Whole ways of looking at the world came before us. Mighty and imposing, like the empires of Egypt and Persia and Rome, these viewpoints passed into history. How the ancient peoples saw the world – and their place in it – is discovered through the clues of their art and architecture. There are lessons for today in those distant traces. Some of those lessons we can learn, from how the art of human hands was seen, where people stood to take it in, and how they approached it.
Through a Train of Thought
Art history and archaeology students have this in common. They often start by studying the temples of ancient Egypt, and here they discover the importance of the approach. The monumental works of Egypt were designed to control the experience the viewer would have upon encountering them. That experience progressed from the general to the specific, and eventually to the highly exclusive. The design presented things to think about along the way.
Because the Nile was Egypt’s superhighway, the temple experience often began with a landing quay, where boats could tie up. This was the initial encounter with a temple, and the spot for ceremonial greetings if the visit was royal. The path from the quay was paved for procession. Monuments and obelisks along the way testified to the story behind the city, the temple, the family.
Way stations punctuated the approach, as places for participants in a ceremonial procession to refresh, and maybe to spruce up the icons and images they were carrying to the temple. Eventually we come to the enclosure walls that protected the temple, yes, and also symbolically blocked out the disorder of the outside world. Passage through these walls was selective and significant.
The outer courtyards then finally progressed to the sanctuary. At each stage, fewer and fewer ancient Egyptians were qualified to progress beyond. Ultimately, the innermost temple was for royals and priests only. Here was celebrated the birth of the deity, or even the creation of the world.
So, the approach, in ancient Egypt, was a progression.