Humans have invested years of their time and energy towards building structures in the direction of the sky, just like living beings that thrive on photosynthesis, reaching up for the sun. We can go way back if we’re talking about magnificent works of architecture. For those who even consider Biblical stories like the building of the Tower of Babel, the Temple of Solomon, or Noah’s Arc, none of these architectural wonders were easy to execute. It would have taken years of planning and work to make them a reality. The ancient and medieval man, through his own conventional means, has created some fantastic structures through history, and continues to master them.
In this piece, we’re going to explore these man-made architectural wonders that were designed to be sonically astounding, be it to relay sound to multiple sources and large audiences, or reverberate the voices of praise in holy shrines or places of worship. Let’s find out what places our ancestors left behind for us, and a few modern-day inventions that came about after our thorough understanding of sound, and the physics behind it. Knowing how much our ancestors knew about the sciences, their old work surely left us in awe!
1. Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni, Malta
This very ancient cave structure is a part of Maltese prehistory, almost dating back several thousand years. Malta is a group of islands in the Mediterranean sea in Europe, known today as the Republic of Malta. Many of Malta’s historic structures pre-date the Egyptian pyramids and even the Stonehenge in England. The first time the Hypogeum was discovered, it raised many questions as to how people, who lived back in 3500-3000 BC, were able to achieve such architectural precision. It almost felt like an occult science! This entire complex was dug into a single rock, which is what makes it even more fascinating. Some say the civilization who frequented the hypogeum could have been around as early as 5000 BC, but abandoned this place before 2500 BC.
The Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni is a subterranean (under the surface of the earth) Neolithic structure in Paola, Malta. It is a part of the old Maltese temple building tradition, which had an entrance on the top, but due to the destruction of the topmost level, the hypogeum went hidden from discovery for thousands of years. A specific niche was cut out in the middle of a chamber called The Oracle Room, which resonated instruments and voices chanting throughout the entire structure. According to archaeologist Fernando Augusto Coimbra’s work on Archaeoacoustic Analysis of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta, he made a note saying, “We have been able to detect the presence of a strong resonance effect: a double resonance frequency at 70Hz and 114Hz.” He also went on to add that laboratory testing indicated these frequencies have a strong effect on human brain activity. Besides the location being used as a burial ground with over 3000 bodies found, other layers of the hypogeum were used for prayers, gatherings and even supposed consciousness training using sound.
2. Forest Megaphones, Estonia
After what seemed like one of the most ancient acoustic wonders built in the Neolithic age by people in the Mediterranean, we head far up north to Estonia. In 2015, giant timber megaphones were installed in the remote Pähni Nature Centre, near the Latvian border by a group of Estonian interior architecture students.
The purpose of these three megaphones was to amplify the sounds coming from the forest, and it also served as a place for groups of people to relax, with an opening almost 3 meters in diameter. Estonia is one of those places in the world where half the country is covered in forests. Many people who visit the megaphones are in awe of the slightest and loudest sounds in the forest, magnified further by the megaphones.
Forest Megaphone images via Dezeen.com
3. Barabar Caves, India
These caves in the state of Bihar, India, are the oldest known rock-cut caves, said to have been constructed during the Mauryan era (325-185 BC). The interiors of the caves are polished to such an extent that you can see your reflection in the walls! The technology to produce such caves was not available at the time, which is what raised many a brow when it was discovered.
The inhabitants of these caves were surprisingly not Hindu, Jain or Buddhist, but belonged to a defunct sect of philosophers called Ajivikas, according to Geolines. Since little is known about the Ajivikas that died out completely by the 14th century, we will never know the ritualistic purposes of such technologically advanced caves. The acoustics of the cave are strange, and eerie in a way. It’s tough to complete a sentence without a resonance engulfing you first. The words change from their original sound to some warped collection of muted sounds and conversations. A person speaking in front of you cannot be heard directly sometimes, and the reverb after a single note can last for several seconds.
4. The Epidaurus Theater, Greece
One of the world’s best amphitheaters is the Epidaurus Theater in Tripolis, Greece. The theater is still in use today, and has a capacity of between 11,000-14,000 people! You can hear any sound made from the center of the stage throughout the ascending theater. This technological leap was made by architect Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC, giving us a greater understanding of acoustics and how sound traveled.
The theater was created in honor of the Greek god Dionysius. According to Emily Upton’s breakdown of the theatre acoustics for Gizmodo, she stated how the amphitheater was carved out of Mount Kynortio, and even though an additional 21 rows were added later after the initial 34 rows, the farthest person could hear you even 60 meters high up in the last row! She also added based on research by Nico Declercq and others from the Georgia Institute of Technology, that the steps served as acoustic traps, filtering out all sound of people’s movement in other parts of the theater, and any sounds of wind, mainly low frequencies. This enabled sound to cut through and travel further that usual. Incredible, isn’t it? And the view behind the theater is to die for too!
5. Gol Gumbaz Mausoleum, India
The Gol Gumbaz is in the old city of Bijapur, which now goes by the name of Vijapura in Karnataka, around 523km from the city of Bangalore, India. The literal meaning of Gol Gumbaz is Circular Dome, and that’s definitely a part of the building’s architecture. Built in 1656 AD during Adil Shahi’s reign, and is the second largest dome in the world after the St. Peter’s Basilica dome in the Vatican, Rome.
Any sound made inside this structure echoes between 7-10 times! This is frequently demonstrated by guides at the mausoleum. You can count any word you’ve said echoing that many times back and forth. But that’s not it. The Gol Gumbaz also has a whispering gallery that picks up even the slightest sounds made from the opposite side of the balcony. The video below is not the best find, but it’s the only video I could find that explains both the echo and the picking up of sounds from one side of the whispering gallery to the other. Listen attentively!
Stay tuned for more such fun reads, informative and pretty cool! We’ve got more articles on intriguing instruments and acoustic wonders, coming up.