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Throughout history there has been civilisations whose
architecture has manipulated light affectively to emphasize purpose in their
creations. Monumental buildings across numerous civilisations have incorporated
light, more specifically, The Abu-Simbel temples carved during the 19th
dynasty reign of Egyptian king Rameses II and the Templo de Kukulkan in the
state of Yucatan, Mexico.

The Abu-Simbel temples consist of two large rocks of
approximately 20m in height in which colossal statues have been carved from. Erected
in Nubia, a small town in southern Egypt, the temples now stand 65m higher and 200m
back from its original location due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam
that threatened to submerge them. Two temples compose what is popularly known
as The Abu-Simbel temples; The Great Temple is the most significant of the two
since its considered to be one of the most beautiful works commissioned during
the dynasty of Rameses II. Completed around 1265 BC, The Great Temple is
dedicated to three ancient Egyptian deities (Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah), and
Rameses II himself. Like many of the numerous projects produced by the Ancient
Egyptians; The Great Temple reflects the scientific excellence of this
civilisation, particularly in the fields of astronomy, construction, and
sculpture. Twice a year, for 33 centuries, people have witnessed a Pharaonic
miracle in which a solar alignment occurs onto the statue of King Rameses II
and the inner sanctum located 60m from the entrance. However, the statue of Ptah
(god related to the Underworld) does not become illuminated during these
occurrences. This happening takes place on the 22nd of February and
22nd of October which are believed to be Rameses’ date of birth and
coronation. This phenomenon proves this ancient civilisation’s manipulation of
sunlight and excellent scientific understanding.

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Ancient Egyptians were not the only civilisation to
manipulate sunlight. Excavations in the 19th century discovered what
was, at the moment, Mexico’s prime archaeological territory in the state of
Yucatan. What was found was Mesoamerican antiquity. El Castillo, or also known
as the Temple of Kukultan, is a step-pyramid built sometime between the 9th
and 12th century by the pre-Columbian Maya Civilisation. This
pyramid stands at approximately 24m tall and has 4 sides with a sum of 365
steps – the number of days in a solar year. The fascination with astronomy and
math is reflected in Mesoamerican architecture, as it was in Ancient Egypt. The
Temple of Kukulcan is considered to be a physical representation of the Mayan
calendar, and its positioning was calculated in order to create a phenomenon noted
as the ‘Descent of Kukulcan’. Kukulcan is a feathered serpent deity found in
many central Mexican cultures between 1000-1697, and it also decorates sides of
the temple. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, an illusion of a snake undulating
down the step-pyramid is formed by a series of triangular shadows. This
phenomenon occurs for approximately five hours where Mayans believed Kukulcan
returns to earth to bless their harvest and health. It has been questioned
whether this phenomenon was purposely designed or is miraculously coincidental.
Nevertheless, this ancient civilisation designed an incredible temple that
embodied their astronomical discoveries and was able to remarkably manipulate
sunlight.  

A third example of how ancient civilisations have used the
built environment as a way to manipulate light is the 17-arch bridge in
Beijing, China. This structure was built during Emperor Qianlong’s dynasty
(1711-1799) on the eastern shore of Kunming Lake. With a length of 150m and a
width of 8m, the bridge acts as a passageway to Nanhu Lake. On the winter
solstice when the sun is at its lowest point, bright golden-red shines through
the 17 arches. Because each arch is sized differently, the sun can shine
through them simultaneously; creating a phenomenal twilight scenery.

Religious buildings have
played an influential role in history in terms of the development of architecture.
Civilisations used their built environment as a way to communicate meaning
through material, form, and design. In ancient Mesopotamia the ‘ziggurat’ was a
massive step tower believed to be a dwelling space for the gods. In India,
Buddhist monks would use hemispherical structures called ‘stupa’ as a place of
meditation and preservation of relics. These two monumental buildings played a
crucial role in society as they persevered the important religious acts of
their civilisation during that time in history.

The ziggurat is a
stepped temple tower built by Sumerians and Babylonians, among the few, across
Mesopotamia. The ziggurat developed from earlier raised temples and could only
be accessed by a series of ramps, and it was also only a fraction of a temple
complex. The purpose of these temples was to create a platform which connected
the heavens to earth. The best example of this ancient temple is the Ziggurat
of Ur in present day Iraq. It is believed that ziggurats held a shrine at the
very top of the steps, but like the Ziggurat of Ur, most of these temples are
left as layered solid mass of mud brick.

The Buddhist stupa is a
hemispherical structure used as a place of mediation and sometimes pilgrimage.
There are various types of stupas which have been classified into five
categories; the relic, object, commemorative, symbolic, and votive stupa. In
general, the stupa originated as a building which represented the Buddha’s
burial mound and evolved into being a building which commemorated other sacred
saints and concepts. The Great Stupa in Sanchi (India), served as a prototype
for the countless stupas which followed and spread all throughout southern
Asia. The ‘anda’ is the name given to the hemispherical mound with a solid core
that contains relics of the Buddha. Over time, the mound has been given a
greater symbolic association; the “replica of the infinite dome of heaven”. The
stupa is now considered to be pointing to the centre of the universe; a place
for the gods.

The similarity between
the Mesopotamian ziggurat and the Buddhist stupa is that they were both
constructed as a place of worship and connection between the heavens and earth.
These buildings are shaped, used and accessed differently, but they were at
some point in their history, erected to commemorate a divine figure. Secondly,
they were both constructed out of bricks. The brick plays a crucial role in
architecture, and today we can appreciate how numerous civilisations shared the
same technique in their built environment. The ziggurat is a stepped temple formed
by layering mud-bricks and using mud to seal them together. In contrast, the traditional
stupas were also made out of brick but they are a dome-like platformed
structure.

The Parthenon is the
largest Doric temple constructed in Greece and has become an icon for Greek
architecture. Completed in 438 BC, this monument stands on the hill of
Acropolis, Athens. Its considered to be a classical temple built by Aegean
civilisations (900 BC and 1st century AD) in dedication to goddess
Athena. Ancient Greek architecture is renowned for its grandeur and established
characteristics. Temples were built to be looked at, therefore the Greek
constructed the ‘perfect’ buildings using optical illusions. Upwards curvature
and adaption in intercolumniation are a couple of the design alterations the
Greeks made during the Classical period to create the ‘perfect’ building. The
Doric order is also very characteristic of the Classical era, upright posts
which support horizontal beams made from stone became very common.

In contrast, the Temple
of Apollo is an exemplar construction of the Hellenistic period and is located
in the fourth largest sanctuary in the Greek world. The main difference between
the Hellenistic period and the Classical is the exposure to new cultures which
altered the traditional Greek culture. The idyllic architecture that was portrayed
to be a perfect illusion was replaced with naturalism during the Hellenistic
period. This was reflected in the construction of the Temple of Apollo. Completed
around 300 BC to 200 BC, the temple stands on the western-coast of, what is
today, Turkey. The Greeks believed that the local natural spring was the source
of prophetic power and therefore built the largest temple found on this site.
The main difference between architecture built during the Classical period in
mainland Greece and the Hellenistic period in Asia Minor was the order. In the
Temple of Apollo, we can appreciate that the columns are fluted with no base
and are categorised as ionic and Corinthian. In comparison, in the Parthenon is
the largest Doric temple in the world, so we can appreciate a simpler capital and
a fluted shaft.

The
main difference between the two temples, besides the orders, is the internal
space of the temple. In the plan of the Parthenon we can appreciate only 17
columns on the long sides of the temple, and 8 on the smaller sides. Most of
the columns of Parthenon are located in the interior space. These pillars vary
in size, but they are paramount in terms of the infrastructure and mechanics of
the temple. In the plan of the Temple of Apollo we can appreciate 42 columns on
the long sides of the temple and 20 on the smaller sides. These exterior
columns support the whole structure, which means that the interior is an open
space without any pillars. The main difference in terms of the organisation of
temples in the classical and Hellenistic periods is the distribution of the
interior space and positioning of columns.

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