Persian and Egyptian Columns, Ancient But Not Classical

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Influences from Ancient Egypt and Persia

Highly ornaments columns in Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz, Iran
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz, Iran. Photo by Joey Chung / E+ / Getty Images (cropped)

All architecture is an evolution of what has come before it. The columns we put on our American front porches are often of a design similar to the columns of Ancient Greece and Rome. Western architecture may have evolved from Classical architecture, but what of other cultures?

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. Their design has evolved from another culture.

Here is a photo tour of some of these ancient columns from the lands we call the Middle East.

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 function as well. Not so surprisingly, some column designs have been influenced by Classical architecture—the Greek military master Alexander the Great conquered the entire region, Persia and Egypt, around 330 BC, ushering in a mix of Western and Eastern detailing and engineering. Architecture, like fine wine, is often a blend of the best.

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What is a Persian column?

Columns of the Apadana Palace in Persepolis, Iran
Columns of the Apadana Palace in Persepolis, Iran. Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us / Corbis News / 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 circa 500 BC.

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 Persian Columns:

  • The shaft is usually fluted (grooved)
  • The capital (top) is carved with two half-horses or half-bulls standing back-to-back
  • Carvings on the capital (top) may also include scroll-shaped designs (volutes) similar to the designs on a Greek Ionic column.
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What Did Persepolis Look Like?

Illustration of what the Throne Hall at Persepolis May Have Looked Like c. 550 BC
Illustration of what the Throne Hall at Persepolis May Have Looked Like c. 550 BC. Image by 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 BC, rivaling the architecture of the Golden Age of Athens, Greece.

About the Persian Columns from 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, Architecture through the Ages, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 70-71
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Persian Capitals Atop Columns

A child sits atop a Double Horse Capital from Persian Column at Persepolis, Iran
Double Horse Capital from Persian Column at Persepolis, Iran. Photo by Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

Some of the world's most elaborate columns were made during the fifth century BC 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 bulls or horses.

 

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The Persian Griffin

Stone Double Griffin Capital, Persepolis, Iran
Stone Double Griffin Capital, Persepolis, Iran. Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us / Corbis News / 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.

 

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What is an Egyptian Column?

Palm leaves and other plant forms decorate the column capitals at the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The temple was constructed between 237 and 57 BC.
Palm leaves and other plant forms decorate the column capitals at the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The temple was constructed between 237 and 57 BC. Photo by David Strydom / E+ / Getty Images

The term Egyptian column can refer to a column from Ancient Egypt or a modern column inspired by Egyptian ideas.

Columns of Ancient Egypt:

During the reign of the great kings of Egypt, roughly between 3,050 BC and 900 BC, 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 BC, 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.

Common Features of Egyptian Columns:

  • Stone shafts carved to resemble tree trunks or bundled reeds or plant stems, sometimes called papyrus columns
  • Lily, lotus, palm or papyrus plant motifs on the capitals (tops)
  • Bud-shaped or campaniform (bell-shaped) capitals
  • Brightly painted carved relief decorations

Egyptian Columns in the Western World:

With the rise of the Classical Orders of Architecture and the military invasion of territories, Greek and Roman ideas were incorporated into the Egyptian column styles. In turn, Egyptian motifs influenced the evolution of column styles in the Western world. Nearly 2,000 years later, architects in Europe and the United States borrowed Egyptian motifs and Egyptian column styles for Egyptian Revival and Art Deco buildings.

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Temple of Horus at Edfu, c. 60 BC

Detail of colorful images and symbols on columns from the Temple of Horus in Egypt
Detail of colorful images and symbols on columns from the Temple of Horus at Edfu in Egypt. Photo by De Agostini / C. Sappa / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images (cropped)

The temple of Horus was constructed between 237 and 57 BC. It is one of the four Pharaonic temples cited as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Also known as the Temple at Edfu, it was finished after the Greek conquest of the area, so these Egyptian columns come with Classical influences. Column designs show aspect 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 West's fascination with the period, an architectural style that became known as Art Deco.

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Who Was the Egyptian God Horus?

Columns at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt
Columns at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt. Photo by florentina georgescu photography / Moment Open / Getty Images

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

Located in Edfu, 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.

 

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Egyptian Temple of Kom Ombo

Some of the Column Capitals at the Temple of Kom Ombo
Some of the Column Capitals at the Temple of Kom Ombo. Photo by Peter Unger / Lonely Planet Images / 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 BC to 30 BC.

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 BC.

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Egyptian Temple of the Ramesseum, 1250 BC

Columns from the Temple of the Ramesseum in Egypt c. 1250 BC
Columns from the Temple of the Ramesseum in Egypt c. 1250 BC. Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector / Hulton Archive / 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 BC, 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.

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Egyptian Temple of Isis at Philae

Columns from the Temple of Isis at Philae in Egypt
Columns from the Temple of Isis at Philae in Egypt. Photo by De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images (cropped)

Columns of the Temple of Isis at Philae show a distinct influence of Greek and Roman occupation of Egypt. The capitals have become more ornate than earlier Egyptian columns.

Moved to Agilkia Island, north of the Aswan Dam, these ruins are a popular tourist destination on Nile River Cruises.

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Persian Columns in California?

Persian Columns Leading to Darioush Winery Founded in 1997, Napa Valley, California
Persian Columns Leading to Darioush Winery Founded in 1997, Napa Valley, California. Photo by Walter Bibikow / AWL Images / 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.