Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Newgrange - County Meath, Ireland

Newgrange is one of the most notable archeological monuments in Europe. Named in Gaelic Uaimh na Gréine (Cave of the Sun), the great passage tomb stands on a low hillock beside the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland, about 9 miles (14 kilometers) from the sea. Newgrange was built around 3150 b.c., making it as old as some of the neolithic temples on Malta and much older than the pyramids of Egypt. It is a dramatic testimony to the ancient Celts’ scientific and architectural sophistication. Its designers employed great mathematical skills to create such an uncannily accurate astronomical instrument of gargantuan scale. It forms the center of Brú na Bóinne, a region steeped in megalithic culture and ritual. Around it are more than forty prehistoric sites: standing stones, burial mounds, and other passage tombs. Irish mythology identifies Newgrange as the burial place of the high kings of Tara and the home of a preternatural race known as Tuatha de Danainn (people of the goddess Danu); other traditions are attached to the mystical place.

Newgrange is a colossal stone-and-turf tumulus, 1 acre (0.4 hectare) in area and approximately circular in plan, averaging about 280 feet (85 meters) in diameter; the top of its flattish dome is 44 feet (13.5 meters) high. The mound is surrounded by a retaining wall of white quartz and water-washed round granite boulders standing on a foundation of ninety-seven huge curbstones, many of which are decorated with incised patterns of triple and double spirals, concentric semicircles, lozenges, and zigzag lines. It has been estimated that there are some 224,000 tons (203,200 tonnes) of material in the structure. None of the stone is local: the curbstones and those used inside the tumulus were quarried about 20 miles (36 kilometers) from the site; the quartz comes from Wicklow, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the south; and the 1,600 granite boulders come from the Mourne Mountains, just as far to the north. All were quarried, transported, dressed, and fitted into place using only stone tools, and without the use of the wheel. The mound was encircled by about 40 widely spaced standing stones, up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) high, in a 340-foot (104-meter) ring. They were probably erected about 1,000 years later. Only twelve survive. The reconstruction as it can now be seen is based on some scholars’ interpretation of the position of the quartz layers found during excavations under the direction of Michael J. O’Kelly between 1962 and 1975.

For all its size, the mound encloses very little space. A single low passage, 3 feet (less than a meter) wide, penetrates 62 feet (19 meters) into the interior. The passage is lined with standing stones from 5 to 6.5 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) high and richly decorated with

patterns similar to those on the curbstones. There are twenty-two standing stones on one side and twenty-one on the other, supporting a corbeled roof of flat stones. Following the profile of the hill, the floor rises until the passage terminates in a cruciform chamber measuring about 21 by 17 feet (6.4 by 5.2 meters), with a 20-foot-high (6-meter) corbeled roof. Its stones are carved with grooves that prevent rainwater from entering the interior. Three low apses, their walls also carved with intricate geometric designs, open from the central space, Each contains a massive stone basin.

The entrance, crowned with a rectangular opening known as a “roof box,” and the passage are exactly designed so that, at dawn on the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight penetrates to illuminate the central chamber and a triple spiral on one of the great basins. Of course, the tangential sunlight also vitalizes the carvings on the passage walls, bringing life in the depth of winter. The astrophysicist Thomas Ray has calculated that the architecture was not approximately oriented but amazingly accurate. Five millennia ago, as viewed from the inner chamber, the gap in the roof box would have matched almost exactly the sun’s apparent width. Ray demonstrates that the first beam would strike the exact center line of the floor in a patch of intense light about 6 feet (2 meters) long and just a few inches wide. Then in the space of twenty minutes it would broaden, narrow again, and withdraw.

Conjecture abounds about the purpose of Newgrange, although the truth is shrouded in mystery. It seems clear that it was more than a tomb. Cremated remains found on the floor originally had been placed in the basins in only two of the recesses; the center one, whose triple spiral is annually illuminated by the rays of the sun, contained no remains. Some sources suggest that it was the focus of religious rites and only occasionally used for burials; others think that its purpose changed over centuries; and still others that it was simply a giant calendar—the least acceptable of all the explanations. Archeological investigation continues. Newgrange is open to the public and the inevitable impact of large numbers of visitors—close to 200,000 a year—is endangering its ancient fabric. Although it remains as weatherproof as ever, the humidity from tourists’ breath is a growing threat that the ancient builders could never have foreseen. It is expected that access will be restricted, especially during the summer months.

Nemrud Dagi - Turkey

The hierotheseion (royal burial precinct) of King Antiochos I of Kommagene (reigned ca. 69–36 b.c.) stands on Nemrud Dagi, the highest point of his domain, near the modern village of Kahta in the southeastern Turkish province of Adiyaman. It has been characterized by UNESCO as “one of the most ambitious constructions of Hellen[ist]ic times.” The megalomaniac king reshaped the 7,000-foot-high (2,150-meter) mountain by leveling the rock and filling the artificial platform with huge statues of himself and the gods (whom he claimed as kin); he then ordered a 500-foot-diameter (150-meter), 163-foot-high (50-meter) tumulus (artificial peak) of fist-sized rocks to replace the natural summit. It is believed that his tomb, yet unopened, lies beneath the massive pile of rubble.

Kommagene was a small buffer state between the Roman Empire and the kingdom of Persia. Located between the Amanos Mountains and the upper Euphrates, its capital Samosata commanded a strategic crossing of the great river. Mithradates’ father, Ptolemy, used that fact to seize control of the resource-rich area. It became an independent state in 162 b.c. After a brief subjection of the area to the Armenians, in 69 b.c. the Roman general Pompey installed Antiochos I on the throne. About 100 years later King Antiochos IV lost his wars with Rome and Vespasian absorbed Kommagene into the province of Syria.

Antiochos I attempted to establish a new order. His first action was to build a hierotheseion to his father Mithradates Kallinikos I (died 63 b.c.) in the city of Arsameia (now Eski Kale). Its decorations and inscriptions made it clear that Antiochos intended to Hellenize the Kommagenian culture, uniting die Persian Parthian world with the Greco-Roman; in effect, he set out to establish a new religion in which his own assumed divinity loomed large. Nowhere was that more evident than in his own hierotheseion on Nemrud Dagi.

The great tumulus is flanked on the east, west, and north by terraces carved from the mountain; it has been estimated that their creation involved the removal of 7 million cubic feet (200,000 cubic meters) of rock cut away by hand. On the east terrace stood an array of statues of the king and the gods, up to 33 feet (10 meters) high, carved from massive stone blocks mined in a remote quarry. The figures were set in order and identified by inscriptions written in Greek and Persian: Antiochos himself, the mother goddess Kommagene, the father god Zeus-Oromasdes (largest of the statues), Apollo-Mithras, and Herakles-Artagnes. Their faces were finely carved in the late Hellenistic style. At either end, the row of deities was guarded by the royal symbols: an eagle and a lion. At the eastern corner of the terrace stood a pyramidal altar of fire, and various elements around the platform carried carved relief portraits of the illustrious Persian and Macedonian ancestors whom Antiochos claimed as his own. Other relief decoration abounded.

As far as the topography would allow, the west terrace, set some 33 feet (10 meters) lower than the east, was organized in the same way, to much the same purpose: the apotheosis of Antiochos. The syncretized Persian and Greek gods facing east and west on the respective terraces revealed Antiochos’s attempted cultural synthesis. One inscription asserted that he had commissioned the site for posterity “as a debt of thanks to the gods and to his deified ancestors for their manifest assistance”; he wanted to set for his people an example of the piety due “towards the gods and towards ancestors.”

The north terrace, 269 feet (80 meters) long, was used for assemblies and rituals and also served as a processional way connecting the other terraces. Gigantic stone eagles flanked its entrance. The great tumulus was built on a rocky hill framed by the terraces. According to inscriptions, this was the place where Antiochos ordered that his remains should be buried. He died before his elaborate project was completed, and his son Mithradates neither finished the monumental work nor promoted the religious synthesis begun by his father. The site was

abandoned, the last of its priests probably leaving soon after a.d. 72.

Nemrud Dam was rediscovered in 1881 by one Karl Sester; an 1882–1883 German exploratory expedition followed, as well as a Turkish investigation. The findings of both groups were published, but no more research was carried out until 1938, when Germans F. Karl Dörner and Rudolf Naumann visited the site. Dörner returned after 1951 to work with the American Teresa Goell. In 1984–1985 a Turkish-German restoration team, led by Dörner, reerected the bases of the statues in their places. In 1987 the site was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and the following year a 35,000-acre (13,850-hectare) region around Nemrud Dagi was declared a national park. In July 1997 the Turkish government assured the world that the stone heads—all had fallen from their places—would be reset, and measures would be taken to protect the site, not only from natural damage but also from that caused by vandals or just careless tourists. Eighteen months later, the Netherlands-based International Nemrud Foundation received presidential support for a five-year master plan to restore the site, and work commenced at the end of May 2000.

Nazca Lines - Peru

The Pampa Colorado (Red Plain) is a 37-mile-long (60-kilometer) and 15-mile-wide (24-kilometer) plateau in the coastal desert of southern Peru near the town of Nazca. Across its broad face are carved staggeringly cyclopean patterns, an agglomeration of designs on the earth’s surface known as geoglyphs, which portray animals, birds, and other forms, mostly made by removing the dark reddish brown surface to expose a lighter-colored substratum; in some places piled rocks define the enigmatic forms. The challenge presented to the modern imagination by this ancient engineering feat is threefold: its momentous scale and the accuracy of surveying techniques that could project straight lines for miles over irregular terrain are remarkable enough. Beyond them is the uncanny ability of a people whose entire spatial experience was planar, never far above the surface of the earth, to conceive of geometric patterns and representational images whose accuracy and intricacy could be fully appreciated only from high—indeed, very high—above.

The Nazca Lines, as they are called, comprise literally thousands of zigzag, parallel, crossed, or radiating lines: some are 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide, others just a tenth of that. Some stretch for 6 miles (10 kilometers), maintaining their straightness regardless of the uneven topography. There are also simple or complex geometric shapes, including triangles and rectangles, nearly twenty varieties of fantastic birds, a monkey, a spider, a dog, a fish, a tree, and a hummingbird represented. As to their size: the monkey occupies the area of a football stadium; one bird has a 350-foot (100-meter) wingspan; and the spider, among the smallest geoglyphs, has a diameter of 150 feet (45 meters). Together, the lines and figures cover 45 square miles (115 square kilometers). Of course, they are best seen from above and were discovered only when aircraft first crossed the area in the 1930s.

The origin of the lines remains uncertain, although because of their similarity to design motifs on other artifacts, they are attributed to the well-developed Nazca civilization, which flourished between 200 b.c. and a.d. 600. Based on the same evidence, some sources suggest that three successive cultures were responsible for the lines: the Paracas (900–200 b.c.), the Nazcas, and later settlers who migrated from Ayacucho around a.d. 630.

Each culture was agrarian and it is likely that the lines may have been associated with rituals to guarantee a rich crop. On the other hand, the German anthropologist Dr. Maria Reiche, who studied the Nazca Lines for nearly fifty years, believed that they were a vast astronomical calendar, also associated with farming. Studies in the 1980s led others to the conclusion that, while part of elaborate rituals related to fertility, the lines had neither astronomical nor calendrical significance. A decade later a new theory emerged: they charted the origins and courses of aquifers—rivers beneath the desert—associated with irrigation farming in the region. In our modern culture of scientism we disengage the rational from the spiritual, and care must be taken to avoid too simple an interpretation of the actions of people whose universe was better integrated. All of the suggestions about the purpose of the Nazca Lines could be accurate

Even in their own time and place the Nazca Lines were not an isolated phenomenon. Many geoglyphs are to be found throughout South America. Areas with lines and figures very like Nazca’s have been studied on the central Peruvian coast between the Fortaleza, Pativilca, and Rimac Valleys. Others have been found in the Viru Valley, on Peru’s north coast, and in the Zana Valley, more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of Nazca. More examples of ground figures and hill figures survive on the other side of the world. The 370-foot-long (110-meter) White Horse (ca. 500 b.c.) cut into the chalk hills at Uffington is among Britain’s most famous, second only to the pre-Christian Cerne Giant in Dorset, a 180-foot-tall (54-meter) human figure, carrying a 120-foot (36-meter) club; there is also the Long Man of Wilmington, Sussex.

As late as 1998 a 2.5-mile-tall (4-kilometer) figure of an aboriginal warrior was discovered carved on the desert floor near Marree in the South Australian outback. It was soon exposed as a hoax, created with the help of satellite tracking equipment and earthmoving machinery The very fact of the difficulty of making such a figure using modern technology emphasizes more the incredible achievement of the ancient creators of the Nazca Lines.

Mystra, Greece

The ruins of the medieval city of Mystra are 3 miles (5 kilometers) northwest of modern Sparta in the Peloponnese. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade, turned aside from its original purpose by Venetian bribes, sacked Constantinople and established Frankish dominion over Greek territories. Among the most important states they founded was the Principality of the Morea, or the Principality of Achaea, governed from 1210 by Geoffroi I de Villehardouin. In 1249 his second son, Guillaume II de Villehardouin, built a castle atop a steep cone-shaped foothill overlooking the fertile valley of Eurotas and strategically commanding the Taygetos Range to the west and the valley of Laconia to the east.

Over the next few centuries the city of Mystra grew on the slopes below. Its name probably comes from the shape of the hill, which resembled a Myzethra cheese. Mystra, with a population that once exceeded 42,000, has been dubbed the “wonder of the Morea.” Like Venice, but for different reasons, it occupies a site that is totally inappropriate for a city, and its construction was a significant architectural achievement.

In 1261 the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus regained Constantinople. The following year, Guillaume II de Villehardouin paid his ransom—he had been captured in 1259—with a number of castles including Mystra, and Michael VIII installed a Byzantine despot. The Villehardouin line survived until 1301, when Philip of Savoy became Prince of Morea. Throughout most of the fourteenth century the principality was in the hands of the Angevin House of Naples, and then controlled by the Venetians. The Byzantines regained it through matrimonial and political alliances and in 1448 Constantine XI Paleologus, the last Byzantine emperor, was crowned at Mystra. For about 350 years after 1460 Turks and Venetians took and retook the city. In 1821 it was among the first places the Greeks liberated from their Turkish oppressors. Ironically, the demise of Mystra was brought about by the foundation of the modern town of Sparta in 1834. The first inhabitants came from the old city; others built the modern village of Mystra.

Mystra has had a tumultuous history, and the different traditions of its occupiers account for its hybridized architecture. In the mid–thirteenth century, the Byzantines’ persistent attempts to expel the Franks caused anxiety among the local populace. Many left the Eurotas plain to settle closer to the castle of Mystra. Houses were built on the lower slopes of the hill, and soon churches were constructed, clinging to the mountainside. This precipitous medieval city was surrounded by inner and outer circuit walls, commissioned in 1249 by Guillaume II de Villehardouin, and later repaired and augmented by the Byzantines and the Turks when they occupied the city. The walls were fortified by high rectangular towers, and of course dominated by the castle. They can hardly be described as concentric, because they snaked along contours and plummeted down steep slopes; nevertheless, they contained and defended the city. On its northeast and west sides the craggy hill

of Mystra climbs sheer from the narrow valley. The defensive walls divided Mystra into the lower and upper quarters: the urban classes lived in the former, while the aristocracy occupied the latter with its palaces, two- or three-story vaulted mansions, and various administrative buildings. Two heavily fortified gates—the Monembassia and the Nauplia—linked them.

The L-shaped Palace of the Despots, possibly begun by Guillaume II de Villehardouin and built in stages between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, occupies an incongruously flat terrace overlooking the Eurotas Valley to the east. The two wings housed many different functions: the private apartments, a palace chapel, an open colonnade, and a large well-lighted hall for assemblies and ceremonies. Just north of the palace stood the mid-fourteenth-century church of Hagia Sofia, a centrally planned funerary chapel for the despot Manouil Katakouzenos. The winding streets of Mystra, as they followed the contours of the hillside, are lined with churches, many built after the metropolitan bishop of Lacedaemonia—the medieval name for Sparta—transferred his cathedra to Mystra. Chief among them is the “mixed architectural type” cathedral: the Metropolis of St. Demetrios (ca. 1309) is a three-aisled basilica at its lower level; the fifteenth-century upper floor, consisting of a women’s gallery, is a cross-in-square roofed with five cupolas. Many churches—the thirteenth-century Church of St. Theodore, the Church of the Virgin Evangelistria, and the Peribleptos Monastery (both fourteenth century)—were purely Byzantine in form. Apart from the fifteenth-century Pantanassa Convent, which is still in use, the buildings of Mystra have been reduced to ruins, some by fire, others by being used as quarries when modern Sparta was being built. A few fine frescoes survive; many more have been destroyed.

Extensive restoration work has been undertaken over many years by the Committee for the Restoration of the Mystras Monuments and the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. Mystra was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1989.

Mycenae, Greece

Imposing even as a ruin, Agamemnon’s city Mycenae—Homer called it “Mycenae, rich in gold”—stands on a foothill of Mount Euboea between Hagios Elias and Mount Zara near the modern village that still bears its name: Mikínai. Seat of the semilegendary Atreus, it is also rich in tragic myth. Atreus’s dynasty was cursed because he fed his brother Thyestes with his own children. His son Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to gain fair winds to take his war fleet to Troy. When he returned, his wife Clytemnestra killed him; she in turn was killed by her son, Orestes. Except on the southeast, where a steep ravine provided natural fortification, the citadel or acropolis (high city) of Mycenae was surrounded by massive and daunting walls. Parts were of polygonal masonry, with shaped stones fitted together, and the gates were built of finely dressed ashlar. But most of the defenses were built of “cyclopean” masonry, so named because the later Greeks, unable to accept that humans could have moved such huge blocks, attributed them to the mythical giant Cyclops. The true purpose of such gigantic walls is still debated by scholars: they were certainly defensive, but some suggest they may have been employed more as a show of strength. Whatever the case, for engineering audacity and skill they challenge even our modern imaginations.

The generic term “Mycenaean” is used for the Late Bronze Age (Helladic) culture that arose on the Greek mainland around 1650 b.c. and whose powerful, militaristic city-states dominated the region from 1400 until 1100 b.c. Mycenaean navies controlled the Aegean and colonized Crete, Cyprus, the Dodecanese, northern Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, Sicily, and parts of Italy. Then they seem to have outgrown their resources, and despite an attempt to secure the Black Sea grain routes by annexing Troy (sometime between 1250 and 1180 b.c.), the Mycenaean culture suffered such attrition that it was easily subsumed by the migrating Dorians a century later.

From its hilltop at an elevation of about 900 feet (270 meters), the citadel of Mycenae commanded a large, fertile hinterland and the Plain of Argos extended before it; the major route between the Bay of Argos and Corinth, Thebes, and Athens to the north passed under its ramparts. There had been neolithic and early Helladic use of the site between 3000 and 2800 b.c., but the earliest significant developments took place in the seventeenth century. Indeed, most of the surviving defenses date from after 1380 b.c., built in three major stages—ca. 1350, 1250, and 1225.

The walls of Mycenae were generally between 15 and 35 feet (4.7 and 10.7 meters) high, rising in places to 56 feet (17 meters); parts of them were as much as 46 feet (14 meters) thick. The earliest circuit (ca. 1350) enclosed the megaron (palace) precinct with all its ancillary buildings. About 100 years later the walls were extended to include the main western gate and an older grave pit close to it. Another gate, much smaller but just as cunningly designed for defense, is on the north of the citadel. Around the same time, a tunnel was built in cyclopean masonry, leading to a subterranean spring-fed cistern on the northeast side.

Impressive as they are, the walls of Mycenae pale beside the splendor of the western gate, now known as the Lion Gate (ca. 1250 b.c.), mainly because of the majestic sculpture—the earliest large relief sculpture on the Greek mainland—that crowns it. The gate had a forecourt about 50 feet long by 25 feet wide (15 by 7.5 meters). The 10-foot-square (3.5-meter) opening was formed by four massive stone blocks (a threshold, flanking pilasters, and lintel), averaging about 12 by 7 by 3 feet (3.5 by 2 by 1 meters) in size. The double gates themselves were of bronze sheathed timber. The remarkable feature was above the lintel. The corbeled triangular opening (known as a “relieving triangle”) was invented by the Mycenaeans to divert the huge loads of the upper wall masonry away from the lintel and into the jambs—a major step forward in civil engineering. Here the opening was filled by a relatively thin stone panel bearing a relief carving of two lionesses flanking or adoring a column. The composition evokes many earlier relics found on Crete, and the overt symbolism born of this agrarian culture’s emphasis on fertility should not be lost on us. From the Lion Gate, a 12-foot-wide (3.6-meter) road—Homer described the “broad streets of Mycenae”—led via a terraced ramp toward the defensible entrance of the flat-roofed

megaron and its associated complex of buildings near the summit. Most of the palace has been lost.

The citadel survived an attack around 1200 b.c. only to be destroyed, possibly by invading Dorians, about a century later. The walls were not pulled down and the buildings outside, found near every Helladic acropolis, were not deserted. It seems that Mycenae was continuously occupied in some form until about 468 b.c., when the small preclassical city built on the ruins of the ancient citadel was destroyed by Argos and its population banished. The city was briefly reoccupied in the third century b.c. A new temple was built at the summit of the acropolis and the city wall repaired. There is some evidence of Roman occupation, but when the Greek traveler Pausanias visited the region around a.d. 160, he found only ruins. Serious archeological investigations began in 1841 and have continued intermittently.

Mount Rushmore - South Dakota

The broad granite southeast face of 5,725-foot (1,750-meter) Mount Rushmore, neat Rapid City, South Dakota, is carved with the massive portrait heads of four U.S. presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. For its sheer engineering ingenuity and

ambitiousness of scale—Washington’s head is 60 feet (18 meters) high—the ensemble may be regarded as an architectural feat.

In 1923 South Dakota’s state historian Doane Robinson suggested carving giant statues in the Black Hills. Perhaps he was prompted by the knowledge that a colossal Confederate memorial had been commissioned a few years earlier for Stone Mountain, Georgia, but it is more likely that the idea was first conceived as a tourist attraction. Initially, Robinson wanted to have a cluster of tall granite outcroppings known as the Needles carved to form a procession of the Amerindian leaders and European explorers who shaped the Western frontier. Conservationists resisted the idea, and there was no public support. Nevertheless, in 1925 the financial backers of the proposed memorial approached the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was known to specialize in large-scale sculpture and was then rather unhappily employed on Stone Mountain.

Borglum suggested that the southeast face of Mount Rushmore would make an ideal site for a monument. He proposed to carve the heads of the four presidents beside a table inscribed with a history of the United States. Such a composition would have more than regional significance; it would commemorate “the foundation, preservation and continental expansion of the United States” and be a shrine to democracy. And behind the figures a hall of records would preserve national documents and artifacts.

President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927, and Borglum began drilling. But although less than half the time was spent on actual carving, the work would take fourteen years to complete. Most of the delay was due to money shortages during the Great Depression. Borglum lobbied at every political level, playing on nationalistic feelings and stressing that public works created jobs and won votes. As a result of his persistence, nearly 85 percent of the monument’s $1 million cost came from federal coffers. The Washington head, 500 feet (150 meters) up the mountain, was formally dedicated in 1930, when the name “Shrine of Democracy” was officially adopted; Jefferson followed in 1936, Lincoln in 1937, and Roosevelt in 1939. Borglum died in March 1941 and his son Lincoln supervised the completion of the sculpture.

Borglum’s plaster maquettes were based on life masks, images, and descriptions, but the differences between them and the finished heads demonstrate that the sculptor did not simply transpose from plaster to stone. Once the dimensions were scaled up to the finished size and marked out on the mountain, the team of carvers was faced with the problem of removing the unwanted granite. Despite Borglum’s first inclination against its use, dynamite was the only practical way to do that. Once an oval-shaped mass of rock was formed for each head, explosive experts blasted its surfaces to the approximate final measurements. Carvers suspended in bosuns’ chairs shaped the features. They used pneumatic drills to cut closely spaced holes that nearly defined the final surface, and the honeycombed granite was ultimately chiseled away to expose the smooth surfaces of the presidents’ faces. Viewed from a distance, stone miraculously became flesh; as the architect Frank Lloyd Wright observed, “The noble countenances emerge from Rushmore as though the spirit of the mountain heard a human plan and itself became a human countenance.”

A similar feat, already mentioned, deserves a little more detail. The north face of Stone Mountain, 16 miles (26 kilometers) east of Atlanta, Georgia, is carved with a 138-foot (42-meter) equestrian bas-relief of the Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson B. Davis. What began in 1915 as a commission for Borglum to produce a 70-foot (21-meter) statue of Lee developed into a proposal for the group portrait. Preliminary work started soon after World War I and carving began in June 1923. Irreconcilable differences with the client caused Borglum to quit in March 1925—just as he received the Black Hills commission—when little more than Lee’s head had been finished. Augustus Lukeman replaced Borglum, dynamited most of the earlier work, and started again. Disputes over property ownership halted the project in 1928, and it was not revived until 1960, when an international competition led to the appointment of Walker Hancock as chief carver. He started work in 1964, making only slight modifications to the Lukeman design. The use of thermo-jet torches allowed for rapid, accurate removal of the stone and, in collaboration with Roy

Faulkner, Hancock had the gigantic memorial finished by 1972.

The grandiose neoclassical character and the gigantic size of Mount Rushmore and similar projects call for comment about our seemingly irresistible need to enshrine ideals that are anything but inhuman through overwhelming and inhuman scale. Consider, for example, the 150-foot (45-meter) Statue of Liberty or the Cristo Redentore above Rio de Janeiro. On the other hand, colossi have been built for reasons of vainglory: the Colossus of Rhodes collapsed after one generation; the 120-foot (36-meter) statue of Nero (originally near the Roman Colosseum and providing its name) is long gone. One of the multitude of Egypt’s Ramessean statues is described by the poet Percy Shelley as a colossal wreck, “two vast and trunkless legs of stone.” Destroyed by nature or by conquerors, such works are at once monuments to our engineering ingenuity and our transience.

Mont-Saint-Michel - Normandy, France

Mont-Saint-Michel is a craggy, conical island, about half a mile (0.8 kilometer) across and standing half a mile from shore in the Gulf of Saint-Malo, near the border of Brittany and Normandy on France’s northern coast. The north side of the island is wooded and the west presents a barren face to the sea. A fortified village of fewer than 100 inhabitants huddles on the lower southern and eastern slopes and the great Benedictine abbey, dating from the thirteenth century, crowns the entire mount, towering about 240 feet (73 meters) above. The integration of monastery with village and both with the rock was noted by UNESCO as “an unequalled ensemble” when the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979. Mont-Saint-Michel is an architectural feat for that reason and others: the audacity displayed by the builders on so difficult a site and the harmony achieved between its parts, which were built in many architectural styles over five centuries.

The place known as Mont Tombe, which became Mont-Saint-Michel, has a spiritual history dating from pre-Christian times. There the Gauls had worshiped Belenus, the god of light, and there the Romans consecrated a shrine to Jupiter. By the fifth century a.d. the secluded crag and the Scissy Forest around it had become a retreat for hermits. There is a tradition that in 708 St. Michael appeared to Aubert, twelfth bishop of Avranches, directing him to build a sanctuary to the archangel on the mount. In October of the following year, Aubert consecrated a simple circular oratory, to accommodate about 100 people, and built cells to replace the earlier huts, but not before an abnormal tide—some sources say a tidal wave—had gouged a channel between rock and shore, creating the islet. At low tide a land bridge connects to the mainland across beaches of gray silt; at high tide it is covered by about 40 feet (14 meters) of water.

Under the sponsorship of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy, Abbot Mainard occupied the island in 966 with twelve Benedictine monks from Monte Cassino. He built a rectangular chapel with 6.5-foot-thick (2-meter) stone walls on the ruins of the oratory. By that time, the Benedictines had enjoyed four centuries of prominence in western Europe and monasticism had reached a zenith. In France, the abbeys—there were about 120 of them— exercised great influence in many spheres: spiritual, artistic, intellectual, economic, and political. Besides the Benedictines, whose other Normandy houses were at Fecamp, Lessay, and Lonlay, the Premonstratensian (Canons had established themselves at Ardenne and La Lucerne. Eventually, Mont-Saint-Michel would become a magnet for thousands of the faithful from all over Europe.

The next building phase was initiated by Abbot Hildebert II in 1017. An extensive masonry foundation

leveled the entire top of the island and an abbey church was built on the summit. Mainard’s sturdy chapel formed its crypt and was later named Notre-Dame-sous-Terre (Our Lady Underground). The rest of the new cruciform church—with its seven bays, the nave was nearly 230 feet (70 meters) long—was supported on masonry walls and piers. The project, designed in the latest style (now known as Romanesque), was completed by 1135. That was not the end of the architectural development, and about thirty-five years later Abbot Robert de Torigny commissioned a new west front with twin towers.

In 1203 the French king Philip II Augustus sent an expeditionary force against the abbey, and some of its dependencies were destroyed by fire. To compensate for the damage, a generous endowment allowed Abbot Jordan to immediately commence the granite conventual building known as La Merveille (the Marvel), flanking the church on the seaward side of the rock. Remarkably, the extensive, logistically

difficult works were completed by 1228. The Marvel began at 160 feet (49 meters) above the sea and consisted of three terraced levels. The lowest housed the almonry and cellar. The second was taken up by the kitchens; a huge refectory with timber barrel vaults; a guest hall, adorned with tapestries, stained glass, and glazed tiles; and a scriptorium (now called the “hall of the knights”). At the top was the monks’ dormitory and a beautiful arcaded, vaulted cloister attributed to Raoul de Villedieu.

In contrast to that tranquil security, the Marvel has been described as “half military, half monastic.” Louis IX visited the Mont in 1254 and later helped to pay for its fortification. Strategically located, it acquired a defensive role and housed a garrison jointly paid by king and abbot. Through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both the abbey and the town were enclosed by walls on the land side, adding another texture to the varied architecture of the rock. Frequently attacked, it would never be captured, even remaining unconquered when English armies took most of the fortresses of Normandy early in the fifteenth century.

There was a series of structural failures in the abbey church. In 1300, one of de Torigny’s west towers fell down. More serious was the collapse in 1421 of Hildebert’s Romanesque choir. France was still at war with England, and all thought of reconstruction was deferred until 1446, when a massive base known as the Crypt of the Large Pillars was built as foundation for a replacement building. Work on the new choir began in 1450 and it was completed in 1521. Apsidal in plan, with radiating chevet chapels, it was naturally built in the contemporary, highly ornate French style, appropriately named flamboyant because of the flamelike patterns of its window tracery. Other architectural failures followed: in 1618 the de Toringy west facade started to collapse, and eventually it was pulled down in 1776, together with, the three western bays of the nave.

The monastic foundation seemed to decline with the buildings. Although by the twelfth century under de Toringy, the Benedictine abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel had acquired fame for its intellectual life, drawing pilgrims from across Europe, about a century later its power had begun to slowly wane. As the balance of its role tipped from devotion to defense, the size of the community decreased. In 1523 it was granted in commendam to Cardinal Le Veneur, the series of commendatory abbots continuing until 1622—by then hardly any monks remained—when control passed to the reformed congregation of St. Maur. In turn, the Maurist monks were dispossessed during the French Revolution. From 1790 the abbey, its name ironically changed to Mont Libre (Mount Freedom), was used to incarcerate criminals and political prisoners. Napoléon III abolished the prison in 1863. Having gone full circle, the buildings were leased to the Bishop of Avranches until 1874, when the Commission des Monuments Historiques appointed the architect E. E. Viollet-le-Duc to restore it. In 1966, in recognition of the monastery’s millennium, the French government allowed the resumption of monastic life on Mont-Saint-Michel; since then a community of monks, nuns, and lay oblates lives in a part of the abbey, reviving the ministry to pilgrims.

This has been a complicated story, whose point is just this: the architectural feat of Mont-Saint-Michel was not achieved in a day, a month, or a year. The harmony and the unity of its parts, diverse in date, style, and function, took 500 years to realize.