This was pretty much until the commercial buildings of the 20th century displaced them. “Ah ha,” you might postulate, “but didn’t commerce effectively replace religion in terms of unparalleled societal grandeur and hence one could suggest the tallest buildings of any epoch are a sure indicator of the main driving factor of a civilisation?” Quite possibly. That’s a wee sideline of anthropological analysis for you there.
So anyway, back in the day, getting the building materials right for your religious buildings was pretty much top of your list of priorities and, generally speaking, stone is pretty good stuff for building with; it’s hardwearing, abundant, weatherproof and strong. Just ask any engineer, and he’ll tell you. (Actually he’ll probably say “How do you know I’m an engineer? And who the hell are you? How did you get into my house? Get out! Argh!”)
But sometimes God demands specific materials. So when some sweaty prophet staggers from his manky shack and starts gibbering about towers of stacked horse livers then suddenly the construction logistics have gone right over the engineers’ heads.
Then if the engineers moan about it you can quite justifiably set fire to them and hire newer, more suitably religious ones who trust God’s dictats more than they trust the so-called laws of physics. God built the world out of nothing but honest hard work. Explain that, physics.
5. Rongbuk Monastery, Stone (Tibet)
Let’s start off with stone. As I said, one of the main reasons for its use is its abundance. The chaps who built Rongbuk Monastery made a savvy choice in picking the part of the world with more rock than anywhere else; the Himalaya mountains.
This is a fantastically religious site, as there is little else to do apart from sit around, look at the great big silent mountains and compare yourself to them in a vaguely spiritual manner. Ta-dah, instant religiousness, plus it would feel like penitence to just reach the place, since at 17,000 feet it's the highest temple in the world. Surely any religion would be proud to have it as one of its temples.
As it happens, it’s Buddhists who are fortunate enough to own the place. Buddhists are excellent religionists in that they are dead keen on the praying and dedication aspects of religion, although they lose points because they hardly ever have holy wars, and how can someone be serious about their religion if they aren’t willing to stab someone in the face to establish their brand of peace and tolerance?
Ha! That was irony.
4. Tōdai-ji, Wood (Japan)
Buddhists again, having a go with another building material that’s as common as trees in a forest; wood.
Wood compares unfavourably to stone in one aspect, in that it is infinitely more flammable. The temple has burned down twice, although that’s not bad considering it’s over a thousand years old. There have been hundreds of earthquakes in that time, and stone is not famed for its ability to bend and sway. So I feel that wood was a good choice.
The Great Hall of the Tōdai-ji is the biggest wooden building in the world; good going for a building which was built in 1709 (After one o’ them naughty fires destroyed the old one.) But if you think it's impressive that the largest wooden building is over 300 years old, wrap your mind around this next factsicle; the old temple was 30% larger than the modern one.
3. Harmandir Sahib, Gold (India)
“Right, this temple is to be the spiritual centre of Sikhism,” the designers were clearly told. “Bear in mind the following two points; 1. Build the place out of a material that looks really, really impressive, and 2. Money’s no object.”
So they built it out of gold. Nice one. Makes the marble and paint of St. Peter’s Basilica looks like balsa wood held together with chewing gum.
I remember once hearing that the Harmandir Sahib, if melted down, would have a massive effect on the international gold market, but I can’t find the statistic, so I am increasingly certain that whatever I heard either A.) was made up or B.) I dreamt it. But there is an awful lot of gold there.
2. Sedlec Ossuary, bones (Czech Republic)
Stone; it’s hardwearing and easy to find. It’s just lying around. However, you need a lot, and while not everyone will know where to find the nearest quarry anyone you ask will know where you can get your hands on a few bones. Every little helps, and if it’s in the name of God you don’t even have to ask them at all, brilliant!
Actually, what happened was the abbot at Sedlec sprinkled some particularly holy soil in the graveyard, and suddenly Sedlec was the “it” graveyard. Anyone who was anyone wanted to be buried there, and soon the place was full.
Then a dude called Frantisek Rint had a marvellous idea. Why not dig up the skeletons and use them to make chandeliers, coats of arms, and garlands of skulls? The answer would probably be “Because that’s an insane idea, Mr Rint, you crazy madman,” but no-one was around to offer this counter-opinion, so that’s what happened.
The ossuary contains the skeletons of 70,000 people. Makes that box you keep your baby teeth in look pretty sub-par.
1. Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, Mud (Ghana)
Well, mud is not as tough as stone, and it’s not as impressive as gold (or even bone), and it’s not as flexible as wood. But something has to be said for using what you have. And Ghana has a lot of mud and even more sunshine, which dries the mud into a quite-tough, almost-weatherproof covering. Good enough, nuff said.