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Mesopotamia and Egypt: 4th millennium BC

The two areas which first develop civilization - Mesopotamia and Egypt - share a natural product which is ideal for relatively small buildings in a warm climate. Bundles of reeds can be bound together to form pillars and beams. Their tops can even be bent inwards and tied to shape an arch or a dome. And the spaces in the frame can be filled with smaller branches and mud to complete a weather-proof shelter.

Even the more important buildings in both regions are probably constructed in this style for much of the fourth millennium BC. But the larger tombs and temples of the third millennium require brick and later (in Egypt) stone.

Sun-dried mud brick, as used in Jericho as early as 8000 BC, is the building block of man's first monumental buildings - the ziggurats (or temples) of Mesopotamia and the mastabas (or early tombs) of Egypt.

In southern Mesopotamia, near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, there is no local stone. Even the great ziggurat at Ur, built in about 2000 BC, is made entirely of brick. In Egypt, by contrast, stone is plentiful. It comes into use with the first pyramid.

Egyptian mastabas and pyramids: 3000-2500 BC

From early in the 3rd millennium BC the pharaohs and their nobles are buried beneath mastabas (see Egyptian burial customs). These rectangular flat-roofed buildings, made of mud brick, cover the burial chamber. They also contain the supplies of food and other items which will be needed in the next world.

In about 2620 BC the pharaoh Zoser entrusts his chief minister, Imhotep, with the task of providing a royal tomb which is out of the ordinary. Imhotep builds a mastaba of stone (in itself an innovation) and then places on top five successively smaller rectangular mastabas. In doing so he creates the first pyramid - the 'step pyramid' of Saqqara.

The Saqqara pyramid uses stone in small pieces, almost as if it were still mud bricks. But soon the pharaohs bring stone architecture to a peak of monumental grandeur in the pyramids at Giza.

The first of these, the Great Pyramid, is built for the pharaoh Khufu from about 2550 BC. The stone is now cut in massive blocks, and the angle of the steps is filled in to give the true pyramid shape (see Building methods in Egypt). This is the largest building ever created by man (and justly heads the list of the Seven Wonders of the World). It has been estimated that St Peter's in Rome, St Paul's and Westminster Abbey in London, and the cathedrals of Florence and Milan could all be accommodated within its volume.

Knossos and Mycenae: 2000-1100 BC

After the pioneering monumental architecture of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the next civilization to leave impressive remains is one which develops around the Aegean sea. From about 2000 BC the island of Crete is the dominant power in the region. Traces of its grandeur survive in the palace of Knossos.

From around 1400 the centre of inflence is at Mycenae, on the Greek mainland - a civilization renowned for the beehive tombs and massive palace architecture commissioned by its rulers.

Their fortress palaces are protected by walls of stone blocks, so large that only giants would seem capable of heaving them into place. This style of architecture has been appropriately named Cyclopean, after the Cyclopes (a race of one-eyed giants encountered by Odysseus in the Odyssey). The walls at Tiryns, said in Greek legend to have built by the Cyclopes for the legendary king Proteus, provide the most striking example.

At Mycenae it is the gateway through the walls which proclaims power, with two great lions standing above the massive lintel.

Karnak and Luxor: 1500-1350 BC

The pyramids are astounding creations but they bear little relation to anything in subsequent human history. By contrast the temples of ancient Egypt, almost as impressive in their scale, stand at the start of a lasting tradition in architecture.

The great temples of Karnak and Luxor, on the east bank of the Nile at Thebes, have columns and architraves of colossal proportions. This is stone architecture at its most monumental. But with the Egyptian instinct for tradition, many of the columns are decorated in imitation of earlier versions in wood or bundled reed. There are palm leaf capitals, and ribbed fluting to suggest reeds.

These temples are built and added to over a long period. But the grandeur which now remains is mainly from the two centuries after 1500 BC (much of it designed to celebrate the military victories of pharaohs of the New Kingdom, as is the extraordinary rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel).

Greek architecture will later refine the ponderous elements in this ancient Egyptian style, slimming the fat pillars, formalizing the decoration, introducing better balance and proportion. As a result the most lasting of all architectural conventions - the pillar, with a decorated top or 'capital', supporting a horizontal cross beam - is usually thought of as Greek. But the Egyptians are the pioneers.

Abu Simbel: c.1250 BC

When the pharaoh Ramses II decides to create a great monument to himself at the first cataract of the Nile (as if to dominate the defeated southern province of Cush), he conceives the earliest and probably the most impressive of all rock-cut shrines adorned with statuary.

At Abu Simbel a sloping sandstone rock rises high above the Nile. Ramses' sculptors and labourers are given the task of hacking into the rock face - to expose first four colossal seated statues of the pharaoh himself (each some 65 ft high), to be followed, as they cut further back, by the flat facade against which these great sculptures are to be seen.

With the imposing front of the temple thus achieved, the next stage is even more remarkable. A tall rectangular cavity is cut into the centre of the facade at ground level. As the work of excavation continues, this space will become the massive doorway to an interior chamber (yet the imitation lintel of the door does not even reach to the knees of the four seated statues).

When the work is finally done, three connecting chambers recede behind this door - together stretching 185 ft into the hillside. A corridor through the first great hall is formed by four pairs of pillars, left in place to support the rock above. Each pillar, 30 ft high, is carved as a standing image of Ramses in Nubian dress.

The walls behind the pillars are carved and painted with scenes of Ramses in triumph. He is represented in several military campaigns, with special emphasis on his gallant behaviour in his chariot at the battle of Kadesh. He and his sons are seen offering Nubian, Hittite and Syrian prisoners as sacrifices to Amen-Re.

A second chamber leads on into the third and inner sanctuary where Ramses sits as a god beside Amen-Re. On two days of the year, February 22 and October 22, the rays of the rising sun penetrate to the very back of the temple to fall upon these two central figures.

In the 1960s this extraordinary temple is threatened by Egypt's construction of the Aswan dam. The waters of the Nile, rising behind the dam, will completely submerge Ramses' spectacular piece of self-promotion.

A major international effort organized by UNESCO saves the situation. The temple is cut from the rock and is sliced into pieces to be reassembled on the hillside above the intended level of the water. In an extraordinarily reversal of techniques, a space originally achieved by a process of scooping out is now preserved as a free-standing structure.

The first American monuments: from 1200 BC

In both the centres of Olmec civilization, at San Lorenzo and then La Venta, numerous large clay platforms are raised. At their top there are believed to have been temples, or perhaps sometimes palaces, built of wood. The concept of climbing up to a place of religious significance becomes the central theme of pre-Columbian architecture.

Its natural conclusion is the pyramid, with steps by which priests and pilgrims climb to the top (unlike the smooth-sided tomb pyramids of Egypt). La Venta initiates this long American tradition too. One of its pyramids is more than 30 metres high.

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