Today’s column is a continuation of my series. If you’d like a handout of the entire series along with accompanying photos, send me an email.
I last ended in the middle of Egyptian architecture without mentioning the obvious: Pyramids. The Great Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three at Giza. Built with about 2.5-million limestone and granite bricks, it is also the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The same post and lintel construction used for other Egyptian structures was used for the pyramids’ interior burial chambers.
About the same time that these pyramids were being built, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia were constructing their own. The Sumerians developed a unique, stepped or “ziggurat” design. Their pyramids were not built as tombs, but as man-made mountains that brought people closer to their gods, believed to dwell in the mountains to the east. Ziggurats were constructed from clay-fired bricks and often finished with colorful glazes. The design might have been inspired by the Bible’s Tower of Babel.
Back to Egypt. Even during periods of foreign rule, Egyptian architecture clung to its native characteristics. Columns were covered with hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant blue, red and gold colors. Ornamental motifs such as the ankh, cobra, falcon, scarab, the sacred beetle and the solar disk were symbolic and represented a strong belief in the afterlife.
Because of this belief, and their ritual of sending their kings to the hereafter completely equipped as in life, furniture was built to last an eternity. They used mortise and tenon, double-bracket and diagonally braced construction (they knew that a diagonal brace would yield the strongest support). And, on high-profile pieces, they gilded with gold.
Paints were formulated from natural minerals and brushes were made from fibrous wood. Walls were covered with mud and lime plasters, painted and then protected by a thin layer of a varnish-type substance. Ceramic, glazed with these same minerals, was used to make beads and jewelry. A vivid blue glaze made from calcium copper silicate was very popular.
Metals and semiprecious stone were also used as decoration and embellishment. While gold was plentiful, silver was rare. Turquoise, carnelian, lapis lazuli, alabaster and ivory were widely incorporated in jewelry, headdress and furniture.
Egyptian design was balanced, symmetrical, serene, meaningful and graceful. Its influence can be seen in many structures around the world today including the obelisk at our own Washington Monument and the pyramid at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We’ll next travel northwest to Greece with a stop on the island of Crete, the birthplace of Classical Antiquity, and the home of the great Minoan civilization. The Minoans were a highly and technically advanced civilization that built elaborate structures such as the Palace of Knossos. Their buildings included drainage and sewage systems, irrigation, aqueducts, and deep wells that provided fresh water. Multi-storied palaces were laced with impressive interior and exterior staircases, light wells, massive columns, storage, and gathering outdoor places — precursor to ancient theaters.
Many of these buildings were decorated with colorful murals and fresco paintings, depicting mythological symbols and events — all of which happened before 1400 B.C. and all of which you’ll read about in my next column.