National Geographic Channel

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FOUR DOMES THAT CHANGED THE WAY WE BUILD

Domes are among the boldest architectural features seen in historic buildings. Used for centuries to crown engineering and architectural feats, domes adorn some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings in the world.

From the Roman period to the modern day, domes have not only served as practical roof coverings but also as symbols of power.  They typically tower above their surroundings and dominate the city skyline. Throughout history domes have also attained spiritual significance. The extra height a domed interior creates is significant in many religious buildings, including St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which is considered to be the spiritual capital of England. 

From India to Rome, we take a look at some of the world’s best known domes and discover how and why they were built, as well as explore what their symbolism really means.

The Pantheon, Rome

Built by the Emperor Hadrian between 118 and 128 AD, the Pantheon in Rome is perhaps one of the most famous domed buildings in the world. It has stood for nearly two millennia and is the best preserved of all the Roman monuments in Rome. Originally built as a pagan temple the Pantheon was consecrated as a Catholic Church in 609. It is a monument to Roman ingenuity and construction skill. The dome has a span of 43.2 metres and is topped by a circular open oculus that is 9 metres in diameter.  Solid squares of concrete, which become increasingly lighter and less compact moving upwards, were used to construct the dome, which was the largest concrete construction on the planet until modern times. It is an architectural masterpiece – the secret for its construction is that the outer walls of the Pantheon are 20 feet thick, acting as massive supports for the dome without the need for arch supports.

The Dome on the Rock

One of the most religious sites in the whole of Islam, the Dome on the Rock in Israel is one of the most impressive dome buildings in the world. Built by Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan from 685 to 691 the Muslim shrine is visible from most spots in Jerusalem with its bright gold dome a crowning achievement to its construction. However, although the dome was originally constructed from gold, over the centuries it has been replaced several times, first with aluminium and today with copper with a gold leaf covering. The Dome on the Rock is widely accepted as the first masterpiece of Islamic architecture.

Florence Cathedral

Dominating the skyline of Florence, the Duomo, or Cathedral of Florence, is a spectacular example of Italian Renaissance architecture and the brainchild of Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith and sculptor from Florence. The dome of the Duomo is made up of two layers – an inner dome to span the diameter and an outer shell for decorative effect and to act as a protective layer against adverse weather. The magnificent dome structure is supported by 24 stone ‘ribs’ that taper in depth from the bottom of the dome up to the top. Brunelleschi had shown that creating domes with stone was possible, surpassing the pantheon in Rome to become the largest dome in the world. But before the rulers of Florence would agree to let him begin the construction Brunelleschi had to demonstrate the effectiveness of his design by producing a 1:12 model of the dome in brick.

Taj Mahal

Often cited as one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is the greatest architectural legacy left by the Mughals, the Muslim rulers of India. Built by Shah Jahan to commemorate the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is perhaps the most famous mausoleum on the planet. It took 22 years from 1632 to 1653 for 20,000 workers to build the Taj Mahal. The white marble structure has four nearly identical facades, each with a large central arch reaching 33 meters (108 feet) high. The crowning glory of the Taj Mahal is the central dome, which rises to an impressive height of over 73 meters. Unlike other ancient mega structures, such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where the architect Sir Christopher Wren is rightly associated with the project, no one architect is associated with the Taj Mahal. Some construction documents suggest that the well known architect of his day, Ustad ‘Isa worked on the project. However many historians argue that because it was as a memorial to his wife, Shah Jahan would have had significant contributions to the design and construction of the Taj Mahal.

ANCIENT MEGASTRUCTURES FROM AROUND THE WORLD

From China to India, England to Peru, we take a look at some additional ancient megastructures that changed architecture and inspired new building methods.

While the buildings and monuments showcased in Ancient Megastructures, such as Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and St Paul’s Cathedral in London are undoubted masterpieces and architectural gems, these well known sights are not the only megastructures of the ancient world.

Lincoln Cathedral, England

There have been cathedrals under construction on the site of Lincoln Cathedral since 1072, however it was not until fire and an earthquake had taken their toll on the older cathedral structure that work began on reconstructing the current Cathedral in 1192. What now stands in Lincoln is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture from the medieval period in all of Europe. Even today, the building completely dominates the skyline for miles around.

After much building work over the intervening centuries the Cathedral’s central tower reached its current height sometime between 1307 and 1311, and shortly thereafter between 1370 and 1400 the western towers were heightened also, making it the tallest structure in the Medieval world, until the central, highest spire was blown down in high wind in 1549.

Masada, Israel

In the Dead Sea region of Israel is an important historical site, Masada, a symbol of the Jewish Kingdom’s last stand against the Roman Empire. There was believed to be a fortress at Masada dating back to the second century BC, but the fortress at Masada was constructed by King Herod between 37 and 31 BC. It would have been an impressive engineering project for ancient architects and workers as Masada sits atop a massive rock, more than 1,300 feet (400 metres) above sea level with extremely steep sides. But this was no minor hilltop fort that Herod built - the fortress complex was vast with a number of towers and defensive walls constructed several palaces, cisterns and a bathhouse. Despite these strong defences and strategic position, the Roman army, long after Herod’s death, did manage to besiege Masada and capture the fortress in 73 AD. Interestingly, the camps and fortifications that still surround Masada are deemed by archaeologists to be the best preserved examples of Roman siege work left intact anywhere in the world.

Drum Tower, Beijing, China

The Drum Tower in ancient Beijing was first built in the 13th century, but after centuries of change the tower was rebuilt in 1420 at the same time as the Imperial Palace. The Drum Tower is 46.7 metres high and sits on a four metre base built from stone and brick. The two-storey tower was originally built in wood. The Drum Tower has three levels of upturned eaves and is decorated in green and grey tiles. At the height of its use, the Drum Tower held as many as 25 drums, with the main drum located on the second floor. It was used in conjunction with the nearby Bell Tower to tell the time. Today only the large drumhead remains housed on the second floor of the building. The Drum Tower is a good example of Chinese architecture, showcasing the styles of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties respectively.

Red Fort Complex, India

Named after the imposing walls of red sandstone that surround it, the UNESCO world heritage site the Red Fort Complex is located in New Delhi. It was built as the palace fort of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1638 to 1648 and is unique in that it is the perfect fusion of many Asian architectural techniques, blending the influences of Islamic, Persian, Timurid and Hindu architecture. The design and building methods used in the construction of the Red Fort have been replicated in many other buildings throughout the Indian sub-continent.

City of Arequipa, Peru

The old centre of Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is an architectural melting pot of different cultures and influences. Although not a single structure or building, the historic centre, built after the first arrival of the Spanish in 1540 offers a fascinating insight into the architectural influences that were dominant in the New World at the time of construction in the sixteenth century, mixing the very best of Baroque-influenced Spanish building styles with the traditional building styles of the indigenous peoples of Peru. 
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