The Possible Egyptian Origin of Fluted Doric Columns

The Possible Egyptian Origin of Fluted Doric Columns

Temple of Aphaea on the island of Aegina; built in the Doric style. I visited this site in September 2017.

Temple of Aphaea on the island of Aegina; built in the Doric style. I visited this site in September 2017.

There are three classical orders of architecture: Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric, with Doric being the most ancient. The Doric style is the one that appeals to me most. There is nothing pretentious about it. It's simple. It's formidable. Doric columns heave temple superstructures like barefoot behemoths standing directly atop the sacred temple floor itself. There are no separate bases for them. They are their own base; entrenched where they stand as if they were the arms of Earth itself reaching for the heavens.

This evening I happened upon a 1936 article published in the journal Nature titled, Origin of Fluted Doric Columns. In it the authors suggest the fluted columns of Greek architecture were inspired from plant stems. At the time the article was written, evidence was lacking to support this theory; there were no known examples of woody plants with constantly fluted stems native to Greece. Fennel, cumin, and caraway were all suggested as possible inspirations, but it remained inconclusive.

These pioneering authors were on track. The plant Doric columns might have been modelled after could very well be papyrus out of Egypt. Papyrus once grew wild along the Nile with stalks up to 6 inches in diameter. These weren’t the emaciated papyrus plants we see growing in the gardens at the Getty Villa. These were large and healthy, with single stalks capable of providing enough material to make several scrolls of paper I'd imagine.

In fact, had Ptolemaic Egypt not been so threatened by the growing prestige of the Library of Pergamum in Anatolia, we might well still be using papyrus scrolls today. This is a bit of a tangent, but Egypt at one point had monopolized papyrus, and even went so far as to limit its export to prevent the Library of Pergamum across the sea from competing.

Meanwhile, any ship that came into Alexandria’s port, was immediately searched for scrolls. If any were found, the scrolls were sent to scribes at the Library of Alexandria to be copied. Once copied, they returned the copies and kept the originals for the library. Nice.

"Bound these shits. I'm just sayin'."

"Bound these shits. I'm just sayin'."

The Library of Alexandria had become one of the wonders of the ancient world by brute force! But innovative scholars at the Library of Pergamum began using parchment in place of papyrus, because f*&! the Ptolemies. Parchment of course being animal hides. The problem with parchemnt however, is that it doesn't want to stay rolled up. So the librarians began stacking them instead. Then some clever Samwell Tarley type guy at Pergamum came up with the clever idea of binding the stacks, and this is where we get the invention of the world's first books.

Anyway, skeuomorphic elements in architecture were common, and employed in all the classical orders. Take for instance the triglyphs of ancient temples. These are the rows of 3 vertical bars punctuated by metopes along the top of temples. These triglyphs were meant to look like groupings of wooden beams used in prehistoric structures.

Doric order labels for reference.

I want to take another sidetrack here to say that prehistory isn’t a universal term. It’s delineated by the advent of a writing system, and the timing of this accomplishment varied from culture to culture. Take for instance Greece. They didn’t establish an alphabet until over 2,000 years after Egypt had established theirs (~ 1,500 years if we consider Linear B). As such, Greece was still prehistoric at a time not all that long before the Kushite (“Nubian”) pharaohs took control of Egypt and attempted to return it to its former glory.

At any rate, fluted Doric columns may have gotten their inspiration from Egypt, and more specifically, from wild papyrus along the Nile. To explain how the fluted look is a skeuomorph of papyrus, we have to go all the way back to the Old Kingdom when bodies of the dead were buried in pits in the sand. What? Yep.

Pre-dynastic Egyptians buried their dead in sand pits. Over time, that sand blew away exposing the dead. It gets better. The exposed corpses were often scavenged by wild jackals. The digestive system of jackals is ideally suited to dealing with rotting flesh.

Anubis

Anubis

Seeing jackals roaming wind-blown sand pit graveyards at night must have been a sight to see and was probably the morbid inspiration for the imagining of Anubis; the god associated with mummification and the afterlife. The other thing about sand in the dry deserts of Egypt is it, along with the dry air, facilitated the desiccation of dead bodies. This would have been the impetus for the practice of mummification, a process of preservation that evolved over time.

As much as an inspiration seeing dead desicated corpses being dragged around at midnight under a full moon by jackals must have been, there were those who thought that shit had to stop.

So someone had the great idea of clearing the sand all the way down to bedrock, then cutting into that bedrock, placing the deceased into that, then covering it with stone. This would ensure the dead remained where they lay, and not become exposed by wind.

Whereas wind removed sand to expose bodies in sand pits, wind probably brought in sand and blanketed the stone-covered bedrock pits; obscuring them over time. Someone at some point came up with the idea of building a rectangular stone superstructure over the bedrock grave. This superstructure served not only as a grave marker of sorts, but also as a place into which loved ones could enter to pay their respects to the dead.

Mastabas were built over the bedrock-cut burials, and provided a place into which loved ones could pay their respects to the dead.

The Arabic term for this superstructure is “Mastaba”.

The Mastabat al-Fir’aun is a perfect example of a mastaba.

The Mastabat al-Fir’aun is a perfect example of a mastaba.

This design was improved upon later by Djoser’s chief architect, Imhotep. Imhotep got the imaginative idea of putting a smaller mastaba on top of a mastaba. He expanded upon this concept and ended up constructing a mastaba on top of a mastaba on top of a mastaba in a wedding cake fashion.

Djoser liked this idea, and commissioned the construction of the world’s first massive stone building; the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Saqqara being one of two burial locations for pharaohs in Egypt. The other begin at Abydos. Effectively, Egyptians went from small mastabas not much bigger than a sedan, straight to constructing the massive Step Pyramid without any gradual transition in size in between. Balls out I guess.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. Basically a mastaba on top of a mastaba.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. Basically a mastaba on top of a mastaba.

The Step Pyramid remained the tallest building on Earth until Sneferu built the Red Pyramid, and then later, Khufu topped that with his pyramid at Giza. Khufu’s pyramid would remain the world’s tallest structure until the construction of the Eifel Tower nearly 5,000 years later. Sneferu's idea (or perhaps one of his architects) got the idea to fill in the stepped features with limestone to give the structure of the true pyramid shape we all know and love. We can still see the limestone casing remains around the top of the pyramid of Khafre at Giza shown below:

The remaining limestone cap on the pyramid of Khafre. The limestone on the pyramids at Giza can be found throughout Old Cairo, as the stone was stripped from the pyramids for construction of fortresses and mosques during the 19th century CE. Some of the limestone from the pyramids was repurposed for use in construction of the Mosque of Mohamed Ali for example.

The remaining limestone cap on the pyramid of Khafre. The limestone on the pyramids at Giza can be found throughout Old Cairo, as the stone was stripped from the pyramids for construction of fortresses and mosques during the 19th century CE. Some of the limestone from the pyramids was repurposed for use in construction of the Mosque of Mohamed Ali for example.

It wasn't aliens afterall. And there was nothing particularly magical about the shape other than it was a progression from a mastaba. So where am I going with all this?

Going back to the Step Pyramid of Djoser; it wasn’t the only structure at Saqqara. Around it was a complex that included chapels built in stone. Those chapels (and I assume other structures) imitated in stone what pre-dynastic Egyptians had once constructed out of wood and papyrus. Doors, wall features, and fluted pillars.

The fluted pillars were styled after bundled papyrus stalks, which were once used as support features in earlier times.

Now if we jump ahead to when Greek tourists like Herodotus started coming to Egypt, we can see where they may have gotten inspiration for fluted Doric columns. Maybe.

The Greeks, like many cultures in and around the Mediterranean were influenced and inspired by certain aspects of Egyptian culture. And each culture added their own flavor to borrowed Egyptian originals. And this brings us full circle to that paper I happened upon this evening, that inspired me to write this post.

It doesn't seem to be fennel, or mustard, or some other umbelliferous plant that inspired the fluted feature of the Doric column, but bundled papyrus cut from the banks of the Nile as represented in Egyptian temples at Saqqara and elsewhere. I don't think ancient Greeks ever saw bundled papyrus columns, or even much papyrus for that matter, so I don't think the influence was directly from the plant itself. But rather the plant inspired the Egyptian fluted design, and in turn that fluted column design of the Egyptians inspired the fluted design used in Doric temples by Greeks. So there's a couple degrees of separation there. Or at least this is what I think is possible.

Vertical fluting on Doric order columns, possibly inspired originally from Egyptian architecture, itself inspired from pre-dynastic Egyptian use of bundled papyrus pillars.

Vertical fluting on Doric order columns, possibly inspired originally from Egyptian architecture, itself inspired from pre-dynastic Egyptian use of bundled papyrus pillars.

Thanks for reading..

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