Characteristics of Egyptian Architecture
Scant tree growth prevented the extensive use of wood as a building material, but because fine clay was deposited by the floodwaters of the Nile, the ceramic arts developed early. Both sun-dried and kiln-dried bricks were used extensively. Fine sandstone, limestone, and granite were available for obelisks, sculpture, and decorative uses.
A massive, static, and serene architecture emerged from primitive structures of clay and reeds. The incised and flatly modeled surface adornment of the granite buildings was apparently derived from mud wall ornamentation, and the slope given to the masonry walls suggests a method employed originally to obtain stability in the mud walls. The Egyptians developed post-and-lintel construction—the type exclusively used in their monumental buildings—even though the use of the arch was developed during the dynasty of Snefru (2780–2689 B.C.). Walls were immensely thick. Columns were confined to the halls and inner courts. Roofs, invariably flat, suited to the lack of rain, were of huge stone blocks supported by the external walls and the closely spaced columns.
The massive sloping exterior walls, containing only a few small openings, as well as the columns and piers that they concealed, were covered with hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant colors. Many motifs of Egyptian ornament are symbolic, such as the scarab, or sacred beetle, the solar disk, and the vulture. Hieroglyphics were decoration as well as records of historic events. Egyptian sculptors possessed the highest capacity for integrating ornamentation and the essential forms of their buildings. From natural objects, such as palm leaves, the papyrus plant, and the buds and flowers of the lotus, they developed conventionalized motifs.
All dwelling houses, built of timber or of sun-baked bricks, have disappeared; only temples and tombs, constructed in durable materials, have survived. The belief in existence beyond death resulted in sepulchral architecture of utmost impressiveness and permanence. Even during periods of foreign rule Egyptian architecture clung to its native characteristics, adopting almost no elements from other cultures.
Egyptian architectural development parallels the chronology (see Egypt): Old Kingdom, 2680–2258 B.C.; Middle Kingdom, 2134–1786 B.C.; New Kingdom, 1570–1085 B.C. Old Kingdom remains are almost entirely sepulchral, chiefly the tombs of monarchs and nobles. The mastaba is the oldest remaining form of sepulcher; it is a rectangular, flat-roofed structure with sloping walls containing chambers built over the mummy pit. The pyramid of a sovereign was begun as soon as he ascended the throne. Groups of pyramids remain; those at Giza, which include the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), are among the best known. Many Middle Kingdom tombs were tunneled out of the rock cliffs on the west bank of the Nile, among them the remarkable group (c.1991–1786 B.C.) at Bani Hasan. New Kingdom temples in the environs of Thebes, such as those of Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum, derived their form from the funerary chapels of previous ages.
The New Kingdom years cover the great period of temple construction, those temples extant conforming to a distinct type. The doorway in the massive facade is flanked by great sloping towers, or pylons, in front of which obelisks and colossal statues were often placed. The more important temples were approached between rows of sculptured rams and sphinxes. A high enclosing wall screened the building from the common people, who had no share in the temple rituals practiced solely by the king, the officials, and the priesthood. Beyond the open colonnaded courtyard was the great hypostyle hall with immense columns arranged in a central nave and side aisles. The shorter columns of the latter permitted a clerestory for the admission of light. Behind the hypostyle hall were small sanctuaries, where only the king and priests might enter, and behind these were small service chambers.
The Great Temple of Amon at Karnak is a product of many successive additions; the central columns of its hypostyle hall are the largest known. In the temples that resulted from many additions, unity of design was often sacrificed to sheer size. New Kingdom temples were also excavated from rock. The temples of Abu-Simbel begun by Seti I (1302–1290 B.C.), have four colossal figures, sculptured from solid rock, of Ramses II, who completed the temples. (The temples were cut apart and removed from their position by the Nile previous to the completion of the Aswan dam and reassembled in 1966 at a point higher and farther inland.) The temple at Idfu (237 B.C.), by Ptolemy III, is the best preserved of the Ptolemaic period.
See W. M. F. Petrie, Egyptian Architecture (1938); W. S. Smith, Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (1958, repr. 1965); A. Badawy, Architecture in Ancient Egypt and the Near East (1966); A History of Egyptian Architecture (Vol. I–III, 1954–68).