Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Tallest Building in the World Until...

When I teach Modern Art, sometimes I begin with this, The Great Pyramid of Egypt.  Built around 2500 BC, it was the tallest building in the world for centuries and centuries at about 485 feet high.

Since at least Herodotus, the Pyramid appears in the ancient literature as an emblem of tyrannical vanity; vast anonymous masses toiling to gratify a narcissistic ruler.  Though scholars and archaeologists now say that this was not quite the case (more like a vast public works project; all the laborers were paid complete with housing, medical care, and pensions), it remains a monument of the old pre-modern order.  This is a huge monument made by command of the ruler by the ruled.  It is made of limestone quarried from the earth.  It is an eternal monument based on truisms that were thought to be eternal.  Sinful humanity is condemned to toil and pain, working the earth to win their bread.    Rulers were sent by the gods to look after and discipline inherently wayward men and women: "kings shall be thy nursing fathers and queens thy nursing mothers."  

The human condition was thought to be as unchanging, solid, and eternal as this monument.

By the way folks, you can click on these images to get a much bigger view.  Click and see how big The Great Pyramid really is.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Only 485 feet ???

Counterlight said...

When it was finished, it was maybe 10 to 15 feet taller. It was used as a quarry for centuries. Most of medieval Cairo is built out of stone looted from the Giza pyramids.
And after all that, there's still so much of it!

485 feet is very tall, especially by pre-industrial standards. The dome of St. Peter's in the Vatican, still the tallest structure in Rome so far as I know, is about 435 feet high.
The burghers of Beauvais wanted to build a 500 foot bell tower on their cathedral in the late 13th century. Their cathedral already had the tallest vaulted ceiling of any medieval cathedral at 157 feet (The ceiling of Chartres in 120 feet). Work on that tower (and the rest of the cathedral) was postponed indefinitely when the vaults of the choir collapsed killing several people.