Inscriptions in architecture — scripts, most often carved in stone, usually of a religious nature or giving honor to the sponsor of the project — are nearly as old as written language itself and found throughout the world. Initially, I intended to write an overview in one go and move onto a new topic next week, but this really is a fascinating topic that reveals quite a bit about each culture and how each one builds into the next; it deserves a more detailed discussion. So welcome to the series Inscriptions in Architecture, starting off in the Mediterranean world, BCE.
There were, of course, three notable cultures in the Mediterranean area: the Egyptians, Greeks, and, eventually, the Romans. ‘Eventually’ applied to the Romans is a bit strange to read, isn’t it? But let’s take a quick look at some dates:
o 3150 BCE: Egypt becomes a unified state, entering the Early Dynastic Era. They are already using hieroglyphs — although the first evidence of complete sentences dates to 500 years later.
o 1750 BCE: Mycenaean Greece forms, they are the precursor to Classical Greece. It will be another 300 years before the Mycenaeans invent the first Indo-European Greek script.
o 753 BCE: Rome is just starting to take shape as the Roman Kingdom.
o 525 BCE: Occupied by the Persians, Egypt is officially past its ancient glory days — except for a few brief periods of independence, Egypt will not be self-governed again until 1953 CE.
o 510 BCE: Classical Greece begins: their politics, artistic & scientific thought, theatre, and philosophy are the major Greek influence on modern Europe.
o 200 BCE: Greece begins to be taken over by the Roman Republic bit by bit.
o 27 BCE: Caesar Augustus, formerly Octavian, becomes the first Emperor at the beginning of the Roman Empire; both Greece and Egypt (under Greek rule currently) are formally annexed into the Roman Empire this year.
First Off: Egyptian Hieroglyphs
The hieroglyphs — the earliest script that featured prominently in architectural design — were actually ancient even to the later Ancient Egyptians, as they had continued developing hieroglyphs into more easily writable scripts for use on papyrus from the first dynasty in the 2000 CE forward. But they maintained the hieroglyphs as a spiritual connection between what they physically interacted with day-to-day and their pantheon of gods, these forces beyond their control or perception that they sought to keep peace with. Their beliefs were centered around connection and working with the gods to maintain Ma’at (balance) in the world, which they did by physically supporting the gods through their temples. The hieroglyphs connected the two by giving ethereal concepts physical names and existences, something that factored into their afterlife as well.
The hieroglyphs were an old and complex system of 1,000–750 characters representing information that was only used for religious and presentational purposes — hence for decorating architecture in the style we are so very familiar with. Egyptian tombs, temples, even pillars, were either painted or carved (or both) with hieroglyphic descriptions and praises of their gods; whoever instigated the particular project — if it was a remodel, sometimes the name was carved right over the previous sponsor; passages from their Book of the Dead were used in tombs, along with blessings and curses.
Curses, like the ominous wording in Tutankhamun’s tomb, were inscribed in tombs throughout the centuries of Egyptian culture — but the mystery of “The Curse of the Pharoah” sort started to run rampant in the 7th century BCE when Arabs conquered Egypt and couldn’t read the hieroglyphic warnings and threats. In reality, the curses called out punishments on the intruder but never suggested the dead mummy would come alive again … although there was a fair bit of haunting threatened, which seems fair: you disturb my rest, I’ll disturb yours, why not?
Interesting to the reality of the situation but unconnected to architecture is a coffin made in Amarna sometime between 1346–1332 BCE. The coffin was inscribed with hieroglyphs by someone presumably writing traditional hieroglyphs — the problem is that while they look right, the hieroglyphs technically make no sense when read, suggesting that by this era at least some artists were working off copybooks of hieroglyphs without a full understanding of the actual meanings.
Ancient Egyptians viewed hieroglyphs as a means to preserve memory and grant their ancestors a place in the afterlife by holding space for them on this side as well. This belief is the basis for two major uses of hieroglyphs. First, the importance of names in tombs, the name of the owner is frequently found painted and carved over and over, which helps us today in isolating who was buried where. Secondly, the royal projects, most frequently undertake in temples or similar religious sites, were hardly completed quietly. They frequently feature both statues of the king involved and his name tied to giving praises to the gods, both for his memory and to positively impact the Weighting of the Heart, an important judgment element during the transition to the afterlife.
Of course, in instances of political failure or scorn, this led to a fallout. Hieroglyphic remnants of certain pharaohs were decidedly scrubbed from locations across Egypt. Akenaten and his wife Nefertiti were eradicated for their Amun cult after they had begun removing former pharaohs praising Ra in a slightly less organized fashion. Hatshepsut, a queen of the New Kingdom who claimed the pharaoh’s position for herself, was also ultimately removed despite much of Thebes’ most beautiful buildings being due to her efforts.
Those buildings would have appeared quite different in her time than ours. The Ancient Egyptians originally had great use of color, they kept many of their buildings lime-washed to a bright white and highlighted the carved hieroglyphs with bright mineral pigments, an appearance long-worn by the elements outside of the tombs. The more prestigious locations have evidence of higher craftsmanship, including the use of gold leaf and faience tiles. At times, hieroglyphs were neither painted nor carved but inlaid into the stone walls.
I wish I could track down the information about this solidly, but a professor once explained that in certain Egyptian temples the architecture and artwork were co-designed so that as the sun traveled across the sky, specific portions of hieroglyphic text would be illuminated throughout the day. It is a beautiful demonstration of a culture deeply embedded in their beliefs and using imagery to connect their perception of the world to the actual physical world.
Next week: Mediterranean BCE, Part 2 — Greece and Rome
The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People, by Barry Kemp