Thursday, October 1, 2009

The More You Wish You Didn't Know: The Tomb of King Mausolus

mausoleum Artist's rendering of the Tomb of Mausolus, c. 1500

In The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, the Masons gather in The House of the Temple near the White House, a building that is a replica of "the temple of King Mausolus, the original mausoleum."  Where was this ancient temple, and why was it so important and famous that it eventually became synonymous with tombs?

The tomb of Mausolus was built by his sister/widow, Artemesia, in the fourth century B.C.  It resided in Helicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum, Turkey) and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World until it was destroyed through a series of earthquakes and ransacking by pirates in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 

scale model of mausoleum Modern-day scale model of the tomb.

Artemesia spared no expense in building the tomb for her brother, hiring four of the best Greek sculptors of the day to design it.  Like all Greek temples, it was surrounded by columns, much like the Parthenon, but set on a raised platform.  Steps guarded by lions led up to the top, where there were statues of Greek gods and goddesses.  The roof had bas-reliefs showing the battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths, and the Greeks battling the Amazons, a favorite subject for Greek temples.  And at the very top of the building, Mausolus and Artemesia occupied a bronze carriage pulled by four gigantic bronze horses.

Now, you may think this your typical Greek building; but in fact, at the time it was actually very, very STRANGE.  First of all, despite the fact that Mausolus' tomb was designed by Greeks and in the style of a Greek temple, Mausolus wasn't Greek.  He was an invader and conquerer of a few Greek Islands, and he admired Greek culture very much, but he wasn't Greek.  From the Greek perspective, he was an uncivilized, uncultured, barely human animal to be feared and loathed--exactly the type of person the Greeks liked to represent as Centaurs and Amazons, which makes the bas-reliefs on Mausoleus' tomb more than a bit ironic.

You can tell Mausoleus and Artemesia weren't Greek because the way they designed the tomb makes little sense, at least from a Greek perspective.  Greeks didn't bury their dead in or around temples; they marked their graves with Greek vases (and in fact, both Mausoleus and Artemesia were cremated, their ashes placed in Greek vases that were set inside this tomb--not that that makes much sense to the Greek mind, either).  The statues in the mausoleum ran the gamut of Greek deities; the Ancient Greeks would only honor one god or goddess within a temple.  And they certainly wouldn't have put a statue of a mortal man or woman (especially not a woman) at the very top of their temple.  Furthermore, the raised platform that lifts the temple and the pointed roof on top is reminiscent of Ancient Near Eastern temples (like the Tower of Babel), not Greek ones.

So what makes the Mausoleum of Mausolus truly significant is not the fact that it's "the first mausoleum," but rather that it's one of the first examples of the dissemination of Greek (and Near Eastern) culture into the rest of Europe.  The look of Greek temples was adopted for another type of building altogether; the stories of the Greeks were exhibited without knowledge (or at the very least, context) of some of their more subtle implications; and the style of Greek art was used to depict non-Greek people.  Mausoleus' tomb is the beginning of the story of how Greek art and architecture survived centuries, including the destruction of its original civilization, to be adopted by cultures as far afield as India and for uses as diverse as banking, religion, scholasticism, and government, just to name a few.

In fact, the House of the Temple, modeled after Mausoleus' hodgepodge of borrowed Greek culture, is probably the most appropriate building I can think of to grace Washington, D.C.--a city built on a hodgepodge of neo-classical ideas if there ever was one.

the more you wish you didn't know

Check back next time to learn more than you ever wanted to know about ancient goddess cults and their connection to YA book covers!

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