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Ancient Egyptian Architecture

Characteristics & History
Pyramids, Mastabas, Temples

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Historical Background

Ancient Egypt was a civilization that developed along the River Nile, thanks to the fertility of its floodplain.

Archaeology tells us the earliest Ancient Egyptian culture was a paleolithic culture introduced by early modern humans from eastern or southern Africa. These nomads were hunter-gatherers, who foraged along the Nile Valley from around 120,000 BC.

In the 10th millennium BC, this hunter-gatherer culture was replaced by a Neolithic culture based on crops and livestock.

This cultural change was reinforced by the disappearance of many of Egypts grazing lands due to a mixture of over-grazing and climate warming.

Rosetta Stone

The history of Ancient Egypt was largely unknown until its pictographic hieroglyphics were deciphered. This was achieved with the help of the Rosetta Stone, a stone stele inscribed with a bilingual text of Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In 3150 BC, King Menes formed a unified kingdom out of Upper and Lower Egypt, which lasted for the next three millennia.

With food and resources to spare, Egyptian society prospered within the framework of a polytheistic religion, run by an elite caste of high priests and priestesses, while a centralized administration run by skilled officials, managed political and economic affairs.

The country as a whole was ruled over by a god-king or Pharaoh, who was seen as a divine being.

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Egyptian Architecture: Introduction

It was driven by two fundamental aspects of Egyptian culture.

These two factors ensured that a large percentage of the country's architecture, building materials and work force, were devoted to the building of huge Pharaonic tomb complexes, known as Pyramids.

These tombs were designed to preserve the Pharaoh's physical body and protect his material possessions (including his wives, concubines and servants) after death, in order to facilitate his passage into the after-life.

A nationwide industry of Egyptian architects, designers, sculptors, stone masons and other craftsmen, toiled to produce the tomb complex, and the funerary artworks, jewellery and other artifacts to go with it.

In addition to building tombs, Egyptian architects endeavoured to glorify the Gods by constructing temples in their honour, and to preserve the values of the day.

It's worth noting, here, that all forms of Egyptian art were governed by an extremely conservative set of rules and conventions, which promoted order and form rather than creative expression.

Despite their successes in the field of monumental Pharaonic architecture, there is little sign of any town planning, except for worker's towns at Kahun and Deir el-Medina - both designed to house people employed on the Pharaoh's tomb.

At King Akhenaten's capital of Amarna (1374-62 BC), the town houses resembled suburban villas.

In fact, as illustrated by wall-paintings and papyrus drawings, the key characteristic of an Egyptian house was its setting within a garden. It was usually made of mud-brick and timber, with occasional stone used for column bases or thresholds.

Characteristics and Materials

Popular Architecture

Egyptian street-level architecture naturally reflected the different strata of society, but it also reflected the geographical and cultural differences between Upper and Lower Egypt, even after their political unification in 3150 BC.

The two regions had different customs, economies and burial practices, all of which impacted on their building design.

That said, the entire Nile area relied upon farming and crop storage for its prosperity. Thus settled farmers in both Upper and Lower Egypt tended to build permanent dwellings of mud brick, in order to store grain, cattle, and tools.

Poorer families in Lower (northern) Egypt typically lived in rectangular one-room peasant huts with inward-sloping walls made of mud, and flat roofs made with rows of palm tree trunks. There was a door, and a few small window openings created largely for ventilation.

Other workers used reeds, found abundantly along the Nile, to build lightweight huts and shelters.

In Upper (southern) Egypt, settled farmers coexisted with nomadic hunters and herdsmen from arid lands to the south. These nomads used lightweight, tentlike structures made out of animal skins or matting stretched over a sturdy frame, that could be easily put up and taken down.

Evolution of Egyptian Architecture

The unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3150 BC under Pharaoh Menes (either the Naqada III ruler Narmer or the First Dynasty pharaoh Hor-Aha), was an important step in the country's development but regional differences persisted.

It took five centuries for its effects on Egyptian architecture to become visible.

In the 27th century BC, pyramid architecture appeared. This unique form of megalithic architecture - embellished with megalithic art - established Ancient Egypt as the leading centre of stone masonry.

The Greeks would later make full use of Egyptian expertise in both architecture and sculpture, when establishing their own cultural supremacy.

Egyptian architecture, the most enduring form of ancient art known to archaeology, evolved over a period of 3,000 years. This period is traditionally categorized as follows:

Predynastic

Upper Egypt's largest Neolithic culture was the Badarian culture (4500-3800 BC), a prosperous farming society.

After this came the Chalcolithic Naqada culture (3800-3000 BC). During its 800-year span, the Naqada culture progressed from an enterprising farming society into a powerful culture whose rulers controlled most of the people and resources of the Nile valley.

From their power centre of Nekhen (or, Hierakonpolis), Naqada III leaders expanded northwards along the Nile, and overcame the dominant Lower Egypt Maadi culture, based in present-day Cairo.

They also traded with Nubia to the south, and Mesopotamian culture to the east.

The Naqada culture produced a diverse range of small objects, reflecting the power and wealth of their elite, including small statues, ancient pottery, stone vases, and jewellery made out of gold, lapis lazuli, and ivory.

They also created a shiny, bright blue ceramic glaze known as faience, to simulate highly prized blue stones like turquoise. Its blue colour was closely linked with fertility and life.

In its final phase, around 3100 BC, Naqada culture developed the first of the written pictographs that would become known as hieroglyphs.

That said, architecture remained a low priority, with few permanent structures built during Ancient Egypt's Predynastic era. There were no pharaohs to bury, and besides, burial customs differed in Upper and Lower Egypt, so tomb buildings followed different designs.

In southern Egypt, the main towns included: Waset (Thebes), Tjenu (Thinis), Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), Nekheb (El Kab), Nubt (Naqada), and Gebtu (Koptos).

In northern Egypt, they included: Iunu (Heliopolis), Per-Wadjet (Buto), Zau (Sais), and Djedet (Mendes).

Important Predynastic archaeological sites include: Tell El-Farkha and Tell El-Murra.

Early Dynastic

The Early Dynastic period (1st-2nd Dynasties) (3100-2686), also known as the Thinite dynastic period, witnessed the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by the Pharaoh Menes, who established Memphis as Egypt's first capital.

Early Dynastic building projects included the building of mastabas. These were ancient Egyptian tombs in the form of a one-storey brick box with a burial chamber underneath.

Mastabas were rectangular structures with inward sloping walls and flat roofs, all made from mud bricks.

These tombs were used as burial sites for many of the Egyptian elite during Egypt's Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom.

During the Bronze Age culture of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, pharaohs began to be interred in pyramids rather than mastabas, although the use of mastabas for high officials continued for more than a thousand years.

Old Kingdom Architecture

The Old Kingdom period (3rd-6th Dynasties) (2686-2181) witnessed a surge of monumental building, with stone being used for the first time.

These huge stone buildings were the Ancient Egyptian pyramids which were designed and built to contain the burial chambers of the country's pharaonic rulers.

Each pyramid was surround by a complex of temples and lesser tombs. Senior officials and other members of the elite, were interred in nearby mastabas.

The first stone building in the world was the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, which rose to a height of 62 metres in six steps. It was built for the pharaoh Djoser in the 3rd dynasty, around 2630 BC, by Imhotep, his chief architect and high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis.

Hitherto, buildings - like the monumental ziggurats of Sumerian culture - were constructed almost exclusively out of mud-brick.

At Saqqara, Imhotep updated the traditional building styles and materials by using a new medium, stone.

The Step Pyramid stood inside a sacred enclosure surrounded by various religious buildings. These were all fake buildings, consisting simply of facades supported by rubble with shallow doorways and columns that were not free-standing but attached to adjacent walls. This was because the builders were uncertain of the new building's stability.

From this first stepped pyramid it was a natural progression to smooth out the steps to create a proper pyramid shape. The pyramid, also represents the sun's rays as they hit the earth, an important feature of the sun-cult of Heliopolis.

The Old Kingdom oversaw the building of all the famous pyramids at Giza, including: the Great Pyramid of Khufu/Cheops, (one of the traditional Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure.

It also saw the construction of the Great Sphinx (2558–2532 BC). It was during this time that Heliopolis became the centre of the cult of the sun god Ra (Re).

Other pyramids erected during the Egyptian Old Kingdom, include:

For a comparison with other Bronze Age tomb architecture, see: Stonehenge (2500 BC), Newgrange Passage Tomb (3200 BC) and its Neolithic sister site Knowth Passage Tomb (3100 BC).

1st Intermediate Period

The 1st Intermediate Period (7th-11th Dynasties) (2181-2055) was the period immediately following the Old Kingdom, when Egypt split into two parts - a northern part governed from Memphis and a southern part ruled from Thebes - each with separate dynasties.

The resulting disorder and economic turbulence ruled out any elaborate tomb building, and artistic standards declined.

Middle Kingdom Architecture

At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom period (12th-13th Dynasties) (2055-1650), the Egyptian capital was relocated to the southern city of Thebes.

A new royal cemetery, known as the Valley of the Kings, was built on the west bank of the Nile, across from Thebes. For the next five centuries, this necropolis hosted the tombs of Pharaohs and the governing elite.

The period enjoyed greater calm and stability, which stimulated an architectural revival, although portrait sculptures of Middle Kingdom pharaohs show worried faces marked by anxiety, in contrast to the peaceful expressions of Old Kingdom leaders.

This anxiety coincided with a decline in the size (and quality) of royal pyramids and temples, which was only partly compensated for, by improvements in Middle Kingdom painting and relief sculpture.

Pyramids erected during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, include:

2nd Intermediate Period

The Middle Kingdom was followed by more political turmoil, during a century known as the 2nd Intermediate Period (14th-17th Dynasties) (1650-1550). Eastern Hyksos tribes from Asia took over northern Egypt, while the Kings of Thebes maintained control of the south.

Needless to say, monumental architecture was put on hold.

New Kingdom Architecture

During the New Kingdom period (18th-20th Dynasties) (1550-1069) the pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty expelled the Hyksos and reunited the country.

New prosperity triggered an artistic renaissance, as pyramids (e.g. Pyramid of Ahmose: 1544-1524) temples, tombs, stone statues and relief carvings, appeared throughout the Nile valley.

This new affluence was illustrated by the precious items and craftsmanship of King Tutankhamun's grave goods, following his death in 1323 BC.

The most famous architectural successes of the New Kingdom included the great stone temples dedicated to a variety of gods.

These structures usually included a massive gateway, a courtyard, a hall of columns and a shrine, along with several ancillary chapels.

Access to the innermost chambers was barred to all but the pharaoh and his high priests.

Architectural motifs used for capitals, columns and pillars were based on plant motifs, as were mural motifs.

New Kingdom Pharaohs built huge complexes of tombs and temples in the Valley of the Kings, at Karnak, Thebes, and elsewhere.

Amarna Heresy

The New Kingdom also witnessed a brief heresy in Egyptian theology and architecture - the Amarna style - which happened during the reign of King Amenhotep IV (r. 1351–1334 BC).

The Amarna style consisted of a wide-ranging set of changes centred on the worship of Aten, or the sun's disk, which Amenhotep - who changed his name to Akhenaten - placed above all others in the Egyptian pantheon.

Unlike other Egyptian gods, who were usually portrayed in their human or animal form, Aten was depicted simply as a sun disk with spreading rays, each ending in a tiny hand.

In addition, a series of seemingly unrelated changes were made to the rules governing how human figures were depicted in paintings and sculptures.

These changes were introduced in anthropomorphic relief sculptures, statues and ceramic containers in all Aten temples, and in other buildings at new capital of Akhetaten and Karnak.

The Amarna style died with King Akhenaten. Shortly after his death, Akhenaten's successor Tutankhamun, reintroduced the other Egyptian gods into state temples, and reinstalled Amun-Re as the preeminent sun god.

3rd Intermediate Period

Following the New Kingdom, Egypt was again racked by a period of political turmoil, known as the 3rd Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties) (1069-664), which left the high priests of Amun in charge of Thebes, while Libyan invaders ruled northern Egypt.

As usual, this put a stop to all architectural progress.

Only a handful of monumental structures were built, including the El-Kurru Pyramid (721 BC), built in 721 by the Pharaoh Piye, founder of the Egyptian 25th dynasty; and the north Sudanese Nuri Pyramid (664) constructed by the Pharaoh Taharqa.

Late Egyptian Architecture

Late Egyptian architecture includes the 26th-31st Dynasties which lasted from 664 to 332 BC.

During the early part of this Iron Age period, the country was overrun by Nubian invaders, before they were eventually expelled by the Saite dynasty, named after Sais, its capital in the delta.

Then, in 525 BC, Egypt was conquered by Persia, before eventually regaining her independence in 404 BC.

More attacks followed during the 4th century BC, by both the Persians and the Greeks, under Alexander the Great in 332 BC.

Despite this strife, architectural activity continued throughout the Nile Valley, except that none of the numerous temples and tombs built by the Saite dynasty, or the Persians are worthy of note.

Ptolemaic Architecture

The Ptolemaic Kingdom was founded by Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great's most trusted officers, and lasted for three centuries until 30 BC.

The Ptolemies were the final dynasty of ancient Egypt, and introduced a new Greco-Egyptian culture, as Egyptian building designs came under Greek influence as part of the Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ptolemy I moved the Egyptian capital from Memphis (near Cairo) to the new, Greek-style capital of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast. The city became the cultural centre of the ancient Mediterranean for much of late antiquity, and was for a time the largest city in the ancient world, until overtaken by Rome.

Highlights of the city's architecture include: the Lighthouse of Alexandria at Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the Great Library, the biggest in the ancient world; the Serapeum of Alexandria, a spectacular Greek temple built by Ptolemy III and dedicated to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis; and the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages.

The Ptolemies completed several unfinished temples, including Nectanebo II's Temple of Isis, and erected new ones around the country, as far south as Nubia.

The most important Ptolemaic temples are at Dendera, Esna, Edfu, Kom Om-bo, and Philae.

The best preserved of these is the Temple of Horus at Edfu, built between 237 and 57 BC. One of its two hypostyle halls contains 18 colossal sandstone columns.

Curiously, the columns at the Temple of Edfu were replicated by James Coombe in the frontage of the Temple Works at Holbeck, Leeds.

Mastabas: Tombs of High Officials

Egyptian architecture also provided special treatment for the tombs of high state officials.

During the Old Kingdom, these tombs of the elite were built close to the tombs of their Pharaonic masters, at Memphis and Abydos, and this tradition continued during later epochs.

These tombs were known as 'mastabas', from the Ancient Egyptian for 'house of eternity'. Mastaba structures were rectangular in shape, about 9 metres tall, with inward-sloping walls and a flat roof.

The above-ground area contained a small offering chapel, called a serdab, where family members deposited food and other offerings for the soul of the deceased, to support his existence in the afterlife.

Inside a wall niche of the serdab, was a statue of the deceased (representing his earthly body), near which were tiny openings that would allow the soul (ba) to leave and return to the body (statue). The openings allowed the smell of burning incense, to reach the statue.

Initially, mastabas were built of mud brick until builders switched to using squared limestone blocks. From the fifth dynasty onwards, mastabas were given elaborate several chapels, together with a columned hall.

The actual burial chamber was built underneath the southern end of the mastaba. Access to the burial chamber, was via a stairway which descended from the columned hall to a slanting passage leading to the tomb.

Egyptian Architects

The most famous architects in Ancient Egypt include Amenhotep, Hemiunu, Imhotep, Ineni, Kagemni, Kha, and Senemut.

Sadly, most of the other designers are unknown to us. This is partly due to lack of information, and partly because there was no word for 'architect' in the Egyptian language.

Each master-builder was called 'director of all the king's works.' They were among the most trusted of the king's senior officials and frequently acted as his chancellor.

This corroborates the view held by many Egyptologists, that their principal duties were organizational and administrative: that is, the recruitment and allocation of labour; and procurement of building supplies.

In inscriptions, these master-builders speak of their technical achievements, such as the erection of obelisks and giant statues, but hardly ever mention the buildings they designed and built, let alone explain their ideas.

Imhotep (27th century BC)

Imhotep, one of the earliest and most celebrated architects in history. He served under Pharaoh Djoser during the Third Dynasty. He was not only an architect but also a high priest, chancellor, scribe and polymath.

Imhotep is best known for designing Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara (c.2630 BC), considered the world's first stone monument, and the prototype for future pyramid construction.

His groundbreaking use of stone as a building material was a significant advance in Egyptian architecture, and marked a pivotal shift from mastaba tombs to pyramid construction.

Imhotep also designed Djoser's mortuary complex and the enclosure wall.

He was also revered as a healer, and was later deified as the god of medicine and wisdom.

Hemiunu (2570-2530 BC)

Hemiunu was a prominent architect during the Fourth Dynasty and was entrusted with the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza (c.2565 BC), Pharaoh Khufu's burial monument.

As the chief architect, Hemiunu organized a massive workforce and employed ingenious engineering techniques to create the colossal structure, which remains the only survivor of the 'Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.'

Kagemni (c.2400 BC)

An architect during the Old Kingdom, Kagemni served under Pharaoh Teti of the Sixth Dynasty.

He is best known for his role in designing and overseeing the construction of mastabas and pyramid complexes at Saqqara.

Kagemni played a significant role in shaping the early pyramid architecture that would later evolve into the grand pyramids of the Giza Plateau.

Ineni (c.1514-1458 BC)

A distinguished architect during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose I in the New Kingdom's Eighteenth Dynasty, Ineni is noted for the design and construction of the Tomb of Amenhotep, dating back to approximately 1450 BC.

Ineni's expertise also extended to temple architecture, as he played a key role in the expansion and renovation of the Precinct of Amun-Re at Karnak Temple.

Senenmut (c.1479-1458 BC)

Senenmut was a trusted advisor and architect during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut in the New Kingdom's Eighteenth Dynasty.

As her chief architect, he designed her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, an architectural masterpiece that blends into the natural rock formation.

Senenmut's innovative design and use of terraces and colonnades set a new standard for temple construction in ancient Egypt.

Amenhotep son of Hapu (c.1411-1375 BC)

Amenhotep son of Hapu served under Pharaoh Amenhotep III during the Eighteenth Dynasty.

He became best known for incorporating intricate detailing and artistic elements into his designs, contributing to the aesthetic appeal of the structures he oversaw.

His architectural successes included the construction of a range of temples and shrines.

Kha (c.1353-1349 BC)

Kha worked during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten in the Amarna Period.

He oversaw the construction of Akhetaten, the new capital city dedicated to the sun god Aten.

Kha's urban architecture reflected the religious beliefs of the time, and included open-air temples and sun-worshipping monuments.

References

(1) Arnold, Dieter. The encyclopedia of ancient Egyptian architecture. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2003.
(2) Lehner, Mark (1997). The Complete Pyramids. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05084-8.
(3) Rice, Michael (2003). Egypt's Making: The origins of ancient Egypt 5000–2000 BC. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-203-42816-0.
(4) Wilkinson, R. (2000). The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-05100-9.

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