The Great Pyramid, Egypt

Giza pyramids of Cairo, Egypt
Giza pyramids soaring above the city of Cairo, Egypt
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The Great Pyramid is the most substantial ancient structure in the world – and the most mysterious. According to prevailing archaeological theory – and there is absolutely no evidence to confirm this idea – the three pyramids on the Giza plateau are funerary structures of three kings of the fourth dynasty (2575 to 2465 BC). The Great Pyramid, attributed to Khufu (Cheops) is on the right of the photograph, the pyramid attributed to Khafra (Chephren) next to it, and that of Menkaura (Mycerinus) the smallest of the three. The Great Pyramid was originally 481 feet, five inches tall (146.7 meters) and measured 755 feet (230 meters) along its sides. Covering an area of 13 acres, or 53,000 square meters, it is large enough to contain the European cathedrals of Florence, Milan, St. Peters, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s. Constructed from approximately 2.5 million limestone blocks weighing on average 2.6 tons each, its total mass is more than 6.3 million tons (representing more building material than is to be found in all the churches and cathedrals built in England since the time of Christ). The Great Pyramid was originally encased in highly polished, smooth white limestone and capped, according to legend, by a perfect pyramid of black stone, probably onyx. Covering an area of 22 acres the white limestone casing was removed by an Arab sultan in AD 1356 in order to build mosques and fortresses in nearby Cairo. Herodotus, the great Greek geographer, visited in the fifth century BC. Strabo, a Greco / Roman historian, came in the first century AD. Abdullah Al Mamun, son of the Caliph of Baghdad, forced the first historically recorded entrance in AD 820, and Napoleon was spellbound when he beheld the fantastic structure in 1798.

According to our present knowledge the Great Pyramid is mostly solid mass, it’s only known interior spaces being the Descending passage (the original entrance), the Ascending passage, the Grand Gallery, a mysterious grotto, an equally mysterious subterranean chamber, and the two main chambers. These two chambers, called the King’s Chamber and the Queen’s Chamber, have unfortunately retained the misleading names given to them by early Arab visitors to the pyramid. It is an Arab custom to bury men in tombs with a flat roof and women in rooms with a gabled roof; therefore, in the Great Pyramid, the flat-roofed granite chamber became the King’s Chamber, while the gabled, limestone chamber below became the Queen’s. Even those archaeologists who still stubbornly subscribe to the tomb theory of the pyramid do not believe that a queen or anyone else was ever buried in the limestone chamber. The King’s Chamber is 10.46 meters east to west by 5.23 meters north to south by 5.81 meters high (a series of measurements that precisely expresses the mathematical proportion known as the Golden Mean, or Phi). It is built of enormous blocks of solid red granite (weighing as much as 50 tons) that were transported by a still-unknown means from the quarries of Aswan 600 miles to the south. Within the chamber, in the western end, sits a large, lidless coffer (7.5 feet by 3.25 feet, with sides averaging 6.5 inches thick) of dark black granite estimated to weigh more than three tons. When the Arab Abdullah Al Mamun finally forced his entry into the chamber in AD 820 – the first entry since the chamber was sealed in some long ago time – he found the coffer entirely empty. Egyptologists assume that this was the final resting place of Khufu, yet not the slightest evidence suggests that a corpse had ever been in this coffer or chamber. Nor have any embalming materials, any fragments of any article, or any clues whatsoever been found in the chamber or anywhere else in the entire pyramid that in any way indicates that Khufu (or anyone else) was ever buried there. Furthermore, the passageway leading from the Grand Gallery to the main chamber is too narrow to admit the movement of the coffer; the coffer must have been placed in the chamber as the pyramid was being built, contrary to the normal burial custom practiced by the Egyptians for three thousand years.

The foolishness of the common assumption, that the Giza plateau pyramids were built and utilized by fourth Dynasty kings as funerary structures, cannot be overstated. It is a matter of archaeological fact that none of the fourth Dynasty kings put their names on the pyramids supposedly constructed in their times, yet from the fifth Dynasty onwards, the other pyramids had hundreds of official inscriptions, leaving us no doubt about which kings built them. The mathematical complexity, engineering requirements, and sheer size of the Giza plateau pyramids represent an enormous, seemingly impossible leap in abilities over the third dynasty buildings. Contemporary Egyptological explanation cannot account for this leap, nor can they account for the clear decline in mathematics, engineering and size of the constructions of the fifth dynasty. Textbooks speak of “religious upheaval” and “civil wars,” but there is no evidence whatsoever of these having occurred.

The attribution to Khufu of the Great Pyramid is founded solely upon three very circumstantial pieces of “evidence”:

  • The legends told to and reported by Herodotus who visited the pyramids in 443 BC
  • The funerary complex near the Great Pyramid with inscriptions citing Cheops/Khufu as
    the reigning pharaoh
  • In the pyramid itself, on a granite slab above the ceiling of the main chamber, some
    small, red ochre paint marks that have a slight resemblance to a hieroglyphic symbol for
    the name of Khufu.

Pharaoh Khufu himself left no indication whatsoever that he built the Great Pyramid. He did, however, claim to have done repair work on the structure. On the nearby “Inventory” Stele (dating to about 1500 BC, but showing evidence of having been copied from a far older stele contemporaneous with the fourth dynasty), Khufu tells of discoveries made while clearing away the sands from the pyramid, of his dedication of the monument to Isis, and of his building of the three small pyramids for himself, his wife, and his daughters next to the Great Pyramid. Regarding the red ochre paint marks found within the pyramid, most hieroglyph experts now believe these to be forgeries left by their “discoverer” Richard Howard-Vyse, rather than being quarry inscriptions left by the original builders. Howard-Vyse was under pressure to equal the discoveries of his rival, the Italian explorer Caviglia, who had found inscriptions in some of the tombs around the Great Pyramid. Modern researchers now suspect that, in the battle for one-upmanship, Howard-Vyse sought to overshadow his rival and gain renewed support for his own projects with a similar but more spectacular “discovery”, by forging quarry inscriptions inside the Great Pyramid. In other words, no firm evidence in any way connects the pyramids of the Giza plateau to the dynastic Egyptians.

Let us briefly consider a few matters concerning the construction of the Great Pyramid; matters which clearly indicate that the builders of fourth dynasty Egypt did not have the engineering capacity to erect the Great Pyramid (we do not have the capacity even today) and that this structure was used for a purpose altogether different from mere burial.

The Great Pyramid is constructed with approximately 2,300,000 limestone and granite blocks. Weighing between 2.5 and 50 tons each, these stone blocks had to be quarried from the earth. Herein lays our first unsolved problem. In the Cairo museum one can see several examples of simple copper and bronze saws, which Egyptologists claim are like those utilized in the cutting and shaping of the pyramid blocks. These tools present a problem. On the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, copper and bronze have a hardness of 3.5 to 4, while limestone has a hardness of 4 to 5 and granite of 5 to 6. The known tools would only barely cut through limestone and would be useless with granite. No archaeological examples of iron tools are found in early dynastic Egypt, yet even if they were, the best steels today have a hardness of only 5.5 and thus are inefficient for cutting granite. Some years ago Sir Flinders Petrie, one of the “fathers” of Egyptology proposed that the pyramid blocks had been cut with long saw blades studded with diamonds or corundum. But this idea presents problems too. The cutting of millions of blocks would require millions of rare and expensive diamonds and corundum, which constantly wear out and require replacement. It has been suggested that the limestone blocks were somehow cut with solutions of citric acid or vinegar, yet these very slow-acting agents leave the surface of the limestone pitted and rough, unlike the beautifully smooth surface found on the casing stones, and these agents are completely useless for the cutting of granite. The truth is, we have no idea how the blocks were actually quarried.

The unsolved problem of how the 2,300,000 very heavy blocks were transported to the building site of the pyramid is even more mystifying. How were the blocks taken to the nearly 500- foot height of the pyramid’s summit? A Danish civil engineer, P. Garde-Hanson, has calculated that a ramp built all the way to the top of the pyramid would require 17.5 million cubic meters of material, this representing more than seven times the amount of material used for the pyramid itself, and a work force of 240,000 to build it in the time allotted by Cheops’ reign. But if this enormous ramp were built, it would then require a force of more than 300,000 laborers as much as eight years to dismantle. Where would all the ramp material have been placed, since it is not to be found anywhere near the Great Pyramid? And what of maneuvering the precisely carved blocks into place without damaging the corners? Various lifting devices and levers have been proposed by modern engineers (remember, no existing dynastic records, paintings, or friezes give any clue to this mystery), but none solve the problem of how the 50-ton blocks of the main chamber were lifted and positioned using an area where only four to six workers could stand, when the strength of at least 2000 would be needed.

Next we come to perhaps the most extraordinary problem, that of the fashioning and placement of the highly polished limestone casing stones that covered the entire pyramid. The finished pyramid contained approximately 115,000 of these stones, each weighing ten tons or more. These stones were dressed on all six of their sides, not just the side exposed to the visible surface, to tolerances of .01 inch. They are set together so closely that a thin razor blade cannot be inserted between the stones. Egyptologist Petrie expressed his astonishment of this feat by writing, “Merely to place such stones in exact contact would be careful work, but to do so with cement in the joint seems almost impossible; it is to be compared to the finest opticians’ work on the scale of acres.” Herodotus, visiting in the fifth century BC, reported that inscriptions of strange characters were to be found on the pyramid’s casing stones. In AD 1179 the Arab historian Abd el Latif recorded that these inscriptions were so numerous that they could have filled “more than ten thousand written pages.” William of Baldensal, a European visitor of the early fourteenth century, tells how the stones were covered with strange symbols arranged in careful rows. Sadly, in 1356, following an earthquake that leveled Cairo, the Arabs robbed the pyramid of its beautiful casing of stones to rebuild mosques and fortresses in the city. As the stones were cut into smaller pieces and reshaped, all traces of the ancient inscriptions were removed from them. A great library of ageless wisdom was forever lost.

Still further evidence that the dynastic Egyptians did not construct the Great Pyramid may be found in sediments surrounding the base of the monument, in legends regarding watermarks on the stones halfway up its sides, and in salt incrustations found within. Silt sediments rising to fourteen feet around the base of the pyramid contain many seashells and fossils that have been radiocarbon-dated to be nearly twelve thousand years old. These sediments could have been deposited in such great quantities only by major sea flooding, an event the dynastic Egyptians could never have recorded because they were not living in the area until eight thousand years after the flood. This evidence alone suggests that the three main Giza pyramids are at least twelve thousand years old. In support of this ancient flood scenario, mysterious legends and records tell of watermarks that were clearly visible on the limestone casing stones of the Great Pyramid before those stones were removed by the Arabs. These watermarks were halfway up the sides of the pyramid, or about 400 feet above the present level of the Nile River. Further, when the Great Pyramid was first opened, incrustations of salt an inch thick were found inside. While much of this salt is known to be natural exudation from the stones of the pyramid, chemical analysis has shown that some of the salt has a mineral content consistent with salt from the sea. These salt incrustations, found at a height corresponding to the water level marks left on the exterior, are further evidence that at some time in the distant past the pyramid was submerged halfway up its height.

Let us turn our attention briefly to the matter of the purpose or multiple purposes of the Great Pyramid, drawing for our discussion on both the exact measurements made by modern scientists and the mythic legends of the remote past. A few facts:

  • The sides of the pyramid are lined up almost exactly with the cardinal points of the compass. The accuracy of this alignment is extraordinary, with an average discrepancy of only about three minutes of arc in any direction or a variation of less than 0.06 percent.
  • The Great Pyramid functioned as an enormous sundial. Its shadow to the north, and its reflected sunlight to the south, accurately marked the annual dates of both the solstices and the equinoxes.
  • The basic dimensions of the Great Pyramid incorporate measurements from which the earth’s size and shape can be calculated. The pyramid is a scale model of the hemisphere, incorporating the geographical degrees of latitude and longitude. The latitude and longitude lines that intersect at the Great Pyramid (30 degrees north and 31 degrees east) cross more of the earth’s land surface than any other lines, thus the pyramid is located at the center of the land mass of the earth (the pyramid is built on the closest suitable site to this intersection). The original perimeter of the pyramid equals exactly one-half minute of latitude at the equator, indicating that its builders measured the earth with extreme precision and recorded this information in the dimensions of the structure. Altogether these measurements show that the builders knew the exact dimensions of the planet as precisely as they have been recently determined by satellite surveys.
  • The foundation of the Great Pyramid is amazingly level., No corner of its base is more than one-half inch higher or lower than the others. Considering that the pyramid’s base covers more than thirteen acres, this near-perfect leveling far exceeds even the finest architectural standards of the present day.
  • Measurements throughout the pyramid show that its constructors knew of the proportions of pi (3.14…), phi or the Golden Mean (1.618), and the “Pythagorean” triangles thousands of years before Pythagoras, the so-called father of geometry, lived.
  • Measurements show that the builders knew the precise spherical shape and size of the earth and had accurately charted such complex astronomical events as the precession of the equinoxes and the lunar standstill dates. The minute discrepancies of the lengths of the base of the pyramid (several inches over the 230 meter length of its base) reveal not an error on the part of the builders but an ingenious means of incorporating into the pyramid the “discrepancies” of the earth itself, in this case the flattening of the earth’s globe at the poles.
  • Shafts leading upward from the two main chambers, previously thought to be air shafts for ventilation, have been shown to have another possible purpose. A miniature electronic robot mechanically crawled sixty-five meters up the shafts and its findings suggested that the south and north shafts in the Kings Chamber are pointed to Al Nitak (Zeta Orionis) and Alpha Draconis respectively, while the south and north shafts of the Queens Chamber point to Sirius and Beta Ursa Minor. The scientists conducting this research believe that the layout of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau precisely mirror the position of the three main stars in the Orion constellation. (While crawling along one of the shafts in the Queens chamber, the robot’s cameras photographed a previously unknown closed door that may lead to some hidden chamber.) Readers interested in these new findings should consult The Orion Mystery by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert.

What does all this mean? Why did the ancient builders of the Giza pyramids, whoever they may have been, encode so much precise mathematical, geographic, and astronomical information into their structures? What was the purpose of the Great Pyramid? While no authoritative answer can presently be given to this question, two intriguing matters suggest a direction for further inquiry and research. The first has to do with the persistent legends that the Great Pyramid, and especially the main chamber, was used as some sort of sacred initiation center. According to one legend, students who had first undergone long years of preparation, meditation and metaphysical instruction in an esoteric school (the mythic “Hall of Records” hidden deep beneath the desert sands somewhere near the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx) were placed in the granite coffer of the main chamber and left alone throughout an entire night. The coffer was the focal point of the energies gathered, concentrated, aimed, and directed at the main chamber by virtue of the precise mathematical location, alignment, and construction of the pyramid. These energies, considered to be especially potent at certain precisely calculated periods when the earth was in a particular geometric alignment with solar, lunar, and stellar objects, were conducive to the awakening, stimulation, and acceleration of spiritual consciousness in the suitably prepared adept. While it is now nearly impossible to spend an evening alone in the coffer of the main chamber, it is interesting to read the reports of those persons who have done so in the past. Mention will be made of experiences both terribly frightening (perhaps because of the lack of any appropriate training on the part of the experimenter) and also deeply peaceful, even spiritually illuminating. Napoleon himself spent a night alone in the chamber. Emerging pale and dazed, he would not speak of his powerful experiences, only saying, “You would not believe me if I told you.”

A second matter needing further inquiry from the scientific community studying the Great Pyramid – and one that might help explain the subject just discussed – concerns the matter of unexplained energetic anomalies frequently noticed and recorded in the main chamber. In the 1920s, a Frenchman named Antoine Bovis made the surprising discovery that, despite the heat and high humidity of the main chamber, the dead bodies of animals left in the chamber did not decay but completely dehydrated. Thinking that there might be some relationship between this phenomena and the position of the main chamber in the pyramid, Bovis constructed a small-scale model of the pyramid, oriented it to the same direction as the Great Pyramid, and placed the body of a dead cat at the approximate level of the main chamber. The result was the same. As he had observed in the Great Pyramid, the cat’s body did not decay. In the 1960s, researchers in Czechoslovakia and the U.S., conducting limited studies of the geometry of the pyramid, repeated this experiment with the same results. They also found that the form of the pyramid somehow mysteriously kept foods preserved without spoiling, sharpened dull razor blades, induced plants to germinate and grow more quickly, and hastened the healing of animals’ wounds. Other scientists, in consideration of the high quartz content of the granite blocks in the main chamber and the incredible pressures those blocks are subjected to, theorized that the main chamber may have been the focal point of a powerful piezoelectric field; magnetometer measurements inside the chamber indeed showed higher levels than the normal background geomagnetic field.

Although much research remains to be done in these areas, legend, archaeology, mathematics, and earth sciences seem to indicate that the Great Pyramid was a monumental device for gathering, amplifying, and focusing a mysterious energy field for the spiritual benefit of human beings. We do not know exactly how the pyramid and its main chamber were used, and the geometric structure of the pyramid has been subtly altered by the removal of the casing stones and the cap-stone. None-the-less, the Great Pyramid of the Giza plateau still emanates great power as a transformational power place. It has done so for uncounted thousands of years and seems destined to continue for ages to come.

Giza Pyramids after sunset
Giza Pyramids after sunset, Egypt

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Great Pyramid, Giza
The building blocks of the Great Pyramid, Giza

Mogao Grottoes

Northern end of the Mogao cliff face, pitted with caves for shelter

The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, popularly known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, were carved out of the rocks stretching for about 1,600 meters along the eastern side of the Mingsha Hill, 25 km southeast of Dunhuang.

A Tang Dynasty inscription records that the first cave in the Mogao Grottoes was made in 366 A.D. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the Mogao Grottoes on the World Heritage List in 1987.

Despite erosion and man-made destruction, the 492 caves are well preserved, with frescoes covering an area of 45,000 square metres, more than 2,000 colored sculptured figures and five wooden eaves overhanging the caves.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

According to archaeologists, it is the greatest and most consummate repository of Buddhist art in the world.

Heavenly Being

Many pavilions, towers, temples, pagodas, palaces, courtyards, towns and bridges in the murals provide valuable materials for the study of Chinese architecture. Other paintings depict Chinese and foreign musical performances, dancing and acrobatics.

The ‘Cave for Preserving Scriptures’, was discovered by a Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu in 1900. The cave contains more than 50,000 sutras, documents and paintings covering a period from the 4th to the 11th centuries. It was one of China’s most significant archaeological finds. These precious relics are of great historical and scientific value.

Detail from the Procession of Zhang Yichao

In 1961 the Grottoes were listed by the State Council as one of China’s key historical and cultural sites. Repairs were carried out from 1963 to 1965.

Between 1906 and 1919 the Dunhuang grottoes was looted. Much of the Hand-copied ancient books, manuscripts, literary works, Buddhist and secular decorative art works, and ancient manuscripts were removed by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sergei Feodorovich Oldenburg and other archaeologists.

Chinese scholars such as Luo Zhenyu and Wang Guowei cultivated the study of Dunhuang culture by publishing a number of books in 1910. The Dunhuang Art Academy was established by Chang Shuhong later.

The site lay empty and ignored until a secret sealed-up cave was discovered at the end of the 19th century. It was crammed with ancient manuscripts and printed documents. Its discovery coincided with a period of great international archaeological research in the area and Sir Aurel Stein was the first to gain access in 1907. Thereafter archaeologists from France, Russia and China were drawn to Dunhuang and the great majority of manuscripts and documents from this one cave are now in Beijing, Paris, London and St. Petersburg. Documents and paintings from other Silk Road towns are to be found more widely in museums and libraries throughout Europe and Asia.

Apart from 14,000 paper scrolls and fragments from this cave at Dunhuang, the British Library Stein collection includes several thousand woodslips and woodslip fragments with Chinese writing, thousands of Tibetan and Tangut manuscripts, Prakrit wooden tablets in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts, along with documents in Khotanese, Uighur, Sogdian and Eastern Turkic. All this material is included in The International Dunhuang Project and will be entered onto the Project database.


Heavenly wonder of ancient China goes on show

Ananova – May 2004

A Chinese star chart possibly dating from the 7th century AD mapped the heavens with an accuracy unsurpassed until the Renaissance, according to research.

The Dunhuang chart is the oldest manuscript star map in the world and one of the most valuable treasures in astronomy.

The fine paper scroll, measuring 210 by 25 centimetres, (82 by 10 inches) displays no less than 1,345 stars grouped in 257 non-constellation patterns.

Such detail was not matched until Galileo and other European astronomers began searching the skies hundreds of years later – and they had the advantage of telescopes.

The chart includes very faint stars that are extremely difficult to find with the naked eye. It also represents the sky as a sphere projected on a cylinder, a modern technique first adopted in Europe in the 15th century.

The first part of the document consists of a collection of predictions based on shapes of clouds – evidence of the important role divination played in ancient China.

Dr Francoise Praderie, from the Paris Observatory, who studied the map with fellow French astronomer Dr Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud, said: “The origin of the star chart’s manufacture and real use remains unknown. One can conjecture that it was used for military and travellers’ needs and probably also for uranomancy – divination by consulting the heavens – as suggested by the cloud divination texts preceding the charts.

“The long tradition in China of searching the sky for celestial omens has therefore led to an early and unsurpassed precision in star catalogues.”


SUMERIAN ARCHITECTURE

The beginnings of monumental architecture in Mesopotamia are usually considered to have been contemporary with the founding of the Sumerian cities and the invention of writing, in about 3100 BC. Conscious attempts at architectural design during this so-called Protoliterate period (c. 3400-c. 2900 BC) are recognizable in the construction of religious buildings. There is, however, one temple, at Abu Shahrayn (ancient Eridu), that is no more than a final rebuilding of a shrine the original foundation of which dates back to the beginning of the 4th millennium; the continuity of design has been thought by some to confirm the presence of the Sumerians throughout the temple’s history.

Already, in the Ubaid period (c. 5200-c.3500 BC), this temple anticipated most of the architectural characteristics of the typical Protoliterate Sumerian platform temple. It is built of mud brick on a raised plinth (platform base) of the same material, and its walls are ornamented on their outside surfaces with alternating buttresses (supports) and recesses. Tripartite in form, its long central sanctuary is flanked on two sides by subsidiary chambers, provided with an altar at one end and a freestanding offering table at the other.

Typical temples of the Protoliterate period–both the platform type and the type built at ground level–are, however, much more elaborate both in planning and ornament. Interior wall ornament often consists of a patterned mosaic of Terra cotta cones sunk into the wall, their exposed ends dipped in bright colors or sheathed in bronze. An open hall at the Sumerian city of Uruk (biblical Erech; modern Tall al-Warka’, Iraq) contains freestanding and attached brick columns that have been brilliantly decorated in this way. Alternatively, the internal-wall faces of a platform temple could be ornamented with mural paintings depicting mythical scenes, such as at ‘Uqair.

The two forms of temple – the platform variety and that built at ground level – persisted throughout the early dynasties of Sumerian history (c. 2900-c. 2400 BC). It is known that two of the platform temples originally stood within walled enclosures, oval in shape and containing, in addition to the temple, accommodation for priests. But the raised shrines themselves are lost, and their appearance can be judged only from facade ornaments discovered at Tall al-‘Ubayd. These devices, which were intended to relieve the monotony of sun-dried brick or mud plaster, include a huge copper-sheathed lintel, with animal figures modeled partly in the round; wooden columns sheathed in a patterned mosaic of colored stone or shell; and bands of copper-sheathed bulls and lions, modeled in relief but with projecting heads. The planning of ground-level temples continued to elaborate on a single theme: a rectangular sanctuary, entered on the cross axis, with altar, offering table, and pedestals for votive statuary (statues used for vicarious worship or intercession).

Considerably less is known about palaces or other secular buildings at this time. Circular brick columns and austerely simplified facades have been found at Kish (modern Tall al-Uhaimer, Iraq). Flat roofs, supported on palm trunks, must be assumed, although some knowledge of corbelled vaulting (a technique of spanning an opening like an arch by having successive cones of masonry project farther inward as they rise on each side off the gap)–and even of dome construction–is suggested by tombs at Ur, where a little stone was available.

The Sumerian temple was a small brick house that the god was supposed to visit periodically. It was ornamented so as to recall the reed houses built by the earliest Sumerians in the valley. This house, however, was set on a brick platform, which became larger and taller as time progressed until the platform at Ur (built around 2100 BC) was 150 by 200 feet (45 by 60 meters) and 75 feet (23 meters) high. These Mesopotamian temple platforms are called ziggurats, a word derived from the Assyrian ziqquratu, meaning “high.” They were symbols in themselves; the ziggurat at Ur was planted with trees to make it represent a mountain. There the god visited Earth, and the priests climbed to its top to worship.

Most cities were simple in structure, the ziggurat was one of the world’s first great architectural structures.

White Temple and Ziggurat, Uruk (Warka), 3200 -3000 B.C.

This temple was erected at Warka or Uruk (Sumer), probably about 300 B.C.It stood on a brick terrace, formed by the construction of successive buildings on the site (the Ziggurat). The top was reached by a staircase. The temple measured 22 x 17 meters (73 x 57 feet). Access to the temple was through three doors, the main located at its southern side.


Sumerian Artifacts – British Museum

Summerian Art and Architecture

Art and Architecture

More than 4,000 years ago the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers began to teem with life–first the Sumerian, then the Babylonian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Persian empires. Here too excavations have unearthed evidence of great skill and artistry.

From Sumeria have come examples of fine works in marble, diorite, hammered gold, and lapis lazuli. Of the many portraits produced in this area, some of the best are those of Gudea, ruler of Lagash.

Some of the portraits are in marble, others, such as the one in the Louvre in Paris, are cut in gray-black diorite.

Dating from about 2400 BC, they have the smooth perfection and idealized features of the classical period in Sumerian art.

Sumerian art and architecture was ornate and complex. Clay was the Sumerians’ most abundant material. Stone, wood, and metal had to be imported.

Art was primarily used for religious purposes. Painting and sculpture was the main median used.

Marble Statues

The famous votive stone/ marble sculptures from Tell Asmar represent tall, bearded figures with huge, staring eyes and long, pleated skirts.

Enlarged eyes were found on many statues

The tallest figure is about 30 inches in height. He represents the god of vegetation. The next tallest represents a mother goddess-mother goddesses were common in many ancient cultures. They were worshipped in the hope that they would bring fertility to women and to crops. (Another connection to African culture.)

The next largest figures are priests. The smallest figures are worshippers – a definite hierarchy of size. This is an example of artistic iconography. We learn to read picture symbols—bodies are cylindrical and scarcely differentiated by gender, with their uplifted heads and hands clasped. This is a pose of supplication-wanting or waiting for something.

Ur yielded much outstanding Sumerian work, e.g., a wooden harp with the head of a bull on top, showing mythological scenes in gold and mosaic inlay on the sound box (c.2650 B.C., Univ. of Penn., Philadelphia).

Sumerian techniques and motifs were widely available because of the invention of cuneiform writing before 3000 B.C.

This system of writing developed before the last centuries of the 4th millennium B.C. in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley, most likely by the Sumerians. The characters consist of arrangements of wedge-like strokes, generally on clay tablets. The history of the script is strikingly like that of the Egyptian hieroglyphic.

Among other Sumerian arts forms were the clay cylinder seals used to mark documents or property. They were highly sophisticated.

Sumerian Art

The art of the Sumerian civilization, as revealed by excavations at Ur, Babylon, Uruk (Erech), Mari, Kish, and Lagash, among other cities, was one of enormous power and originality that influenced all of the major cultures of ancient western Asia. Their techniques and motifs were made widely available by means of cuneiform writing, which they invented before 3000 B.C. Poor in the raw materials of art, the Sumerians traded crops from their fertile soil for the metal, stone, and wood that they required. Clay was their most abundant native material, and its qualities determined their style of baked-mud building and the nature of their fine-textured pottery.

Sumerian craftsmanship was of marked excellence from very early times. A vase in alabaster from Erech (c.3500 B.C.; Iraq Mus., Baghdad) shows a detailed ceremonial procession of men and animals to the fertility goddess Inanna, carved in four bands on an elegant vase shape. A major peak of artistic achievement is represented by a female head, called Lady of Warka (Erech) from about 3200 B.C. (Iraq Mus.). It is carved in white marble with simplicity and subtlety.

The vast royal cemetery at Ur has yielded many masterpieces of Sumerian work. Outstanding among these are a wooden harp detailed with gold and mosaic inlay picturing mythological scenes on the soundbox, surmounted by a black-bearded golden head of a bull (c.2650 B.C.; Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia); a gaming board of wood inlaid with bone, lapis lazuli, shell, and stone, mounted in bitumen (c.2700 B.C.; British Mus.); a ritual offering stand in the shape of a ram, made of silver, lapis lazuli, and mussel shells, rearing on his hind legs to eat from a tree of gold; and a splendid gold helmet fashioned from a single sheet of metal and beaten into the form of a head of wavy hair with a chignon at the back (c.2500 B.C.; Baghdad).

At Lagash a strongly modeled head of stone (c.2500 B.C.) portrays a Sumerian man, clearly representing the structural type of these ancient people. Its large and widely spaced features set on a heavy round skull are revealed in bas-relief and inlay work of the period. Examples of the famous votive stone sculptures of Sumer discovered at Tell Asmar represent tall, long-haired, bearded figures with huge, staring eyes and long, pleated skirts, standing rigidly with hands folded above the waist. Some are portrayed kneeling.

The ziggurat temple form was the most striking architectural achievement of the Sumerians. One ziggurat at Erech extended over an area of half a million square feet (46,500 sq m). It was set upon a mound, and the platform built to support its crowning shrine was 40 feet (12 m) high.

Among other Sumerian arts, one of the most sophisticated was the cylinder seal, a small carved cylinder of stone or metal that, when rolled over seals of moist clay, would leave the reverse image of its carving in relief as an identifying mark or signature. Used to mark documents and property, the cylinders were worn on a wristband or necklace during their owners’ lifetime and were buried with them. A great many examples survive, bearing primarily scenes of religious ritual, often portraying the legendary hero Gilgamesh.

With the ascent to power of Sargon of Akkad, Sumerian art reached new heights of expression, particularly in sculpture. The greatest known examples reflecting that splendor include a bronze head thought to be a portrait of Sargon himself (from Nineveh, c.2300 B.C.; Iraq Mus., Baghdad), from which the gemstone eyes have been stolen, and the stele of Naram-sin, a triumphal relief showing the deified grandson of Sargon in battle (2261–24 B.C.; Louvre). The Akkadians spread cuneiform writing throughout the Middle East, and even after the destruction of Sargon’s empire by invasions from the east in the latter part of the 3d millennium B.C., Sumerian artistic techniques and styles exerted profound influence on contemporary and later cultures. The city of Lagash survived the invasions and was beautified by its governor Gudea with numerous works of art. These were carved of dark, hard diorite; many represented the dignified and serene seated figure of Gudea himself. Although most are small in stature, they convey a sense of grandeur and monumentality. After the invasions the glory of Sumer was revived from 2200 to 2100 B.C. During this period the great ziggurat of the moon god at Ur was built.

Invasions of Semitic peoples from what are now Iran and Syria ended the last Sumerian golden age. The site of Mari has yielded the most complete archaeological evidence of Sumerian civilization during that transitional time. The great Mari royal palace with its labyrinthine corridors, frescoed walls, royal residential rooms, courts and temple buildings, and scribal school containing more than 25,000 cuneiform tablets, reveal the brilliance of a vanished world.

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History of Akkadia

During the 3rd Millennium BC, the Sumerians and the Akkadians lived peacefully together and created conditions for a common high civilization.

A few centuries later the first Akkadian king, Sargon of Akkad, ruled over an empire that included a large part of Mesopotamia. The ancient name Akkadian is derived from the city-state of Akkad. It appears that Semitic speaking people had lived for centuries amidst the Sumerians and gradually became an integral part of the Sumerian culture. We don’t hear much about them in the first part of the 3rd millennium, because the scholarly language used in writing at that time was Sumerian.

Akkadia was founded by Sargon I when he conquered Sumeria. Sargon reigned from 2334 to 2279 BCE, and during those fifty-five years Akkadia became the world’s first empire. During his reign, the Akkadian language became the lingua franca of the region. Along with the language came the Semitic culture it represented. The Biblical Shinar, the home of the tribe of Terach, father of Abraham, about 2400 BCE, was ancient Akkadia. It later became Babylonia, and it is now (roughly) Iraq. The art of glassmaking was born in Akkadia. It was a Semitic, and then a Jewish, art for the next three millennia. Glassmaking was unique among the arts, for it was invented only once in all of human history. Its spread through the world was parallel to, and coincident with, the dispersal of the Jews.

Akkadian is one of the great cultural languages of world history. Akkadian (or Babylonian-Assyrian) is the collective name for the spoken languages of the culture in Mesopotamia, the area between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Deciphered in the 1850s, Akkadian is the medium of innumerable documents from daily life as well as a vast literature, including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, the quest of a man for eternal life.

Akkadian, the oldest known member of the family of Semitic languages, succeeded Sumerian as the vernacular tongue of Mesopotamia and was spoken by the Babylonians and Assyrians over a period of nearly two thousand years. It was written in the cuneiform script invented by the Sumerians, and the surviving documentation covers the period from 2350 BC to the first century AD. The oldest known writing system employed by Semitic-speaking peoples is cuneiform. It was adopted by the Akkadians ca.2500 BC from the Sumerians, whose language was not a Semitic tongue.

The city of Babel is thought to have been Babylon and the word babel comes originally from the Akkadian Bab-ilu meaning “gate of God”.

The earliest surviving inscriptions in the language go back to about 2,500 BC and are the oldest known written records in a Semitic tongue. The Semitic languages are named after Shem or Sem, the oldest son of Noah, from whom most of the languages’ speakers were said to be descended.

By the first century AD Akkadian had become an extinct language replaced as a spoken language by Aramaic.

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