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Volume 13, Number 4April 1962

In This Issue

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Skylines, Past

Structures that enticed the eye upward were hallmarks of ingenuity in the Middle East of Old.

Let imagination give us two travelers. Put 25 centuries between them. One traveler enters New York, 1962; halfway around the world, the other makes his way into Babylon, 600 B.C. Over 80 generations of mankind separate the two travelers, yet in our imaginary picture they share common reactions to their respective cities: awe and fascination directed to the structures that man has raised from the ground to compete with the clouds.

Skyscrapers are indeed a mark of the twentieth century, but today's towering buildings have worthy forebears in the ancient Middle East. Then as now, architects aspired to lead the eye of the beholder upward. The traveler to Babylon, for example, would gaze upon the High Place, the ziggurat known to history as the Tower of Babel. Perhaps a passerby would tell the visitor of King Nebuchadnezzar's inscription high in the Tower: "I prepared to place the summit in position so that it might compete with Heaven. . . ."

To Babylonians and other peoples of the Fertile Crescent, the ziggurats were material links between the earth and the heavens—between the known and the unknown. At least one ziggurat, serving as the sanctuary of the local god, was constructed in each city. It stood apart from the temple, much as the campanile stands apart from Italian churches or minarets from mosques.

At the base was a rectangular hill of sun-baked brick. A spiral-shaped tower lifted itself from the base, with each story a different color. Ordinary citizens did not enter the sanctuary, but priests ascended on an outside ramp formed by the spiral. Atop the tower the priests made celestial observations and with their astrology counseled the lovelorn and recommended the best days for business transactions. The towers also served as meteorological stations from which weather predictions were issued.

Curiously enough, the Babylonians persisted in building with clay when they were well aware that fired bricks were much more durable. Thus it was necessary for monarchs to repeatedly repair the structures. When Nebuchadnezzar undertook the Tower of Babel's most famous face lifting, mentioned in the Bible, the structure was almost a thousand years old and had already undergone previous refurbishings. Completed, the Tower stood 297 feet high, just three feet short of the Statue of Liberty.

The Tower of Babel was, however, a relative latecomer to the ranks of ancient skyscrapers. Let us go back yet another 2,400 years—to about 3,000 B.C.—to the age when the Great Pyramid of Gizeh was built in Egypt. The Egyptians, too, were stargazers, and with astrological calculations that were phenomenally accurate, the Pharaoh caused the pyramid to rise with its sides facing exactly north, south, east and west.

For 20 years, more than 100,000 men—many of them highly skilled—labored to build the Great Pyramid. Blocks of limestone were quarried, then dragged on rollers to the Nile River and conveyed across it on barges to other workers who in turn dragged the huge blocks to the construction site. Working with simple tools—levers, inclined planes and rollers—the laborers slowly pushed the pyramid 481 feet into the sky. Into it went some two million blocks of limestone, each weighing two-and-a-half tons and fitted to its neighbors with a precision that precluded the need of mortar. Total weight of the stones was over eight times the weight of the steel and stone that went into the construction of New York's Empire State Building. Surfaced with a casing of polished limestone, the pyramid reflected the sun's rays like an enormous mirror.

Its massiveness is proof enough that the Great Pyramid of Gizeh was built to last. Perhaps, as many scholars claim, the structure was a funerary monument in which the Pharaoh's restless bai (spirit) was to live through the centuries. Others, considering its location, precise dimensions and lack of carvings usually found in pyramid-tombs, suggest that the Great Pyramid may have been a lofty temple for one of old Egypt's famed mystery schools.

There are many structures of ancient times that can be called the "skyscrapers" of their day. The Pharos of Alexandria, a 600-foot-high lighthouse erected in the third century B.C., became one of the "seven wonders of the ancient world," as did the 350-foot-high Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Even the more modest obelisks found in Egypt and Ethiopia seemed to scratch at the floor of heaven.

But perhaps closest to the modern conception of the skyscraper are the tall buildings found in the Wadi Hadhramaut in the Aden Protectorate at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The cities of Shibam and Tarim inspire awe as they rise starkly out of the desert. The larger of the two, Shibam, is sometimes referred to as the "New York of the Hadhramaut" because of its striking skyline.

Rows of buildings, many twelve stories high, seem to soar miraculously higher than their actual height. The optical illusion is created both by double rows of windows on each floor and by the surrounding flat vistas of desert that rob the eye of reference points. For centuries the people of the area have built their skyscraper homes of adobe brick. The first floor is used for storage, the second for servants, the third for guests, and the upper floors for the family.

In the old days the lofty skylines of the Hadhramaut were based as much on practical considerations as on aesthetic ones. The tall, sturdy structures afforded excellent protection against looting invaders. Even today, a home erected in Shibam on the edge of the city is required to be at least 105 feet high.

While the height of the skyscrapers of the ancient Middle East may not measure up to some modem buildings, their longevity is beyond challenge. They were made to endure. Unlike today's skyscrapers, which often are erected in less than a year and torn down a quarter of a century later, those older skyscrapers stood for centuries, some more than a thousand years as in the case of the Tower of Babel. A few, such as the pyramids—5,000 years old—still stand.

They prove that reaching for the sky is not the sole province of the twentieth century.

This article appeared on pages 7-8 of the April 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for April 1962 images.