Egyptian Architecture (c.3,000 BCE - 200 CE)
The architecture of Ancient Egypt - a country of two parts, Upper and Lower Egypt - reflected two fundamental characteristics of Egyptian culture. First, the belief that life on earth was merely a brief interlude compared with the eternal afterlife to come. Second, the fact that Egypt was a theocracy, whose King (or Pharaoh) was worshipped as a God, with absolute powers: a ruler who owned a large chunk of Egypt's land and much of its resources. As a result of these two factors, a huge proportion of Egyptian architectural designs, building materials and labour force were devoted to the construction of huge Pharaonic tomb complexes, known as Pyramids, designed to preserve the Pharaoh's body and protect his belongings after death, so as to facilitate his passage into the after-life. A nationwide industry of Egyptian architects, master craftsmen, painters and sculptors toiled to produce the funerary artworks, jewellery and other artifacts required. In addition to building tombs, Egyptian architects strove (as instructed by the Pharaoh) to glorify the Gods by constructing temples in their honour, and to promote and preserve the values of the day. In this context, note that all forms of Egyptian art, such as architecture, painting, metalwork, ceramics and Egyptian sculpture - were regulated by a highly conservative set of traditional rules and conventions, which favoured order and form over artistic expression.
Despite their achievements in the area of monumental Pharaonic architecture, there is little evidence of town planning, except for workmen's towns at Kahun and Deir el-Medina - both instances of living quarters for people employed on the Pharaoh's tomb. At Akhenaten's short-lived capital of Amarna (c.1374-62 BCE), the town houses were like suburban villas. The essence of an Egyptian house was its setting within a garden. This is borne out by wall-paintings in tombs and drawings on papyri. Models of houses exist; two superb wooden examples were found in the tomb of the noble Meketre, about 2050 BCE, at Thebes. Egyptian houses were built of mud-brick and timber with occasional stone rests for column bases or thresholds. But an Egyptian house was built for a lifetime, a tomb for eternity.
In general, Egyptian architectural designs were monumental but not architecturally complex: they used posts and lintels, not arches, although Egyptian stone masons had a strong influence on later Greek sculpture and architecture. The lack of wood was balanced by an abundance of sun-baked mud bricks, and stone (mostly limestone, but also granite and sandstone), although most major structures had to be built near the Nile, as building materials were transported by river. Stone was first introduced during the era of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181), initially only for tombs and temples, and architectural sculpture. Bricks were used for everything else, including royal palaces, fortified buildings, temple walls and outbuildings, as well as municipal and other civic complexes. Most famous Egyptian architecture was completed during two periods: the Old Kingdom (2686-2181) (mostly pyramids) and the New Kingdom (1550-1069) (mostly temples). See also: Architecture Glossary.
Egyptian architecture was a form of ancient art that evolved over 3,000 years, a time span which is traditionally categorized as follows:
Architecture (Before 3100 BCE)
Architecture (1st-2nd Dynasties) (3100-2686)
Architecture (3rd-6th Dynasties) (2686-2181)
Intermediate Period (7th-11th Dynasties) (2181-2055)
Architecture (12th-13th Dynasties) (2055-1650)
For details, see: Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture.
Period (14th-17th Dynasties) (1650-1550)
Architecture (18th-20th Dynasties) (1550-1069)
One of the most famous tombs in the Valley of the Kings belonged to King Tutankhamun (c.1341-1323) of the 18th dynasty, who ruled Egypt during the New Kingdom from 1332 to 1323 BCE. Discovered in 1922, his tomb - one of the few discovered almost intact - contained more than 5,000 treasures, including chairs, statues, gilt chariots, couches and gold.
Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties) (1069-664)
Nubians conquered Egypt in the early part of the era, before the country was reunited under the Saite dynasty. Then, in the 5th century BCE, Egypt was taken over by Persia, before eventually regaining her independence from c.404-340. She was conquered again, this time by Alexander the Great, upon whose premature death in 323 control of Egypt passed to one of Alexander's senior generals, Ptolemy I. From now on, the influence of Greek art would gradually become more apparent. Architectural activity continued along the Nile Valley, but none of the tombs or temples built by the Ethiopians, the Saitic dynasty, or the Persians are noteworthy. To maintain order and establish legitimacy, the Ptolemies finished temples already begun, such as Nectanebo II's temple of Isis, and built new ones throughout the country, including Nubia. The most important are at Dendera, Esna, Edfu, Kom Om-bo, Philae. Of these, the Temple of Horus at Edfu (237-57) is the best preserved Egyptian temple complex. Erected during the Greek Ptolemaic period, one of its two hypostyle halls contains 18 massive sandstone columns. The Ptolemies themselves, however, lived and were buried in their newly founded, Greek-style capital of Alexandria, on the coast of the Mediterranean.
Like the Ptolemaic Dynasty and other foreigners, the Romans assumed the ancient role of the Pharaohs, and continued to preserve the fiction of the king ruling with the gods in the interests of world order. This obliged them to institute a program of Roman architecture in Egypt under which temples were built to venerate the deities. Following the Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean, during the period 323-30 BCE, Greek influence began to appear in Egyptian building designs: a process continued after 30 by the Romans, although they added new architectural techniques and materials of their own. Roman architectural structures in Egypt include Trajan's Pavilion (c.164 CE) at Philae, in which Egyptian lotus blossom designs are used to decorate the capitals of Greek Corinthian columns. Its interior walls show Emperor Trajan making offerings to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. For more details about Roman building techniques, see: Roman Art. For Greek influence in other forms of fine art, see: Fayum Mummy Portraits (c.50 BCE - 250 CE).
The most famous surviving examples of monumental architecture in Egypt are the pyramids, although the ruined temple and tomb complexes at Karnak, Luxor and other sites, are still breathtaking. Artifacts from these sanctuaries can be seen in the best art museums around the world, notably the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, as well as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo.
The three most celebrated structures are probably The Great Pyramid at Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu and the "Pyramid of Cheops"); The Great Sphinx of Giza (The Terrifying One); and The Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara.
The Great Pyramid (built c.2540-2560
The Great Sphinx of Giza (built c.25502530
Pyramid of Djozer (built c.2630 BCE)
See also: Megalithic Architecture.
The most famous temple architecture of Ancient Egypt can be seen in the old city of Thebes, whose northern ruins include the Karnak temple, and whose southern ruins feature the Luxor complex.
Karnak Temple Complex
If, after thousands of years, we can still identify the gods worshipped in the Egyptian temples and the kings who built them, and can still name the rooms and establish their cult functions in the over-all plan, it is thanks to their hieroglyphic inscriptions, reliefs, and decoration. These are essential elements of the architecture. They interpret the whole building, inside and out, as well as its portals, walls, columns, and ceilings; they also evoke with their own power the meaning and perpetuation of the daily ritual, and of the special ceremonies during the great festivals. Starting with the New Kingdom the relief sculpture on temple walls increasingly show the kingly role in the various phases of the liturgy. They ratify for eternity the sense of the ritual drama that symbolized the world order, and they elevate the mystery into a tangible, logical reality that is ever present. Not only the cult image in its sanctuary but the whole temple, with all its chapels, gates, pillars, reliefs, inscriptions, and emblems, was seen as having an existence which, after sleeping through the darkness of the night, had each morning to be ritually aroused from their slumber if the movement of the natural order was to continue.
Some idea of how a temple was built at Heliopolis by King Sesostris I may be gained from the text of a leather scroll. Under the aegis of the king the plans were discussed among his high officials and entrusted to the royal keeper of the seal, who directed the execution. With full pomp the king, accompanied by the high priests and the "scribe of the sacred book," processed to the building site to perform there the foundation-laying ceremonies.
The construction of a building with such awesome implications for the entire world order required special motives, thorough planning, and elaborate preliminary ceremonials before any real construction began. At Edfu this ceremony was based on a treatise by Imhotep, King Zoser's architect, that was written during the Third Dynasty but contained rites that were even older. The first record of the ceremony is from the Second Dynasty, in reliefs on the outer wall of a granite shrine from Hierakonpolis, and they are still found in temple reliefs of the Late Period. The king set out in festive procession, accompanied by the cult image, to the temple site. Here a ritual drama took place, in which the gods' roles were presumably taken by priests and priestesses. During the nocturnal hours the king fixed the four corner points and the correct orientation of the sanctuary as directed by the god Thoth, with the help of the stars. Then, aided by the goddess Seshat, he marked off the temple precinct by "driving in the stakes" and "stretching the cords." There followed a groundbreaking ceremony in which the king dug foundation trenches, filled them with white sand, a symbol of purity, and made the cornerstone sacrifice which, with the offerings, was buried at the four corners of the future building. Finally, in accordance with an immemorial custom that obviously goes back to the beginnings of Egyptian brick architecture, bricks were molded of Nile mud mixed with frankincense and placed at the four corners of the foundations. In this way the foundation stone was laid.
The reasons for erecting a temple were of many kinds. They lie in the demands of theology and of the priesthood, but especially in the royal obligation to maintain, with the gods, the world order. The architect of the temple, therefore, was the Pharaoh. The royal jubilee was the principal occasion for building temples, large and small, to symbolize the eternal continuance of the dynastic succession and confirm the close relations between the king and the gods.
The planners of an Egyptian temple had to take into account the entire prevailing theological system, the nature of the principal god for whom the sanctuary was to be built and those of his co-deities, together with all their festivals and cult requirements. Accordingly the details of the plan had to be worked out by a large team of theologians, translated into drawings, and presented for the king's approval. The designs of the late temples of Edfu and Dendera went back to ancient temple plans and to the treatise written by Imhotep. There are sketch plans of smaller sanctuaries and of a royal tomb complex of the New Kingdom on papyrus and limestone tablets; the plan of the temple at Heliopolis is on the back of an inventory tablet. In translating from the sketched plans to the building site a square grid was probably used, though at Kalabsha it was composed of rectangles.
See also: Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE).
But who were the architects and what were their tasks? We know only a few by name, including Amenhotep (son of Hapu), Imhotep, Senemut, Ineni and a few others. Of these, the most famous is Imhotep, the architect of King Zoser's mortuary precinct and the tomb complex of his successor. His titles and functions, preserved on a statue of his royal master, were "chief sculptor, high priest of Heliopolis, hereditary prince, the first after the king, and keeper of the seal of the king of Lower Egypt." In 470 BCE the Persian king Darius dispatched Khenem-ib-Ra, a chief architect working under Amasis, the last great ruler of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, to lead an expedition to obtain stone blocks from the Wadi Hammamat. There he has left us his family tree, carved in the cliff. As proof of a long and prestigious professional tradition, he lists twenty-two generations of architects, starting with Kanofer, architect of King Khasekhemui (end of the Second Dynasty). The names of numerous architects have been handed down from all periods of Egyptian history; some tombs and statues bearing long biographical inscriptions have been preserved. The Egyptian language has no word for "architect"; each master-builder was called "director of all the king's works." They held a special position of trust in relation to the king and frequently acted as his vizier as well. In the New Kingdom, architects began their careers by entering the government service as "apprentice scribes." This reinforces the impression that their principal duties were organizational: recruiting and allocating labour, and procuring building materials, especially supervising the quarrying of stone and its transport from distant quarries to the capital. In inscriptions they boast of their outstanding technical achievements, such as the erecting of obelisks and colossal statues. Only rarely do they refer to the buildings they erected, and never to creative ideas.
For more about architectural methods, designs and buildings, see the following resources.
For more information about the evolution of ancient buildings, see: Art Encyclopedia.
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