Domes of the Prophets

The Oracular Beginnings of Sacred Architecture?

“Close both eyes to see with the other eye.”  —Rumi

It seems a given that dome-like buildings of the ancient day were consistently dedicated to otherworldly matters—temples, mosques, tombs, observatories, ceremonial chambers, spirit huts, council rooms—like Lebanon’s Domes of the Prophets or Sumeria’s Sacred Hut or the iwans of the Middle East or the vaulted roof at Ctesiphon (once the Persian capital) or Egypt’s sealed and domed serdab, which, in the Old Kingdom, housed the Ka statue of the pharaohs.

Although the majestic dome later became the signature of Islamic architecture—as seen in the beautiful madrassas and masjids—like the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, and even the Taj Mahal—the “onion dome” goes back many centuries, even millennia, before the time of the Prophet Mohammed. The iwan, for example, originated with the Parthians at Seleucia and Ashur in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). Earlier, still, are the Elamite vaulted roofs at Susa, Uruk III, and Assyria’s Nineveh. Even earlier, Assyria’s Tepe Gawra, a “Halaf” (pre-Sumerian) town near Nineveh, sported adobe buildings (not reed huts) at its lowest level. These were circular, domed structures, 15 feet across—and entirely windowless. It is this unusual feature—no windows—that will allow us to trace its origins.

The Halafians, who founded Umm Qseir in northeast Syria, left their mark: today around Aleppo in northern Syria, one can still see beehive-shaped houses. But their prototype is very old: as much as 10,000 years ago, the people of Jordan built houses of this type. As old as Jericho, Catal Huyuk, a well-known Anatolian site, with the world’s earliest landscape paintings and finely woven cloth, had as many as 63 of these odd windowless buildings—and only 103 dwellings, which might suggest a center of worship. Other Turkish domes of that time (8,000 years ago) were at the Hittite settlement of Hattusa, and they were also windowless. What purpose did these darkened cult buildings serve?

Across the Aegean Sea—in a hop, skip and jump from Old Turkey—these curious rotundas reached the Balkan States, and it is here that their Greek name tholos (tholoi, plural) took hold. But many thousands of years before crossing to southeast Europe, Iraqis built Yarim Tepe, a 9,000-year-old town with copper, impressive pottery, agriculture—and a few buildings small and round, the roof domed.

The “Tepe” in both Gawra Tepe and Yarim Tepe is key. Tepe, in all cases, designates sacred heights, eminences upon which the ancients chose to build sanctuaries, monastic enclaves, and centers of learning. Afghanistan’s very old Tillya Tepe, for example, was the site of a fire temple; Turkey’s Gobekli Tepe was, as Robert Schoch saw it, “the locus for a variety of rituals … [and] a center of knowledge … the area held in reverence” (Forgotten Civilization, 45, 51-2). It was to find the source of that “knowledge”—and that holiness—that I pursued the origin of these singular lightless domes of the early Neolithic.

I began with those 9,000-year-old farmers at Yarim Tepe, noting in particular that these Halafians were the principal obsidian traders of their time. This led to Tell Arpachiyah, a well organized settlement with cobbled streets, near Mosul, at the Turko-Syrian frontier of northern Iraq. The site is best known for its distinctive amulets and figurines carved of obsidian. I wondered if these were all branches of the gentle Shepherd Kings of ancient Western Asia who “lived in peace, wandering about, making trinkets, which they oft exchanged with the inhabitants of cities.” (Oahspe, Book of Wars 21.4) These humble tribes were known as the principal seers of their day. Were they the faithful ones, friends of the Prophet? Abraham, we know, was descended through Arpaschad. (The lineage, telescoped, was from Noah to Shem to Arpachshad to Eber to Nahor to Abraham.) Were those tholoi at Arpachiyah a sign of Arpachshad’s people? Their domes were impressive, up to 32 feet across—yet simple—and they were windowless and completely empty. The town, considered an elite ritual center, contained the charming pottery of the Halafian culture.

Most Halafian villages were small, with scarcely more than 300 souls. Although these people had copper, weapons of war, arrows and spear heads were totally absent at Arpachiyah and Tell Halaf, indicating to Mary Settegast (When Zarathustra Spoke) “an advanced and peaceful people;” as followers of the prophet Zarathustra, their main concern was “to promote and nurture the religion… Excavators have found the… Halaf culture to have been characterized by a great many small and highly autonomous communities… Zarathustra’s followers had no distinction of occupation or class…  an egalitarian arrangement… [with] more private ritual activity… The Zoroastrian religion,” Settegast concluded, “is known for a scarcity of sacred architecture… [entailing] the virtual absence of recognizable religious structures or ceremonial architecture” (Settegast, 72-3).

Ah, but their domed sanctuaries were religious structures. Their egalitarian roundness is the first clue, but the giveaway is the absence of windows. Oracle chambers in the early Neolithic demanded the exclusion of light. Utter darkness. Stark windowless domes, whether made of earth, stone or wood, are actually found all across the globe. Ancient Celtic temples had no windows. In Ireland, next to Newgrange’s “fairy mounds,” we find tholoi, which Robert Graves identified as the oracular shrines of the Dagda (Tuatha De Danaan); just as monks and anchorites were the presumed builders of the beehive houses so common at later Irish and Scottish archaeological sites.

In County Kerry, the sixth century Gallarus Oratory was a place of pilgrimage, dimly lit with corbelled domes; off the Galway coast, on the Aran Islands, ancient beehive-shaped stone cells are called clochans. Similar tholos-like structures in Africa are known as masobo, meaning “ghost house,” reflecting their special venue for communion with spirits:

“The ancient prophet caused the worshippers to sit in the dark … By inspiration, the Lords established spirit chambers . . . where the prophets sat to learn the decrees of the Lord …” (Oahspe, Book of Apollo 14.10, Book of Cosmogony and Prophecy 11.13).

Neither was the dark chamber limited to the Old World. In Peru, the ruins of the Castle of Chavin de Huantar had three floors, its own system of ventilation, but no doors or windows. This suggests, some have argued, it represents a spaceship. However, the absence of doors and windows, rather than indicating a ‘space ship,’ might just as well signal the ancient temples of darkness, as noted also at the summit of certain Mayan pyramids. The same could probably be said of the completely empty and windowless domes that Col. P.H. Fawcett found deep in the jungles of Brazil. Such “unclassifiable” buildings have also been found in Laos, China, and at Panape (in Micronesia).

Even though the darkened dome goes back to the earliest Neolithic horizon, a sacred round hut is still used in Navajo ceremonies to keep themselves in balance. Navajos say they received this house plan from their tutelary spirits: “The circular hogan  … is constructed to encourage harmony, just as the spiritual beings first instructed,” explains archaeologist Charlie Cambridge, a Navajo Indian himself. Cambridge adds, “the circular hogan possesses spiritual power”; legend, after all, claims the first hogan was ‘connected to heaven.’ ”

The word hogan looks like a shortening of the ancient word hoogadoah: “For My angels to come and abide with My people, you shall provide the hoogadoah, the well‑covered house, and it shall have only one door, and pieces shall be put in the doorway, so that when My chosen are within, all shall be dark, so that My angels may teach them” (Oahspe, Book of Saphah: Agoquim, 9). Darkness apparently quiets the physical senses, awakening “the other eye.”

Not unlike the “dark circles” of nineteenth century Spiritualism, and quite literally “occult” (covered over), the séance huts of the Malaysians, taught them by their ancestral deity Tangoi, are called pan-oh, a word somewhat similar to the Polynesian o-pan-i, meaning: a special chamber at one end of the marae (temple). Such traditions alert us to the fact that temples of darkness, though indeed very ancient, are still in force in today’s world. For instance, when the Lakota Indians perform the Yuwipi (as the immortal Lame Deer explained this “finding-out” ceremony), “one must cover all windows and doors with blankets. Not the smallest flicker of light is allowed… A soul starts talking to you… ‘I have come to help you. So listen carefully’ ” (Lame Deer, “Yuwipi—Little Lights from Nowhere”).

While the dark chamber figures in the ritual life of the Navajo, Sioux, Hopi (kiva), Malaysians, as well as the ancient Mesopotamians, Celts, and Mayas, one of the oldest reference goes back to the Age of Osiris, perhaps ten or twelve thousand years ago; based on alluvial deposits as well as the number of eclipses observed by Egyptian astronomers, that enlightened age may indeed go back as much as 12,000 years (John D. Baldwin, Pre-historic Nations, 1869). The Pyramid Age itself may have been inaugurated by God Osiris who spoke to the soul of King Thothma, saying—“Provide thou a dark chamber and I will come and teach thee. Thothma provided a dark chamber and then Osiris … came to him, saying … In the form of a pyramid shalt thou build a Temple of Astronomy … Measure for measure, will I show thee every part … with chambers within … suitable for adepts” (Oahspe, Book of Wars 48.27-8).

A couple of British authors, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, in a fairly amazing book called The Stargate Conspiracy, probed the eternal question of how one “could account for the extraordinary knowledge implicit in the building of the pyramids.” The authors then discussed “clear signs of shamanistic influence at work in ancient Egypt,” suggesting that they thus acquired “the advanced techniques that enabled them to build the pyramids and carve the Great Sphinx.” Is it possible, they asked, that “the massive stone blocks were maneuvered into place according to the advice of the ‘gods’ visited by their priests in trance … Could the priesthood of Heliopolis have been in essence a college of shamans?”

That “college of shamans” might have been the seminary of Anubi, whose “rites and ceremonies were in dark chambers [wherein] the angels of heaven clothed in sar’gis [apparently materialized] took part  . . . teaching mortals by the voice, the mysteries of spirit communion … [Thus were] oracle structures made without windows so the angels could come in sar’gis” (Oahspe, Book of Wars 7.6, 21.4).

And speaking of “in the dark”—when archaeologists found those early beehive buildings completely empty, they drew a blank: “their origin and significance cannot be explained.” They expected bones! After all, most of Europe’s corbelled structures (in the Aegean, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brittany, Scotland, and Ireland) were royal tombs! All the passage graves of Europe were modeled on the Cretan round tombs, weren’t they? Based on prototypes like Thessaly’s Tombs of Minyos—right? Or the domed tombs of Cyrene and Pylos. Even the yacatas of Mexico at Michoacan and Monte Alban were tombs of the rulers, “the king buried with great pomp” (Richard E.W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica, 325, 329).

But they were essentially Bronze Age imitations of something a good deal more ancient. Temples are derived from tombs, declared the great English sociologist and Darwinist Herbert Spencer. In the case of the dark domes, however, it is just the opposite! Tombs took their architectural inspiration from the domes of the prophets, which were nothing more than their own humble temples. I think this can also be demonstrated in the South Seas where the Samoans, in keeping with customs of the earlier times, did not use their temples (fale-aitu) for burials. Although powerful priesthoods did develop on other islands, the Samoan “worship was generally private … every householder a priest.” (Johannes C. Anderson, Myths and Legends of the Polynesians).

Today, Dame History, hobbled by adoration of the ancient Greeks, has lost sight of the prior civilization that fed its greatness. With these blinders in place, all domes must be sepulchres, like the 1500 BC Mycenaean tombs; Oman’s stone-built beehives huts (3500 BC) must be graves—even though they hold no burial remains! Well, then, in that case, those empty tholoi (no bones) must have been granaries or storehouses, like those found in Upton, Massachusetts, which archaeologists shelved as “colonial rootcellars.” Likewise, when empty and undecorated serdab chambers were found inside Egypt’s early pyramids (like the Pyramid of Menkaure), they must have been built as storage chambers!

There is a reason those chambers held neither piles of potatoes and garlic nor bones of the ancestor. Round, dark, and sacred, they were the communal sanctums—spartan, unadorned—that dotted the landscape of Western Asia long before any Bronze or Iron Age oligarch decided it would be cool to be buried in grandiose, yea megalithic, tombs. Neither was it some high priest working for the king but the community itself, the collective that gathered in the tholos—a “highly autonomous” and egalitarian people, living under no king. The Zarathustrians never established kings of their own. The people of the prophet had no priestly class.

“They are so exactly just, that the gods many times vouchsafe to converse with them,” said Theopompus, describing the good people of the ancient day. In fact, it would not be quite accurate to say they gathered for “worship” per se. No, they gathered to learn, to find out (just as the Lakota Sioux still do, in their Yuwipi). In New Zealand, too, the Maori house of worship was called hare-kura, lit., “temple of learning.” Why, after all, were the Parthian iwans so elaborately sculpted with images of angels? Isn’t it for the same reason that “The Mysteries” are so frequently said to have been revealed by the ancestors, their tutelary spirits? I think our idea of “worship” and even “angels” might be a bit naïve: the earliest temples were as much centers of learning as places of piety. People today, I reckon, tend to regard angels or higher beings as somehow appointed to “protect” them. These angels or gods, I imagine, would have an easier time protecting us if we learned the lessons in the first place, whether written in stone or upon our hearts.

By Susan B. Martinez, Ph.D.