The ancient world has left us with many beautiful and magnificently large historical structures today. All over the world we are able to see what great strength and intelligence was put behind many of the masterpieces below. With so little technology, it is incredible what was accomplished hundreds and thousands of years ago.
- The Great Pyramid – about five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians developed the fine art of building with cut stone. The pyramid was built around 2700 BC and served as a burial site for the pharaoh Zoser. This was the first building made entirely of stone and the first of many pyramids to be built over the next thousand years.
The most extraordinary pyramids are the 3 built at Giza between about 1660 and 2560 BC. The biggest of the 3, which was built for the pharaoh Cheops, has become known as the Great Pyramid. It is still the greatest stone structure in the world. The interior rooms and corridors of the Great Pyramid were designed to withstand the heavy weight of the stones above them. The Pharaoh’s Chamber, where Cheops was buried, had six roofs to help distribute the weight of the blocks above.
The vast numbers of men required to do the dangerous work of quarrying and hauling the huge stone blocks were in fact not slaves. Many of them were ordinary farmers. A certain number were summoned each year by the pharaoh’s officials to join the pyramid workforce. They worked willingly to build the pyramid that would protect the pharaoh’s body for all eternity.
- Abu Simbel – in 1250 BC, when the Great Pyramid at Giza had already stood for over a thousand years in the desert sand, Ramesses II ordered a magnificent temple to be built at Abu Simbel to commemorate the thirtieth successive year of his reign. The entire temple was carved into sandstone cliffs rising above the banks of the Nile River.
Four Giant seated figures of Ramesses guard the entrance. The temple was designed so that on 21 October, the anniversary of Ramesses’ coronation as pharaoh of Egypt, and again on 21 February, Ramesses’ birthday, the rays of the rising sun would spread across the whole length of the temple and therefore light up the magnificent statues of Ramesses.
In the 1960’s, the temples at Abu Simbel were under great threat as a result of rising water. The United Nations launched a world-wide appeal to save these historic monuments from flooding. The temples were cut into sections and reassembled on higher ground. The temples now stand 60 metres higher and 120 metres inland from the original shoreline.
- The Parthenon – in 480 BC, Athens was invaded by Persian forces, but within a year were in retreat. However, before they fled from the city, the Persian wrecked the sacred temples of the Acropolis, including the half-built temple devoted to the goddess Athena, patron of Athens. The citizens of Athens took an oath to let the Acropolis stand in ruins as a reminder of the sacrilege committed by the Persians. Only when they won complete victory over the Persians in 449 BC did they feel they had retaliated the devastation of the temples. Pericles, the leader of Athens, initiated a programme to rebuild the Acropolis.
Pericles’ most ambitious undertaking was the reconstruction on a much grander scale, of the temple of Athena Parthenos. The Parthenon was a simple structure – a series of vertical pillars and horizontal lintels. The number and position of the columns followed the rules of proportion that applied to all Greek temples. But in the building of the Parthenon, these design criteria were refined and adjusted to create such a great sense of balance and harmony that today; it still ranks as one of the most elegant structures ever built.
- The Colosseum – built in the first century AD, was the biggest Roman amphitheater. The development of the arch and vault system as well as the discovery of concrete, allowed Roman architects to design a building of this massive size.
But the Colosseum was both beautiful as well as imposing. The exterior was encircled with rows of ached acrades, each filled with a statue and framed by columns of white marble. Yet the sole purpose of this masterpiece of engineering and design was to provide a setting for the cruelest of sports, the gladiator fights.
The Colosseum was built like two Greek theatres joined to form an oval-shaped arena surrounded by rows of seats. But unlike the Greek theatre, which was built in a hollow in the earth, the Colosseum had no external supports. Its massive structure was supported by a vast system of arches and vaults that created the foundations of the seats. Below the arena was a maze of passageways which led to hundreds of rooms and animal pens. The arena could even be flooded to create a setting for mock naval battles.
- Notre Dame – in 1163 the old cathedral of Paris was demolished in order to make room for one of the first and perhaps the most beautiful of Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame.
The construction of Notre Dame spanned a century. Notre Dame was a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. The craftsmanship was a rare excellence, even by the standards of the Middle Ages, the cathedral’s distinguishing western façade is a fine example of the Gothic use of functional decoration.
Like an ancient Greek temple, all ornaments are integrated parts of the structure as a whole. The Gothic architecture developed from an earlier style known as Romanesque, which had preserved many of the architectural features of Roman times, including round arches and vaults.
- Bodiam Castle – the architectural novelties and masonary skills developed in the building of cathedrals was relevant to the thousands of castles built throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.
Bodium Castle combined the most up-to-date features of castle design. Master craftsman recruited from all over Europe produced a castle that was an impenetrable fortress and a luxurious residence. The castle walls were created from massive stone blocks, on average two meters thick.
- Mont St Michel – has been a place of pilgrimage since the eighteenth century. In the eleventh century, a group of Benedictine monks arrived and started building a church on the very summit of the island.
Only the transept of the church rests on a solid rock base; the rest of the structure is supported by massive foundations built up on all four sides. Over the next five centuries the church as well as the monastery that served it were extended, enlarged and rebuilt until the majority of the island was covered in infrastructure.
- The Basilica of St Peter – in Rome, one of the most magnificent churches ever built, represents the finest example of Italian Renaissance architecture. The creative spirit of the Renaissance began in Italy in the early fifteenth century and quickly spread to the rest of Europe. Renaissance architecture was characterized by a return to classical forms such as Greek as well as Roman columns.
The main features of a Renaissance church was an exterior dome and semi-circular Roman arches and vaults, which substituted the Gothic pointed arches and vaults. The architects who designed Renaissance buildings were often painters, metalworkers and sculptors by training.
- The Taj Mahal – near Agra in India, is considered by many people to be the greatest work of architecture of all times, and was inspired by both love and grief. The Moghul emperors were Muslims, and the buildings which they constructed, including the Taj Mahal, incorporated the traditional aspects of Islamic architecture.
The pointed arch, for example, was a symbol of the Muslim faith; the domed rood indicated a tomb below. High towers known as minarets were used to call the faithful to prayer. The Koran, forbids the use of human and animal forms as decoration. This led to a style of decoration known as arabesque, in which geometrical designs and flowing lines were used instead.
Arabesque and calligraphy were essential elements of Islamic architecture. The Taj Mahal is a perfectly proportioned and symmetrical; a structure built of white marble and decorated with inhay work of semi-precious and colored stone.
- The Forbidden City – laid out in a rectangular grid pattern with a north-south axis, facing the sunny south. The two main gates were situated on the north-south axis, which extended far beyond the initial walls of the Forbidden City.
Each building was specifically positioned according to its function and status. The most striking feature of Chinese buildings was the infamous curved roof. This was achieved by using rectangular roof trusses. The Chinese system allowed shallow curves in the roof by varying the length of the crossbeams.
The Forbidden City was divided into two distinct sections, the outer section, which possessed administrative buildings and ceremonial halls, and the inner section, which contained the private apartments of the emperor. Access to the inner section was entirely restricted to direct members of the imperial family.
All ten of these structures required a vast amount of strength and intelligence to accomplish such an enormous tasks with so few resources. We can only stand in ore f such brilliance and dedication that was put into creating these buildings.