ANCIENT EGYPTIAN ARCHITECTURE


ANCIENT EGYPTIAN ARCHITECTURE
   The architecture of the Ancient Egyptians is traditionally considered only in relation to their elaborate burial rituals and what is called the "cult of the dead." This somewhat narrow understanding of Egyptian culture is largely the result of the fact that monumental religious structures such as the great Pyramids of Giza, the large funerary complex of Queen Hatshepsut, or the Great Temple of Amun in Karnak, were built on a large scale and with materials far more permanent than the materials used for private dwellings. Despite this, funerary chambers were stocked with furnishings, pottery, and other artifacts, as well as decorated with murals inscribed with hieroglyphics that show a lifestyle rich with song and dance, good food, and strong family ties. Small wood models of houses and gardens were also placed in tombs to remind the soul, called the ka, of the life the deceased has left behind to journey into the permanent afterlife. A model from the tomb of Meketra in Thebes, from around 2100 BC, during the Middle Kingdom, reveals a portico of painted columns that opens up into a lush walled garden with a central pool of water. Egyptian columns were used for both support and decoration. Often painted, these columns consisted of a base, shaft, and then a capital carved to recall a lotus flower, papyrus, or a palm leaf. Thus, the vertical reed or tree is the aesthetic source for these earliest columns.
   It was the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus who in the fifth century BC first described Ancient Egypt and divided its chronological development into the Early, Middle, and Late Kingdoms, with further dynastic divisions. Most early cities lined the banks of the Nile River and ultimately stretched from the Mediterranean Sea all the way down to Nubia in central Africa. As the rich delta was extremely conducive to agriculture, human habitation first appeared along the Nile around 8000 BC, with towns developing around 5500 BC during the Neolithic period, and then a cluster of city-states appearing in the northern part of the Nile, called the Lower Nile, around 3500 BC.
   The social cohesion of Old Kingdom Egypt (c. 2700-2100 BC) created a climate in which large-scale public architecture could be built. The mastaba, which looks like a flat-topped pyramid made of mud brick, was the earliest tomb structure found in Egypt. Inside the mastaba was a small internal room called a serdab that housed a statue of the ka, the worldly possessions of the deceased, and a shrine used for the worship of ancestors. Deep beneath the mastaba was a sealed burial chamber housing the mummified body of the deceased. A small shaft descended from the top of the mastaba into the burial chamber, creating the unintended entry point for grave robbers, who through history made a living looting these tombs. King Djoser's funerary compex at Saqqara, from around 2600 BC, is one of the earliest of these monumental structures that also included sham shrines around the temple to better foil thieves, and the earliest monumental stone structure in Egypt. Imhotep, King Djoser's prime minister and personal physician, was the designer of this complex and the first architect known by name. Completely loyal to the king, Imhotep could be trusted to keep secret the location of the vast funerary treasures of Djoser's reign. It was this high level of trust and secrecy required of the earliest architectural designers that explains their highly respected and almost cultish personae. Still debated are what measures might have been taken to maintain such secrecy among the manual laborers who completed construction of these chambers.
   Subsequent funerary monuments were larger and therefore more difficult to breach. An entire funerary complex, called a necropolis or "city of the dead," can be found in Giza outside modern-day Cairo, where the great Pyramids of Giza are located. Traveling from Cairo, one can begin to see three huge pyramids rising up from an entire complex of structures that were built for three pharaohs from Dynasty 4. The largest of these pyramids, made for the pharaoh Khufu (ruled 2589-2566 BC), covers 13 acres with solid rubble that rises up along four slanted faces to a height of about 480 feet at the central point. Granite and smooth limestone originally covered each pyramid, some of which remains on the top of the pyramid of Khafra (?-2532 BC). The smallest pyramid, dedicated to King Menkaura (2532-2503 BC), still has some of the original red granite along its base. These pyramids were made of solid stone, except for the internal burial chamber beneath the pyramid and the various sham chambers, false passageways, corridors, and escape routes that descended diagonally into the pyramid either toward or away from the burial chamber. The original entry, sealed after burial, might well be several stories up on one face of the pyramid, making subsequent entry almost impossible except for the most dedicated tomb robbers.
   By the Middle Kingdom, tombs were cut into the mountains along the bank of the Nile, and by the New Kingdom the rulers of Dynasty 18 had regained control of the entire stretch of the Nile and ushered in a time of vast architectural construction unrivaled in history. Great temple complexes began to appear, including the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, from around 1470 BC; the Great Temple of Amun in Karnak, begun around 1295 BC; the Temple of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu in Luxor, from around 1279 BC; and finally, the Temple of Rameses II and the adjacent Temple of Nefertari, both in Abu Simbel, from around 1279 BC. The temple in Karnak, north of the capital city of Thebes, reveals a walled complex reached by an avenue lined with monumental sculptures. The thick entrance, called a pylon, was flanked by colossal stiffly seated or standing figures, or obelisks. Beyond the pylon was an internal courtyard that led the visitor into an enclosed courtyard filled with colossal columns that supported a tall stone roof.
   This enclosed courtyard is called a hypostyle hall. Invented in Egypt, the hypostyle hall is characterized by the use of a taller central section to the roof that allowed windows to run along the upper registers of the outer walls and bring some light and cooler air into an otherwise very dark and hot interior space. Called clerestory windows, these were later employed in church design. The massive columns were made by stacking huge stones, cut into thick disks, one atop another. They were then carved in low relief from top to bottom. The hall led into the inner sanctuary, accessible only to kings and priests. Subsequent rulers added additional pylons, hypostyle halls, and shrines, always in an axial direction, which ultimately covered about 60 acres. These temples, along with the murals, sculpture, and Books of the Dead, attest not only to the cohesive and organized power of these family dynasties, but also to the complex funerary traditions that necessitated such complex burial rituals and systems of worship. Although Egyptian religion was based on a polytheistic belief system, the rule of Amenhotep IV, who reigned around 1352 BC, anticipated for a brief time the monotheistic beliefs of subsequent religions through the king's dedication to one god, the sun deity Aten. As can therefore be seen, Ancient Egyptian culture was innovative in its own right, yet it anticipated many of the innovations of subsequent cultures.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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