic feeling as the sun playfully casts shadows through the columns. All these details show that “Greek architects took from their work that special kind of satisfaction that comes from exercising creativity within the limits posed by an elaborate code of constraints.” (Sarah b. Pomeroy,275)
The Greek architecture shows how political and economical conditions influence cultural achievements, but at the same time powerful and ingenious people can create masterpieces within these influences. It also shows that architecture express what people believe they need not only for survival, but how advanced they are as civilization by using style, certain believes, knowledge and technology.