History Of Egyptian Architecture


To begin with, Egypt, the cradle of the arts of architecture and the seat of the earliest known civilization presents the astonishing picture of a society which went all the way from primitive life to the high level of the civilization by the middle of the third millenium B.C, and then lost its creative power but retained its status for another 2,500 years.

By studying the architecture of this civilization we find two very big difficulties. The first is a enormous lenght of time, and the second is the scarity of information. It is difficult to push the true history architecture back so far without trepassing upon ground which belongs to archaelogy. However remains of their architecture are incredibly conserved; this is due to the fine quality of the building stones which Egyptian used, to the dry climate, and to their desire to erect monuments which would endure for ever... and it is! Today we can see them on the edge of the sprawling suburbs of Cairo; we have to imagine the emptiness that must have once existed.

I) The great history of the cradle of architecture

As the pioneers of cicilization and the first teachers of mankind it's necessary to come back to the deep egyptian history.

In addition to the monumental tombs, with their vast array of historical and others records, extracts have been preserved from the writings of Manetho, an egyptian priest, living in the third century B.C. , who compiled a histoy of his country. Manetho grouped the monarchs of Egypt under some thirty dynasties, but considerable doubt has been thrown upon the accuracy of his chronology. Although other information, more or less reliable, relative to Egyptian history has been obtained from various ancient papyrus manuscripts, yet the question of the exact antiquity of Egypt still remins a matter of controversy.

Tradition assigns the commencement of the Egyptian monarchy to a certain Menes, who, at a remote date, founded a dynasty at This. The first dynasty, which, according to Manetho, lasted for 253 years, was followed by a second Thinite dynasty of kings, who reigned for 302 years. The sovereignity was then transferred to Memphis, where the kongs of the third dynasty reigned for 214 years. There is no clear evidence of the actual commences, therefore, with the reign of Sneferu, the founder of so-called fourth dynasty at Memphis
Even at that remote period, which Erman places at 2830 and Profesor Rawlinson at 2500 B.C., civilization had already been developed to a considerable extent. Hieroglyphic writing had been invented, numerous pyramids built, great progress made in the arts of sculpture and engraving, and confortable house of wood or stone were in existence. Three kings of the 4th dynasty are especially notable for their monumental efforts in pyramid building, namely , Khufu, or Cheops, the second monarch of the dynasty, who erected the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, near Memphis; Shafra, or Chephren, who built the Second Pyramid and the temple of the Sphinx and probably carved the colossal Sphinx at Gizeh; and Menkaura, or Mycerninus, who commenced The Third Pyramid.

The following dynastic periods are of special importance in the political and general history of the country :

Dynasties IV and V, from about 2830 BC
Dynasty VI, from about 2530 BC

Dynasty XII, about 2130 BC
Dynasty XIII, about 1930 BC

Dynasty XVIII, about 1530 to 1320 BC
Dynasty XIX, about 1320 to 1180 BC
Dynasty XX, about 1180 to 1050 BC

The seven kings of the 5th dynasty governed from Memphis and continued to built pyramids and tombs which, however, were designed upon a far less magnificient scale than those of their predecessors of the 4th dynasty.

In the 6th dynasty the centre of the government from Memphis was transfered to Abydos. This dynasty was notable for the completion of the third Great Pyramid of Gizeh. Following long times of obscur kings who, owing to the troublous times in which they lived, left few monuments and buildings, came te famous invasion of the Shephred Kings, a foreign race of monarch, probably Hittites, who ruled Egypt during the period known as the Middle Empire.

The founder of the 18th dynasty expelled the Shepherd Kings and reinstated a native monarchy at Thebes, where he and his successor ruled during the period known as the New Empire. In the course of this dynasty two great Colossi were set up at Thebes and the temple of Ammon built at Luxor. In the sucessing dynasty, Manetho's nineteenth, the great pillared hall at Karnak was built by Seti I, who also erected numerous temples and commenced the construction of a fresh canal between the Nil and the Red Sea.

Seti's son, Ramesu II, or Rameses, was a distinguished monarch, and during his reign many great architectural and engineering works were carried out. The unfinished canal, connecting the Nil with the red Sea, and the Ramesseum were completed by this king, who also constructed a grat wall to protect Egypt from the east. In these, as in other great Egyptian buildings, the forced labour of prisoners of war and slave was employed.

Rameses III, the second king of the twentieth dynasty, built a magnificent temple at Medinet-Abu and encouraged trade. His successors were undistinguished and feeble monarchs under whom the power began to pass from the king to the priests, who founded a dynasty of their own order. At a later period the Ethiopians extended their sway over southern Egypt.

The last period of independant Egyptian history was marked by a singular recovery of national vigour under Psamatik I, or Psammetichus, the founder of the 26th dynasty, who, aided Gyges, King of Lydia, established himself as king over the whole country in 655 BC. Under this monarch great architectural projects, that had remained in abeyance since the time of Rameses III, resumed, the temples at Thebes and Medinet-Abu were restored,and large buildings were constructed at Sais, Mendes, Philae and Heliopolis.

Psamatik III, the last king of this dynasty, was defeated by the Persians at Pelusium in 527 BC, and Egypt became a province of Persia.

After the death of Alexander the Great, Egypt fell into the hands of Ptoemy, who was crowned king in 306 BC. The Ptolemaic dynasty lasted for nearly three centuries, namely, to the death of Cleopatra, in 30 BC, when Egypt came under the dominion of the Roman Empire.

II) Characteristic of Egyptian architecture

Principal features

Pyramidal and Columnar Architecture

When we think of Egypt we think of pyramids. The pyramid represents the earliest example of Egyptian architecture, the temptation to employ decorative detail is repressed and subordinated to the desire to construct a monumental tomb of an imperishable nature, gigantic in size, and impressive by its majestic severity. Its form instantly conveys a sense of stability, through clarity of outline and breadth of base, whether as an isolated object or as one element among others.

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara was the first pyramid to be constructed in Egypt and the largest in the stepped form.

Later the Egyptians simplified the form, stressing its outine and profile. The pyramids at Giza of Cheops, Khephren, and Mycerinus of the 4th Dynasty (2465-2323 BC) are pure geometrical forms. The temple at the top was replaced by a point, and stepped sides became smooth stone. The pyramid was built up layer by layer in steps until the peak was reached and capped, after which the sloping sides were brought down in stone from the top.

Structurally, the pyramid comprises four sloping, triangular planes which spring from a square base and meet at a single point; the outline combines with the horizontal lie of the land to complete the shape of the architecture.

Tombs and Temples

This impressive and majectic aspiration of Egyptians is also apparent in the rock-cut galleries, temples, obelisk and tombs of later times. As exemple of the artistic skill and scientific knowledge of their constructors, Egyptians temple are preeminent. The earliest temple consisted of a small rectangular chamber, or sanctuary, to which only priests were admitted, containing an altar for sacrifices. Its one-entrance doorway was placed in the front wall of the building.

Temples of a later date were built on a much more elaborate plan, rooms, intended for a storage of a sacrificial and ceremonial objects, being grouped round the sanctuary, and in advance of this block of buildings, there were one or more pillared halls. Beyond the halls was a colonnaded courtyard, in which the priests and worshippers were accustomed to assemble, approached through a central gateway flanked by two massive tower-like structures with battering walls, called pylons. A long avenue bordered with shinxes led to the outer courtyard...


Egyptians obelisks cut from a single block of granite are quadrilateral in section, the width diminishing gradually from the base to the top of the shaft which is terminated by a small pyamidion (pyramid-shaped apex). Placed on plain square pedestrals they were usually set up in pairs in front of pylons. The height of the shaft was generally about ten times its thickness at the base, and its four faces were usually adorned with hieroglyphic inscriptions.The loftiest one known is taht of Queen Hatshepsu at Karnak, which is no less than 109 feet in height.

Sphinx and Colossal Statues

The sphinx, the emblem of royalty, was three kinds, namely : the andro-sphinx which had the head of a man and the body of a lion, the crio-sphinx with a head of a ram and the body of a lion ; and the hierosphinx , with the head of a hawl and the body of a lion. The great Sphinx in front of the pyramids t Gizeh, shown originally resented the appearance of an enormous crouching androsphinx. Between its huge paws was a small temple approached by a flight of steps and constructed of plain monolithic blocks of granite. With the exception of forelegs, which were made from separate blocks, the whole of this huge monument was cut out of the solid rock. Many of the colossal statues of Egyptians kings were of gigantic size. For example, the seated figure of Rameses, at Ramesseum, was 60 feet, and that of Memnon, at Thebes%%%, 53 feet in height.

Wonders of Ancient Egypt:
2,575 BC - 2,134 BC: Old Kingdom
? Abu Ghurab
• Ras Budran
• Step Pyramids of Djoser ?
• The Giza Pyramids ?
• The Sphinx ?
2,040 BC - 1,640 BC: Middle Kingdom
• Abydos
• Karnak ?
• Thebes
• Luxor Temple ?
• Temple of Karnak
• Serabit el-Khadem
• Tell el Dab'a
1,550 BC -1,070 BC: New Kingdom
• Tombos
• Piramesses
• Abu Simbel ?
• Amarna
• Deir el Bahri
• Kush Kingdom
• Deir el Medina
• Abu Simbel
• Tutankhamun's Tomb


Due to the scarcity of lumber, the two predominant building materials used in ancient Egypt were sunbaked mud bricks and stones, mainly limestone, but also sandstone and granite in considerable quantities. From the Old Kingtom onward, stone was generally reserved for tombs and temples, while bricks were used even for royal palaces, fortresses, the walls of temple precincts and towns, and for subsidiary buildings in temple complexes.

Egypt houses were made out of mud collected from the Nile river. It was placed in molds and left to dry in the hot sun to harden for use in construction.
Many ancient Egyptian towns have disappeared because they were situated near the cultivated area of the Nile Valley and were flooded as the river bed slowly rose during the millennia. Fortunately, the dry, hot climate of Egypt preserved some mud brick structures. Examples include the village Deir al-Madina, the Middle Kingdom town at Kahun, and the fortresses at Buhen and Mirgissa. Also, many temples and tombs have survived because they were built on high ground unaffected by the Nile flood and were constructed of stone.

Thus, our understanding of ancient Egyptian architecture is based mainly on religious monuments, massive structures characterized by thick, sloping walls with few openings, possibly echoing a method of construction used to obtain stability in mud walls. In a similar manner, the incised and flatly modeled surface adornment of the stone buildings may have derived from mud wall ornamentation. Although the use of the arch was developed during the fourth dynasty, all monumental buildings are post and lintel constructions, with flat roofs constructed of huge stone blocks supported by the external walls and the closely spaced columns.

Exterior and interior walls, as well as the columns and piers, were covered with hieroglyphic and pictorial frescoes and carvings painted in brilliant colors. Many motifs of Egyptian ornamentation are symbolic, such as the scarabs, or sacred beetle, the solar disk, and the vulture. Other common motifs include palm leaves, the papyrus plant, and the buds and flowers of the lotus. Hieroglyphs were inscribed for decorative purposes as well as to record historic events or spells.

In architecture there were variations in detail and minor changes of fashion, but the character of Egyptian design throughout three thousand years is remarkably uniform. There was a general tendency towards greater fineness of finish unfer the later dynasties.

Egyptian construction is extremly simple and crude. The need for enclosing large room was not great because of the climate, and the problem of roofing with large spans seems never to have been attempted.Shade was important, and vast columnar halls, loggias and cloisters are characteristic. The arch used in Mesopotamia must have been known from the early times in Egypt but its structural possibilities were not exploited.

Planning was not very imaginative and designers seem to have been obsessed with the idea of a main axis-the avenue, the processional way-flanked by monuments and pylons. The origins of architectural detail seems traceable to the forms of timber-, mud-,and ree-construction evolved in the pre-dynastic era. Familiar animals and plants figure largely in highly conventionalized forms in the decoration.

Sculpture in the round was important and the incised figures of gods and legendary creatures, as well as pictures of events and hieroglyphic inscriptions, were much used on walls and columns with little regard for the architectural forms

Detail of building

Plans : The plans of egyptians buildings were almost invariably rectangular in form, other geometrical figures, such as the circle or octagon, being studiously avoided. But despite the use of straight lines, there was much irregularity displayed in setting out the plans, the walls being seldom placed at right angles to each pther. The arrangement of the temples was not one that lent itself to external adjuncts of the temple, such as the long avenue of shinxes, huge obelisks, towering pylons, and arcarded courtyards,had an air of stately grandeur and formed a fitting counterpart to the impressive gloom which prevailed within.

Walls: Granite, stone, and brick were used by the Egyptians for the walls of their buildings, which enormously thick. The stone-facing blocks were carefully worked and skillfully bedded and jointed.

Roofs the ordinary roofing consisted of flat slabs of stine , supported, when the area to be covered was large, by immense beams, or trabeations, of stone or granite which were necessary, received intermediate support from stone columns or pillars.

Openings in the walls, chether in the form or doorways or windows, were uniformly square headed and otherwise simple in their architectural treatment. Exept where the lintel was overshadowed by a cornice, the doorways had merely a slight prohection from the face of the walling.

Moldings, or projections to relieve that flatness of the walling, were used very sparingly by the ancient Egyptians. Reference has already been made to enriched torus mouldings worked on the arrises of the external walling, and to the curved projecting cornice, surmounted by a flat band, which emphasized the horizontal lines of the buildings, and pratically these were the only moldings used.

Columns and piers were sometimes cut from a single blocks of stone or granite, as in the case of the monolithic pillars of the temple of the Sphinx. But as a rule these supports were built up in irregular courses of masonry and afterwards coated with plaster to obtain a monolithic effect. The process by which the plain, square, uncarved pier was developed into the richly ornamented Egyptian column has been explained in the following way. First its four angles were cut and it became octogonal form ; a second cutting produced a sixteen-sidded column the side of which, when made slightly concave, became flutes, while a large stone slab or cap, placed on the top, gave it more than general resemblance to the Doric column.

Egyptian columns and support may be roughly classified as follows : the square pier, or post of stone,
the polygonal column, plain or fluted.
the bud capital column.
the lotus-plower capital column.
the bell-shaped capital column.
the Hator-headed capital column.

Of these columns or supports those under were often embellished with vertical of hieroglyphics, and columns classified under were sometimes painted or otherwise ornamented. Those under, of which is an example, concisted of three varieties, the oldest of which, at Beni-Hassan, is composed of four plants with rounded stems bound together by a banded necking. Those of the Labyrinth, and of the processional hall of Thothmes III, consisted of eight stems each presenting a sharp edge on the outer side, the bulbous-shaped lower part of the column being ornamented with leaves. At a later period the simple round shaft variety of this column came into use.

The shaft of the lotus flower capital, shown in generally either plan or decorated with inscriptions,was sometimes worked to present the appearance of a group of clustered columns. In early times the shaft was curved inwards at its base, but in the Protemaic period the bulbous shape is seldom found. The columns surrounding the first court at the temple of Edfou rise straight from their bases, and in these and other examples the tapering sides of the shaft are finished by flat bands or neckings placed one above the other. Lotus-flower columns were usually surmounted by a square die, and adorned with rows of leaves and sprigs of lotus or papyrus plaed at the springing of the capital.

The earliest Egyptian temples are said to have contained neither hieroglyphic inscriptions nor sculptured images, but at the beginning of the fourth dynasty, at which periof our exact knowledge of Egyptian art commences, the primitive severity of their architectural treatment had been abandoned. At later periods in the history of the country the wall surfaces, pillars, and columns of important building were freely enriched with sculpture and inscriptions, and still later, under the rule of the Ptolemies, decoration in every conceivable form was employed.

Among the natural forms of which Egyptian decorative art is based, the following were supplied by a vegetable kingdom :
the lotus : a large water lily of grat beauty, the sacred flower which kings offered to the gods
the papyrus : a tall smooth reed from the stalk of which the Egptians manufactured their paper and
the palm.

From the animal and bird kongdom came a beetle, the asp, birds, feathers, and winged plulage ; these, and many other types of decorative detail, were used during all epochs of the national art.

The well-kown ornemental enrichment the winged disc, contins a central disc, representing the sun, supported by two asps from which spring widely out stretched wings to symbolize the beneficent activity of sun

Wall and Ceiling decoration
Hieroglphic and pictorial records of historical events were used to relieve the monotomous effect of large expanses of wall surfaces. In the private tombs the daily lives and occupations of their dead owners were depicted and scenes illustrating the relation which existed between Egypt and the gods decorated the immense wall spaces of the temples.Qualified in his dual capacity of god and man, the king alone was sufficiently high descent to act as a mediator between the deities and the people. Accordingly the Egyptian monarchis pictured in the temples as interceding out the wine, and burning the incense.
Ceiling were painted blue and relieved with five pointed yellw stars; in the Ptolemaic age zodiacs, fashioned after Greek models, appear in combinaison with astronomical tables of native origin.

Whether carved or painted, ornementation of the character was always conventional in its treatment, and if carved was the earliest peiods usually executed in low relief and sunk within the suface of the stone. But at a later period the wal surface was more deeply cut, with the result that the ornamentation stood out in high relief.

Architectural Style
? Focal Points -Statues of Pharaohs and sanctuaries of gods in temples, and sarcophagus in tombs dominated the whole architectural layout.
? Walls immensely thick and sloping - structural requirement for balancing (vertical walls of stone are unstable)
? Stone Columns closely spaced - Large spans were not possible
? Stone Lintels - massive with short spans, stone is a material that has a weak tensile strength
? Flat roofs - Domes and vaults were unknown in Egypt
? Small Openings - large doors and windows are not possible in stone construction, this also secured privacy to the religious structures inaccessible to the public
? Hieroglyphs- recording of historic events in stone obelisks and walls
? Religious symbols - (scarabs, solar disk) essential component for the decoration of all architectural elements
? Single storey buildings

? The basic construction method was post and lintel.
? Buildings were erected without mortar, so the stones had to fit and cut precisely together.
? Ramps were used to allow workmen to carry stones to the top of structures - as height was added, the ramp was raised.

Disappearance of the Ancient Egyptian culture

Egypt became to be influenced by some other nations which brought the end of the Ancient Egyptian culture. They were conquered by the Greeks in 332 BC. As a result of this they became a province of the Greek empire and they were influenced by the Greek culture both in their art and in their lifestyles, however their religion was respected by the Greeks. In 30 BC they were conquered by the Roman Empire. This brought the final end to the Ancient Egyptian culture. They no longer had pharaohs, they no longer built pyramids, they no longer followed their traditional rules in their art. Their old culture slowly but surely disappeared and all that is left is the ancient Artifacts...

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