Decoding Antiquity

By: Hamza Shafique

We all have fancied visiting great pyramids of Giza in Cairo or beautiful single dome engineering marvel Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Also, we all have admired the beautiful Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara period and the excellent workmanship of Roman marble sarcophaguses. We have countless statues, palaces and temples with walls adorned with the stories of god and kings along with elaborately engineered necropolises from antiquity but if you look closely you will notice a pattern.

Most of the artifacts and monuments that have survived antiquity and gained today’s bucket list fame, are related to three major factions of ancient life Religion, Royalty and Afterlife. Here when I talk about antiquity, I am referring to Pre-Islamic civilizations/empires because Islam completely changed the way world operated and redefined the meaning of religious devotions, imperial lifestyle and concept of afterlife.


Religion has been the most important aspect of ancient life, all the kings to maintain power always associated themselves with the god and claimed to be the link commoners had with the god. Egyptians Pharaoh used their preferred gods’ name as Surname while Alexander the great considered himself to be the son of Zeus.  Hagia Sophia was the Burj Khalifa of its time constructed to be the world’s biggest cathedral and is the only building in world that has been in constant use in its original form since its construction some 1500 years ago. This building is the only place where Allah and Jesus share center stage which makes this historical landmark unique. 1800 years old Buddhist sculptures and artifacts from Gandhara period at Lahore museum also stand out for me while Great Hymn to Aten is yet another devotional artifact to cult of first documented Monotheistic god Aten.


Museums are full of artifacts glorifying ruling elite of the past. There are temple walls documenting the love of kings towards the gods in form of their donations to temples or their heroic tales of how they subdued the surrounding nations. Royals in antiquity were the ultimate authority and placed right after gods. Bust of Alexander the great to Colossal sphinx at Giza, all such impressive work is available throughout antiquity. I am not sure if the people of ancient world created these by force or out of love for their kings or  may be the money was good in glorifying imperials of antiquity, but their work has survived the test of time. My favorite are the Blue tiled Lions and other animals from the 2500 years old Ishtar gate part of the processional way leading into the Babylon city of Neo-Babylonian Empire. The statues of curly bearded kings of Achaemenid Empire (550 BC) at Istanbul Archaeology Museum are also impressive.


Focus on luxurious and grand afterlife has contributed the most to the world of archaeology. People in antiquity really invested a lot in preparation to meet their gods. Nabatean people carved mountains some 1900 years ago to lay their nobles to rest while Egyptians build the magnificent Pyramids at Giza around 4600 years ago for their royals to rest in peace and in style too. 1700 years old Sidamara marble sarcophagus at Istanbul archaeology museum highlights the skilled craftsmanship of Roman sculpturers while Egyptians put 11kg solid gold funerary mask on their Pharaoh highlighting the investment that went into ensuring status in afterlife.

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