As a child, one architectural element that fascinated me were spiral staircases. The first instance I came across one was in Darjeeling, at the now demolished Planter’s Club. I vividly recall that I had only just begun exploring the stairway that led from the garden area to a terrace-like opening above the foyer. But almost immediately, a stern voice called out to me to descend. I quietly complied.
A few years later, I came upon a spiral staircase, and one that was made entirely in wood, at the chapel in St. Paul’s School. This one led from the ground level to the choir loft. Meanwhile, the little space below it was efficiently used to put away items that were only used during special services.
A 3000-year-old design
Fascinated as I was with their design, it never quite occurred to me earlier to trace their origins and gauge who their original creator might have been. And speaking of creators, it turns out the first record of a spiral staircase is mentioned in the Old Testament.
The Temple of Solomon, it is said, featured one such stairway. This implies the first spiral staircase had made an appearance over 3000 years ago, in the city of Jerusalem. It is also suggested that this particular stairway led to a sacrificial altar.
Solomon was a biblical king and he was David’s son — from the David-Goliath story. The temple that Solomon is credited with building possibly stood in the vicinity of the present-day Al-Aqsa Mosque. The reason I say ‘possibly’ is because no historians or archaeologists have found any evidence of the Temple of Solomon’s existence. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, meanwhile, was recently in the news as the epicentre where Israeli-Palestinian clashes had begun, leading to a bloody escalation.
Possible early use cases
Spiral staircases were reportedly a common feature in old castles or places of strategic importance. Later, they also found use in light houses. The first advantage was this design took up less room. Second, its narrow passageways were ideal in deterring fast moving attackers from making inroads.
More importantly, they were usually designed to ascend in a clockwise manner. This way, an attacker’s right arm–usually the one bearing a weapon–would have little room to land a forceful swipe.
Besides, a group of attackers would only be able to ascend the stairway one person at a time, substantially slowing the onslaught. The defenders, on their part, would be able to better retaliate from a higher vantage point.
Another interesting version pertaining to spiral staircases goes back to old-world fire stations. At the time, fire dousing carriages were horse drawn. And going by historical accounts, it seems these horses often followed firemen up the stairs to their working areas that were sometimes on the second or third floors. Spiral staircases, it was found, were a perfect deterrent to keeping these horses from following their human companions upstairs. However, this seems to be a version that is possibly only limited to one particular geographical territory, maybe just one city or jurisdiction.
The common Mediterranean thread
The oldest spiral staircase that still exists was built in 113 CE. Called the Trajan’s column, it was built in marble and stands about 42 metres high. It is located in Italy. Interestingly, spiral staircases seem to have first caught on in the Meditarranean region — first in present-day Israel and then in Italy. They were also found in historical sites in nearby Syria and in Turkey, in its age-old city of Constantinople.
One well-known ancient site that boasted a spiral staircase was the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria. These ruins were a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the bulk of these structures probably survived the better part of two millenia. Unfortunately, the Islamic State bombed them, not too long ago, in August 2015.
A focal point in aesthetics
Spiral staircases today are still beautiful features used primarily to enhance aesthetics, or they are built into homes with space constraints. Personally, I feel these are best installed to access less used areas of an establishment. Given their narrow and steep forms, they are ideally avoided in places that see high usage by the elderly, or the differently abled.
I have a lingering thought in mind though. I wonder if the English rock band–Led Zepellin–were visualising a spiral staircase when they sang of a lady building a stairway to heaven in their 1971 release.