Organizer, Deena Ragavan
The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
1155 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
March 2-3, 2012


The cult centers of the ancient world were the prime location and focus of ritual activity. Temples and shrines were not constructed in isolation, but existed as part of what may be termed a ritual landscape, where ritualized movement within individual buildings, temple complexes, and the city as a whole shaped their function and meaning. Furthermore, both ritual practice and temple topography may provide evidence for the conception of the temple as a reflection, or embodiment, of the cosmos.

This conference addresses interconnections between temple topography and architecture, ritual practice, and cosmic symbolism. There is a substantial body of literature devoted to this topic, from archaeological, textual, and theoretical perspectives in various different ancient cultures, which suggests an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural analysis. Recent work illustrates the significance of this subject just as it illuminates the value of historical and comparative perspectives. The conference brings together archaeologists, art historians, and philologists working all across the ancient world (Mesoamerica, Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Iran, South Asia, and China). The main goal of the meeting is to facilitate communication between scholars of different fields in order to share questions and methods which might provide new avenues of research or enable the use of comparative data. The importance of this topic is paramount not only to scholars of the ancient world, but also to the study of religion, particularly the understanding and interpretation of ritual and sacred architecture.

Background: The Example of Mesopotamia

The understanding of the interaction between temple, ritual, and cosmos in the ancient Near East is frequently overshadowed by the influence of Mircea Eliade and his interpretation of the Babylonian akitu festival as a ritual enactment of the cosmogonic process (1954: 54-58). His theories, including his development of the categories of imago mundi, axis mundi, and the symbolism of the center (1959: 22), have since been criticized for their attempt to universalize region-specific principles, and his misunderstanding of the Babylonian material in particular (e.g., Smith 1972; Smith 1987; Korom 1992). Nonetheless, the idea of the temple as microcosm can still be argued to be relevant for interpretations of sacred architecture (e.g., Jones 2000/2: 37-39).

The study of the temple in the ancient Near East has often concentrated specifically on the process of constructing a temple, particularly from the perspective of narrative and historical accounts of royal building activity (Klein 1989; Averbeck 1987; Suter 2000). This topic was covered most recently by a collection of essays that establish the importance of temple building as a royal prerogative, but also examines the role of ritual in shaping architecture across much of the Near East (Boda and Novotny 2010). Studies of ritual and cultic topography in Mesopotamia have largely focused on the temples and festivals of the first millennium BCE, for which substantial textual and archaeological evidence, documenting ritual and topographical features of the cultic landscape, is extant (e.g., George 1992; Pongratz-Leisten 1994). Nevertheless, there are ever-increasing amounts of data, especially in the form of administrative records, for the festivals and temples of the third millennium BCE (Sallaberger 1993).

Essential to this topic is the careful coordination of evidence from a range of textual and archaeological sources. Names of shrines and structures mentioned in administrative records, historical inscriptions, and topographical texts may be representations of cosmic locations in mythological and literary texts. The existence of such correlations in Mesopotamia have been suggested for the "Holy Mound" (e.g., George 1992: 286-91; Hruška 1996: 169-71) and the apsû, the cosmic underground waters (e.g., Sigrist 1992: 141; Charpin 1986: 335). Other scholars have integrated historical data and archaeological evidence to argue for the deliberate encoding of cosmic symbolism into the plan and architecture of specific temples (Huxley 2000; James and van der Sluijs 2008).

Of particular importance is the connection between mythological and literary texts and ritual practice. The possibility that some myths represent ritual activities, which would have had to take place within the geographic reality of Mesopotamia, has been the subject of much discussion. Compositions concerned with death and the netherworld have been especially susceptible to such interpretations (e.g., Katz 2007; Kramer 1991; Cavigneaux and al-Rawi 2000: 4-9). Texts describing divine journeys have often been considered to reflect cultic practice, perhaps in the form of ritual processions of the statues of the gods (Ferrara 1978: 354; Buccellati 1982; Van Buren 1952: 301-04). The myth of Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld has been understood to describe the movement of the goddess in her astral form, the planet Venus, as it sets below the horizon in the west (e.g., Wilcke 1976: 83ff.; see also Cooley 2008). Steinkeller (forthcoming) argues there is evidence that the festival of the Heavenly Boat (Sallaberger 1993: 216-19), celebrated as part of the cult of Inanna at Uruk in the late third millennium BCE, marked this mythic passage with a sequence of ritual offerings. This sequence seems to correlate to the stops on her journey through the netherworld and the ritual may have required the use of an actual boat, perhaps to transport the cult image. The possibility that the movement of the gods through the cosmos, as represented in myth, is matched by ritual movement in a cultic context, is often touched on, but needs to be explored in greater depth.

The Conference: Interdisciplinary Analysis and Cross-cultural Comparison

As demonstrated by the example given above, it is vital to consider these complex themes from an interdisciplinary standpoint. The integration of philological data, visual imagery, and archaeological evidence is necessary not only to enable our understanding of architecture and ritual long since partly, or fully, lost, but also to create a coherent framework with which to analyze their interaction. Through close textual analysis, art historical approaches to the experience of architecture, and anthropological perspectives on ritual, we may then further our knowledge of ancient religious practices.

The correspondence between sacred architecture and cosmic order is a particularly fruitful topic for cross-cultural comparison and such an approach is likely to enrich the study of the temple across the ancient world. Jones has argued strongly for the utility, indeed the necessity, of comparison with regard to sacred architecture (2000/1: 152). The existence of convincing systemic parallels between two cultures might suggest the possibility of future research using analogical arguments (e.g., Winter 2000). The utility of the comparative approach, however, lies not only in observing similarities, but also through understanding differences.

One of the most significant distinctions between different fields of research in the study of ancient cultures is the extent to which methodological considerations are informed by the available evidence. The construction of temples in Egypt, for example, has been extensively studied, often with regard to practical considerations (Arnold 1991; Preys 2009). The temple there is frequently characterized as an imitation of the cosmos (e.g., Baines 1994; Bryan 1992; Shafer 1997) and close analysis of the interaction between sacred space and ritual activity, based on evidence from texts, reliefs and archaeological data, has been a productive topic of research for Egyptian scholars (e.g., Arnold 1962; Gundlach and Rochholz 1994; Dorman and Bryan 2007; Haring and Klug 2007).

The temples of ancient India have also received substantial treatment with regard to their cosmic meaning (e.g., Michell 1988; Kramrisch 1976: 21-63), but the interpretation of sacred architecture in India has been influenced by the significant body of ritual and architectural texts (śãstras), which provide detailed rules and conventions for all aspects of planning and construction and ritual practice. The use of these texts has not only supplemented understanding of the symbolism of temple architecture, but encouraged research into the meaning of plans, proportions, and architecture as science (e.g., Meister 1979; 1983; 1990). The question of the interrelationship between cosmos and architecture has also been investigated in ancient Greece, where the use of proportion and geometry is considered vital to this topic (e.g., Hahn 2001). The question of whether similar constraints existed in other cultures, such as the example of Mesopotamia, also arises, with the possibility that they were perhaps articulated in the form of metrological texts (e.g., George 1995; Azarpay 1987).

Goal of the Conference

This conference seeks to re-evaluate, in the light of recent research, the relationship between sacred architecture, ritual practice, and the cosmos in the civilizations of the ancient world. Scholars have been invited to examine this topic through three broad approaches:

  1. the correspondence between sacred architecture and cosmic geography
  2. the association between myths of divine journeys and ritual practice
  3. the interaction between sacred space and ritual space

Contributions to the symposium include both broad critiques of particular regional traditions, as well as specific historical cases. The conference aims to equip scholars with new questions and new theoretical and methodological tools to bring to their own research in architecture, ritual, and cosmology.

Participants (**Respondent)

  • Claus Ambos (Seminar für Sprachen und Kulturen des Vorderen Orients, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg)
  • John Baines (Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford)
  • Gary Beckman (Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan)
  • Matthew Canepa (Department of Art History, University of Minnesota)
  • Davíd Carrasco (Harvard Divinity School / Department of Anthropology, Harvard University)**
  • Elizabeth Frood (Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford)
  • Uri Gabbay (Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
  • Susanne Görke (Institut für Ägyptologie und Altorientalistik, Johannes Gutenberg-Universitát Mainz)
  • Ömür Harmanşah (Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University)
  • Julia Hegewald (Institut für Orient- und Asienwissenschaften, Universität Bonn)
  • Clemente Marconi (Institute of Fine Arts, New York University)
  • Michael W. Meister (History of Art Department, University of Pennsylvania)
  • Tracy Miller (Department of History of Art, Vanderbilt University)
  • Richard Neer (Department of Art History, University of Chicago)**
  • Deena Ragavan (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)
  • Betsey A. Robinson (Department of History of Art, Vanderbilt University)
  • Yorke M. Rowan (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)
  • Karl Taube (Department of Anthropology, University of California Riverside)

Participant Bios

Claus Ambos studied Assyriology, Near Eastern archaeology, and Indology at Berlin, Leipzig, and Heidelberg. He wrote a doctoral thesis on Mesopotamian building rituals (Heidelberg, 2002) and a habilitation thesis on the Babylonian New Year's Festival in autumn (Heidelberg, 2010). He is currently research fellow in the Collaborative Research Centre Ritual Dynamics - Socio-Cultural Processes from a Historical and Culturally Comparative Perspective at Heidelberg. Since 2008 he has also been active in the Priority Research Field The Order of Space, Norms, and Law in the Historical Cultures of Europe and Asia at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

John Baines is professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford. He has held visiting appointments at institutions in a number of countries. His publications include Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt (with Jaromir Malék, 2nd edition, 2000), Fecundity Figures (1985), Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt (2007), and The Disappearance of Writing Systems (edited with John Bennet and Stephen Houston, 2008). He has published widely in collected volumes and academic journals. His main research interests are in Egyptian art, religion, literature, and social forms. He is currently working on ancient elite exploitation of the rural environment and on a volume of studies of Egyptian kingship.

Gary Beckman is professor of Hittite and Mesopotamian studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. He is past president of the American Oriental Society and associate editor of the society's journal. He has published widely on Hittite social organization and diplomacy and on Hittite religion, including an essay on "Temple Building among the Hittites" (2010). The focus of his current research is the reception and adaptation of Syro-Mesopotamian culture by the Hittites. He is completing an edition of the tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh recovered from the site of the Hittite capital, Hattusa.

Matthew Canepa teaches ancient art and archaeology in the Department of Art History at the University of Minnesota. His research tends to focus on the intersection of art, ritual, and power in the ancient Iranian world and the Mediterranean. His first book, entitled The Two Eyes of the Earth (Berkeley, 2009), is the first to analyze the artistic, ritual, and ideological interactions between the Roman and Sasanian empires. It was awarded the 2010 James Henry Breasted Prize from the American Historical Association for the best book in English on any field of history prior to 1000 CE. He is currently writing a book exploring the transformation of Iranian art and kingship between the invasions of Alexander and Islam.

Davíd Carrasco is a historian of religions focusing on the cities and symbols of Mesoamerican traditions in comparative perspective. Carrasco's work has explored the dynamics between social and symbolic "centers" and "peripheries" through his analysis of five major ceremonial cities in pre-Columbian cultures. His work at the Great Aztec Temple and at Teotihuacan in Mexico resulted in a series of publications including Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, City of Sacrifice, and the recent multi-disciplinary analysis of a rediscovered sixteenth-century codex Cave, City and Eagle's Nest: An Interpretive Journey Through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan #2 (co-edited with Scott Sessions). His interest in primary documents is also shown in his recent abridgement of Bernal Diaz del Castillo's The History of the Conquest of New Spain. He is the recipient of the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle.

Elizabeth Frood is University Lecturer in Egyptology at the Faculty of Oriental Studies and fellow of St. Cross College, University of Oxford. Her research is centered on features of self-presentation of Egyptian elites in the late second and early first millennium BC. In particular, she focuses on the interpretive analysis of non-royal inscriptions within their broader physical settings, especially temples. Her new research project to edit and publish graffiti in the temple of Amun at Karnak, in collaboration with the Centre Franco-Égyptien d'Étude des Temples de Karnak, has developed out of this work. She is author of Biographical Texts from Ramesside Egypt (2007).

Uri Gabbay teaches in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research focuses on the repertoire of the "lamentation-priest" of ancient Mesopotamia (kalûtu), namely Sumerian Emesal prayers (especially Balag and Ershema) and their ritual context. He has recently completed a book dealing with various aspects of the Emesal prayers, including their theology, their cultic and musical performance, and their scribal context. This book will be published in the near future, as well as another book based on an updated version of his dissertation (2007) with editions of all first-millennium Ershema prayers.

Susanne Görke is a research associate at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz. Her research interests are ancient Anatolia and Mesopotamia. She has published on Hittite rituals (Das Ritual der Aštu (CTH 490) — Rekonstruktion und Tradition eines hurritisch-hethitischen Rituals aus Boǧazköy/Hattuša, CHANE 40, 2010), Hittite festivals (Die Darstellung von Orten nach den "Reisefesten" des hethitischen Königs, 2010, Prozessionen in hethitischen Festritualen als Ausdruck königlicher Herrschaft, 2008), as well as on the Hurrian language (Einige Bemerkungen zu den hurritischen Sprüchen des Giziya-Rituals, with D. Bawanypeck, 2007). She is currently part of the project Beschwörungsrituale der Hethiter at Mainz University to publish Hittite rituals online, of the German-Italian Vigoni-Project on Hittite foundation rituals, and of the international ViGMA-Project under the supervision of A. Mouton (Strasbourg, Paris) where she is working on Hittite calendar rites.

Ömür Harmansah works on the archaeology of the ancient Near East, particularly Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia. Born and raised in Turkey, Ömür studied architecture and architectural history at the Middle East Technical University (Ankara). He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania (2005), with a dissertation on the practice of founding cities in the ancient Near East. He participated in several archaeological projects in Turkey and Greece such as Kerkenes Dag and Isthmia, while he is currently involved with projects at Gordion and Ayanis in Turkey. He directs Yalburt Yaylasi Archaeological Landscape Research Project, a survey project addressing questions of place and landscape in Konya Province of Central Turkey.

Julia A. B. Hegewald is professor and head of the Department of Asian and Islamic Art History in the Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies (IOA) at the University of Bonn. Her research work has mainly focused on South Asia and the Himalayan region. She is director of an interdisciplinary research project on Jaina culture in Karnataka (funded by the DFG). Julia A. B. Hegewald has been a reader in art history and visual studies at the University of Manchester and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, and at University College Oxford. Her books are Water Architecture in South Asia: A Study of Types, Developments and Meanings (Brill, 2002), Jaina Temple Architecture in India: The Development of a Distinct Language in Space and Ritual (G+H Verlag, 2009), and The Jaina Heritage: Distinction, Decline and Resilience (Samskriti, 2010).

Clemente Marconi was educated in classics at the University of Rome - La Sapienza and in classical art and archaeology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. His books, articles, and reviews are dedicated to the art and architecture of the Greek world in the archaic and classical periods. Arguing for a closer interaction between the study of ancient art and disciplines such as semiotics, anthropology, and hermeneutics, Marconi explores the connection between architecture, the visual arts, and other media (such as rituals or texts), investigating their form, meaning, and social function. An expert in the archaeology of Sicily, Marconi is the director of the IFA excavations on the Akropolis of Selinunte. He is also involved in the IFA investigations of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace.

Michael W. Meister, W. Norman Brown, Professor of South Asia Studies in the Department of the History of Art, is a specialist in the art of India and Pakistan. He has served as chair of the Departments of History of Art and South Asia Studies and as director of Penn's South Asia Center; he is consulting curator of the Asian Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; and faculty curator of the South Asia Art Archive, van Pelt Library, within Penn Library's South Asia Image Collection. His research focuses on temple architecture, the morphology of meaning, and other aspects of the art of the Indian subcontinent.

Tracy Miller is associate professor of history of art and Asian studies at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches East Asian art and architectural history. Her research focuses on the culture of ritual sites in middle-period China (618-1644 CE), specifically the ways in which identity was expressed visually through the media of temples and their artistic programs. Her first book, The Divine Nature of Power: Chinese Ritual Architecture at the Sacred Site of Jinci, was published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2007.

Richard Neer is David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Humanities, Art History and the College at Chicago. He is also Executive Editor of Critical Inquiry. He works on the intersection of aesthetics, archaeology and art history, especially Classical Greek and neo-Classical French art. He has received fellowships and awards from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the J. Paul Getty Trust and the American Academy in Rome. Recent books are The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture (2010) and The Art and Archaeology of the Greek World: A New History, 2000-100 BCE (2011). He is currently working on theories of style in recent aesthetics, and questions of evidence, criteria and judgment in some films by Godard, Malick and others.

Deena Ragavan is a post-doctoral scholar at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Her main interests are Mesopotamian religion, literature, and architecture. She received her BA in ancient Near Eastern studies from the University of London and her PhD in Sumerian and Akkadian from Harvard University. Her dissertation examined Mesopotamian cosmology and the symbolism of sacred architecture as represented in the Sumerian literary tradition. She has recently published a group of mostly Old Assyrian tablets from the Harvard Art Museum/Arthur M. Sackler Museum collection. She is currently working on a book about Sumerian temple architecture and topography based on textual and archaeological evidence.

Betsey A. Robinson's primary interests include Greek and Roman architecture, ancient cities and sanctuaries, and landscapes -- actual, imagined, and as represented in ancient art and literature. Current research projects address Hellenistic and Roman activity and patronage in Greek sanctuaries and sacred games, monuments and mosaics of Roman Greece, and the history of archaeological excavation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She is author of Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia (Princeton: ASCSA 2011).

Yorke Rowan is research associate in the archaeology of the Southern Levant with the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. He has been a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, a visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, and a Fulbright Scholar in Jordan. His research focuses on the rise of social complexity, craft specialization (particularly stone vessels), and prehistoric ritual and mortuary practices. His edited volume Beyond Belief: The Archaeology of Religion and Ritual is currently in press; another volume, edited with J. L. Lovell, Culture, Chronology and the Chalcolithic: Theory and Transition appeared in 2011. He directs the Oriental Institute's excavations at the Chalcolithic (ca. 4500-3600 BC) site of Marj Rabba, in Israel, and investigations at two late prehistoric sites in the eastern desert of Jordan.

Karl Taube is professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside. In addition to extensive archaeological and linguistic fieldwork in Yucatan, Professor Taube has participated on archaeological projects in Chiapas, Mexico, coastal Ecuador, highland Peru, Copan, Honduras, and in the Motagua Valley of Guatemala. Taube is currently serving as the project iconographer for the San Bartolo Project in the Peten of Guatemala. Taube has broad interests in the archaeology and ethnology of Mesoamerica and the American Southwest, including the development of agricultural symbolism in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the American Southwest, and the relation of Teotihuacan to the Classic Maya. Much of his recent research and publications center upon the writing and religious systems of ancient Mesoamerica.


Deena Ragavan (Organizer)
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
1155 E. 58th St., Chicago IL 60637

Tel: (+1) 773-702-7497


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