Propaganda 101 Supplemental: Build It And They Will Come (Around)



The Parthenon

In the beginning, there was the word. And when addressing propaganda, the word was either persuade or coerce. This is the essential nature of propaganda: to change (or re-enforce if you are already sympathetic) your mind on a particular issue. As the first article showed, the most basic tool of propaganda is connotation/implication. Before venturing into the depths of the lingua tactical of propaganda, I thought it might be useful to illustrate some non-verbal and indirect methods of propaganda.

First we must realize that propaganda is the cultivation of an image. An image that relies upon idea(s) the speaker wants associated with certain people, organizations or actions. To that end, propaganda is essentially image control: seeking to create mental associations in the viewer be they emotional or rational and spreading that image/association through out a given populace.  Keep in mind that literacy was for the bulk of human history limited to specialists such as scribes and/or the upper class who could afford education.

Very few people in the ancient world could read, but most of them could see.  What better way to communicate the power of those who run a society to those who cannot read than by using a non-verbal symbol to send a message?  Perhaps a symbol like a great building or monument. Something that says “we’re here, this is what we are about, this is our place and look what we can do” to the great unlearned masses. This form of propaganda is also as old as civilization. You could argue that it is older than modern civilization, stretching back to the late Neolithic period.

A temple area with megalithic pillars at Göbekli Tepe.

A temple area with megalithic pillars at Göbekli Tepe.

Consider Göbekli Tepe, a set of Neolithic religious structures located in what is now southeastern Turkey.  At approximately 12,000 years old, Göbekli Tepe predates Egyptian culture by five or six thousand years. But is it propaganda? Let’s examine the basic criteria of propaganda as applied to this structure to see if it qualifies.


Relief carving of a lion at Göbekli Tepe.

Does it send a message? Yes. In its most basic form, it is a statement of religious ideology. At the deepest levels of the sites, many of the upright pillars are decorated with the nature based symbols commonly found at Neolithic religious sites such as lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles and other predator and prey species. You can even see the message change over time as their religion changed. Moving up through the layers of the dig, newer decorations include human figures. As an aside, many archaeologists place considerable significance on this change in message taking it to mark the transition from a culture where nature inclusive of man is worshiped to a system of belief where man is elevated above nature.

Is it designed for public consumption? Yes. All the evidence points to Göbekli Tepe being a religious retreat. Being the only stone structure for many miles around at the time, I think it is safe to assume that it was not only known to the locals but to nomads and pilgrims of like minded worship.

Is the message one of persuasion and/or coercion? Yes. It can be interpreted as both. As persuasion, it is a statement of the ideals of their religion and the basic value of worshiping as the builders of Göbekli Tepe worshipped. As coercion, it was a statement of the power of their faith that they could build a massive structure from stone at a time when most people were either nomadic or living in small hunter/gatherer villages. To provide a bit of context, Göbekli Tepe pre-dates the invention of pottery, metallurgy, writing and the wheel.  The complex also pre-dates the Neolithic Revolution when archaeologists start seeing the beginnings of agriculture and animal husbandry. Look what we can do and what we’re about, indeed.

The Egyptians took this idea of buildings as propaganda to a whole new level. The scale of their building remains one of the great wonders of the world. The temples, pyramids and palaces they built were not just statements of faith or housing for the Pharaohs. They were projections of power for the ruling dynasties, often run as great public works projects to bolster the ancient Egyptian economy and as statements to the greatness of the Pharaohs. The ruling class went to great strides to out do one another as well. This trend of using architecture as a form of propaganda stretches back to the very beginning of the Egyptian dynasties.


The Pyramid of Djoser

In the 3rd Dynasty, the first of the pyramids were built by the Pharaoh Djoser and his commoner architect Imhotep.  Until that time, all of the Pharaohs had been buried in mastabas – rectangular flat roofed stone buildings. Imhotep’s innovation was to stack six mastabas of ever decreasing size to create the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, a royal burial complex to the north-west of the then Egyptian capitol of  Memphis. This started a competition among the subsequent Pharaohs as to who could build the most impressive burial sites. They saw this as not only fulfilling their religious obligations, but as statements of personal power, each trying to make a greater statement to history about the glory of their rule. This practice pyramid building reaches a nadir with the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu building the Great Pyramid at Giza, the plateau used as a royal burial complex just outside of Cairo which was used in conjunction with the Valley of the Kings by the later dynasties.

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

However impressive the Great Pyramid is, the practice of building to project imperial power reached its full potential  with the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses II.  Instead of trying to compete for sheer size to send his message against the rather imposing legacy of Khufu, Ramses went for volume. He built a lot, by far more than any other Pharaoh, and he even took credit for buildings he didn’t build by literally having his mark carved on them. To give him credit, many of these buildings he co-opted for his greater glory Ramses was indeed responsible for massive additions to and an upgrades on.

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel

In addition to his large burial complex, the Ramessuem at Thebes, Ramses is credited with building numerous temples, monuments and even entire cities.  The city of Pi-Ramesses was built to replace the capitol at Thebes. He is also credited with building a lavish tomb for his favored consort, Nefertari, and the temple complex at Abu Simbel which was an act of pure ego carved into the living stone of two mountains in southern Egypt.

Did these buildings send a message? Yes. The Pharaohs are Living Gods and their power over Egypt is absolute. Were they designed for public consumption? Without a doubt. Is the message one of persuasion and/or coercion? Yes. Look up at the great works of the Pharaohs in awe and despair for you will never be their equal. Unless you’re really special. Like the man who started the Egyptian architectural tradition, Imhotep. It should be noted that the man “who made all of this possible” was one of the few commoners in ancient Egyptian history to be accorded the status of godhood upon his death.

The Parthenon on the Acropolis.

The Parthenon on the Acropolis.

The Greeks were also great builders, but none of their buildings says propaganda quite like the Parthenon. Built nominally as a temple to the goddess Athena, the patron of the city-state of Athens, the Parthenon is located on the Athenian Acropolis – a rocky outcropping that dominates the skyline of Athens.  I say nominally built as a temple because the evidence tends to point to the fact that it was never really used as a temple by any given sect let alone the cult of Athena Polias (which was the official cult of Athena as patron of Athens).  In addition to serving as a display case for the massive statue of Athena crafted by Phidias, the Parthenon served primarily as a treasury. Does this building send a message? Yes. We are Athens and look to our glory. Was it designed for public consumption? Being on the most visually prominent spot in all of Athens in addition to being the largest Greek building of its time, the answer can only be a resounding yes. Is the message one of persuasion and/or coercion? Also a resounding yes as the building is a testament to both the glory of the Athenian patron goddess and the economic power of Athens.



Rome specifically and with great forethought used buildings as propaganda, especially in the provinces. It was, in fact, a key element in the projection of Roman power. Everywhere the Romans went, two things were sure to follow: stone roads and buildings. Think of the messages the provinces got when Rome built coliseums, market complexes, government buildings, military fortifications and aqueducts. Even in Gaul, modern France, where there was a sophisticated network of wooden roads built by the local Celts, Rome conquered and then Rome built and they built in stone. Europe is littered with the ruins of the projection of Roman power.  In  South Shields, England at Tyne & Wear, the Roman fort of Arbeia stands today (partially restored) as testament to how far Rome could project her power. Most of the provinces were the home of timber and thatch construction. The stone buildings of the Romans were sending a message that “Rome is here, get used to it, and we can build crazy things you can’t, by they way did you notice our well-organized professional military that came with them”. They were not only functional, but aimed to make an impression on the locals. The message was clearly a mix of both persuasion (look at the lovely bathhouse!) and coercion (nice fort you’ve got there).

The U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court

Just so, consider the monuments and public buildings of the modern United States.  The Capitol building was partially burned by the British on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812. To shore up confidence at home and to tell those Brits who was in charge here, the Capitol was not only reconstructed but expanded in the period from 1819 to 1826. Look at the style of construction of the Supreme Court and Congress. The Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, they are all monuments to men who left their mark on history certainly, but what else do they say? Are they not projections of power and creating the image of a society as great as that of the Romans and Greeks whose architecture and scale they mimic?

There are clearly more ways to send a message than words alone.

What do you think?

Note: This column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur ( on June 3, 2012.  It has been re-edited for presentation here.

About Gene Howington

I write and do other stuff.
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7 Responses to Propaganda 101 Supplemental: Build It And They Will Come (Around)

  1. Blouise says:

    Since initially reading this article almost 2 years ago I became very interested in architectural propaganda and diplomacy … the homes and buildings, designed or modified, that serve as our Embassies and/or Ambassador’s residences. It’s a fascinating use of propaganda.
    Lately however, thanks to security measures … well John Kerry said it best, “We are building some of the ugliest embassies I’ve ever seen.”

    Obviously our architects need some help.

  2. Gene H. says:


    I’m not so sure that it isn’t the people who approve the plans for construction that need the help, but I do take your point.

  3. Blouise says:

    Of course fear is a difficult thing to hide and fear is running rampant in our culture right now and architecture does reflect the culture. I’d say we need a good architectural propagandist to mask that fact. 😉

    BTW … I did learn something else in the course of study that your article inspired. It has nothing to do with architectural propaganda but note the role Franklin played.

  4. The passage of time has its own comment to make upon the efforts of man to impress with his contemporary constuctions.

    by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

  5. Speaking of insidious propaganda and what defenses against it we might try to construct for ourselves:

    With apologies to the shade of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his immortal poem “Ozymandias,” I offer here a brief meditation on the current, continuing, and contemplated depredations of the Apartheid Zionist Entity upon those captive Palestinian Arabs who had absolutely nothing to do with the German/Christian persecution of Jews in Europe before and during World War II.

    Cozy, Scandalous

    I met a refugee from Gaza Strip,
    Who spoke to me with empty, staring eyes
    Dumb words whose depth of pain I could not grip
    With all the helping hands the world denies
    While lapping up the lurid lies that slip
    And roll so greasy off the practiced tongue
    Of Zionists whose caged and wounded prey
    Are told to flee and leave their dying young
    To weep beside the corpses of their old
    In darkened shattered former homes where they
    Cannot refute the garbage we’ve been told
    By glib Israeli liars trained to spread
    A veil of darkness over crimes they’ve sold
    As “Peaceful Co-Existence” — with the dead.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009

  6. Pingback: Propaganda 102: Holly Would and the Power of Images | Flowers For Socrates

  7. Anonymously Yours says:

    Where did Atlantis get them….

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