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Ancient Egyptian architecture falls into three categories: buildings for the living, buildings for the dead, and buildings for religious rites, i.e. temples, chapels, and shrines. The surviving architectural examples of Egypt’s ancient past are from the latter two categories and are some of the most recognizable structures in the world. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and one of the premier tourist attractions in Egypt today. The pyramids were tombs specifically created to be the homes of deceased kings in the afterlife, and were part of larger complexes that functioned to serve the dead king in the afterlife. These tombs include the vast pyramid complexes built for kings from the Third Dynasty until the end of the Middle Kingdom when the Egyptians abandoned pyramid building (2675–1630 B.C.E.). Kings were not the only ones to have homes in the afterlife; Egypt’s elite class of individuals also built tombs called mastabas as permanent homes for themselves after death. The Egyptians first built mastabas for the earliest king in the First and Second Dynasties and continued to build them in Lower Egypt (northern Egypt) until the end of ancient Egyptian history (3500–30 B.C.E.) for the elite class. By the Sixth Dynasty and throughout the remainder of ancient Egyptian history, Egyptian nobles in Middle (central) Egypt and Upper (southern) Egypt carved tombs directly into the mountains that border the Nile river valley. During the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E.) the Egyptians buried kings in rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings near modern Luxor and worshipped the deceased kings as gods in temples built just for that purpose.


Egyptians believed their king was the incarnation of the god Horus on earth. According to the myth, Horus was a falcon, born to the god Osiris and his wife, Isis. When Osiris died he became the king of the dead. In the same way, the Egyptians believed that when the king died he became Osiris and ruled in the next world. The king’s son on earth was then the new Horus. These beliefs help explain the nature of Egyptian tombs for kings. Tombs were the place where Horus became Osiris and people on earth had access to the deceased king. Egyptian belief in the afterlife was so powerful that they only used permanent building materials, such as stone, for buildings that needed to last eternally. Buildings for the living, then, made use of the relatively impermanent material of mud brick; even the king’s palace was made of mud brick. The Egyptians also developed stone architecture for gods’ houses which Egyptologists call temples.


Architecture plays a pivotal role in understanding ancient Egyptian society. In the earliest periods and as late as the end of the Old Kingdom (3500–2170 B.C.E.), architecture provides scholars with the majority of the evidence for such an analysis because so little else from the culture survived. Relying on architecture for our understanding of a culture means that only a limited range of questions can be reliably answered. Architecture can, for example, be a good indicator of where a society allocates resources. In addition, the enormous effort required to build the Great Pyramid reveals something about the government’s ability to direct and organize society’s energies. Changes and continuity in architectural plans also suggest developments in religion and perhaps politics. Scholars, however, have often challenged the reliability of interpretations of religion based solely on architectural changes. When texts survive to supplement the knowledge derived from architecture, a much fuller picture can emerge. This is the case for the rock-cut tombs and the temples built for kings and gods in the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E.). In this time period the texts and sculptural reliefs on the interior walls of these structures supplement our understanding of the function that the rooms served and better define when important religious changes occurred. Finally, architecture provides one of the best categories of evidence for examining a society’s approach to technology. Although technologically simple when compared to modern cultures, Egypt’s structural accomplishments with such simple tools once inspired theories that Egyptian monuments were actually the work of aliens. Scholars have proven, however, that such supernatural or extraterrestrial explanations are unnecessary.


For nearly 3,000 years the Egyptians devoted an enormous percentage of their society’s efforts and energy to monumental stone architecture. Only agriculture exceeded architecture for sheer manpower and time needed. At the start of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to imagine both the impact that Egyptian architecture made on Europeans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who were astounded by the Egyptians’ accomplishments, and the difficulty of producing massive stone buildings when it is so common today. It was only in the twentieth century that architects routinely designed buildings similar in size to ancient Egyptian buildings. Unlike modern construction projects that engage a significant number of society’s workers but not a majority, most able-bodied Egyptians spent some time on construction projects during a lifetime of work. The Egyptian government organized the general population into either four or five rotating work groups known individually as a za that Egyptologists translate with the Greek word phyle. These phylae produced hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of stone walls, roofs, and foundations in nearly every generation. The Egyptian government also imported hundreds of boatloads of timber from Lebanon and directed craftsmen to produce tools, including stone axes, bronze chisels and saws, and wooden mallets. Engineers designed and built wooden sledges thirty meters (98.4 feet) long and huge boats that hauled several hundred tons of stone. Workmen dragged containers of sand and Nile mud to construction sites to make bricks. At the same time, the bureaucracy organized thousands of people to do the actual construction work and hundreds more who trained, fed, and clothed the workers. Egyptian architecture represents not only the highest design principles but also an astounding degree of cooperation, organization, and control for an early society. All of these organizational feats added to the Egyptians’ high reputation as engineers and architects among ancient peoples, a reputation that the Egyptians retain today. Moreover, the ability of the Egyptian government to control people’s actions suggests the degree of legitimacy it enjoyed as well as its power to coerce people into performing difficult and dangerous tasks for long periods of time.


Egyptian society, including architecture, was far from stagnant, though some scholars have seen conservatism as its main feature. Perhaps a fairer description of Egyptian society would emphasize a fondness for continuity coupled with an ability to meet shifting circumstances with creative solutions. These solutions often transformed new buildings in subtle ways. Certainly the period from the beginning of architecture about 3500 B.C.E. to the end of the Old Kingdom about 2170 B.C.E. was extremely creative. During this time period the Egyptians developed a vocabulary of architectural forms and plans that included the mastaba tomb and two different plans for pyramid complexes. They also developed the first sun temples dedicated to the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon at that time, Re. There was, however, tremendous variation in the plans of individual buildings and complexes. These subtle shifts have become the basis for interpreting the relationship between Egyptian architecture and its religion and politics. Yet almost all the buildings from this time period can be classified into one of four types: mastabas, north/south pyramid complexes, east/west pyramid complexes, and sun temples.


Even among the different types of plans and buildings, there is a unity in the way that Egyptians approached stone as a material. This unity of approach supplies the clearest evidence for Egyptian conservatism in design. One of the most distinctive features of Egyptian design was the designer’s insistence on translating mud brick architecture into stone, reproducing parts of buildings originally fashioned from wood, reeds, woven mats, and mud brick in stone buildings during all periods. Egyptian artisans carved stone elements to resemble building elements originally constructed from such lightweight and perishable materials. In fact, the major features of Egyptian architectural style originated in techniques more at home in these lighter architectural materials. Egyptian builders constructed battered walls at varying angles to duplicate the mud brick construction, and imitated the original reed material in their construction of the concave Egyptian cornice that projects from the tops of walls. Woven mats originally functioned as screen walls to separate the holiest part of the building from the public eye, and could be used in combination with wood to create false doors. The relatively small number of architectural forms combined with this approach to stone is one reason why the variety of Egyptian expression is sometimes muted in comparison with the more overwhelming sense of continuity conveyed by Egyptian buildings.


Because of the emphasis on continuity in Egyptian design, there is a temptation to interpret any variation in plan or location from one generation to the next as indicative of a larger cultural change. Thus Egyptologists ask why King Shepseskaf, the son of the builder of the third pyramid at Giza, never built a pyramid for himself, choosing instead to build a tomb based on the older royal tradition of building a mastaba. Clearly this change appears to be a reflection of some important change in either religious or political policy. Either Shepseskaf desired a return to an earlier attitude toward the office of king, or economic conditions made it impossible for him to build as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had done. Perhaps some combination of religious and political forces was the cause, but without any corroborating evidence from texts, it is impossible to correctly interpret the king’s actions. This lack of evidence points toward the fragility of some interpretations of Old Kingdom history based solely on architecture.


Scholars were not wholly without texts, however. Written evidence and surviving decoration on the walls of a building add greatly to the reliability of interpretations of Egyptian buildings. In general Egyptologists accept that the decoration of a room in a temple or the inscriptions on the walls describe or explain the function of a room. Thus relief sculptures on the walls of a room that depict the king performing a series of ritual actions can reliably be interpreted as an illustration of what occurred in the room. The spells of the Pyramid Texts inscribed on the walls of late Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty pyramids are thought to have been recited on that spot. The existence of additional contemporary texts written on papyrus or limestone chips called ostraca adds even more to our general knowledge. The evidence used to interpret the use of buildings increases considerably for the New Kingdom compared to the earlier periods. For example, a comparison of written descriptions of the king’s position in the world dating to the New Kingdom with the decoration of palaces, also built in the New Kingdom, shows how the same ideas had expression in two different mediums.


Earlier scholars of Egyptology could be overly influenced by their own preconceptions when they assigned functions to ancient buildings. This tendency was especially true in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when archaeologists tried to understand the buildings they had excavated without any corroborating evidence from texts. Early scholars concluded, for example, that buildings with high, paneled surrounding walls that date to the Predynastic Period (4400–3100 B.C.E.) were forts, even though they had no comparative material or extensive textual evidence to support such a theory. New interpretations, based on expanded comparative material, suggest that they were actually part of the kings’ burials. The term “mortuary temples,” used to describe the section of pyramid complexes built in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2675–1630 B.C.E.), stems from the false supposition that their sole function concerned the burial rites of the king, which reflected a modern Western focus on the funeral ceremony and burial. Scholars now understand these buildings as being important to the kings’ continued life in the next world as the center of an eternal cult to honor the deceased king. These buildings are now called pyramid temples, describing their proximity to the pyramid rather than a definite function.


In the 2,000-year history of Western interest in ancient Egypt, often the occult, the supernatural, and even the extraterrestrial have been proposed as explanations for certain phenomena. Nowhere is this more evident than in the interpretation of architecture. Many of these non-scientific explanations of ancient Egyptian accomplishments center on the construction of the pyramids. Many of these interpreters look only at the three pyramids at Giza built by kings Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure between 2585 and 2510 B.C.E. The enormous size and astounding precision with which these buildings were constructed not only arouse a sense of wonder, but have also suggested to many that the simple technology available to the Egyptians would not have sufficed to produce these buildings. A careful consideration of pyramid building from its origins in the time of King Djoser (2675–2654 B.C.E.) to the end of royal pyramid building at the close of the Middle Kingdom about 1630 B.C.E., shows a natural progression and even a learning curve. The earliest buildings contained mistakes. Subsequent buildings were sturdier because of innovations made in response to previous mistakes. Some innovations failed and were not repeated in later buildings. At the same time, the Egyptians learned to move increasingly heavier loads as their technology improved from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom. It is even possible to chart the progress in this one field of endeavor that is often ascribed in popular literature to knowledge obtained from space aliens. A study of the technological aspects of Egyptian building reveals much about their approach to problem solving.

Overview of Architecture and Design - EGYPTIAN BUILDING TYPES., EGYPTIAN BELIEFS., ARCHITECTURE AND SOCIETY., RESOURCE ALLOCATION., CONTINUITY AND CHANGE. [next] [back] Overlapped Block Motion Compensation

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What do woven mats do?????

You haven't included all info, but I must say I'm impressed!!