Ancient Egyptian Architecture

Ancient Egyptian Architecture

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The pyramids are the most recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt. Even though other civilizations, such as the Maya or the Chinese, also employed this form, the pyramid in the modern day is synonymous in most people's minds with Egypt. The pyramids at Giza remain impressive monuments thousands of years after they were built and the knowledge and skill required to construct them was gathered over the many centuries prior to their construction. Yet the pyramids are not the apex of ancient Egyptian architecture; they are only the earliest and best known expressions of a culture which would go on to create buildings, monuments, and temples just as intriguing.

6,000 Years of History

Ancient Egyptian history begins prior to the Predynastic Period (c. 6000 - 3150 BCE) and continues through the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 - 30 BCE). Artifacts and evidence of overgrazing of cattle, in the area now known as the Sahara Desert, date human habitation in the area to c. 8000 BCE. The Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150 - 2613 BCE) built upon the knowledge of those who had gone before and Predynastic art and architecture was improved on. The first pyramid in Egypt, Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, comes from the end of this Early Dynastic Period and a comparison of this monument and its surrounding complex with the mastaba tombs of earlier centuries show how far the Egyptians had advanced in their understanding of architectural design and construction. Equally impressive, however, is the link between these great monuments and those which came after them.

The pyramids at Giza date from the Old Kingdom (c. 2613 - 2181 BCE) and represent the pinnacle of talent and skill acquired at that time. Ancient Egyptian history, however, still had a long and illustrious path before it and as the pyramid form was abandoned the Egyptians focused their attention on temples. Many of these whose ruins are still extant, such as the temple complex of Amun-Ra at Karnak, inspire as much genuine awe as the pyramids at Giza but all of them, however great or modest, show an attention to detail and an awareness of aesthetic beauty and practical functionality which makes them masterpieces of architecture. These structures still resonate in the present day because they were conceived, designed, and raised to tell an eternal story which they still relate to everyone who visits the sites.

Egyptian structures still resonate in the present day because they were conceived, designed, & raised to tell an eternal story which they still relate to everyone who visits the sites.

Egyptian Architecture & the Creation Of The World

At the beginning of time, according to the Egyptian religion, there was nothing but swirling waters of dark chaos. From these primordial waters rose a mound of dry land, known as the ben-ben, around which the waters rolled. Upon the mound lighted the god Atum who looked out over the darkness and felt lonely; so he mated with himself and creation began.

Atum was responsible for the unknowable universe, the sky above, and the earth below. Through his children he was also the creator of human beings (though in some versions the goddess Neith plays a part in this). The world and all that human beings knew came from water, from dampness, moistness, from the kind of environment familiar to the Egyptians from the Nile Delta. Everything had been created by the gods and these gods were ever-present in one's life through nature.

When the Nile River overflowed its banks and deposited the life-giving soil the people depended upon for their crops it was the work of the god Osiris. When the sun set in the evening it was the god Ra in his barge going down into the underworld and the people gladly participated in rituals to make sure he would survive attacks from his nemesis Apophis and rise again the next morning. The goddess Hathor was present in the trees, Bastet kept women's secrets and protected the home, Thoth gave people the gift of literacy, Isis, although a great and powerful goddess, had also been a single mother who raised her young son Horus in the swamps of the Delta and watched over mothers on earth.

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The lives of the gods mirrored those of the people and the Egyptians honored them in their lives and through their works. The gods were thought to have provided the most perfect of worlds for the people of ancient Egypt; so perfect, in fact, that it would last forever. The afterlife was simply a continuation of the life one had been living. It is not surprising, then, that when these people constructed their great monuments they would reflect this belief system. The architecture of ancient Egypt tells this story of the people's relationship with their land and their gods. The symmetry of the structures, the inscriptions, the interior design, all reflect the concept of harmony (ma'at) which was central to the ancient Egyptian value system.

The Predynastic & Early Dynastic Periods

In the Predynastic Period in Egypt images of the gods and goddesses appear in sculpture and ceramics but the people did not yet have the technical skill to raise massive structures to honor their leaders or deities. Some form of government is evident during this period but it seems to have been regional and tribal, nothing like the central government which would appear in the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

The homes and tombs of the Predynastic Period were built of mud-brick which was dried in the sun (a practice which would continue throughout Egypt's history). Homes were thatched structures of reeds which were daubed with mud for walls prior to the discovery of brick making. These early buildings were circular or oval before bricks were used and, after, became square or rectangular. Communities gathered together for protection from the elements, wild animals, and strangers and grew into cities which encircled themselves with walls.

As civilization advanced, so did the architecture with the appearance of windows and doors braced and adorned by wooden frames. Wood was more plentiful in Egypt at this time but still not in the quantity to suggest itself as a building material on any large scale. The mud brick oval home became the rectangular house with a vaulted roof, a garden, and courtyard. Work in mud brick is also evidenced in the construction of tombs which, during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, become more elaborate and intricate in design. These early oblong tombs (mastabas) continued to be built of mud brick but already at this time people were working in stone to create temples to their gods. Stone monuments (stelae) begin to appear, along with these temples, by the Second Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2890 - c. 2670 BCE).

Obelisks, large upright stone monuments with four sides and a tapered top, began to appear in the city of Heliopolis at about this time. The Egyptian obelisk (known to them as tekhenu, "obelisk" being the Greek name) is among the most perfect examples of Egyptian architecture reflecting the relationship between the gods and the people as they were always raised in pairs and it was thought that the two created on earth were mirrored by two identical pieces raised in the heavens at the same time. Quarrying, carving, transporting, and raising the obelisks required enormous skill and labor and taught the Egyptians well how to work in stone and move immensely heavy objects over many miles. Mastering stonework set the stage for the next great leap in Egyptian architecture: the pyramid.

Djoser's mortuary complex at Saqqara was conceived by his vizier and chief architect Imhotep (c. 2667 - c. 2600 BCE) who imagined a great mastaba tomb for his king built of stone. Djoser's pyramid is not a "true pyramid" but a series of stacked mastabas known as a "step pyramid". Even so, it was an incredibly impressive feat which had never been achieved before. Historian Desmond Stewart comments on this:

Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara marks one of those developments that afterward seem inevitable but that would have been impossible without an experimenting genius. That the royal official Imhotep was such a genius we know, not from Greek legend, which identified him with Aesculapius, the god of medicine, but from what archaeologists have discovered from his still impressive pyramid. Investigation has shown that, at every stage, he was prepared to experiment along new lines. His first innovation was to construct a mastaba that was not oblong, but square. His second concerned the material from which it was built (cited in Nardo, 125).

Temple construction, albeit on a modest level, had already acquainted the Egyptians with stonework. Imhotep imagined the same on a grand scale. The early mastabas had been decorated with inscriptions and engravings of reeds, flowers, and other nature imagery; Imhotep wanted to continue that tradition in a more durable material. His great, towering mastaba pyramid would have the same delicate touches and symbolism as the more modest tombs which had preceded it and, better yet, these would all be worked in stone instead of dried mud. Historian Mark van de Mieroop comments on this:

Imhotep reproduced in stone what had been previously built of other materials. The facade of the enclosure wall had the same niches as the tombs of mud brick, the columns resembled bundles of reed and papyrus, and stone cylinders at the lintels of doorways represented rolled-up reed screens. Much experimentation was involved, which is especially clear in the construction of the pyramid in the center of the complex. It had several plans with mastaba forms before it became the first Step Pyramid in history, piling six mastaba-like levels on top of one another...The weight of the enormous mass was a challenge to the builders, who placed the stones at an inward incline in order to prevent the monument breaking up (56).

When completed, the Step Pyramid rose 204 feet (62 meters) high and was the tallest structure of its time. The surrounding complex included a temple, courtyards, shrines, and living quarters for the priests covering an area of 40 acres (16 hectares) and surrounded by a wall 30 feet (10.5 meters) high. The wall had 13 false doors cut into it with only one true entrance cut in the south-east corner; the entire wall was then ringed by a trench 2,460 feet (750 meters) long and 131 feet (40 meters) wide. The actual tomb of Djoser was located beneath the pyramid at the bottom of a shaft 92 feet (28 meters) long. The tomb chamber itself was encased in granite but, to reach it, one had to traverse a maze of hallways, all brightly painted with reliefs and inlaid with tiles, leading to other rooms or dead ends filled with stone vessels carved with the names of earlier kings. This labyrinth was created, of course, to protect the tomb and grave goods of the king but, unfortunately, it failed to keep out ancient grave robbers and the tomb was looted at some point in antiquity.

Djoser's Step Pyramid incorporates all of the elements most resonant in Egyptian architecture: symmetry, balance, and grandeur which reflected the core values of the culture. Egyptian civilization was based upon the concept of ma'at (harmony, balance) which was decreed by their gods. The architecture of ancient Egypt, whether on a small or large scale, always represented these ideals. Palaces were even built with two entrances, two throne rooms, two receiving halls in order to maintain symmetry and balance in representing both Upper and Lower Egypt in the design

The Old Kingdom & the Pyramids

The innovations of Imhotep were carried further by the kings of the 4th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom. The last king of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, Huni (c. 2630 - 2613 BCE), was long thought to have initiated the massive building projects of the Old Kingdom in constructing the pyramid at Meidum but that honor is due the first king of the 4th Dynasty, Sneferu (c. 2613 - 2589 BCE). Egyptologist Barbara Watterson writes, "Sneferu initiated the golden age of the Old Kingdom, his most notable achievements being the two pyramids built for him at Dahshur" (50-51). Sneferu began his work with the pyramid at Meidum now referred to as the "collapsed pyramid" or, locally, as the "false pyramid" because of its shape: it resembles a tower more than a pyramid and its outer casing rests around it in a gigantic heap of gravel.

The pyramid of Meidum is the first true pyramid constructed in Egypt. A "true pyramid" is defined as a perfectly symmetrical monument whose steps have been filled in to create seamless sides tapering toward a point at the top. Originally, any pyramid began as a step pyramid. The Meidum pyramid did not last, however, because modifications were made to Imhotep's original pyramid design which resulted in the outer casing resting on a sand foundation rather than rock, causing it to collapse. Scholars are divided on whether the collapse occurred during construction or over a longer period of time.

Sneferu's experiments with the stone pyramid form served his successor well. Khufu (2589 - 2566 BCE) learned from his father's experiments and directed his administration in constructing the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Contrary to the popular belief that his monument was built by Hebrew slaves, Egyptian workers on the Great Pyramid were well cared for and performed their duties as part of a community service, as paid laborers, or during the time when the Nile's flood made farming impossible. Scholars Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs note:

Were it not for the two months every year when the Nile's water covered Egypt's farmland, idling virtually the entire workforce, none of this construction would have been possible. During such times, a pharaoh offered food for work and the promise of a favored treatment in the afterworld where he would rule just as he did in this world. For two months annually, workmen gathered by the tens of thousands from all over the country to transport the blocks a permanent crew had quarried during the rest of the year. Overseers organized the men into teams to transport the stones on sleds, devices better suited than wheeled vehicles to moving weighty objects over shifting sand. A causeway, lubricated by water, smoothed the uphill pull. No mortar was used to hold the blocks in place, only a fit so exact that these towering structures have survived for 4,000 years - the only Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today (17-18).

There is no evidence whatsoever that Hebrew slaves, or any kind of slave labor, went into the construction of the pyramids at Giza, the city of Per-Ramesses, or any other important site in Egypt. The practice of slavery certainly existed in Egypt throughout its history, as it did in every ancient culture, but it was not the kind of slavery popularly depicted in fiction and film based on the biblical Book of Exodus. Slaves in the ancient world could be tutors and teachers of the young, accountants, nursemaids, dance instructors, brewers, even philosophers. Slaves in Egypt were either captives from military campaigns or those who could not pay their debts and these people usually worked in the mines and quarries.

The men and women who worked on the Great Pyramid lived in state-provided housing on the site (as discovered by Lehner and Hawass in 1979 CE) and were well compensated for their efforts. The more skilled a worker was, the higher their compensation. The result of their work still amazes people in the modern day. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only wonder left of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and justifiably so: until the Eifel Tower was completed in 1889 CE, the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure on earth built by human hands. Historian Marc van de Mieroop writes:

The size boggles the mind: it was 146 meters high (479 feet) by 230 meters at the base (754 feet). We estimate that it contained 2,300,000 blocks of stone with an average weight of 2 and 3/4 tons some weighing up to 16 tons. Khufu ruled 23 years according to the Turin Royal Canon, which would mean that throughout his reign annually 100,000 blocks - daily about 285 blocks or one every two minutes of daylight - had to be quarried, transported, dressed, and put in place...The construction was almost faultless in design. The sides were oriented exactly toward the cardinal points and were at precise 90-degree angles (58).

The second pyramid constructed at Giza belongs to Khufu's successor Khafre (2558 - 2532 BCE) who is also credited with creating the Great Sphinx of Giza. The third pyramid belongs to his successor Menkaure (2532 - 2503 BCE). An inscription from c. 2520 BCE relates how Menkaure came to inspect his pyramid and assigned 50 of the workers to the new task of building a tomb for his official, Debhen. Part of the inscription reads, "His majesty commanded that no man should be taken for any forced labour" and that rubbish should be cleared from the site for construction (Lewis, 9). This was a fairly common practice at Giza where the kings would commission tombs for their friends and favored officials.

The Giza plateau today presents a very different image from what it would have looked like in the time of the Old Kingdom. It was not the lonely site at the edge of the desert it is today but a sizeable necropolis which had shops, factories, markets, temples, housing, public gardens, and numerous monuments. The Great Pyramid was sheathed in an outer casing of gleaming white limestone and rose from the center of the small city, visible from miles around. Giza was a self-sustaining community whose people were government workers but the construction of the enormous monuments there in the 4th Dynasty was very costly. Khafre's pyramid and complex are a little smaller than Khufu's and Menkaure's smaller than Khafre's and this is because, as 4th Dynasty pyramid building continued, resources dwindled. Menkaure's successor, Shepsekhaf (2503 - 2498 BCE) was buried in a modest mastaba at Saqqara.

The cost of the pyramids was not only financial but political. Giza was not the only necropolis in Egypt at the time and all of these sites required maintenance and administration which was carried out by priests. As these sites grew, so did the wealth and power of the priests and the regional governors (nomarchs) who presided over the different districts the sites were in. The later rulers of the Old Kingdom built temples (or pyramids on a much smaller scale) as these were more affordable. The shift from the pyramid monument to the temple signaled a deeper shift in sensibilities which had to do with the growing power of the priesthood: monuments were no longer being built to honor a certain king but for a specific god.

First Intermediate Period & Middle Kingdom

The power of the priests and nomarchs, along with other factors, brought about the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Egypt then entered the era known as the First Intermediate Period (2181 - 2040 BCE) in which individual regions essentially governed themselves. The kings still ruled from Memphis but they were ineffectual.

The First Intermediate Period of Egypt has traditionally been depicted as a time of decline because no great monuments were raised and the quality of the art is considered inferior to that of the Old Kingdom. Actually, though, the artwork and architecture is simply different, not sub-par. In the Old Kingdom, architectural works were state-sponsored, as was artwork, and so was more or less uniform to reflect the tastes of royalty. In the First Intermediate Period, regional artists and architects were free to explore different forms and styles. Historian Margaret Bunson writes:

Under the nomarchs, architecture survived the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Their patronage continued into the Middle Kingdom, resulting in such remarkable sites as Beni Hassan (c. 1900 BC) with its rock carved tombs and large chapels complete with columned porticos and painted walls (32).

When Mentuhotep II (c. 2061 - 2010 BCE) united Egypt under Theban rule, royal commissioning of art and architecture resumed but, unlike in the Old Kingdom, variety and personal expression was encouraged. Middle Kingdom architecture, beginning with Mentuhotep's grand mortuary complex at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, is at once grand and personal in scope.

Under the reign of king Senusret I (c. 1971 - 1926 BCE), the great Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak was begun when this monarch erected a modest structure at the site. This temple, like all Middle Kingdom temples, was constructed with an outer courtyard, columned courts which led to halls and ritual chambers, and an inner sanctum which housed a god's statue. Sacred lakes were created at these sites and the entire effect was a symbolic representation of the beginning of the world and the harmonious operation of the universe. Bunson writes:

Temples were religious structures considered the "horizon" of a divine being, the point at which the god came into existence during creation. Thus, each temple had a link to the past, and the rituals conducted within its court were formulas handed down for generations. The temple was also a mirror of the universe and a representation of the Primeval Mound where creation began (258).

Columns were an important aspect of the symbolism of a temple complex. They were not designed only to support a roof but to contribute their own meaning to the whole work. Some of the many different designs were the papyrus bundle (a tighly carved column resembling papyrus reeds); the lotus design, popular in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, with a capital opening like a lotus flower; the bud column whose capital appears to be an unopened flower, and the Djed column which is probably most famous from the Heb Sed Court at Djoser's pyramid complex but was so widely used in Egyptian architecture it can be found from one end of the country to the other. The Djed was an ancient symbol for stability and frequently used in columns either at the base, at the capital (so it appears the Djed is holding up the sky), or as an entire column.

Homes and other buildings continued to be made from mud brick during the Middle Kingdom; stone was only used for temples and monuments and this was usually limestone, sandstone or, in some cases, granite which required the greatest skill to work in. A little known masterpiece of the Middle Kingdom, long ago lost, was the pyramid complex of Amenemhat III (c. 1860 - 1815 BCE) at the city of Hawara.

This complex was enormous, featuring twelve great separate courts which faced one another across an expanse of columned halls and interior hallways so intricate that it was called "the labyrinth" by Herodotus. The courts and hallways were further connected by corridors and colonnades and shafts so that a visitor might walk down a familiar hall but take an unfamiliar turn and wind up in a completely different area of the complex than the one they had intended. Criss-crossing alleys and false doors sealed by stone plugs served to confuse and disorient a visitor to protect the central burial chamber of the pyramid of the king. This chamber is said to have been cut from a single block of granite and to have weighed 110 tons. Herodotus claimed it was more impressive than any of the wonders he had ever seen.

Second Intermediate Period & New Kingdom

Kings like Amenemhat III of the 12th Dynasty made great contributions to Egyptian art and architecture and their policies were continued by the 13th Dynasty. The 13th Dynasty, however, was weaker and ruled poorly so that, eventually, the power of the central government declined to the point where a foreign people, the Hyksos, rose in Lower Egypt while the Nubians took portions of land to the south. This era is known as the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1782 - 1570 BCE) in which there was little advancement in the arts.

The Hyksos were driven from Egypt by Ahmose I of Thebes (c. 1570 - 1544 BCE) who then secured the southern borders from the Nubians and initiated the era known as the New Kingdom of Egypt (1570 - 1069 BCE). This period saw some of the most magnificent architectural feats since the Old Kingdom. In the same way that modern visitors are awed and intrigued by the mystery of how the pyramids at Giza were built, so are they by Hatshepsut's funerary complex, the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the many works of Amenhotep III, and the magnificent constructs of Ramesses II such as Abu Simbel.

The rulers of the New Kingdom built on a grand scale in keeping with Egypt's new elevated status as an empire. Egypt had never known a foreign power like the Hyksos taking control of their land and, after Ahmose I drove them out, he initiated military campaigns to create buffer zones around Egypt's borders. These areas were expanded by his successors, most notably Thutmose III (1458 - 1425 BCE), until Egypt ruled an empire which stretched from Syria, down the Levant, across to Libya, and down through Nubia. Egypt became immensely wealthy during this time and that wealth was lavished on temples, mortuary complexes, and monuments.

The greatest of these is the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak. As with all the other temples in Egypt, this one told the story of the past, the people's lives, and honored the gods but was an immense work-in-progress with every ruler of the New Kingdom adding to it. The site covers over 200 acres and is comprised of a series of pylons (monumental gateways which taper towards the top to cornices), leading into courtyards, halls, and smaller temples. The first pylon opens onto a wide court which invites the visitor further. The second pylon opens onto the Hypostyle Court which measures 337 feet (103 meters) by 170 feet (52 meters). The hall is supported by 134 columns 72 feet (22 meters) tall and 11 feet (3.5 meters) around in diameter. Scholars estimate one could fit three structures the size of Notre Dame Cathedral inside the main temple alone. Bunson comments:

Karnak remains the most remarkable religious complex ever built on earth. Its 250 acres of temples and chapels, obelisks, columns, and statues built over 2,000 years incorporate the finest aspects of Egyptian art and architecture into a great historical monument of stone (133).

As with all other temples, Karnak is a paragon of symmetrical architecture which seems to rise organically from the earth toward the sky. The great difference between this structure and any other is its grand scale and the scope of the vision. Each ruler who contributed to the building made greater advances than their predecessors but acknowledged those who had gone before. When Thutmose III built his festival hall there he may have removed monuments and buildings of earlier kings whom he then acknowledged with an inscription. Every temple symbolizes Egyptian culture and belief but Karnak does so in large letters and, quite literally, through inscriptions. Thousands of years of history may be read on the walls and columns of the Karnak temple.

Hatshepsut (1479 - 1458 BCE) contributed to Karnak like every other ruler but also commissioned buildings of such beauty and splendor that later kings claimed them as their own. Among her grandest is her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Luxor which incorporates every aspect of New Kingdom temple architecture on a grand scale: a landing stage at the water's edge, flagstaffs (relics of the past), pylons, forecourts, hypostyle halls, and a sanctuary. The temple is constructed in three tiers reaching 97 feet (29.5 meters) and visitors are still amazed by the building in the present day.

Amenhotep III (1386 - 1353 BCE) built so many monuments throughout Egypt that early scholars credited him with an exceptionally long reign. Amenhotep III commissioned over 250 buildings, monuments, stele, and temples. His mortuary complex was guarded by the Colossi of Memnon, two figures 70 feet (21.3 m) high and each weighing 700 tons. His palace, now known as Malkata, covered 30,000 square meters (30 hectares) and was elaborately decorated and furnished throughout the throne rooms, apartments, kitchens, libraries, conference rooms, festival halls, and all the other rooms.

Although Amenhotep III is famous for his opulent reign and monumental building projects, the later pharaoh Ramesses II (1279 - 1213 BCE) is even more well known. Unfortunately this is largely because he is so often equated with the unnamed pharaoh in the biblical Book of Exodus and his name has become recognizable through film adaptations of the story and the incessant repetition of the line from Exodus 1:11 that Hebrew slaves built his cities of Pithom and Per-Ramesses.

Long before the author of Exodus ever came up with his story, however, Ramesses II was famous for his military exploits, efficient rule, and magnificent building projects. His city of Per-Ramesses ("City of Ramesses") in Lower Egypt was widely praised by Egyptian scribes and foreign visitors but his temple at Abu Simbel is his masterpiece. The temple, cut from solid rock cliffs, stands 98 feet (30 meters) high and 115 feet (35 meters) long with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, two to each side, depicting Ramesses II on his throne; each one 65 feet (20 meters) tall. Beneath these giant figures are smaller statues (still larger than life) depicting Ramesses' conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites. Further statues represent his family members and various protecting gods and symbols of power. Passing between the colossi, through the central entrance, the interior of the temple is decorated with engravings showing Ramesses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods.

Abu Simbel is perfectly aligned with the east so that, twice a year on 21 February and 21 October, the sun shines directly into the inner sanctum to illuminate statues of Ramesses II and the god Amun. This is another aspect of ancient Egyptian architecture which characterizes most, if not all, of the great temples and monuments: celestial alignment. From the pyramids at Giza to the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the Egyptians oriented their buildings according to the cardinal points and in keeping with celestial events. The Egyptian name for a pyramid was Mer, meaning "Place of Ascension" (the name "pyramid" comes from the Greek word pyramis meaning "wheat cake" which is what they thought the structures looked like) as it was believed that the shape of the structure itself would enable the dead king to rise toward the horizon and more easily begin the next phase of his existence in the afterlife. In this same way, temples were oriented to invite the god to the inner sanctum and also, of course, provide access for when they wanted to ascend back to their own higher realms.

Late Period & Ptolemaic Dynasty

The New Kingdom declined as the priests of Amun at Thebes acquired greater power and wealth than the pharaoh while, at the same time, Egypt came to be ruled by weaker and weaker kings. By the time of the reign of Ramesses XI (c. 1107 - 1077 BCE) the central government at Per-Ramesses was completely ineffective and the high priests at Thebes held all the real power.

The Late Period of Ancient Egypt is characterized by invasions by the Assyrians and the Persians prior to the arrival of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Alexander is said to have designed the city of Alexandria himself and then left it to his subordinates to build while he continued on with his conquests. Alexandria became the jewel of Egypt for its magnificent architecture and grew into a great center of culture and learning. The historian Strabo (63 BCE - 21CE) praised it on one of his visits, writing:

The city has magnificent public precincts and royal palaces which cover a fourth or even a third of the entire area. For just as each of the kings would, from a love of splendour, add some ornament to the public monuments, so he would provide himself at his own expense with a residence in addition to those already standing (1).

Alexandria became the impressive city Strabo praises during the time of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 - 30 BCE). Ptolemy I (323 - 285 BCE) began the great Library of Alexandria and the temple known as the Serapeum which was completed by Ptolemy II (285 - 246 BCE) who also built the famous Pharos of Alexandria, the great lighthouse which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The early rulers of the Ptolemaic Dynasty continued the traditions of Egyptian architecture, blending them with their own Greek practices, to create impressive buildings, monuments, and temples. The dynasty ended with the death of the last queen, Cleopatra VII (69 - 30 BCE), and the country was annexed by Rome. The legacy of the Egyptian architects lives on, however, through the monuments they left behind. The imposing pyramids, temples, and monuments of Egypt continue to inspire and intrigue visitors in the present day. Imhotep and those who followed after him envisioned monuments in stone which would defy the passage of time and keep their memory alive. The enduring popularity of these structures today rewards that early vision and accomplishes their goal.

Ancient Egyptian Architecture Facts For Kids

The pyramids are the most famous symbol of Ancient Egyptian architecture, but the Egyptians also created magnificent temples and palaces.

Let’s learn about some of ancient history’s most impressive architecture!

Pyramids aren’t just buildings that look cool. They were also burial places for the Egyptian pharaohs. Pharaohs were buried with gold, jewels, and other treasures to use in the afterlife.

Inside, the walls of pyramids were covered with paintings and carvings. Family members and servants would be buried in other rooms inside the pyramid.

Step-Pyramid at Saqqara

The first type of burial pyramid in Ancient Egypt was the step pyramid. The very first step pyramid was the Step-Pyramid at Saqqara, also called the Djoser Pyramid.

It was built for King Djoser and constructed around 2667-2648 BCE. The pyramid was designed by Imhotep, a priest and architect.

These pyramids are called “step pyramids” because they resemble a set of steps. Djoser’s pyramid had six giant steps and was meant as a stairway that would carry Djoser to the sun-god Ra.

Great Pyramid at Giza

Later pyramids have flatter, sloping sides. The most famous pyramid is the Great Pyramid at Giza. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and was built in 2528 B.C. for King Khufu.

When it was first built, it was over 780 feet tall! Scientists estimate it took 2,000 workers at least 23 years to build the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was built from more than 2 million huge limestone blocks.

Other Facts About Pyramids

Over eighty pyramids still stand in Egypt, and all of them are at least 3,000 years old.

To fool robbers, most pyramids had several false entrances in addition to its one true entrance. Inside, they had false doors and more false passages.

Unfortunately, almost all of the pyramids were eventually robbed of their treasures.

Scholars have learned about the building of the pyramids through the religious and government records kept by the Ancient Egyptians.

It’s still unknown exactly how the pyramids were built with no modern technology. It is believed that pyramids were built one block at a time, and blocks were moved slowly up ramps.

Since it took so long to build pyramids, pharaohs usually started construction as soon as they became rulers.

Ancient Egyptians also constructed many temples along the important Nile River. They believed that the temples were the homes of gods and goddesses. Two of the most famous are Karnak and Luxor.

The huge Temple of Karnak is outside of the modern cities of Egypt, unlike most other important Ancient Egyptian buildings. Only one section of the temple is currently open to the public.

The Luxor Temple was founded around 1400 BC parallel to the Nile River. It was built by Amenhotep III, completed by Tutankhamen and Horemheb, and added to by Rameses II.

Ancient Egyptians built their temples of stone or solid rock. High stone pillars supported the heavy stone roofs. Inside, temples were covered with carvings of pharaohs and gods or the victories of pharaohs in war.

Many temples also contained huge statues of the pharaohs. Priests worked inside the temples, conducting daily rituals to honor the gods and the pharaohs.

According to Ancient Egyptian legend, the first temple appeared on a mound of land that formed from the sea.

The design of this first temple was created by the gods, and all other temples copied this first design.

Palaces were the homes of the pharaohs and their servants, families, and other members of their entourages.

These were large complexes of buildings, with one section to meet the pharaoh’s personal needs and another section for conducting business.

Around the fourth and third millennium BC, palaces had a distinct structure. They were rectangular buildings with high walls, topped by richly decorated towers.

Over the years, palaces became more and more elaborate. By the end of the third millennium, they were palace-temple complexes.

By the second millennium, palaces also contained great halls filled with gigantic columns that led to the throne room. They featured lakes, gardens, and other government buildings.

From pyramids to temples to palaces, it’s fascinating that the Ancient Egyptians were able to build such incredible structures—all without the technology that we have today.

Ancient Egyptian Architecture - History

T he ancient Egyptians built their pyramids, tombs, temples and palaces out of stone, the most durable of all building materials. Although earthquakes, wars and the forces of nature have taken their toll, the remains of Egypt's monumental architectural achievements are visible across the land, a tribute to the greatness of this civilization. These building projects took a high degree of architectural and engineering skill, and the organization of a large workforce consisting of highly trained craftsmen and labourers.

A part from the pyramids, Egyptian buildings were decorated with paintings, carved stone images, hieroglyphs and three-dimensional statues. The art tells the story of the pharaohs, the gods, the common people and the natural world of plants, birds and animals. The beauty and grandeur of these sites are beyond compare. How the ancient Egyptians were able to construct these massive structures using primitive tools is still a mystery.


The temple was the building used to honor the gods. Most had a similar distribution, which was divided into the following parts:

  • Avenue of Sphinxes– a walk that led to the temple and was full of sphinxes, figures with the body of a lion and a human head.
  • Pilot- it was the entrance, formed by a great wall before which obelisks or representations of the pharaoh were placed.
  • Hípetra Room- an open courtyard surrounded by columns. Inside there were a lot of sculptures. Anyone could enter.
  • Hypostyle Room- He was inside. It was a room with giant columns that could only be accessed by Pharaoh, priests and high officials.
  • Sanctuaries-They were the most important rooms. The one known as Sancta Sanctorum was dedicated to the main god. In another room was the boat that was taken out in the processions by the river. Only the pharaoh and the chief priest could enter.

Among the most important temples, we find Karnak, considered the largest complex in Egypt. It also highlights the Temple of Luxor, in the ancient Thebes, thanks to its optimal state of preservation.

On the other hand, there was another type of temple, the funeral, whose function was to commemorate a person already deceased. A model is the Ramesseum, ordered to be built by Ramses II.

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The kings of the early dynasties had tombs at Abydos and Saqqara built in imitation of palaces or shrines. From these tombs have come large amounts of pottery, stonework, and ivory or bone carving that attest to a high level of development in Early Dynastic Egypt. The Egyptian language, written in hieroglyphics, or picture writing , was in its first stages of evolution.

In the 3rd Dynasty the architect Imhotep built for Zoser (reigned about 2737-2717 BC) a complex at Saqqara, the burial ground near the capital of Memphis, that included a stepped pyramid of stone and a group of shrines and related buildings. Designed to protect the remains of the king, the great Step Pyramid is the oldest monumental architecture preserved it also illustrates one of the phases toward the development of the true pyramid (see Pyramids).

The architecture of the Old Kingdom—the designation used by historians for the 3rd through the 6th dynasties—can be described as monumental in the sense that native limestone and granite were used for the construction of large-scale buildings and tombs. Of the temples built during this period little remains.

The pyramid complex at Giza where the kings of the 4th Dynasty were buried illustrates the ability of Egyptian architects to construct monuments that remain wonders of the world. The Great Pyramid of Khufu originally stood about 146 m (480 ft) high and contained about 2.3 million blocks with an average weight of 2.5 metric tons each. Many theories have been advanced to explain the purpose of pyramids the answer is simple: They were built to preserve and protect the bodies of the kings for eternity. Each pyramid had a valley temple, a landing and staging area, and a pyramid temple or cult chapel where religious rites for the king's spirit were performed. Around the three major pyramids at Giza a necropolis (city of the dead) grew up, which contained mastaba (Arabic mastabah, “mud-brick bench”) tombs, so called because of their resemblance to the sloped mud-brick benches in front of Egyptian houses. The mastabas were for the members of the royal family, high officials, courtiers, and functionaries. For the most part these tombs were constructed over shafts that led to a chamber containing the mummy and the offerings, but some tombs were cut into the limestone plateau and not constructed from blocks of stone.

From the tombs at Giza and Saqqara it is clear that the houses they imitate were arranged on streets in well-planned towns and cities. Little is known for certain about the domestic architecture of the Old Kingdom, because houses and even palaces were built of unbaked mud brick and have not survived. The temples and tombs, built of stone and constructed for eternity, provide most of the available information on the customs and living conditions of the ancient Egyptians.

History of Architecture II. - Mesopotamia/Egyptian Civilizations

Agriculture single handedly transformed the way humans lived. Communities began to form on every continent and were completely centered around the harvest. These early civilizations eventually grew into cities and then into nations. Now that humans were able to exist in a stationary state, they could devote more time and energy to matters of the mind rather than satisfying basic human needs like finding food and shelter. We naturally became curious of our existence and began ask investigative questions about our surroundings. Together with a new social way of living this mental state of being would fuel a cultural explosion over the centuries birthing religion, philosophy, science, politics & government, and art. And just as it always has, these cultural expressions and technological advancements would need an architecture to represent them. As human society began to develop and flourish, its most prized possessions would be its buildings and structures serving as billboards for civilizations - a trend that continues to this day. This connection between buildings and culture would produce various architectural styles and interpretations over time. Architecture was and still is the most influential tangible representation of a civilization. Architecture is history.

Ancient MesopOtamia/Egyptian Civilizations

Ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, like the Sumerians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Egyptians were some of the first to harness the true potential of agriculture to build economic wealth. Located in fertile lands along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (present day Iraq) and the Nile River Valley, they constructed great cities with complex cultures to support them. The first religions came from these cultures. They were polytheistic belief systems that reflected a dependence on the harvest and a reverence for celestial astronomy. Mesopotamian mythology, now extinct, is considered by most researchers to be the oldest recorded religion and the predecessor to ancient Greek Mythology.

Aside from raw and unshaped stone, clay brick is one of the oldest modular buildng materials utilized by humans.

Engraveed stone relief of the Mesopatamian moon god, Sin (Nanna). There are connections between Nanna and the development of Islam.

These cultural ideas were expressed in the architecture. The Ziggurat is Mesopotamia's most significant contribution to architectural development. They were large pyramid like structures used as temples dedicated to the deities of their day. Like many structures of the time, the primary building material was sun-dried brick made from mud and bitchumen. Their basic form mimics a stepped pattern that retreats as you move upward. This form naturally evolved into something more refined and processional. The most notable of these buildings was the Ziggurat of Ur (2030 BC), built by King Ur and dedicated to the moon god Sin (Nanna), patron deity of the city of Ur. Ziggurats were the centerpieces to walled temple complexes and fortified cities dominating all other buildings surrounding them. The crown jewel of the city-state, ziggurats were symbols of power, bravado, and wealth to neighboring communities.

Ziggurat of Ur - Predessor to the Pyramid - photograghed when the structure was re-discovered in the late 19th century.

Ziggurat of Ur - Predessor to the Pyramid - photograghed in its current condition. Many parts have been rebuilt..

Along the Nile, Egyptians developed their own culture and a similar polytheistic religion built on concepts like the ‘afterlife’, burial, astronomy, divine right rulership, and early sciences such as mathematics and engineering. Both developments played a key role in Egyptian Architecture. In the early dynasties, Egyptians also built ziggurat-like structures called Mastabas. Mastabas were simple mud brick mounds that were first used as burial tombs for Pharaohs but quickly developed into vast temple complexes dedicated to both kings and gods. Their locations were often tied to the paths of the moon and sun and were crafted with careful geometry. The Egyptians refined the Mastaba form over time and through many failures. Eventually they produced its most notable architectural achievement: the pyramid - A four sided temple and burial tomb for Egyptian Pharaohs that converges at its peak. By the time the Pyramid arrived the jump had been made from perishable mud bricks to much more durable stone. This would have been a much worthier material for a structure honoring pharaoh-deities and gods of the harvest and sky. Commissioned by pharaohs, envisioned by Egyptian architects and built by both skilled craftsmen and slaves, these structures were massive and required great sophistication to build. The Great Pyramid of Giza, designed by architect (or polymath) Imhotep. is a fantastic example of the pyramid form at its peak. In comparing this structure to earlier mastabas and the ziggurat, one can easily see the progression of the pyramid idea.

Civilian buildings

Both domestic dwellings of the elite and the rest of the Egyptians were built with short durability materials such as bricks of mud and wood. The lack of trees in this region what added to the fact of why they were less used due to the difficulties of obtaining it. These constructions with these types of materials don’t last sufficiently because of the conditions of the arid desert.

The peasants lived in simple houses, in which of course there was no floor slabs or large columns they were made of mud bricks, while the palaces of the elite were more elaborate structures and with better materials. A few are still standing as tangible testimony of ancient Egyptian architecture.

Among these we can mention the Bad kata and Amarna palaces they show richly decorated walls and floors showing scenes with figures, as well as other topics as of birds and geometric designs.

Art and architecture of the Egyptian Old Kingdom

After simple structures in archaic era, in the Old Kingdom Egyptians started to buried pharaos in the pyramids, while other dignitaries (and less ambitious pharaohs) used mastaba.

Mastabas are tombs that have long square shape built in two levels. The above ground level contains the mortal temple, while the underground part is actually a burial chamber, in which it was able to enter through a vertical shaft that was closed by a wall.

Pyramids are geometrical bodies used to build the pharaoh tombs of the Old Kingdom. Historians believed that the shape was created by extending the obelisk, a shape through which they wanted to show a divine power and material perfection.

Initially, an obelisk served as a symbol of the Sun’s cult and it represented descending of the Sun’s rays on the earth. It is believed that the construction of the pyramids had greater meaning than a mere tombs for the rulers perhaps a certain mythological and historical obligation of the Pharaoh was that with these “ideal” form shows the perfection of the order as well as divine and material.

The period when a construction of the pyramids took place is largely unknown to historians, so it is difficult to determine with certainty the exact motives of construction of these facilities also, it is unknown the reason why construction of pyramids was stopped.

The complex of the one pyramid was consisted of so-called “temple in the valley”, which was usually a symbolic port on the Nile, followed by a fenced stone path and shrines along the pyramid itself. Today those places are called funerary temples.

In those shrines were serdabi rooms without windows and doors with two holes through which the Pharaoh statues could watch the world.

The construction of the pyramid continues in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty, but it does not follow complexity or intensity of the pyramids in Third and Fourth Dynasty. Something new that can be seen in later pyramids (5. and 6.) was religious text written on the walls of the pyramids. Something interrupted a construction of the pyramidsin the first transition period, but it has been started in the Middle period for short time, and after that, it has been stopped forever.

Great Sphinx in Giza was discoveredin front of Khafre’e’s funeral temple. It was made from a single piece of rock, and it shows the Egyptian God Harmakhis (Horemakhet – “Horus on the horizon”). The pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty built it, but it is not showing Pharaoh Khafre it is older than the pyramid of Khafre itself.

An art is static and two-dimensional, and is used primarily for the purposes of the funeral cult of the dead. The static is necessary in order to display the hibernation of the movement in the eternity while the two-dimensionality and strange depictions of people and animals (in the painting) are used in order to, each displayed object “secure” life so that in each object only important parts were shown. A display of a man as an example: it has to be visible both arms, both legs, head in profile in order to be able to see the nose and ear, then eye en face because in profile it is not very visible, also both sides of the chest and belly button as well as hips and feet.

In statuary, there is domination of the volume cubic shape ensures stability of the sculpture (it will take longer if there were no parts that are separated, for example, when it comes to hands of the antique sculptures whose hands were usually broken). One of the most famous groups from that period was painted representation of the prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret.


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Morgan Smith is a freelance writer and researcher with a longstanding interest in ancient history. She graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Letters, focusing on classical civilization, Latin language and literature, and anthropology. Her current research explores. Read More

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