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Pyramids, Temples, and Urban Centers





Pyramid of Zoser

Saqqara, Egypt

2778 BC – 2723 BC


Built for King Zoser (founder of the Third Dynasty in Egypt). The ziggurat (stepped pyramid in form) was built in levels to a height of about 200 feet.. Levels increased in size as a progression downward. The stepped pyramid of Zoser is a monumentalized version of the Mastaba tomb. A mastaba is an ancient Egyptian tomb which is box like and has sloping sides. The pyramid was thought to protect the underground tomb beneath it.


The mortuary complex of Zoser is an enclosed rectangle measuring 545 meters by 278 meters (1788 x 912 feet) surrounded by a 10 meter limestone wall (32.8′). Entry is at the southeast corner, to a processional corridor, to the main court which contained 2 ‘B’ shaped stones and an alter at the base of the pyramid. The complex also contains other courtyards, a double palace and dummy structures. The dummy structures were symbols of the kings power and royal holdings. Upper Egypt, lower Egypt, and the provinces were represented as structures. As a complex of individual pieces with relationships to one another and a social order, Saqqara represents the beginning of architecture as a composition of meaningful forms–enclosure, axial corridor, vertical mass, and the articulated wall.


The architect ‘Imhotep’ may be considered the first architect in history, and is often cited as the inventor of building in stone. He stands as one of the few named architects of ancient Egypt, and was respected as royalty.


The Pyramid of Zoser was an important precedent for later Egyptian architecture.


Pyramids of Giza

Outside of Cairo, Egypt

2613 – 2494 BC


Three great pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus. In plan they represent a clear repetition of form and identical orientation. Each consists of a pyramid (tomb), a mortuary temple at the foot of the pyramid, a causeway leading to a ‘valley temple’ on the river. Cheops pyramid is the largest (originally 230 x 230 meters (755 feet) and 146.6 meters high/475′). Chephren Pyramid 215 x 215 meters (705 feet) square and 143.5 meters (471 feet ) high.


The clean form of the pyramids may come from the ben ben in the temple of the sun god at Heliopolis. The ben ben is a stone with a pyramidal or conical top, an ancestor of the obelisk. The pyramids primarily functioned as tombs, and housed items to carry the dead kings into the afterlife. It was believed that the dead king ascended to heaven on the rays of the sun.


Cheops – square base and aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, with its burial chambers situated in the heart of the pyramid.


Work on the pyramids took place from late July through late October – recognizing the floods of the Nile, during which agricultural activities could not take place (acknowledging the landscape sequence and events). The floods also enabled the movement of stone via boat from upper Egypt.


The mid size pyramid of Chefren best exhibits the funerary precincts for ceremony and ritual generally associated with the approaches to the pyramids–monolithic piers and lintels–and the Great Sphinx (carved from rock left from the quarrying of stone for the pyramid).


The Great Sphinx probably represents Chefren as the sun god at the eastern horizon – the sunrise. The pyramids at Giza characterize power through the clear, simple form of the pyramid, symbolically tying earth to the heavens, mountain to the sun, representing the king as the son of Ra.


Ziggurat of Ur


2250 BC


Hill of Heaven and associated with the moon god ‘Nanna’. The structure is a Ziggurat or stepped pyramid (62 meters x 43 meters (205′ x 141′) by 21 meters height (70′)).


The ziggurat Rose to the sky as an artificial mountain erected as a meeting place halfway between earth and the heavens. God and priest or god and priestess met for the good of the people at the top of the temple. To further enhance the representation as a mountain it is thought that trees may have been planted on the terraces. The plan is oriented with its corners to the cardinal directions.



Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

Near Thebes, Egypt

1500 BC


The transition to rock cut tombs from the pyramids took place due to increased robberies primarily caused by a lack of appropriate security from robbers. Rock cut tombs occasionally reached a depth of 500 feet into the living stone and were virtually unseen. The highly visible mortuary temples were generally displaced from the actual tomb sites.


The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut is prominently sited as an expression of royal power overlooking the Nile. Hatshepsut is the earliest female monarch on record. The queens temple was built adjacent to an earlier temple for Mentuhotep I, which was also a terraced design, and probably the precedent for that of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsuts temple is much larger and more extravagant in detail, its design also reflects a more powerful relationship between the cliffs of the Nile valley and the architecture of the complex. The funerary temple architecturally abstracts and interprets its natural counterpart – the mountain.


At Hatshepsuts mortuary complex a strong processional Sequence is present.


A gateway opens onto a court space (1 in the image) with a ramp signified by painted sphinxes at the base of either side. The ramp leads up to a terrace space (2 in the image) which was planted with sacred Myrrh trees. The colonnaded face of the terrace was backed with a wall of carved reliefs representing the events of Hatshepsuts life. A second ramp leads up to another terrace space (3 in the image) with a long portico which had statues of the queen, overlooking the valley in front of each column. The next space on that same terrace, in the sequence was an enclosed court, surrounded by a double colonnade, and finally to the rock cut sanctuary dedicated to Amun (4 in the image).


Amun was understood to be the local god of Thebes who united with the sun god Re, and as Amun-re was elevated to Egyptian national deity.


Hatshepsuts tomb is composed of three terraces connected by long ramps and the inclusion of the mountain behind which takes on the symbolic role of the pyramid from the old kingdom. It is also organized along the axis of the great temple of Amon at Karnak on the opposite side of the Nile.

Karnak -The Great Temple of Amun

Thebes, Egypt

1530 – 323 BC


On axis with the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) to the East, across the Nile.


Built upon and added to by many monarchs, creating a large collective temple.


Royal inscriptions and reliefs cover the walls and columns.


The overall composition eventually contained many pieces, which include various temples, a sacred lake, a huge wall and a linear connection to the temple at Luxor by an avenue of sphinxes.


Temple of Luxor

Thebes, Egypt

1408 – 1300 BC


Largely the work of Amenophis III, although an older sanctuary existed. Pylons added by Ramses II. Dedicated to the Theban triad – Amun, Mut, and Khons.


The temple of Queen Hatshepsut, The complex at Karnak, and the Temple of Luxor collectively create a vast sequence and intentional spatial organization.


Temple of Ramses II

At Abu Simbel, Egypt

1301 BC


The Temple of Ramses II is sculpted from living rock to a depth of 55 meters (180 feet) into the cliff.


The facade at the entry acts as a grand gateway with 4 seated statues of Ramses II.


The statues stand about 65 feet high, and at the feet of Ramses were figures representing his family.


Inside the temple stand eight 30 foot high statues of Ramses and relief images on the walls that record great battles.


A short distance away carved into the same cliff is the small temple at Abu Simbel dating from about 1301 BC also. Built by Ramses II, dedicated to his queen Nefertari and the Goddess Hathor.


Delphi, Sanctuary of ApolloGreece

400 BC


Considered to be the center of the world. Delphi symbolically represents nature and man brought together between the sea and the hills. The temple of Apollo according to legend housed Apollo since 4 days after his birth, at which time he killed a serpent (representing the forces of nature) and claimed victory.


The pathway to the temple of Apollo and on to the theater, begins at the lower end of the sanctuary, rises up the hillside crisscrossing past various structures and other artifacts or remnants of Greek city states. As a collection, the artifacts serve as representation of a democratic society.


Delphi has been important as the sanctuary of gaia, the original goddess of the earth and fertility.


Palestrina, Temple of Fortuna

Near Rome, Italy

80 BC


Two sacred spaces existed before the time of construction of the complex:

1. Circular temple of Fortuna – dating from about 200 BC

2. A statue of Fortuna with Jupiter and Juno in her lap about 100 meters (328′) down the hillside from the temple of Fortuna.


Organized symmetrically on an axis – stairs, ramps, colonnades and terraces define the sequence. Ramps were enclosed by walls discouraging any view until reaching the platform along the central axis where the view to the landscape below is revealed, giving great power to the axis. The axial organization suggests the continuum to the ultimate goal – the temple.


At Palestrina architecture has a highly articulated relationship to the landscape setting. Seven wide terraces move up the steep hillside to a theater framed by a colonnade and crowned by the round temple of Fortuna. The entire hillside was fused with architecture, a situation that was an aesthetic consideration, rather than a religious one.


Hagia Sophia


532-537 AD


The architects of the Hagia Sophia were primarily known as mathematicians. Anthemius of Tralles and Isisdorus of Miletus.


Mathematics was the highest science of the time. One architect (Anthemius) described the architecture of the Hagia Sophia as the “application of geometry to solid matter.”


Built by Emperor Justinian with the aim of being the largest Christian building, particularly larger than the Roman ones – – it was. Hagia Sophia also differed from its roman predecessors in that the dome which symbolized the dome of heaven was very visible, instead of being hidden by the pediment of the facade as would have been the Roman ones. The dome creates a highly articulated and dominant skyline seen from far away.


The dome affect had been present in India some time earlier and was an important symbol of the cosmos, these images are of the Great Stupa at Sanchi.


Stupa of Borobudur

Java, Indonesia

8th to 9th century AD


The building symbolizes the world mountain (“Meru”) of Indian cosmology. Galleries contain over a 1000 panels of sculpture depicting the life of Buddha and stories from Buddhist texts.


The details are all dictated by religious beliefs rather than architectural principles.


Angkor Wat


1112-1152 AD


Built as a temple to the god-king as a monument to himself. The structure contained an Inner sanctuary and was representative of a mountain.


Walls are decorated with relief sculpture representing stories, legendary events, and daily lives of the common people.

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