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TOWERS . Strictly speaking, a tower is any architectural structure that is high in proportion to its lateral dimensions. Broadening that definition, tower here will be understood to be any architectural structure whose religious meaning is related to its lofty vertical dimension. This entry will refer to this quality as vertical aspiration, which, while inexact, at least sets towers apart from merely massive structures. Towers have no single explanation but betray a variety of meanings that show clearly the ingenious fertility of the religious imagination and offer a challenge to the interpreter, especially in cases where there is a paucity of written sources. Their meanings are not fixed but can change over time.

The Egyptian pyramid, one of the earliest examples of tower building, is essentially a funerary monument used to inter and glorify deceased pharaohs, yet the pyramid is not simply a gigantic tombstone. Because of the divinization of the ruler, it is also a structure that houses a sacred presence. The obelisk, originally a monument to the sun god Re, later became a popular architectural feature in Europe and North America. The ziggurat of ancient Mesopotamia was a multistoried structure surmounted by a temple, where gods were worshipped, annual rites were performed, and the authority of the ruler was confirmed; it was a place of communication between upper and lower worlds.

The Zarathushtrian dokhma, often translated as "tower of silence," has an entirely different meaning. These towers are twenty- to thirty-foot cylindrical funerary structures that continue to be used in the twenty-first century by the small Parsi population of South Asia and Iran (e.g., Mumbai, ancient Yazd). Because earth, fire, and water are sacred and because the more common means of disposing of the dead (burial, cremation, interment) would pollute these elements, bodies of the deceased are placed over grates at the summit of the tower, through which body fluids and rain can pass until the vultures and sun leave nothing but bones. The towers therefore prevent pollution of the sacred elements, thus protecting the living and also becoming passageways for the dead from this life to eternity.

Stupa and Pagoda

The basic form of the Buddhist stupa was a hemispherical earthbound dome built to house the sacred relics of the Buddha or his disciples and to be the focus of ritual circumambulation or meditation by devotees. The group at Sāñcī in central India remains the best surviving example of this genre. Although stupas were not conceptually towers in their original form, reliefs on Indian Buddhist buildings already depict the stupa in the second to third centuries ce with a vertical character. Early stupas in Nepal, such as that of Carumati, show a towerlike elongation of the harmikā (the finial above the dome of the stupa). Generally the vertical elongation took place as the stupa form crossed central Asia, and by the time it entered China in the later Han dynasty (25220 ce) it had become a true tower.

The Chinese Buddhist pagoda represents a culmination of this development, becoming a multistoried building that ascended at times to dizzying heights, as does the Fogong monastery pagoda at Yingxian, built in 1056. At 550 feet it is still the tallest wooden structure in the world. Since earlier Chinese architecture was horizontal in character, with rare examples of multistory buildings, the pagoda suggests an aspiration for transcendence not found previously. Yet in its original meaning the lofty pagoda signifies the same as its architectural opposite, the earthbound stupa. It is a structure built to house and honor the relics of the Buddha. At the same time it acquired a wealth of new meanings over a long history in China and elsewhere in East Asia. Built to house the living presence of deity in the form of the Buddha's remains, it was at first the principal worship space in early Chinese Buddhist architecture. The Yongning Temple at Loyang, built in 516 ce, for example, had the pagoda sited at the center of the temple complex. Later the pagoda shared its centrality on the main axis of a monastic or temple compound with the Great Buddha hall just behind it. As time passed the Buddha hall became the main place of worship, and the pagoda declined in importance and came to be situated outside and behind the monastic or temple complex. Ritual circumambulation of the stupa was replaced by circumambulation of the Buddha image.

The pagoda acquired other meanings, becoming an imposing sign of Buddhist presence in China, a demonstration of the merit of the emperors and wealthy patrons who were able to fund such a project, a "guiding tower" to lead pilgrims toward their destination, and a funerary structure built to house the ashes of cremated monks. Finally, the pagoda was fully "domesticated" as a familiar element in the Chinese landscape, a site for popular rituals and a protective element in the complex system of fengshui (geomancy) that sought to balance qi (vital energy) that flowed in patterns across the surface of the earth. Yet older meanings were rarely lost. At the pagoda of the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth outside Beijing, post-Communist crowds still come as pilgrims, kowtowing as they ascend the steps to revere the sacred relic and worship the Buddha.


By the fifth century ce the Indian Śilpa Sāstra texts had formally designated the tower or śikhara as the most prominent architectural statement for the Hindu temple (i.e., vimāna, that which is "well measured") and the crowning achievement for the idea of pratibimba (the creation of divine regions). The śikhara served at least three functions: as denoting generally sacred space, as a sacred mountain that denotes the dwelling place of the deity, and as a vehicle that carries the deity into the presence of the people and the people into the presence of the deity. The Śilpa Sāstra texts also suggest that those who build temples will not only be prosperous and have peaceful reigns but will have sons to succeed them and care for the funerary rites. Thus the reigning dynasties had great incentives to build these towering temples to the gods.

The Hindu temple as a whole became the architectural form of the vāstupurua maala, the locus where the divine being (purua ) dwells. It is almost always built on an east-west axis, with the entrance from the east and the tower above the western end. Underneath the tower is the inner sanctum, the garbagha, the dwelling place of the deity. Along the roof of the vimāna from entrance to śikhara are gradually ascending towers that imitate the sacred Himalayas, the ultimate dwelling place of the gods and goddesses on earth. Surmounting the śikhara on all temples is a kalaśa, or water pot, signifying the eternal bathing (abhiseka ) of the tower by the holy waters of the Ganges River. In the northern- or nāgara -style the temple tower is convex, with an āmalaka or fruit of the Indian gooseberry (Emlica officinalis ) immediately below the kalaśa. The southern- or Dravida-style tower is concave and has a small stupa (stūpīka ) below the kalaśa symbolizing the cosmic dome over the dwelling of the deity.

Most temples were constructed as places where brahman priests could perform pūja, ritual worship on behalf of the king and his realm, reminding the people of the king's power and divine right to rule. Temples thus became centers of political, social, and cultural as well as religious activities. As the towers became higher in both North and South India, this sense of dominance was enhanced. The architectural climax of this movement is evident in the Bhadeśvara temple of the early eleventh century ce Cōa king, Rājarāja, of Thanjavur in South India. Towering 210 feet above the base of the temple, the śikhara is as high as the technology of the period would allow, and it remains the tallest temple tower in all of India. The eighty-ton stūpīka that crowns the śikhara is the largest single stone employed by Indian architecture on any temple tower.

Following the Cōa period the temple tower that marked the holy of holies began to lose its vertical dominance in the south, whereas the goparam, or gateway to the temple precincts, achieved ascendancy. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the temple cities of Śrīragam and Madurai, the gateways reached as much as fourteen stories into the sky and could be seen for miles around as one approached the city. Here both resident and visitor entered the sacred precincts and were at the same time reminded of the king's power to protect his people. As many of the śikharas had done in earlier times, these towers assumed a didactic function, visualizing in hundreds of sculpted images various mythic narratives of the lives of the gods for the mostly nonliterate population.

The Indian temple śikhara as mountainsacred city exhibits its most extravagant forms and highest ornamentation in the Hindu temple complexes of the Khmers of Cambodia (e.g., Angkor Wat) and the Buddhist temple tower complex at Borobudur in Java. The latter combines the stupa idea with Hindu śikhara towers in imitation of the holy mountain range of the Himalayas with Mount Meru as the center peak. At Borobudur pilgrims are guided through a ritual of ascension from the lower and outer precincts until they reach the central stupa representing Mount Meru, the culmination of their journey.

Christian Churches

The architecture of the Christian churches provides the principal example of towers in Europe, and their development is a revealing history in stone. In the earliest pre-architectural stage, the ecclesia was simply the gathering of believers in crypts or private homes. In the post-Constantinian period Christians adopted the Roman basilica, a secular and civic building, as a place for worship. Two developments followed, both containing the seeds for the vertical development that occurred in the following centuries. The central domed structure of Byzantine classical style that developed from the circular plan of the martyrium and baptistery gained height and size, resulting in an interior space that was homologized to the universe of time and space. Standing firmly on the earth in the present, the worshiper could look upward at the dome of the church as a symbol of the heaven to come. The iconography of Christ, the Virgin, and saints, often portrayed against a background of gold mosaic, enhanced this impression. The Romanesque church of western Europe, a development of the basilica form into a cruciform plan, showed the first high vaulting and spires, then developed into the Gothic style, the epitome of vertical aspiration. Without drawing out the distinctions between spire, steeple, belfry, and bell tower, it is clear that from the twelfth century on architects strove for luminosity, lightness, and majestic height in their cathedrals.

The French Gothic cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, and Amiens seem to push the vertical aspiration to its material and architectural limit. Whether as the domed eastern style or the lofty vaulted western style, the change in meaning is clear. From a gathering of people in an ordinary secular structure, believers took their place in an increasingly hierarchically demarcated church building: the bishop's throne, the apse for the clergy, the communion railing separating lay from religious. Jesus became a lordly king; Mary, his mother, became a grand queen of both worlds. The upper stories of the towering churches carried worshipers in spirit to this higher realm. At the same time these "towers" marked the earthly splendor of the dwelling place of the divine presence and the place where God was most fittingly worshiped.

The churches acquired a host of other meanings. Not only did they house divinity, they were images of divinity as the body of Christ crucified. Many, such as Westminster Abbey in London, served funerary purposes as crypts for the royalty, nobility, and high clergy, whose funds had built, supported, and maintained the churches. They were the sites of colorful pageantry and elaborate ritual, where the secular and sacred often mixed indistinguishably. They housed the relics of the saints; hermits attached themselves to certain churches like barnacles to anchors; and pilgrims flocked to them seeking miracles, sometimes creating new meanings and discomfiting ecclesiastical authorities. These churches also became symbols of civic pride, with cities vying with other cities to have the largest, highest, or most costly cathedral. All of these factors, together with many others, must be considered if one wishes to interpret the meaning of Christian churches.


In Islam the minar towers over the landscape as a reminder of the obligation of Muslims to pray five times a day in conformity with the second pillar (prayer) of the religion. Traditionally the muezzin or prayer caller would climb the minar at the prescribed times, projecting his voice over village or city to remind Muslims of their duty to pray. Minars also mark off a significant ritual space for worshipers, as minars are most often positioned at the four corners of the mosque where Muslims come to pray, at least once a week on Fridays, and where they may gather periodically for other important social occasions.

Minars normally stand as slender towers (thus the French minarette ) rising above the domed mosques, though in parts of Asia the minars took on enormous proportions, as, for example, at the Emin mosque in Turpan in China, where the tower, like a huge inverted ice cream cone, dwarfs its companion mosque. At least once in Islamic history the minar symbolism was changed into a blatant expression of political and military power. Qʾtub-ud-din, the twelfth-century central Asiatic conqueror of India, built the original Qʾtub minar some 238 feet high as a symbol of his victory over North India. It remains the tallest minar in the Islamic world.

Mesoamerican Structures

Though tall, narrow structures are rare in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (the multistoried palace at Palenque is the outstanding exception), the abundant pyramidal temples of that region are suitably construed as towers. Often inaccurately contrasted with the Egyptian pyramids as architecture for the living instead of for the dead, the comparison is not exact, for many of the Mesoamerican structures, such as the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, had burial chambers within them. Imitating mountains and generally conforming to the Eliadean paradigm of the axis mundi, they were considered to mark the center of the earth, the site of creation, and could be described as places where the three worlds were connected. The pyramids were often linked with nearby cenotes (sacred wells), their contrasting meanings of upper- and underworld mutually reinforcing one another.

The Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacán was considered a mountain where celestial gods, terrestrial deities of fertility and plenty, and underworld beings met. The temple, and the entire city around it, was oriented to the place where the setting sun on the summer solstice touched the horizon. The great pyramid of Cholula was built over a spring (underworld), and its iconography, including the feathered serpent motif, indicate that it was a place of communication between the lower and upper worlds, the worlds of humans and the gods. The Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá, with its famous descending serpent, is the best-known expression of this motif and a veritable compendium of cosmic, astral, and calendrical correlations; at the same site the Caracol, a circular pillbox rather than pyramidal configuration, provides a similarly prominent variation on the tower theme. Tenochtitlán of the Aztecs had its Templo Major, the twin pyramid sites for worship of the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and the god of rain, Tlaloc, referring to mountains in the mythic history of the Aztecs. The pyramids of Mayan Tikal in the Peten area are the most vertical in feeling, with sharply inclined steps leading to a temple platform. The temple in turn was surmounted by a cresteria (comb) rising high above the back wall of the temple, adding to the impression of height. The priests would have performed rites of worship with the people watching from far below.

The Mesoamerican pyramids show cosmic orientation and astronomical and calendrical correlations and are generally built in layered levels, manifesting a stratification expressive of the hierarchical societies that produced them. Besides being sites to worship the gods, the pyramids offered a ritual stage to carry out rites of warfare and human sacrifice and to dramatize the coronations that established sovereignty and claimed divine authority and purified and renewed the community. As with church architecture, their forms are quite similar from place to place, while their meaning has changed from one historical period and culture (e.g., Toltec, Maya, Aztec) to another.

Modern Towers

The U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument obelisk in Washington, D.C., stand as symbols of American civic religion. The Capitol was planned as the center of the city, and it manifests the same spatial metaphors as the Byzantine church, with its dome showing the first president in the heavenly realms and a crypt below the rotunda floor originally intended for his burial. The Washington Monument's towering height, together with its mysterious and nontextual character, has captured the central place in the popular American imagination. It stands in the middle of the city's ritual core, with the Capitol, the White House, and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials cardinally placed on its four sides.

Perhaps it is the skyscraper, more than any other building, that symbolizes the city since the nineteenth century. And while lacking sacrality, skyscrapers are not without symbolic power. When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York were destroyed on September 11, 2001, the terrorists were attacking a symbol of U.S. financial dominance. But subsequent events have cast a religious aura over the site, making it into a place of martyrdom and heroic self-sacrifice, a shrine to the mythical best qualities in the American spirit. Public and private rituals, the placing of flowers, a lone flag flying over the debris, notes, names, and other signs of grief all transformed the site almost immediately into a shrine. Though some events were orchestrated public expressions of grief, most of the actions enacted there were spontaneous. The changed significance of the site is a clear example of the mutability of meaning noted in towers everywhere. No architectural meaning is final. A purely secular building may become a sacred one, and the rituals that have and will be performed at the site will influence the reception of whatever structure succeeds the former monument to financial power.

See Also

Architecture; Axis Mundi; Basilica, Cathedral, and Church; Mountains; Pyramids, overview article; Sacred Space; Stupa Worship; Temple; Tombs.


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Jeffrey F. Meyer (2005)

J. Daniel White (2005)