About Persian and Egyptian Types of Columns

Architectural Influences from Ancient Egypt and Persia

Highly ornamental columns with spiral flutes, inlaid mosaics in a hall with the back of a person standing
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz, Iran. Joey Chung/Getty Images (cropped)

What is a Persian column? What is an Egyptian column? Their defining capitals don't look much like Greek and Roman capitals, yet they are as distinctive and functional. Not surprisingly, some column designs seen throughout the Middle East have been influenced by Classical architecture — the Greek military master Alexander the Great conquered the entire region, Persia and Egypt, around 330 B.C., ushering in a mix of Western and Eastern detailing and engineering. Architecture, like fine wine, is often a blend of the best.

All architecture is an evolution of what has come before it. The columns of the 19th century mosque shown here, the Nasir al-Mulk in Shiraz, Iran, do not look like the Classical columns we put on our front porches. Many of the columns in America resemble the columns of ancient Greece and Rome, because our Western architecture evolved from Classical architecture. But what of other cultures?

Here is a photo tour of some of these ancient columns — architectural treasures of the Middle East.

The Egyptian Column

Palm leaves and other plant forms decorate the ancient column capitals in present-day Egypt
Typical Egyptian Column at the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Constructed Between 237 and 57 B.C. David Strydom/Getty Images

The term Egyptian column can refer to a column from ancient Egypt or a modern column inspired by Egyptian ideas. Common features of Egyptian pillars include (1) stone shafts carved to resemble tree trunks or bundled reeds or plant stems, sometimes called papyrus columns; (2) lily, lotus, palm or papyrus plant motifs on the capitals (tops); (3) bud-shaped or campaniform (bell-shaped) capitals; and (4) brightly painted carved relief decorations.

During the reign of the great kings and royal pharaohs of Egypt, roughly between 3,050 B.C. and 900 B.C., at least thirty distinct column styles evolved. The earliest builders carved columns from enormous blocks of limestone, sandstone, and red granite. Later, columns were constructed from stacks of stone disks.

Some Egyptian columns have polygon-shaped shafts with as many as 16 sides. Other Egyptian columns are circular. The ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep, who lived over 4,000 years ago in 27th century B.C., is credited with carving stone columns to resemble bundled reeds and other plant forms. The columns were placed close together so they could carry the the weight of the heavy stone roof beams.

Egyptian Column Detail

Detail of colorful images and symbols typically Egyptian in natuon carved into large stone shafts
Columns from the Temple of Horus in Egypt. De Agostini/Getty Images (cropped)

The Temple of Horus, also known as the Temple at Edfu, was constructed between 237 and 57 B.C. It is one of the four Pharaonic temples cited as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The temple was finished after the Greek conquest of the area, so these Egyptian columns come with Classical influences, including what has become known as  the Classical Orders of Architecture.

Column design from this era shows aspects of both ancient Egyptian and Classical cultures. The colorful images on the columns at Edfu are not ones ever seen in ancient Greece or Rome, yet they did make a comeback during the Western architectural fascination with the period, a 1920s style that became known as Art Deco. The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 led eager architects the world over to incorporate exotic detailings into the buildings they were building at that time.

The Egyptian God Horus

2 sets of ancient columns in Egypt, all with different capitals
Columns at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt. florentina georgescu photography/Getty Images

The Temple of Horus is also known as the Temple of Edfu. It was built in Edfu in upper Egypt over several centuries, with the present ruins being completed in 57 B.C. The site is thought to have been home to several sacred places before it.

The temple is dedicated to one of the oldest and best-known Egyptian gods, Horus. Taking the form of a falcon, which can be seen in the lower left of this photo, Horus can be found in temples throughout Egypt. Like the Greek god Apollo, Horus was an equivalent sun god dating back to prehistoric Egypt.

Note the blend of East and West designs, with different capitals in a row of columns. Telling stories through pictures is also a device found across cultures and eras. "Carvings that tell a story" is a detail that was gleefully stolen from Egyptian architecture for use in the more modern Art Deco movement. For example, the Raymond Hood designed News Building in New York City still sports a sunken relief on its facade, which celebrates the common man.

Egyptian Temple of Kom Ombo

low angle view of ancient column capitals, looking up into a bright blue sky
Column Capitals at the Temple of Kom Ombo. Peter Unger/Getty Images

Like the Temple at Edfu, the Temple at Kom Ombo has similar architectural influences and  Egyptian gods. Kom Ombo is a temple not only to Horus, the falcon, but also to Sobek, the crocodile. It is one of the four Pharaonic temples cited as a UNESCO World Heritage site built during the Ptolemaic Kingdom, or the Greek rule of Egypt from approximately 300 B.C. to 30 B.C.

The Egyptian columns of Kom Ombo record history in hieroglyphs. The stories told include homage to the Greek conquerors as the new pharaohs and also tells the stories of previous temples from more than 2000 B.C.

Egyptian Temple of the Ramesseum, 1250 B.C.

ancient, massive Egyptian columns, tapered, large tops and bottoms
TheTemple of the Ramesseum, Egypt c. 1250 B.C. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

One Egyptian ruin most significant to Western civilization is the Temple to Ramesses II. The mighty columns and colonnade are a remarkable feat of engineering for being created circa 1250 B.C., well-before the Greek conquest of Alexander the Great. Typical elements of a column are present — the base, shaft, and capital — but ornamentation is less important than the massive strength of stone.

The Temple of the Ramesseum is said to be the inspiration for the famous poem Ozymandias by the 19th century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem tells the story of a traveler finding the ruins of a once great "king of kings." The name "Ozymandias" is what the Greeks called Ramses II the Great.

Egyptian Temple of Isis at Philae

5 ancient Egyptian columns
Columns from the Temple of Isis at Philae, Agilkia Island, Aswan, Egypt. De Agostini/Getty Images (cropped)

Columns of the Temple of Isis at Philae show a distinct influence of Greek and Roman occupation of Egypt. The temple was built for the Egyptian goddess Isis during the reign of the Ptolemaic Kings in the centuries before the birth of Christianity.

The capitals are more ornate than earlier Egyptian columns, possibly because the architecture has been heavily restored. Moved to Agilkia Island, north of the Aswan Dam, these ruins are a popular tourist destination on Nile River Cruises.

The Persian Column

ancient ruins, three tall columns with animal capitals
Columns of the Apadana Palace in Persepolis, Iran. Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images (cropped)

Today's Iranian territory was once the ancient land of Persia. Before being conquered by the Greeks, the Persian Empire was a large and prosperous dynasty around 500 B.C.

As ancient Persia built its own empires, the unique Persian column style inspired builders in many parts of the world. Adaptations of the Persian column may incorporate a variety of animal or human images.

Common features of many Persian columns include (1) a fluted or grooved shaft, often not vertically grooved; (2) double-headed capitals (the top part) with two half-horses or half-bulls standing back-to-back; and (3) carvings on the capital that may also include scroll-shaped designs (volutes) similar to the designs on a Greek Ionic column.

Because of continued unrest in this part of the world, the long, tall, thin columns of temples and palaces have been destroyed over time. Archaeologists struggle to unearth and save the remains of sites such as Persepolis in Iran, which used to be the capital of the Persian empire.

What Did Persepolis Look Like?

conjectured look of ancient hall filled with columns and colorful mosaics
What the Throne Hall at Persepolis May Have Looked Like c. 550 B.C. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images (cropped)

The Hall of a Hundred Columns or Throne Hall at Persepolis was an immense structure for the 5th century B.C., rivaling the architecture of the Golden Age of Athens, Greece. Archaeologists and architects make educated guesses as to what these ancient buildings looked like. Professor Talbot Hamlin has written this about the Persian columns at Persepolis:

"Often of extraordinary slenderness, sometimes as much as fifteen diameters high, they bear witness to their wooden ancestry; nevertheless their fluting and their tall graceful bases are expressive of stone and stone alone. It is more than possible that the fluting and the high bases were both borrowed from the early Greek work of Asia Minor, with which the Persians came into contact very near the beginning of the expansion of their empire....Some authorities find Greek influence in the scrolls and bell portion of this capital, but the crosspiece with its carved animals is essentially Persian and merely a decorative expression of the old wooden crotched posts so frequently used in the early simple houses." — Professor Talbot Hamlin, FAIA

Persian Capitals Atop Column Shafts

A child sits in the middle of a large stone structure, between two horse heads
Double Horse Capital from Persian Column at Persepolis, Iran. Heritage Images/Getty Images (cropped)

Some of the world's most elaborate columns were made during the fifth century B.C. in Persia, a land that is now Iran. The Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis is famous for stone columns with massive capitals (tops) carved with double bulls or horses.

A Persian Capital Griffin

reconstructed stone capital of two griffin heads pointing away from each other
Double Griffin Capital, Persepolis, Iran. Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images (cropped)

In the Western world, we think of the griffin in architecture and design as a Greek mythological creature, yet the story originated in Persia. Like the horse and bull, the double-headed griffin was a common capital on a Persian column.

Persian Columns in California

over a dozen Persian columns with fluted shafts and doublt horse head capitals
Darioush Winery Founded in 1997, Napa Valley, California. Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Egyptian and Persian columns seem very exotic to Western eyes, until you see them at a winery in the Napa Valley.

Iranian born Darioush Khaledi, a civil engineer by trade, knew the Persian column well. Starting from a successful California grocery business, Khaledi and his family founded Darioush in 1997. He "set out to produce wines that celebrate individualism and craftsmanship," just like the columns at his winery.

Sources

  • Photo credit: The News Building, Jackie Craven
  • Talbot Hamlin, FAIA, Architecture through the Ages, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 70-71
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Craven, Jackie. "About Persian and Egyptian Types of Columns." ThoughtCo, Mar. 30, 2018, thoughtco.com/persian-and-egyptian-columns-4092509. Craven, Jackie. (2018, March 30). About Persian and Egyptian Types of Columns. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/persian-and-egyptian-columns-4092509 Craven, Jackie. "About Persian and Egyptian Types of Columns." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/persian-and-egyptian-columns-4092509 (accessed May 22, 2018).