The Great Pyramids
( Originally Published 1915 )
The most ancient monuments of the world, the Pyramids, were built as burial places for the kings. They consist of masses of stone and brick raised up around the chamber where the body of the king was to lie. The tomb was made so that the place where the body lay would be secret, and secure from thieves. Yet, to-day, there is not a tomb that has not been explored and rifled. The material used was limestone cased over with granite, and the passages were lined with granite. The outside was cased with polished stone, perhaps of many different colors. The largest of the Pyramids was the tomb of King Cheops. It was 76o feet at the base, 484 feet high, and had an area of 577,000 square feet. The angle of the slope was about 50 degrees, but the angle of slope of the different Pyramids is never alike. The jointing of the stones was done with the greatest nicety, and the construction throughout shows wonderful scientific skill.
George Ebers writes, in his description of one of the Pyramids : " For a moment the enveloping cloud lifts from the horizon and we see the prodigious Pyramids standing before us with their sharp triangles, and then the mystic curtain falls. To the right and left, we some-times see buffaloes grazing; sometimes flocks of silver herons ; sometimes a solitary pelican within gun-shot of the carriage; then half-naked peasants at their daily labor: and pleasing villages some distance from the road."
As we stand before the largest of these works of man, which, as we know, the ancients glorified as " wonders of the world," it is only by a comparison with other structures, present in our memory, that we can get any idea of their immensity. If the tomb of Cheops were hollow, St. Peter's at Rome could be placed within it like a clock under a glass cage. If the tomb of Cheops were razed, a wall could be built of its stones all around the frontiers of France. " Time mocks all things, but the Pyramids mock Time," says the Arabian proverb.
Let us think for a moment, of the Pyramids in relation to the principles given in the table, especially as to the principle of fitness. Do you not feel the fitness of these big masses of stone to their surroundings in the sandy desert, and to their use as the tomb of kings? The Egyptians' looked upon their houses as temporary abodes, but upon their tombs as permanent dwellings. This fitness of things is essential to the beauty of any object, be it building, painting, or anything under the sun.
There is a solemnity about Egyptian architecture, and great strength, but, of the many elements in the table, few could be applied to the Pyramids. Repetition, variety, and ornament, for instance, are not among their qualities. However, I think we can select two elements of beauty that are always in the Pyramids; namely, symmetry and simplicity. The Pyramids present an almost perfect symmetry, and yet perfect symmetry in buildings, as in pictures, may make them seem monotonous, but if there is not perfect symmetry, there must be at least a feeling of balance.
One way to look at a building is to regard it some-what as a picture, for buildings and pictures have much in common. To be sure, they also have many points of difference, for painting is an imitative art, while architecture is not so. But, in judging the effect of a building upon our sense of the beautiful and upon our emotions, we find that many of the principles and laws are just the same as in painting. The fine arts are all modes of the expression of people, or nations, or ideas, and their production is governed by laws. We compose a picture, we compose a piece of music, and, no less we compose a building; and the laws of composition must be followed in the one as in the others. Ruskin, who wrote much about art and architecture, gives us some laws of composition in architecture, one of which is the " law of principality." This applies to all of the fine arts. " First determine what is the principal thing," he said; " you may have one large mass and several smaller ones, but there must be one prominent above the rest." Proportion is another important matter in architecture. Symmetry, which is as necessary in architecture as in painting, can be had where all the parts are of equal size, for symmetry is mere regularity of structure; that is, having one side exactly balance the other; but proportion must be of three unequal things at least. Proportion, principality, symmetry, are things you will often hear mentioned in regard to buildings, and you will feel their meaning more and more as great buildings become familiar to you. In a building, too, as in a picture, there are masses of light and shade. Some one has said that the deep shadows cast on the faces of buildings are to remind us of all the troubles, labors, and disappointments that are met in erecting a building, and those who must occupy it, be it prison or workshop, and of all the troubles in life itself. If we refer to the table on page 11, we shall see that the above points about buildings and pictures are matters that pertain to the principle of beauty in architecture.
The most important thing that the Egyptians sought for in their works was duration; and so dry is the climate that not only the monuments of stone, but many of the most fragile cloths and woods, have withstood destruction to this day.
In the Pyramids, extreme simplicity is combined with symmetry. Do you not sometimes look at a wooden house, covered with ginger-bread ornamentation, and wish that you could tear it off ? If so, you feel that it is not simple enough, and that the house would look better without that filigree work. Think of the simple, dignified Pyramids. Are they not good to look at?