In the Beginning: Your prayers have been answered!

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Well, almost. With just 6 (six!) days to go until our new book's release, mental_floss is happy to present another set of origins. Enjoy!

Holy Architecture!

When it comes to the history of religious architecture, we pray we've got the facts right.

Karnak: One Beautiful Pyramid Scheme

80px-SFEC_EGYPT_KARNAK_2006-002.JPG.jpgNo religious site in Egypt dazzles more than the Karnak. The largest temple ever built, the Karnak is really a complex sprawling across 247 acres of land and constructed over 2,000 years, starting in the 15th century B.C.E. The ancient name of the temple, Ipetisut, means "the most sacred of places," and the main temple was dedicated to Amon, the central god of Thebes.

Unlike other religious structures—dedicated to one or a few deities—the Karnak represents every god and goddess from Egyptian civilization throughout two millennia. As each ruler came into power, he added new images, courts, halls, truncated pyramids (called pylons),and sphinxes. From a design stand point, the different influences created a site without a coherent style, but they also etched the history of Egypt in stone
In ways that we wouldn't usually see. Later generations tend to tear down the work of the civilizations that came before them, but instead the Karnak shows off the work of generations of ancient builders, making it a time capsule of the Egyptian empire.

Stupafly: The Great Stupa at Sanchi

36075-Great-Stupa-1.jpgFor the origin of this religious site, first we'd better explain what a stupa is. The earliest Buddhist religious monument, a stupa is simply a mound of mud, clay, or other materials used to cover relics of the Buddha. But let's back up for a second. After the Buddha passed away some time around the 4th century B.C.E., he wasn't buried immediately. Instead his remains were cremated and divided to be buried under eight stupas (plus two more for the urn and the embers). We don't know which were the original monuments, but the Sanchi is rumored to be an embellishment of one of the mounds.

After the Indian emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C.E., in a fit of religious zeal, he had the original stupas opened and the remains redistributed to the thousands of stupas he'd built in honor of the Buddha. Ashoka also commissioned the Great Stupa at Sanchi—a half globe structure made of bricks built over the Buddha's ashes with an accompanying obelisk to mark the spot. The interesting part about the decision to build the grand structure was that Sanchi wasn't considered sacred because of any event in Buddha's life—or even the lives of the Buddhist monks. Rather, it was chosen because the Hill of Sanchi was very near the richly populated city of Vidisa, plus two important trade routes and rivers, and because it was visible from a distance (thanks to the height of the hill). Most important, though, it was both quiet and secluded (the best atmosphere for meditation). Location,location,location!

Dome Improvement: The Church of Hagiya Sophia (Ayasofya)

More after the jump!

800px-Aya_sofya.jpgHagia Sophia was the seat of the archbishop of Constantinople, but it was also a church built to withstand disaster, and we'll tell you why. The first church constructed on the same site in the 4th century was destroyed. The second, built by Constantius II, burned down during riots. So, when the Emperor Justinian I rebuilt the church again in 532"“537, he hired a physicist (Isidore of Miletus) and a mathematician (Anthemius of Tralles) as architects to create a fireproof building.

Though they succeeded in protecting the building from fire, they didn't do quite as well with the dome. The architects placed 40 windows around its base, which gave the Hagia Sophia its famous mystical light reflecting everywhere in the central part of the church and also gave the dome the appearance of hovering above. To make the design work, the architects used pendentives (triangular wedges cut from a sphere) for the first time successfully. Unfortunately, despite the cleverly designed dome, the building had weak walls—made with more mortar than brick. So, once the dome was on top of the building, the weight forced the walls to lean out.

Sadly, the dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558,and the replacement crumbled in 563. Eventually, an Armenian architect named Trdat repaired the damage in 989,and the church became a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin occupation at the beginning of the 13th century. The Turks Invaded Constantinople two centuries later and turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, but eventually the building was turned into the Ayasofya Museum in 1935, by order of the Turkish president Kemal Atatürk.

St. Peter's Basilica: Where Cost Isn't an Issue

300px-Petersdom_von_Engelsburg_gesehen.jpgYou simply can't put a price tag on faith. Replacing an earlier St. Peter's Basilica built over the tomb of St. Peter in 323 C.E., the 1506 building was designed for Pope Julius II by Bramante. After Bramante's death, he was eventually replaced by Michelangelo, who built a basilica in the form of a Greek cross with five cupolas (small domes). Of course, the renovations hardly stopped with Michelangelo and continued on far after his death. In the end, all of the additions of the 15th through 17th centuries ratcheted up the price significantly.

So, just for the record, two huge semicircles, 280 columns with 160 statues of saints, two fountains in the square, and an Egyptian obelisk: over $48 million. Building the largest church in the world right next to the residence of the Pope: priceless.

The Parthenon: Virgin 2.0

200px-Parthenon_from_west.jpgThe most famous (and arguably the most structurally perfect) building in Greece is named for a famous ethereal virgin. No, not that one. We're talking about the Greek goddess Athena. Built in the 5th century B.C.E. on the acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon houses the cult statue of Athena Parthenos, which translates to "Athena the Virgin."

Surprisingly, the Parthenon replaced an older temple of Athena, destroyed by Xerxes I of Persia in 480 B.C.E. Under the authority of statesman Pericles, architects and sculptors began work on the Parthenon In 447B.C.E. and finished it a mere nine years later (lightning fast, compared to some temple timelines). The building shows off the delicate harmony of Greek architecture and sculpture, with carefully curved Doric columns and high-relief representations of battles between the gods and the Amazons and even the Greeks and centaurs. Of course, if that wasn't impressive enough, there was always the giant gold and ivory statue of Athena within.

Some scholars claim that the temple wasn't technically a religious site—it was used more as a treasury, which is technically true. Still, the statue and the temple survived as monuments to Athena for almost a thousand years. That is, until the 5th century C.E. when the statue was stolen and the temple was converted to a Christian church in honor of yet another virgin—Mary.

51yai+MKH5L._AA240_.jpgCan't wait the 6 days for In the Beginning? Pre-order your copy at any of these fine stores today: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Books-A-Million. Oh, and if you e-mail us your proof of purchase at newsletters@mentalfloss.com, we'll send you an autographed sticker to place in the book!

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October 26, 2007 - 1:30pm
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