For 6,000 years spanning the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000 – 3150 BCE) through to the defeat of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 – 30 BCE) and Egypt’s annexation by Rome Egyptian architects under the direction of their pharaohs imposed their will on the landscape. They passed down a breathtaking legacy of iconic pyramids, imposing monuments and vast temple complexes.
Even after thousands of years, the pyramids at the Giza plateau continue to inspire awe amongst the millions of visitors who flock to them annually. Few stop to consider how the skills and insights that went into building these eternal masterpieces was accumulated over centuries of construction experience.
Facts About Ancient Egyptian Architecture
- For 6,000 years ancient Egypt’s architects imposed their will on the harsh desert landscape
- Their legacy is Giza’s iconic pyramids and enigmatic Sphinx, colossal monuments and majestic temple complexes
- Their architecture accomplishments demanded an understanding of mathematics, design and engineering together with the logistical skills to mobilizing and sustaining enormous construction crews
- Many of the ancient Egyptian structures are aligned East-West reflecting birth and renewal in the East and decline and death in the West
- The Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel was designed to light up twice each year, on his coronation date and his birthday
- The Great Pyramid of Giza was initially clad in polished white limestone making it gleam and sparkle in the sunlight
- It remains a mystery how many of ancient Egypt’s colossal structures such as the Great Pyramid were built and how ancient construction workers manoeuvered these gigantic stones into place
- Early Egyptian homes were circular or oval structures built from reeds and sticks daubed with mud and featured thatched roofs
- Pre-Dynastic tombs were built using sun dried mud-bricks
- Ancient Egyptian architecture reflected their religious beliefs in ma’at, the concept of balance and harmony brought to life through the symmetry of their structural designs, their elaborate interior decorations and their rich narrative inscriptions
How Egyptian Creation Myths Were Given Voice By Their Architecture
According to Egyptian theology, at the very beginning of time, all was swirling chaos. Eventually, a hillock the ben-ben emerged from these primordial roiling waters. The god Atum landed on the mound. Gazing out upon the dark, heaving waters, he felt lonely so he began the cycle of creation birthing the unknowable universe, from the sky overhead to the earth below to the first humans, his children.
The ancient Egyptians honoured their gods in their daily lives and in their work. Unsurprisingly, many of the ancient Egyptians’ architecture reflected their belief system. From the symmetry incorporated into their structural design to their elaborate interior decorations, through to their narrative inscriptions, every architectural detail reflects the Egyptian concept of harmony and balance (ma’at), which lay at the heart of the ancient Egyptian value system.
Egypt’s Pre-Dynastic And Early Dynastic Architecture
Raising massive structures requires expertise in mathematics, design, engineering and above all else in mobilizing and sustaining a population through government apparatus. Egypt’s Pre-Dynastic Period lacked these advantages. Early Egyptian homes were oval or circular structures with reed walls daubed with mud and thatched roofs. Pre-Dynastic tombs were constructed from mud bricks dried in the sun.
As Egyptian culture evolved, so did its architecture. Wooden door and window frames appeared. Oval mud brick houses transformed into rectangular houses with vaulted roofs, courtyards and garden. Early Dynastic Period tombs also became more elaborate in design and intricately decorated. Still built from mud brick, the architects of these early mastabas were beginning to fashion temples honouring their gods from stone. In Egypt, stone stelae began appearing, together with these temples during the time of the 2nd Dynasty (c. 2890 – c. 2670 BCE).
Enormous four-sided tapered stone obelisks emerged in Heliopolis around this time. Quarrying, transporting, carving and erecting these obelisks demanded access to a labour pool and skilled artisans. These freshly honed stoneworking skills prepared the way for the next great evolution in Egyptian architecture, the appearance of the pyramid.
Djoser‘s “step pyramid” at Saqqara was designed by one of Egypt’s first recorded polymaths Imhotep (c. 2667 – c. 2600 BCE), who conceived of the idea a monumental stone mastaba tomb for his king. Stacking a series of progressively smaller mastabas on top of each other created Djoser’s “step pyramid.”
Djoser’s tomb was set at the bottom of a 28-meter (92 feet) shaft beneath the pyramid. This chamber was faced in granite. Penetrating to that point required traversing a labyrinth of brightly painted hallways. These halls were decorated with reliefs and inlaid with tiles. Unfortunately, grave robbers looted the tomb in antiquity.
When it was finally finished, Imhotep’s Step Pyramid towered 62 meters (204 feet) into the air making it the ancient world’s tallest structure. The sprawling temple complex surrounding it incorporated a temple, shrines, courtyards and the priest’s quarters.
Djoser’s Step Pyramid typifies Egyptian architecture’s signature themes, splendour, balance and symmetry. These themes reflected Egyptian culture’s central value of ma’at or harmony and balance. This ideal of symmetry and balance were reflected in palaces being built with two throne rooms, two entrances, two reception halls representing both Upper and Lower Egypt in the architecture.
Egypt’s Pre-Dynastic And Early Dynastic Architecture
The Old Kingdom’s 4th Dynasty kings adopted Imhotep’s innovative ideas and developed them further. The first 4th Dynasty king, Sneferu (c. 2613 – 2589 BCE) commissioned two pyramids at Dahshur. Sneferu’s first pyramid was the “collapsed pyramid” at Meidum. Modifications to Imhotep’s original pyramid design anchored its outer casing on a sand foundation rather than bedrock, causing its eventual collapse. Today, that outer casing lies scattered around it in a massive gravel pile.
The iconic Great Pyramid of Giza the last of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was commissioned by Khufu (2589 – 2566 BCE) who learned from his father Sneferu’s construction experience at Meidum. Until the completion of the Eifel Tower in 1889 CE, the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure on earth.
Khufu’s successor Khafre (2558 – 2532 BCE) built the second pyramid at Giza. Khafre is also credited albeit controversially with constructing the Great Sphinx. The third pyramid in the Giza complex was built by Khafre’s successor Menkaure (2532 – 2503 BCE).
The Giza plateau today is dramatically different from the time of the Old Kingdom. Then the sweeping site featured an expansive necropolis of temples, monuments, housing, markets, stores, factories and public gardens. The Great Pyramid itself gleamed in the sun thanks to its dazzling outer casing of white limestone.
Egypt’s First Intermediate Period And Middle Kingdom Architecture
After the growing power and wealth of the priests and governors brought about the collapse of the Old Kingdom, Egypt plunged into an era known to Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period (2181 – 2040 BCE). During this time, while ineffectual kings still ruled from Memphis, Egypt’s regions governed themselves.
While few great public monuments were raised during the First Intermediate Period the erosion of central government gave regional architects an opportunity to explore different styles and structures.
After Mentuhotep II (c. 2061 – 2010 BCE) united Egypt under rule from Thebes, royal patronage of architecture returned. This is evidenced in Mentuhotep’s grand mortuary complex at Deir el-Bahri. This style of Middle Kingdom architecture strove at once to create a sense of the majestic and the personal.
Under king Senusret I (c. 1971 – 1926 BCE) construction on the great Temple of Amun–Ra at Karnak was initiated with a modest structure. Like all Middle Kingdom temples, Amun-Ra was built with an outer courtyard and columned courts leading through to halls and ritual chambers and an inner sanctum housing the god’s statue. A series of sacred lakes were also constructed with the entire effect being to symbolically represent the creation of the world and the harmony and balance of the universe.
Columns were important conductors of symbolism within a temple complex. Some of the designs represented a bundle of papyrus reeds, the lotus design, with a capital depicting an open lotus flower, the bud column with a capital mimicking an unopened flower. The Djed column an ancient Egyptian symbol for stability famous from its pervasive use in the Heb Sed Court in Djoser’s pyramid complex can be seen throughout the country.
Homes and other buildings continued to be mud brick constructions during the Middle Kingdom with limestone, sandstone or granite being reserved for temples and monuments. One of the Middle Kingdom masterpieces now long lost was Amenemhat III’s (c. 1860 – 1815 BCE) pyramid complex at Hawara.
This monumental complex featured twelve vast courts facing one another across a swath of interior hallways and columned halls. Herodotus described this labyrinth reverentially as more impressive than any of the wonders he had seen.
A network of alleys and false doors sealed with massive stone plugs disoriented and confused visitors adding to the protection enjoyed by the king’s central burial chamber. Carved from a single granite block, this chamber is reported as weighing 110 tons.
Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period And The Emergence Of The New Kingdom
The Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782 – 1570 BCE) saw invasions by the Hyksos in Lower Egypt and the Nubians in the south. These disruptions to the pharaoh’s power stifled Egyptian architecture. However, following Ahmose I’s (c. 1570 – 1544 BCE) expulsion of the Hyksos, the New Kingdom (1570 – 1069 BCE) saw a flowering of Egyptian architecture. The renovation of the Temple of Amun at Karnak, Hatshepsut’s phenomenal funerary complex and Ramesses II’s building projects at Aby Simbal saw architecture return on a grand scale.
Covering more than 200 acres the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak is perhaps the most imposing. The temple honoured the gods and narrated the story of Egypt’s past, becoming a monumental work-in-progress every New Kingdom king added to.
The temple comprises a series of monumental gateways or pylons leading into a network of smaller temples, halls and courtyards. The first pylon opens onto a wide court space. The second opens onto the Hypostyle Court measuring 103 meters (337 feet) by 52 meters (170 feet) s supported by 134 columns 22 meters (72 feet) tall and 3.5 meters (11 feet) in diameter. As with all other temples, Karnak’s architecture reflects the Egyptian obsession with symmetry
Hatshepsut (1479 – 1458 BCE) also contributed to Karnak. However, her focus was on instigating such beautiful and magnificent buildings that later kings claimed them for their own. Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Luxor is perhaps her grandest achievement. Its architecture embraces every element of New Kingdom temple architecture only on an epic scale. The temple is constructed in three tiers reaching 29.5 meters (97 feet) high. Today, visitors are still amazed by its landing stage at the water‘s edge, series of flagstaffs, pylons, forecourts, hypostyle halls, all leading into an inner sanctuary.
Amenhotep III (1386 – 1353 BCE) commissioned more than 250 buildings, temples, stele and monuments. He guarded his mortuary complex with the Colossi of Memnon, twin seated statues 21.3 metres (70 feet) high weighing 700 tons each. Amenhotep III’s palace known as Malkata, spread over 30 hectares (30,000 square meters) and was decorated and furnished elaborately throughout its mix of throne rooms, festival halls, apartments, conference rooms, libraries, and kitchens.
The later pharaoh Ramesses II (1279 – 1213 BCE) exceeded even Amenhotep III’s construction achievements. Ramesses II city of Per-Ramesses or “City of Ramesses” in Lower Egypt garnered widespread acclaim while his temple at Abu Simbal represents his signature masterpiece. Cut from living rock cliffs, the temple is 30 meters (98 feet) high and 35 meters (115 feet) long. Its highlights are the four 20 meter (65 feet) tall seated colossi, two to each side guarding its entrance. These colossi show Ramesses II on his throne. Beneath these monumental figures are placed smaller statues portraying Ramesses’ conquered enemies, the Hittites, Nubians and Libyans. Other statues show family members and protective gods together with their symbols of power. The temple interior is engraved with scenes depicting Ramesses and Nefertari paying homage to their gods.
As with many other major Egyptian buildings, Abu Simbel is precisely aligned to the east. Twice each year on 21 February and 21 October, the sun shines directly into the temple’s inner sanctum, illuminating statues of Ramesses II and the god Amun.
Decline Of The Late Period And Emergence Of The Ptolemaic Dynasty
The dawn of Egypt’s Late Period saw successive invasions by the Assyrians, Persians and Greeks. After conquering Egypt in 331 Alexander the Great designed its new capital city, Alexandria. After Alexander’s death, the Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt from 323 – 30 BCE from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast and its magnificent architecture saw it emerge as a centre of culture and learning.
Ptolemy I (323 – 285 BCE) initiated the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum temple. Ptolemy II (285 – 246 BCE) completed these ambitious if now vanished wonders and also constructed the famous Pharos of Alexandria, a monumental lighthouse and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
With the death of Egypt’s last queen, Cleopatra VII (69 – 30 BCE) Egypt was annexed by imperial Rome.
However, the legacy of the Egyptian architects endured in the colossal monuments they left behind. These architectural triumphs continued to inspire and captivate visitors to the present day. The master architect Imhotep and his successors achieved their dreams of being memorialised in stone, defying the passage of time and keeping their memory alive. The enduring popularity of ancient Egyptian architecture today is a testimony to just how well they achieved their ambitions.
Reflecting On The Past
When reviewing Egyptian architecture, do we focus too much on the monumental pyramids, temples and mortuary complexes at the expense of exploring its smaller, more intimate aspects?
Header image courtesy: Cezzare via pixabay