A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Architecture

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The top part of a column, at the end of the shaft and below the ABACUS, which provides an enlarged surface for the horizontal elements carried by the support. A support does not by necessity have a capital, and it is doubtful whether the simple tree trunk used as a post had any ornate form of termination.

Only capitals made of stone have survived. In Mesopotamia, capitals were sometimes made of metal, but none has been found. Most of the capitals preserved belonged to Egyptian columns. The Egyptians did not develop a coherent aesthetic canon or order as did the Greeks, who perfected the structural logic of trabeated architecture. The Egyptian attitude towards design was additive rather than coherent; therefore the capital formed an independent element and did not influence the form and measurements of the architrave or the base.

Egyptian columns in all but monumental stone structures were made of tree trunks, and we know from architectural representations that the top parts of such columns could be adorned with bunches of leaves and flowers. The plant capitals of the Egyptian stone column may derive from such perishable decorations, in keeping with Egyptian practice of ‘eternalising’ transitory ornaments (see KHEKHER ORNAMENT or DJED ORNAMENT). The choice of plants to be rendered in stone, however, was probably determined by their symbolical associations. The many forms of the lotus flower (or lily), for instance, corresponded to the hieroglyph for Upper Egypt; the single-stemmed papyrus with an open flower was symbolic for Lower Egypt, but there were religious connotations as well. The most elaborate floral capitals date from the Graeco-Roman period. Exquisitely carved, and composed of many different layers of foliage, they resemble festive bouquets (see PHILAE, EDFU).

The so-called ‘Hathor capitals’ may go back to the practice of tying ritual objects to the posts of archaic temples. The whole column has the shape of a sistrum (a sort of ritual rattle), with the shaft representing the handle, while the capital bears the face of Hathor with her characteristic locks and cow’s ears, on one or each of the four sides of the capital. Such columns are known from the Middle Kingdom onwards, in temples dedicated to this goddess (see DENDERA). A late variation of this type is the Bes capital, who as the god of fertility appears on some Ptolemaic MAMISSIS (eg Philae, Dendera).

Probably the strangest capital ever invented was the Achaemenian animal-protome capital (PERSEPOLIS), which fuses various decorative and sculptural elements from diverse sources into a typically Persian composite.

The Proto-Aeolic capital was employed on top of pilasters and columns in the Levant and Syro-Palestine (eg SAMARIA, MEGIDDO). It consists of a double volute scroll on either end of a triangular leaf, probably associated with the Tree of Life, a recurrent theme in the decorative arts of these civilisations. It might have reached Greece by intermission from Cyprus.

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