Temple: Ancient near Eastern and Mediterranean Temples

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Modern writers use the term temple in different ways. Applied to Near Eastern religion, it refers to a complete architectural complex, including a shrine with the cult statue. Applied to Greek, Etruscan, and Roman architecture, temple refers to the equivalent of this shrine, and the whole complex is termed sanctuary.


Modern scholars have traditionally divided Egyptian temples into several types, according to their functions. The two principal are "divine" temples, the residence of a god or gods, and "mortuary" temples, the place for rituals, offerings, and sacrifices for a deceased king. Ancient Egyptians, however, did not see the functions, plans, symbols, and rituals of their temples quite so separately and distinctly as modern taxonomies would suggest. Thus, "divine" temples could also serve for the worship of the king, while "mortuary" temples were often used for a joint cult of the king and the god. Accordingly, these modern divisions are currently being questioned.

Recent excavations show that the earliest temples date back to the Early Dynastic period (c. 31852630 bce). These temples were still quite simple in their plan, generally consisting of an open court followed by a shrine made of mud-brick, which contained the cult statue. During the Old Kingdom (c. 26302160 bce) stone was introduced as a building material, especially for royal cult complexes. In contrast, shrines for the gods remained modest in scale and materials. During the Middle Kingdom (c. 20401650) the state took an unprecedented interest in temples, which were erected for the gods in all the major cult places of Egypt. Stone was regularly used as a building material, and there was a particular emphasis on figural decoration. During that period, the plan that became characteristic of the divine cult complexes of the New Kingdom (c. 15501075 bce) appeared. This is the plan that we now usually associate with the Egyptian temple, mainly because in no other period of Egyptian history has the construction of monumental temples been more intensive than it was during the New Kingdom.

The Egyptian temple of the New Kingdom was set apart from the outside world by a massive enclosure wall made of mud-brick and without decoration. This wall was a boundary between order and disorder; it transformed the temple into a fortress against chaos. Within this enclosure was the pylon (a modern term derived from the ancient Greek word for "gateway"), a monumental entrance built of stone which consisted of a gateway flanked by two towers. This pylon was decorated on the outside with reliefs representing the king hunting or defeating his enemies in battle. Only the king, the priests, and, on some ritual occasions, representative commoners, were admitted beyond this gateway, and then only after having performed a ritual of purification. After the pylon was a large open-air court surrounded by columns. This court led to the most sacred part of the temple, where access was restricted to the king and certain selected priests. The first room of this part of the temple was the hypostyle hall, an enclosed, basilica-like space whose roof rested on numerous rows of close-set columns. This hall was like a vestibule, which gave access to a series of chambers with different functions. One contained small tables and stands for offerings and sacrifices. Another had the sacred boat of the god, installed atop a platform. One housed the cult statue, closed in a shrine. Because the statue was the very being of god, its shrine was the heart of the temple, the holy of holies. In the inner area of the temple there could be also shrines for divinities associated with the principal god, storerooms for the paraphernalia of ritual, and rooms with administrative purposes.

What is characteristic about this architecture is that rooms and unroofed spaces, which were always rectangular, were disposed in exact sequence according to an axial alignment from the entrance pylon to the inner chambers. The courts were unroofed, though often surrounded by a colonnade; the inner parts were completely roofed and increasingly in shadow. The roof level decreased as the floor level rose. All these solutions enhanced a sense of mystery that culminated in the heart of the temple.

The precise arrangement of this plan varied from temple to temple, with some larger and more complex than others. As time went on, temples could be greatly expanded with additional sections (most frequently, a new pylon, followed by an additional open-air court). This was the result of the desire for personal display of individual kings, who by transforming famous temples reasserted their primary role in Egyptian religion and society. The degree of complexity possible for an Egyptian temple can be illustrated by the Temple of Amun at Karnak, one of the most important, which has been added to and altered over millennia. Elements go back to the Middle Kingdom (presumably obliterating even earlier construction) and extended down to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (Figure 1 shows a portion of the final arrangement). Complex though it is, in principle it is the same as the smaller temples which share its twenty-five-hectare precinct.

Both texts and images give us an idea about the rituals performed in these temples. The daily ritual consisted in tending the cult statue, which was cleaned and provided with clothes, food, drink, and other offerings. This daily ritual in essence provided the god with the needs of life, which were thought to be the same as those of humans. In theory, it was the king who performed this daily ritual, because he was, in theory, the sole priest; for this reason, only the king is depicted in the wall decorations performing the appropriate actions. In fact, the daily ritual was performed by the priests, the vicars of the sacerdotal power of the king, who thus acted on his behalf. Another ritual that took place in temples, and which was performed on the occasion of many religious festivals, was the procession of the god from the inner part to the open-air court. The cult statue, closed in a shrine, was mounted on a barque borne on the shoulders of the priests, or sometimes carried on a sledge. It was enveloped in incense and accompanied by dancers, singers, and instrumentalists to the open-air court. Here the god met visiting gods, while the assembled worshipers, including common people, could glimpse the shrine and ask the god within for oracular responses.


Our knowledge of Mesopotamian temples is seriously limited by the fact that they were built in mud-brick. For this reason, only a few of them have been preserved above the level of the foundations, and none in its entire elevation.

Temples from the fourth millennium bce have been documented. They could be very large, and they had generally a tripartite plan, consisting of a cella (the space that contains the cult statue) at the center and subsidiary rooms off either side. The cella included altars and offering-tables, and it could be entered from different sides of the building. Very often, multiple recesses and buttresses were used to add some variety to the exterior (and sometime even to the interior) of the building, by creating contrasts in light and shadow.

In plan, the temples of the third millennium bce are characterized by their continuity with the preceding period. There was, however, a marked tendency to set them apart from the rest of the settlement. They were constructed on top of high platforms and enclosed with high walls. Sometimes there was an outer enclosure that included, along with the temple and the inner enclosure, other shrines and probably offices for the temple administration. In the inner court around the temple there were stores and workshops: their location gives clues about the part played by temples in the economy of this region. In these temples the gods were believed to be present in their cult statues, which stood in front of a niche at one end of the cella. Near the niche were an altar and an offering-table, and along the walls stood the statues of the worshipers, represented with their hands clasped.

Near the end of the third millennium, the habit of setting the temples apart, in a high position, culminated in the placing of some of them at the top level of ziggurats, the most conspicuous landmarks of Mesopotamian towns. Whether all ziggurats had temples at their top level, however, remains unclear, because of the poor state of preservation of these monuments. For the same reason, we know nothing of the architecture of these "high temples"as in the case of the ziggurat built by Urnammu at Ur, which is generally restored with a single room, but incorrectly so. In the absence of specific texts, it is also difficult to have an idea of the rituals performed in these "high temples," or to understand what correlation they might have had with the buildings found at the base of the ziggurats in the same sacred enclosure. From Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century bce, we are informed that in the ziggurat at Babylon one of the rituals was a sacred marriage between a priestess and the god, which took place at night. Yet, this was clearly not the only ritual performed in the temple, but only the one that captured the attention of the historian.

After the fall of Ur, a temple of Ishtar-Kititum was built at Ishchali (nineteenth to the eighteenth century bce). The large structure (about 100 by 65 meters) stood on a platform and had a rectangular plan articulated around two open courts. Three entrances framed by towers gave access to the interior: two on the south side, leading into the open courts, and one on the east side, in relation to a secondary temple located to the north of the main complex. The main shrine was located at the western end and was elevated with respect to the rest of the temple. This shrine was accessible from the smaller court, and consisted of an ante-cella, a broad, shallow cella with a niche for the cult statue, and a treasury on the back. This building condensed the previous, Mesopotamian tradition, but it also introduced features that would be characteristic of temples built in Mesopotamia during the Assyrian (c. 1350612 bce) and Neo-Babylonian periods (c. 612539 bce).

Aegean in the Bronze Age

Places set aside for the cult of the divinity can be recognized in the material remains of the Bronze Age, in Crete as well as on the Greek mainland. The Cretans worshiped at shrines of various types. Natural caves were used for the deposit of offerings. The peaks of certain mountains were also sites of sanctuariessome simply defined by enclosure walls, others given a number of rooms, usually rectangularin which large stones served as altars. Thick layers of ash show that bonfires were lit, which would have been visible from sanctuary to sanctuary. The use of these sanctuaries ended abruptly, perhaps as a consequence of the cataclysmic eruption of the volcano of Thera in the fifteenth century bce. Finally, there were sanctuaries in the palaces of the Cretan kings, shrine rooms marked by central pillars, with the symbolic double ax. These rooms were small and shallow, functioning as a focus for offerings rather than for any form of congregational ritual. It is likely that other parts of the palace complexes served ritual functions, including the bull-leaping depicted in Cretan art, but here the interaction of religion and architecture is, at best, uncertain: clearly none of it constitutes a temple in the normal sense.

Sanctuaries on the Greek mainland were probably influenced by Cretan practice. One at Mycenae consisted of a set of small, irregularly shaped rooms containing benches on which offerings could be placed, along with terracotta figurines apparently intended as representations of the deity, a goddess. There was also a mural painting of her. Such shrines are found in the fortified sites close to the walls and gateways; they seem to have had a special role in the protection of the community. The possibility of religious functions in the palaces cannot be excluded.


There are few remaining traces of religious practice during the Protogeometric period (1050900 bce), when cult buildings were generally small. An exception is the large building with apsidal plan surrounded by wooden posts at Lefkandi, in Euboea (1000 bce). The function of this short-lived building was funerary, for in the main space were buried a warrior, a woman, and a number of horses.

Temples built during the Geometric period (900700 bce) were generally modest in scale and simple in plan. The temple of Apollo at Dreros (c. 700), in Crete, consisted of a rectangular room preceded by a shallow porch. In the middle of the cella two posts flanked a central hearth, and against the back wall was a bench with three bronze statues, the cult images of Apollo, Leto, and Artemis. What is remarkable about this temple, and other buildings of the same period, is that sacrifices took place inside, near the cult image. The arrangement of the interior with a central hearth flanked by posts is reminiscent of the halls in Mycaenean palaces.

In the Orientalizing period (700600 bce) temples were monumentalized. Their size was significantly increased, durable materials were introduced, and the cella (naos ) was often surrounded by a row of columns, the peristyle. This feature, according to recent excavations in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, was introduced in the second half of the eighth century. Most likely, the inspiration came from Egypt, where columns played a prominent role in the design of temples.

The use of stone instead of wood for columns and entablature led to the establishment of distinctive orders. In the Archaic period (600480 bce) the Doric order was characteristic of mainland Greece, south Italy, and Sicily, and the Ionic was characteristic of the Aegean and Asia Minor; however, geographical distinctions were not completely rigid, and whether these orders had an ethnic connotation remains a question. During the same period, the erection of monumental temples was particularly intense in Asia Minor and the west. In both areas the Greeks were surrounded by other cultures, and monumental temples might have been a means to reassert the cultural identity of the communities responsible for their erection. Among the temples in Asia Minor, three stand out for their colossal size: the temples of Hera at Samos (c. 560 bce, rebuilt c. 530 bce), of Artemis at Ephesus (c. 560470 bce), and of Apollo at Didyma (c. 550520 bce). These temples were surrounded by two, even three rows of columns, and must have seemed like a forest of stone. The temples at Ephesus and Didyma are also characteristic because their core was not the cella with the cult statue, but an open-air court (sekos ), which at Didyma included the shrine with the cult statue and a spring sacred to Apollo. The most interesting feature of temples built in the Greek West was a special room called the adytum, placed at the end of the cella and separated from it by a wall with a doorway. This special room apparently served to house the cult statue. The need for this innermost sacred chamber has been explained by the possibility that the rest of the cella was regularly used for the performance of collective rituals, but there is no evidence to support this view.

The main monumental temples of the fifth century bce were built in mainland Greece. One was the temple of Zeus at Olympia (472456 bce), and the other was the Parthenon (447438 bce), erected along with other religious buildings on the Athenian Acropolis according to a comprehensive site plan.

The Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, is probably the most famous, certainly the most lavishly decorated, but not the largest of Greek temples (see Figure 3). The temple, built upon the remains of an unfinished predecessor destroyed by the Persians in 480 bce, has seventeen Doric columns on each long side and eight at both short ends, and it measures overall some 31 by 70 meters. It has two rooms, the eastern cella, which housed the chryselephantine statue of Athena made by Pheidias, and the western "rear room," which held the valuable offerings. Between these two rooms and the peristyle there are two shallow porches, the pronaos and optisthodomos, compressed here to the advantage of the cella. The traditional interpretation of the Parthenon as a temple has been recently called into question, for it had very little cult associated with it, and no connection with the major public festivals. However, this building was clearly designed as and regarded as a temple in Classical Antiquity.

During the Late Classical period (400323 bce), the building of temples lost much of its appeal in mainland Greece and the Greek West. Only a few were built on a monumental scale, and the majority were reduced in size. Asia Minor is an exception: parallel to a renaissance of the Greek cities of the region there was a revival of Ionic architecture. The Artemision at Ephesus was rebuilt on the same colossal scale as its archaic predecessor. Meanwhile, new cities, such as Priene, strained their energies and economic resources to have temples that would leave a mark on the cityscape.

Temples built during the Hellenistic period (32331 bce) were essentially similar to those of the Classical period, though they might have been constructed in regions conquered by Alexander the Great that were not Greek in origin. The more florid Corinthian order was occasionally used. In these areas the traditional, non-Greek religious practice had to be respected. In Egypt, for example, the ruling Macedonian Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies assiduously built temples in the traditional Egyptian manner described above, with only a few innovations.

The Greek temple was the house of the god, because it served to shelter the cult statue. It was not a congregational building, for the congregation (which at the chief festivals of major cults was very large) gathered round the open-air altar for prayers and sacrifices. Like the crowds, the cult statue overlooked these performances at the altar. Temples were normally oriented to face the point at which the sun rose on the day of the festival. Though some cult statues were large and valuable, the rooms in which they stood did not have to be particularly spacious. Even in the largest temples a surprising portion of the total area was taken up by external embellishment. This emphasis on the exterior of temples does not mean that access to them was reserved for a privileged few. Literary evidence suggests that even if specific restrictions existed (based on days, ethnicity, and gender), entry by ordinary people into the cella was not unusual, especially for the purpose of praying, which was considered more effective when done before the cult statue. Temples also served as storerooms for objects, particularly those of value, offered to the gods.


In the beginning, cult practice was performed in the open air. The earliest shrines, dating back to the seventh century bce, had the same plan as residential houses, and they could also be incorporated into a larger palace. By the end of the seventh century bce, temples consisted of a simple, rectangular cella with the opening on a short side. This new plan was still similar to contemporary domestic architecture. The traditional Etruscan temple was defined in the second half of the sixth century bce. The building was set on a high podium and was accessible only by flights of steps or ramps on the main front. It had a quadrangular or rectangular plan and was always articulated in two areas: a deep open pronaos with two or three rows of widely spaced columns (front), and one or three cellas depending on the number of divinities worshippedwhich were generally flanked by outer passages. The rear of the temple was closed, and there was no peristyle on all four sides, as in Greek temples. Again, the houses of the elite provided the model for this plan. Temples were differentiated from residential architecture by their position on top of high podia. For the columns a new order was introduced, called Tuscanic after Vitruvius: the shaft was unfluted, but the capital was similar to the Doric. The elevation of these temples looked sturdy to later, Roman writers, and this impression was certainly suggested by the short columns, the wide eaves of the roof, and the heavy external terracotta decoration. Ancient literary sources link the definition of the Etruscan temple with the monumentalization of Rome under the rule of the Etruscan family of the Tarquinii. In fact, the largest Etruscan temple known to us is the three-cella temple dedicated in 509 bce, under Tarquinius Superbus, to the triad Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno, and Minerva on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Other monumental temples were built in Etruria between the end of the sixth and the beginning of fifth century bce, and they all conformed to the same basic type. The same can be said of temples built in the first half of the fifth century bce, when the erection of temples was most intense in the history of Etruscan cities, and of temples built or rebuilt during the fourth century bce.

What is characteristic of the Etruscan temple is the deep pronaos, the podium, and the great emphasis on the front. This strict frontality also dictated the axial planning of the areas and altars in front of the temples, and would remain characteristic of Roman religious architecture. Most likely, this disposition, as well as the orientation of the templesgenerally to the southstrongly depended on cult practice and religious beliefs. We know that the Etruscans had rules for the placing of altars and sacred areas, and that the augurs played a significant role. This might have also been the case for the temple. The cella of the Etruscan temple housed the cult statue of the god, and most likely, in this culture, as in Greece and in the ancient Near East, the temple served as his or her house. However, in consideration of the positioning of the temple on a high podium, and of the restriction of the access to the stairs on the front, admission to the temple must have been very limited, unlike in Greek temples.


Roman temples inherited the strictly frontal emphasis and high bases of Etruscan temples. Early Roman temples were built in the Etruscan manner, but little survives from this period. It is unlikely, however, that there were any significant improvements in design or construction before the Second Punic War at the end of the third century bce, when the first temples made entirely of stone were erected. Thereafter, Rome was increasingly involved in the affairs of the Hellenistic East, and Roman buildings were influenced by Hellenistic forms, particularly the Corinthian order, though temples still retained the essential Etruscan arrangement with high bases and steps only at the facade. Plans were conservative, with columns across the facade only, or, if extended along the sides, terminating in front of a wall across the back. Occasionally the Romans adopted the full surrounding colonnades of Greek temples. Although temples were commissioned by a variety of individuals during the republic, under the empire, patronage was mainly under the imperial family. Under Augustus and the Julio-Claudian emperors (27 bce68 ce), temples in Rome changed their appearance. Marbles of various types were introduced for the internal and external decoration, and the Corinthian order became canonical for both columns and entablature. In the years immediately after the Julio-Claudian dynasty, temples did not play a primary role in the general layout of sanctuaries, and were also scaled down. However, a revival of temple architecture took place in the period at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century ce. To this period date major enterprises in the city of Rome, such as the Pantheon (see below); the construction of many new temples in North Africa, such as the one in the honor of the Severan family in Leptis Magna (216 ce); and, finally, the completion of ambitious projects in the Roman East, such as the sanctuary at Baalbek (see below). By contrast, between the second half of the third and the beginning of the fourth century ce, the temple endured a crisis that culminated with the erection of the new Christian basilicas during the Constantinian period (306337 ce).

In essence, the Roman temple functioned like the Greek as the house of the god and the storeroom of his or her offerings. It could also serve for the cult of the emperor and his family. Burnt sacrifices were made at an altar, which was usually placed immediately in front of the temple at the bottom of the steps so that worshipers faced the altar (and the temple) rather than surrounding it. Where possible, the temple stood in a colonnaded precinct, which also emphasized the axial symmetry. Roman temples, however, showed greater concern than the Greek for the use of the cella as a room. The Roman cella often occupied a greater portion of the total area, was wider, and was invariably freed from encumbering internal supports for the roof, a consequence of better carpentry techniques and the availability of better timber. This enhancement of the cella does not signify congregational use in the full sense, but the temples were certainly used for gatherings, which might have been political rather than fully religious in charactermeetings of the senate, for example.

These developments culminated in the best preserved of all Roman temples, the Pantheon in Rome, built by the emperor Hadrian (117138 ce) to replace an earlier building of Augustus' time (see Figure 4). Dedicated to all the gods, it is circular rather than rectangular. It had a conventional precinct and porch, but the cella, 150 Roman feet in diameter, was roofed with a concrete dome. Light was admitted, for deliberate effect, through an opening in the center of the dome.

In the provinces of the empire, temples sponsored by the authorities usually imitated those of Rome. They most often employed local building techniques and, usually, local materials, but they were essentially similar to Roman prototypes. Local tradition, however, often influenced form. This is very clear in Egypt, where Egyptian-style temples were still being built under the Romans. In Greece and part of the east the relationship was different, because Roman temples themselves were already influenced by Greek form and served similar religious concepts. Here the local tradition was architectural rather than religious, and was not insisted upon. Roman temples on high bases were built, some distinctly frontal, but there was a more ready tendency towards fully colonnaded arrangements, when money was available. The Roman East was wealthyAsia Minor and Syria in particularand some temples of the Roman period were quite splendid. The major Greek cities were already well provided forArtemis of Ephesus (Diana of the Ephesians) still had the temple last rebuilt for her in the fourth century bceand new building was mostly concerned with the political cult of Rome and with individual emperors (Trajan, for example, at Pergamum). Pergamum also possesses, in the sanctuary of Asklepios patronized by the emperor Caracalla, a unique example of a temple based on the Pantheon at Rome.

The most splendid of these temples in the Roman East is that dedicated to Jupiter at Heliopolis, the Roman military colony at Baalbek in Lebanon. A huge temple stands on a high podium in the Roman tradition. On the podium is a Greek-type stepped base. The surrounding Corinthian colonnade is arranged in the East Greek (Ionic) manner with a wider central spacing at each end. In the cella (now ruined) was a shrine structure with a cult crypt underneath (better preserved in the neighboring so-called Temple of Bacchus) serving local religious ritual. Outside was a tall tower altar of eastern type. Eastern influences can be detected in the architectural decoration, such as Persian-style bulls on the frieze. Finally, the temple was given a precinct (never completed) and forecourt with a gateway building flanked by towers which derives from local, not Roman, concepts.

See Also

Architecture; Iconography, articles on Egyptian Iconography, Greco-Roman Iconography.


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