Places of Antiquity
(Part I of II)
Uluru: This famous Australian landmark - along with the nearby rocky outcrop to the west known as Kata Tjuta - are all that remains of an original mountain range long eroded away. These features form part of the traditional belief system of one of the oldest societies in the world - the Anangu Aborininal people, who (it is estimated) settled here about ten thousand years ago. There are ancient paintings with tales from "dreamtime" and stories assoceated with nearly every one of the rocks caves, cracks and crevices. Uluru was first sighted by Europeans in 1872, and credit for its' discovery goes to William Grosse, an employee of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line who named it Ayers Rock, in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia.
In 1920, part of Uluru / Kata Tjuta National Park was declared an Aboriginal Reserve (commonly known as the South-Western or Petermann Reserve) by the Australian government under the Aboriginals Ordinance. Since 1985 ownership of Uluru has been returned to the Aborigines with the conditions that it would be leased back to the National Parks and Wildlife agency for 99 years and be jointly managed. The first tourist arrived in the Uluru area in 1936, and today it sees nearly half a million visitors a year. One of the popular attractions is climbing Uluru, although the aboriginies request that visitors not climb the rock because it crosses a sacred traditinal dreamtime track. In 1987 Uluru and Kata Tjuta were listed as a World Heritage Site.
Stonehenge: The first construction phase of Stonehenge took place around 3100 BC. At that time the work was little more than a circular ditch, series of holes, and a large bolder called a "heelstone". It wasn't until 2100 BC before the site took the familiar appearance that we know it by today. A ring of 30 sandstone blocks marks the outer circle. These are topped with massive bluestone lintels. Around 1900 BC, five larger stone structures called trilithons (two free-standing upright stones supporting a lintel) were placed inside the circle in a horseshoe pattern. Construction was time consuming and there is some disagreement whether the bluestones came from a quarry in Wales or were carried by a glacier from the last ice age to the vicinity of the site.
There were many theories about the purpose of Stonehenge, two of the most popular called it a Roman temple and a place of worship for the Druids. But by the time the Romans arrived in England, Stonehenge was already an ancient site, and the Druids didn't appear until much later. Professor Gerald S. Hawkins provided the theory that is most accepted today; it is a giant stone calendar and observatory used to determine when to plant and sow crops, and to predict eclipses of the moon. Today, modern Druids - the members of the Most Ancient Order of Druids - go to Stonehenge during the summer solstice to perform their ancient rites.
The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx: The pyramids of Egypt were the first great structures built by man. Thousands of pyramids were built over the centuries but most were destroyed by time or man. The most famous of all are the three great pyramids of Giza. The largest, the pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu (the Greek form of his name was Cheops) is the height of a 40-story building. Built in the 26th century BC of more than two million limestone blocks weighing an average of two-and-three-quarter tons each, it is estimated to have taken 100,000 workmen up to 30 years to complete. It was built with pinpoint accuracy. The pyramid stands on an artificially flattened base that is within one-half inch of being perfectly level. The four corners are only a few inches off perfect right angles. And the sides face due north, east, south, and west with only a very slight deviation.
All this was accomplished using only ramps, levers, rollers and ox-drawn sledges. The second largest pyramid, that of Pharaoh Khafre (Chefren in Greek) and the pyramid of Pharaoh Menkaure (Mykerinos) make up the remainder of the complex. These immense structures, tombs of the the pharaoh, are the most recognized group of buildings in the world. Smaller pyramids, for the queens, were constructed near the base of the pyramids. Guarding the pyramids is the Great Sphinx, a mythological beast of ancient Egypt. It is believed to have been built in conjunction with the pyramid of Khafre. Seven stories tall and almost the length of a football field, the great statue - a lion body with a mans head - was half buried in the desert sands for many years. Archeologists have uncovered the crouching figure, and today it remains - as it has for countless centuries - facing east, guarding the tombs of the pharoah-gods who once walked with humans.
Petra: Carved into the pink sandstone walls of a small desert valley in southern Jordan are the ancient tombs of Petra. Due to its' remote location the nearly 2000 year old site remained unknown until its' re-discovery in 1812. Petra represents the remaining monuments to powerful and wealthy tribesmen from 300 BC. Originally it was believed that these structures cut into the cliffs were houses, but now they are recognized as tombs. In 106 AD, Petra became part of the Roman Empire, and acquired a forum, baths, theaters, and other structures of Roman influence. However, trade routes changed, and with the decline of trade, Petra fell into obscurity. To reach the site, you pass through a deep, narrow cleft in the rocks. The most impressive of the monuments is el-Kasneh, also known as the Treasury. Its' facade - which is 90 feet wide and 130 feet all - is topped with an urn that was supposed to have once contained treasures of the pharaohs.
The Great Wall of China: At almost 4,000 miles long it is the longest man-made object on this planet and the only one visible from space. Built over a period of 1,700 years, it stretches from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert, covering one-twentieth the circumference of the earth. But, China's Great Wall is not one wall. It is many walls that have been connected together over the reign of several emperors. Originally, it consisted of a series of walls, built by various quarreling kingdoms. In 220 BC Qin Shihuangdi, the first man to rule a united China, connected these sections into a single barrier through the northern section of his frontier.
It was neglected, abandoned, and rebuilt several times. In 607 AD, during the Sui dynasty, it is said that a million laborers were forced to rebuild the wall, and that half of them perished in the work. The final rebuilding and extension occurred under the Ming dynasty in the 15th century. The wall snakes its' way over mountains, across desert, and through marshes. Sections of the wall have recently been restored for the tourist industry. The wall stands an average 30 feet in height, with watchtowers that rise to 40 feet. The base tapers to 18 feet at the top, which allowed cavalrymen to ride five abreast. Because of the many laborers who died during its' construction, it has been called the world's longest graveyard.
Chichen Itza: Chichen Itza, located on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, was overgrown by the jungle since it was abandoned in the 13th century. Although the wooden and earthen work structures have long since disappeared, the stone ruins have remained. Among the ruins you will find a large stadium and ball court, where two teams faced each other to determine which would be sacrificed to the gods. Measuring 272 feet long and 91 feet wide, the ball court is enclosed by two 27 foot high walls running its' length. Located at the top of each wall, at the center of its' length, is a stone hoop. The winning team was the one that passed a ball through one of the hoops without the use of his hands. Acoustically the court is so perfect that a priest, speaking at one end of the court, could be heard at the far end without raising his voice.
Near the ball court is the Temple of the Warriors and the colonnade of a thousand columns, which gets its' name from the many rows of stone pillars surrounding the building. The columns once supported a wooden roof that has since deteriorated away. The Mayan's were exceptional astronomers and a round stone tower that served as an astronomical observatory (called the Caracol) is located on the grounds. But the most interesting of all the structures is El Castillo (The Castle), a nine-tiered pyramid-temple dedicated to the Mayan god Kukulcan. The pyramid has four sides, representing the four season. Each side has 91 steps leading to the small stone shrine at the top. Ninety-one steps times four sides equals 364; plus
the top platform is 365; the number of days in a year. But the most extraordinary thing about this pyramid is its' careful alignment. The stairways face exactly north, south, east, and west. During the spring and fall equinox the suns' shadow falls across the pyramid forming a zigzag pattern on the tiers that gives it the appearance of a snake, slowly slithering its' way down the pyramid.