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Ancient Egyptian Mastabas

View into an uncovered mastaba tomb at Balat.
View into an uncovered mastaba tomb at Balat.

Mastaba tombs are low rectangular, flat-roofed constructions with distinctive sloping sides created from sun-dried mud brick or infrequently stones. Inside they feature a small number of rooms together with a main burial chamber underneath it. The actual burial chamber was reached via a deep vertical shaft below a flat-roofed stone structure.

Mastaba is an Arabic word meaning “bench” as their form resembles an oversized bench. The actual ancient Egyptian word used to describe these tombs was pr-djt, or “house for eternity.” Mastabas began to appear in the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2700 BC) and continued to be built throughout the Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2200 BC).

These mastaba tombs served as highly visible monuments to the prominent members of Egyptian nobility interred within their vaults. In keeping with later developments in burial fashion, the actual burial chambers for the mummified bodies were placed deep underground.

Early Mastabas

These early mastabas were intended for royalty and even pharaohs. However, after pyramids rose in popularity during the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2625-2510 BC) mastaba tombs were increasingly adopted for lesser royalty, including those queens who were not granted their own pyramid tomb, together with courtiers, high-status state officials and their families. Today, large numbers of mastaba tombs can be seen at the major ancient Egyptian burial sites of Abydos, Saqqara and Giza.

As with the pyramids, construction of these mastaba tombs was concentrated on the west bank of the Nile, which was viewed by ancient Egyptians as a symbol of death, in recognition of the sun sinking into the underworld.

Inside these tombs were brilliantly decorated and had a dedicated place for making offerings to the dead. The tomb’s walls were vibrantly decorated with scenes of the deceased and their daily activities. Thus the mastaba tombs were designed to ensure the deceased’s well being for all eternity.

Afterlife Beliefs Shaped Mastaba Tomb Design

During the period of the Old Kingdom, ancient Egyptians believed only the souls of their kings journeyed on to enjoy a divine afterlife with their gods. By contrast, the souls of Egyptian nobles and their families continued to inhabit their tomb. Thus they required nourishment in the firm of daily offerings of food and drink.

When an Egyptian died, their ka or life force or soul was set free. To encourage their soul to return to their body, the body was preserved and a statuette of the likeness of the deceased was interred in the tomb. Statuettes called slaves for the soul or shabti or shawabti also accompanied the deceased in the tombs to serve the deceased in their afterlife.

A false door was frequently carved on the interior wall of the tomb close to the entrance to the vertical shaft. An image of the deceased was often carved into this false door to encourage the soul to reenter the body. Similarly, the comfort and well being of the deceased was ensured by including storage chambers amply stocked with household furniture, equipment, food and liquid storage jars and vessels together with offerings of food and drink.

The walls of the mastaba tombs were often decorated with scenes showing extracts from the deceased’s routine daily activities.

Changing Construction Fashions

The construction style of the mastaba tombs evolved over time. The earliest mastaba tombs closely resembled homes and featured several rooms. Later mastaba designs incorporated stairways leading down into rooms carved out of the rock below the overhead structure. Finally, for additional protection mastabas further developed the burial shaft and positioned the body below the rooms overhead.

After the Old Kingdom waned, mastaba tombs gradually fell from favour and were quite rare by the time of the New Kingdom. Eventually, Egyptian royalty ceased being buried in mastaba tombs in preference for burials in more modern, and aesthetically pleasing burials in pyramids, rock-cut tombs and small pyramid chapels. These ultimately replaced the mastaba tomb design amongst the Egyptian nobility. Egyptians of more humble, non-royal backgrounds continued to be buried in mastaba tombs.

Eventually, the design of the mastaba tombs influenced the design and construction approach to altars, temples, the great pylons or entrance towers positioned outside major temples, Djoser’s step pyramid and of course the magnificent true pyramids.

Early mastaba examples are quite simple and architecturally straightforward. In later non-royal Old Kingdom mastaba tombs, what in previous layouts had been a rough niche carved into the side of the tomb now expanded into a shrine cut into the tomb incorporating a formal stela or tablet carved into a false door showing the deceased seated at a table laden with offerings. The false door was important as it allowed the deceased’s spirit to enter the burial chamber.

Why Did Ancient Egyptians Devote Their Time And Resources To Creating These Tombs?

In ancient Egypt, mastaba tombs and later pyramids served both funerary purposes and acted as shrines or temples. The ancient Egyptians believed that by performing religious ceremonies and sacred rites in mastaba tombs, the tombs provided a means of communicating with the departed spirits who were thought to be dwelling in the sky or the heavenly stars.

Mastabas and their pyramid offspring were mystically endowed in the minds of the ancient Egyptians with supernatural qualities, including forming the “Steps To Reach Heaven” and housing the material goods, food and drink offerings and servants needed to sustain a spirit on its journey through the afterlife.

Why Did They Construct Such Colossal Designs?

Ancient Egyptians considered that performing magical rituals in a mastaba enabled the spirits of the departed to flourish and rise to the sky, or heaven. Consequently, the use of such assemblies allowed them to receive and enjoy heavenly benefits as a reward for their loyalty and work effort done during their lives. A magnificent compensation as promised by their Pharaoh, who was believed to be a God on earth.

In addition, ancient Egyptians believed their Gods on earth would be able to reciprocate with other gods. This created a relationship that permitted them to acquire other worldly advantages. These concepts were taken at the time to be real, useful and necessary for the afterlife.

How Did The Mastaba’s Trapezoidal Structure Become The Foundation Of Ancient Egyptian Architectural Forms?

The mastaba is the structural precursor to the later pyramids. In constructing a pyramid, the ancient Egyptians, first lid down a mastaba-like structure, which acted as the bottom platform and included the pyramid’s total base footprint. They next proceeded to construct a second slightly small-scale mastaba-like structure over the first completed structure. The Egyptian builders then continued to build mastaba-like platforms, one on top of the other, until the pyramid’s desired height had been reached.

Djoser’s Step Pyramid The Ultimate Mastaba

Architecturally, mastabas preceded the first pyramid and much of the expertise developed in designing and building mastaba tombs formed the knowledge foundation for constructing the first pyramids.

The conceptual line from the mastaba tombs to the first pyramid is simple to detect. By simply stacking one slightly smaller mastaba directly on top of a larger preceding one led to the innovative and revolutionary design that is Djoser’s step pyramid. This process was repeated several times to create the initial pyramid-shaped monument.

Djoser’s vizier Imhotep designed the original step pyramid in the third millennium BC. The sloped sides of the iconic great pyramids at Giza were adopted directly from the blueprint of a mastaba tomb, although a pointed cap replaced the mastaba’s flat roof in the pyramid design.

Imhotep’s pyramid design modified the step pyramid by filling in the uneven outer sides of the pyramids with stones and then giving the pyramid a limestone outer shell creating the flat, sloping external surfaces.

This final design did way with the stair-like appearance of the step pyramid model. Thus, the mastaba tomb was the initial staging design, which progressed from the mastaba form to the step pyramid layout to the bent pyramids before finally adopting the now familiar triangle-shaped pyramids, which dominate the Giza plateau.

Reflecting On The Past

Consider for a moment, the inspired leap of imagination by Imhotep to transform the mastaba tomb design into the classical pyramid template that resulted in one of the Ancient Wonders of the World.

Header image courtesy: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Ancient Egyptian Mastabas," Give Me History, March 13, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-egyptian-mastabas.

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