ALTAR, a base or pedestal used for sacrifice or prayer to a deity.
Mesopotamia.—Altarsare found from the earliest times in the remains of Babylonian cities; the oldest are square erections of sun-dried bricks. In Assyrian mounds limestone and alabaster are the chief material. They are of varying form ; an altar shown in a relief at Khorsabad has stepped battlements, corresponding to the Hebrew "altar-horns." An altar also from Khorsabad (now in the British Museum) has a circular table and a solid base, triangular in plan, with pilasters ornamented with animals' paws at the angles. An 8th century B.C. altar from Nimrud (also in the British Museum) is a rectangular block with cylindrical rolls at the ends. These altars are 2ft. to 3ft. high. According to Herodotus (i. 1 83 ) the great altars of Babylonia were made of gold.
Egypt.—InEgypt altars took the form of a truncated cone or of a cubical block of polished granite or of basalt, with one or more basin-like depressions (with drainage channels) in the upper surface for receiving libations. The surface was plain, inscribed with dedicatory or other legends, or adorned with symbolical carving.
Palestine.—Recentexcavations, especially at Gezer, have shown that the earliest altars, or rather sacrifice hearths, in Pales tine, were circular spaces marked out by small stones set on end. At Gezer a pre-Semitic place of worship was found in which three such hearths stood together, and drained into a cave which may reasonably be supposed to have been regarded as the residence of the divinity. These circular hearths persisted into the Canaanite period, but were ultimately superseded by the Semitic develop ments. To the primitive nomadic Semite the presence of the di vinity was indicated by springs, shady trees, remarkable rocks and other landmarks ; from this conception grew the theory that a numen might be induced to take up an abode in an artificial heap of stones, or a pillar set upright for the purpose. The blood of the victim was poured over the stone as an offering to the divinity dwelling within it ; and the stone came finally to be used as a table on which the victim was to be burned.
A very remarkable altar, at present unique, was found at Taanach by the Austrian excavators. It is pyramidal in shape, and the surface is ornamented with human-headed animals in relief. This, like the earliest Babylonian altars, is of baked earth. These primitive altars were of the simplest possible description—in accordance with the regulation preserved in Exod. xx. 24-26, that in every place where Yahweh records his name an altar of earth or of unhewn stone, without steps or other ornamentation, shall be erected.
The priestly regulations affecting altars are of a very elaborate nature, and are framed with a single eye to the essential theory of later Hebrew worship—the centralization of all worship at one shrine. These recognize two altars, which by the authors of this portion of the Pentateuch are placed in the tabernacle in the wilderness.
The first, that for burnt-offering, was in the centre of the court of the tabernacle, of acacia wood, 3 cubits high and 5 square. It was covered with copper, was provided with "horns" at the corners, hollow in the middle, and with rings on the sides into which the staves for its transportation could be run (Exod. xxvii. 1-8). The altar of the Solomonic temple is on similar lines, but much larger. It is now generally recognized that the description of the taber nacle altar is intended to provide a precedent for this vast struc ture, which would otherwise be inconsistent with the traditional view of the simple Hebrew altars. In the second temple a new altar was built after the fashion of the former (I. Macc. iv. 47) of "whole stones from the mountain." In Herod's temple the altar was again built after the same model. It is described by Josephus (v. 5, 6) as 15 cubits high and 5o cubits square, with angle horns, and with an "insensible acclivity" leading up to it (a device to evade the pre-Deuteronomic regulation about steps). It was made without any use of iron, and no iron tool was ever allowed to touch it. The blood and refuse were discharged through a drain into the brook Kedron ; this drain probably still remains, in the Bir-el Arwah, under the "Dome of the Rock" in the mosque which covers the site of the temple.
The second altar was the altar of incense, in the holy place of the tabernacle. It was of similar construction to the altar of burnt offering, but smaller, being 2 cubits high and i cubit square (Exod. xxx. 1-5) . It was overlaid with gold. Solomon's altar of incense (I. Ki. vi. 2o) would appear to have been of cedar. But the authenticity of the passages describing the altar of incense in the tabernacle, and the historicity of the corresponding altar in Solo mon's temple, are matters of keen dispute among critics. The incense altar in the second temple was removed by Antiochus Epiphanes (I. Macc. i. 21) and restored by Judas Maccabaeus (I. Macc. iv. 49). That in the temple of Herod is referred to in Luke i. i 1.
On the first of these altars was a fire continually burning, in which the burnt-offerings were consumed. On the second an offer ing of incense was made twice a day. The use of the altar as an asylum is implied in Exod. xxi. 14. From I. Ki. i. 5o, ii. 28, it would appear that the suppliant caught hold of the altar-horns (compare I. Ki. ii. 28).