The Oldest Buildings in the World, Part II: North America, Africa, and Asia

Today is Part II of our look at the world’s oldest buildings by continent. Part I can be found here; Part II can be found here.

North America – Cuicuilco Circular Pyramid, 800-600 BCE

SouthsideCuicuilcoPyramid

View of Cuicuilco’s main circular pyramid looking south from the Anillo Periférico freeway in Mexico City. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CuicuilcoPerifericoDF.JPG.


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Located on what was the southern shore of Lake Texcoco in what is now Mexico City, the pyramid complex at Cuicuilco was once the centre of a city holding 20 000 people. Of the many structures at Cuicuilco, the oldest extant is a pyramidal basement built between 800 and 600 BCE. The pyramid base remains visible as a mound along with seven other structures and even some of the ancient city’s water system. As for the city of Cuicuilco, it was usurped by nearby Teotihuacán (which became the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas with 125 000 residents) around 150-200 AD after much of the city was covered by lava up to 10 m (33 ft) deep from the nearby Xitle volcano. Parts of the site have been damaged by encroaching urban sprawl (directly adjacent to the site is a large complex of office buildings), but what remains is thankfully protected by Mexico’s (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia).

SouthsideCuicuilcoPyramid

The south side of the pyramid. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CuicuilcoPerifericoDF.JPG.

Africa – Pyramid of Djoser, ca. 2650 BCE

640px-Saqqara_pyramid

Source: C.J. Sharp, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saqqara_pyramid.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Not only the oldest building still standing in Africa but the tallest structure in the world at the time of its construction at 62 m (203 ft) in height, the Pyramid of Djoser (Zoser), also known as the Step Pyramid of Saqqara after its shape and the name of the necropolis in which it stands, was built in the 27th century BCE to serve as the tomb of Pharaoh Djoser. Originally meant to be a flat-topped burial chamber or mastaba, Djoser’s vizier, Imhotep, kept expanding the building until he eventually stacked six layers on top of one another forming a pyramid using 330 400 m3 (11.6 million cu ft) of stone and clay encased in a limestone wall (some limestone remains on the east side of the pyramid). 5.5 km (3.5 mi) of tunnels run through and under the structure (40 000 separate vessels were found in a single tunnel), but they were not enough to prevent looters from raiding the tomb, including Djoser’s corpse (only his mummified left foot remains). The pyramid was surrounded by courtyards and by numerous out-buildings; smaller temples and chapels used for religious services and pharaoh worship.

As with many of Egypt’s ancient pyramids, the Pyramid of Djoser is in dire need of repair as the effect of time wear away at the building. In 1992, an earthquake caused a large portion of the 28 m (90 ft) burial chamber to collapse which in turn could have led to a further chain reaction of collapses within a number of decades. The ceiling of the burial chamber has since been reinforced with water-filled air bags while a restoration project aims to restore permanent stability to the structure.

Asia – Mehrgarh, no later than 2600 BCE

While part of the Indus Valley civilisation, the site of Mehrgarh was located not directly on the river but rather 240 km (150 mi) to the west on the Kachi plain at the foot of the Bolan Pass in what is now Balochistan, Pakistan. Since the initial excavation of the site in 1974, archaeological diggings have shown that humans have lived and farmed here since 7000 BCE, making Mehrgarh one of the earliest agricultural settlements on Earth. The earliest preserved buildings here date to no later than 2600 BCE and possibly millennia earlier: simplistic-yet-efficient square mud structures divided into four rooms. The two best-preserved houses measure 6.25 x 4.5 m (20.5 ft x 14.8 ft) and 5 x 4.2 m (16.4 x 13.8 ft). Six-roomed buildings are also present, and also likely were used as storage facilities.

Even at this early stage, houses at Mehrgarh already boasted conveniences such as second-floor bathrooms and access to covered sewers. Newer buildings at the site were literally built on top the ruins of older, partially-collapsed buildings whose walls had been mixed with refuse to create a burial ground (the deceased were buried in the accumulated waste) in a process that would repeat itself every couple of generations for approximately a millennium. The city would exist in one form or another until around 2 600 BCE, after which it was abandoned and progressively covered by sediment from the nearby Bolan River; it was only after a flash flood in 1970 exposed some of the artefacts and structures that archaeological activity began here.

Further Reading

DeLange, E. and G. DeLange (2011). Cuicuilco Pyramid Archaeological Ruins. DeLange.org. Available at http://www.delange.org/. Accessed 9 July 2013.

Instituto Latinomaericana de la Comunicación Educativa (n.d.). Cuicuilco. Prodigios de la Naturaleza. Available at http://redescolar.ilce.edu.mx/redescolar/publicaciones/publi_prodigios/df.html. Accessed 9 July 2013.

James, P. (2012). Egypt’s ‘Collapsing’ Pyramids. Past Horizons, 22 October 2012. Available at http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/10/2012/egypts-collapsing-pyramids. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Jarrige, J-F. (2008). Mehrgarh Neolithic. Prāghdhārā 18: 136-154. Available at http://archaeology.up.nic.in/doc/mn_jfj.pdf. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Jarus, O. (2012). Step Pyramid of Djoser: Egypt’s First Pyramid. LiveScience, 10 September 2012. Available at http://www.livescience.com/23050-step-pyramid-djoser.html. Accessed 8 July 2013.

National Geographic Society (1996). Step Pyramid of Djoser: Egypt’s First Pyramid. Egypt: Secrets of an Ancient World. Available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pyramids/djoser.html. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Pyramids of Egypt, The. (2004). Djoser Complex. Available at http://egyptphoto.ncf.ca/Djoser%20complex.htm. Accessed 9 July 2013.

Suburban Management Energy Project (2008). Mehrgarh, Pakistan: Discovery of a 9000-Year-Old Civilized Settlement. Biot Report 578. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20090614205213/http://www.semp.us/publications/biot_reader.php?BiotID=579. Accessed 9 July 2013.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2004). Archaeological Site of Mehrgarh. 30 January 2004. Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1876/. Accessed 8 July 2013.

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