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Summary Article: temple, edifice of worship
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

edifice or sometimes merely an enclosed area dedicated to the worship of a deity and the enshrinement of holy objects connected with such worship. The temple has been employed in most of the world's religions. Although remains of Egyptian temples of c.2000 B.C. show well-defined architectural forms, it seems likely that temples were hewed in living rock at a still earlier age: the cave temples of Egypt, India, China, and the Mediterranean basin may be viewed as later developments of such primitive shrines.

Egyptian Temples

In Egypt in the New Kingdom impressive rock temples were hewed from cliffsides, the finest being the great temple of Abu-Simbel constructed by Ramses II. In the developed structural temples of Egypt a doorway, flanked by monumental towers or pylons, led to an unroofed open court, generally surrounded on three sides by a colonnaded passage. Beyond the court lay the majestic hypostyle hall and a variety of chambers preceding and surrounding the holy of holies. From the temple entrance to this innermost sanctuary the various units diminished progressively in size and height, while the direct outside light was also reduced. The typical temple later accumulated additional pylons, courts, and rooms, the entire group being enclosed by a massive wall. Only monarchs and priests had access to the chambers beyond the hypostyle hall. The New Kingdom was the most active period of temple construction, although the grandest temple, that of Amon at Al Karnak, was begun much earlier.

Babylonian and Assyrian Temples

In the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian periods of W Asia the temple, or ziggurat, was a square pyramidal structure about 300 ft (90 m) high built up in successive, inclined terraces, sometimes as many as seven; with accessory buildings it was enclosed by walls. At its summit was a chamber that served both as a shrine and for astronomical observations. Glazed colored bricks faced the walls.

Jewish Temples

The temple of Solomon at Jerusalem, the only known monumental structure of the ancient Hebrews, consisted, according to biblical descriptions, of entrance pylons, courts, and a naos, a large rectangular chamber, giving entrance to the holy of holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant. Its several destructions and reconstructions (one by Herod in 20 B.C.) have rendered unrecognizable any remains of the original edifice. The workmanship, characteristically Phoenician, was of stone, timber, and metal. The temple of Herod, to which Jesus went, was destroyed A.D. 70; its ruins have symbolized to the Jews their dispersion.

Greek Temples

The Dorian immigration (before 1000 B.C.) was a prelude to the building of Greek temples, at first made of timber and sun-dried brick. The superb stone and marble buildings on a defined floor plan were achieved in the middle of the 6th cent. B.C., although the most perfect examples, like the Parthenon (5th cent. B.C.), came later. The Greek temple customarily stood in a temenos, or sacred enclosure, along with accessory shrines, colonnades, and buildings housing the temple treasures. It was built not as a place for assembled worship but as the dwelling for the deity, whose colossal sculptured representation was placed in the naos, and illuminated by the daylight entering through the tall entrance portal. In larger temples, to support the roof lintels, two interior rows of columns divided the naos into nave and side aisles.

Roman Temples

The Roman temple, while based upon the Greek type, retained elements from Etruscan architecture, as in its deep front portico and its elevation upon a high base, or podium, whose wings extended forward to flank the broad entrance steps. The Maison Carrée at Nîmes, France (1st cent. B.C.), the best-preserved Roman temple, is the common pseudoperipteral type, with engaged columns or pilasters attached to its walls. Unlike the long narrow Greek naos, the Roman cella was nearly square in plan. Of the polygonal and circular temples the circular pantheon at Rome (2d cent. A.D.) with its magnificent dome is the most remarkable. Many temples, particularly those of the Eastern colonies, as at Baalbek in Syria, had magnificent settings of entrance courts enclosed by colonnades.

Indian Temples

In India the most ancient remaining temples are the rock-hewed monuments of the Buddhist period (c.255 B.C.–c.A.D. 300); important groups exist in W India, east of Mumbai. The typical interior is a vast cave divided by lavishly sculptured rock piers into nave and aisles; the sculptured facade, hewed from the cliff face, has a single huge opening to admit light. The principal Indian temples are gradual accretions around a sacred site, forming a religious center comprising shrines, cells for priests, and accommodations for pilgrims. The expression of symbolism is of paramount importance in both structure and ornaments.

Far Eastern Temples

In China the characteristic temple differs from the form of a dwelling only in its size and richness. Besides the temple a Buddhist monastery includes a relic shrine, a pagoda, a library, and quarters for the monks. In Japan the temple harmonizes with the picturesque landscape in which it is set, with architectural emphasis on an unsymmetrical grouping of torii (sacred gateways), shrines, pagodas, and terraces.

Further Reading

See also Greek architecture; Roman architecture; Indian art and architecture; Chinese architecture; Japanese architecture; pre-Columbian art and architecture.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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