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What is a Temple?

Updated on May 2, 2011

A temple is a building or enclosed area set aside for religious worship or as a dwelling for a deity. Temples often contain sacred relics, statues, and other important objects related to the god or gods being worshiped. The religious services in a temple are usually conducted by priests, rabbis, or other intermediaries and often take place before a central altar.

Probably the earliest temples were simple caves hollowed out of solid rock. More elaborate but also cut from rock were the cave temples of ancient Egypt and the Orient. Surviving examples include intricately carved Indian Buddhist temples, or chaitya halls, ornamented with frescoes and sculpture, and rock-cut Egyptian temples. The Egyptians also had fully constructed temples with doorways, towers, colonnaded courtyards, and a central hall. Pyramid temples, or ziggurats, which are characterized by a series of stepped terraces leading to a shrine, were built by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Sumerians.

Similar structures were produced in Central America and South America by pre-Columbian tribes.

One of the most famous of ancient temples was the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, in which the holy Ark of the Covenant was enshrined. Frequently looted and finally destroyed, it was rebuilt in about 20 B.C. by King Herod the Great, but was subsequently burned by the Romans. A surviving portion, which gives some idea of its former size and magnificence, is known as the Wailing Wall.

The temples of ancient Greece were designed as homes for the gods rather than as places for public worship. Typically they contained a large sculptural representation of the honored deity. An outstanding example of the classical Greek temple is the Parthenon in Athens, designed in the Doric style. Its famous sculptures, called the Elgin Marbles, are now in the British Museum in London. Some Roman temples were based on Greek designs, but others, notably the majestic Pantheon in Rome, were drum-shaped. In modern times the word "temple" has been applied to such diverse examples as the Jewish synagogue and the Mormon church. Contemporary Buddhist temples in China resemble secular buildings.

Japanese temples are designed in close relationship to surrounding rocks and water. In the United States modem temples often reflect the influence of current architectural trends.

Have you ever been in a temple?

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