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Temple (building)

Athenian Acropolis, Greek Temples, templum, Greek temple, Hatshepsut

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Temple (building), building, usually of large size, dedicated to one or more divinities. The word temple is derived from templum, the Latin word for a sacred, ceremonial space. A temple almost always stands out clearly from its surroundings and has a pronounced architectural character. The type is common to most societies, being thought of as the dwelling place of the divine. The broad concept includes the mosque, the synagogue, and the church, and the word is also used to refer to buildings for fraternal orders and religious organizations.

The origin of the temple is found in the need for ancient peoples to make concrete their relationship to the forces of nature by means of substantial structures commanding attention. Around these the ceremonies of worship were elaborated, and in many societies the attendant priests became very powerful. Temples were often positioned with regard to some natural feature or phenomenon, such as a holy mountain or the apparent traverse of the sun, and they were often tall or placed on an elevated spot, in order to lessen the distance between mortals and the heavens.

Egyptian and Mesopotamian Temples

In ancient Egypt, temples were grandiose, built of huge blocks and columns of stone. Often they were enlarged by successive rulers to form strung-out series of temple parts, as in the gigantic Temple of Amon (circa 1550-1070 BC) at Al Karnak. The Nile cliffs were used as settings for temples, such as the massive mortuary temple (15th century BC) of Hatshepsut at Dayr al Ba?ri, the superhuman scale of which still inspires awe. A profusion of sculpture (both in the round and in incised relief) and painting told of the gods and their special connection with Egypt's rulers. In the Middle East the hill form called the ziggurat predominated for a long time; this was a huge stylized constructed mound, sometimes encircled by a walkway. The best preserved is the ziggurat of Nanna at Ur (about 2100 bc) in present-day Iraq. Smaller, plainer constructed mounds also appeared. In the last few centuries bc columned temples with cellas appeared.

Greek Temples

Beginning about the 7th century bc, the Greeks created the temple with columns around all sides that support a plain, pitched roofóthe image that comes most readily to the Western mind when the word temple is mentioned. This form, perfected in the Parthenon (circa 447-432 bc) on the Athenian Acropolis, has had a long life in the history of art. Often atop a city hill (acropolis) and built of fine-grained marble, the Greek temple is justly famous for its fine proportions and elegant clarity of form. It sits on a three-stepped stone platform upon which the columns and the walls of the cella are set; the gable ends of the roof, and other parts, were embellished with sculpture. As time passed, the kinds of columns used by the GreeksóDoric, Ionic, and Corinthianóbecame the touchstones of classically inspired buildings everywhere.


MacDonald, William L., M.A., Ph.D.

Former A. P. Brown Professor of the History Art, Smith College. Author of "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture", "The Architecture of the Roman Empire", and "The Pantheon - Design, Meaning, and Progeny".

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