The History of Ancient Egyptian Architecture

Egypt is best known for its construction in stone, but much of its history was built in mud. Mud brick, unfired and dried only by the sun, was a plentiful and convenient resource for the construction of human habitation, from the homes of peasant families to the palaces of kings. When stone takes its place in Egyptian architecture during the Old Kingdom, so too does a clear demarcation of the roles of stone and brick in the Egyptian culture: stone is for the eternal, namely the gods and the dead, while brick is for the living. There are exceptions to this rule – the expense of stone pyramids led the kings of the Middle Kingdom to experiment with brick instead – but generally the principle held true.

An unfortunate consequence of this fact is that so much of the environment in which the Egyptians actually lived is now lost to us. Mud brick can survive the millennia under the right circumstances, and we have learned much from such communities as Deir-el-Medina in Thebes or the ruins of Akhenaten’s capital at Amarna. These settlements were placed in the desert, however. Most habitation was in or near the flood plain, and if a building were not cleared away outright for fresh construction, it would still be eroded away, with even the foundations lost beneath centuries of fresh silt.

What we think we know about early construction patterns comes largely from artistic representations of homes, most commonly in the form of models included among funerary goods. The oldest of these models go back to the middle of the fourth millennium BC, and show a style of construction that would remain largely intact well into the dynastic period. The base is rectangular, but the walls curve slightly inward on their way to the roof, which is supported by four wooden posts in the corners. There is one door, surmounted by what must have been a large wooden lintel under which a drape of some kind hung. On the other side of the house are two small windows near the roof, evidently intended more for fresh air than any kind of view; these windows are supported by blocks of wood above and below.

The oldest recognizable temple is at Hierakonpolis; it, too, was made of perishable materials, mostly of wood, although the fence that surrounded the enclosure appears to have been made of reed reinforced by mud. The enclosure itself is more oval than rectangular, and is flanked to the south by a roofed shrine. Subsequent early temples, as well as early palaces, use similar enclosures, but soon brick is used instead of reed, and the corners are more classical rectangular.

Brick is the material used in early royal tombs at Abydos, and it is believed that these tombs have largely the same design as the palaces of the age, including a facade that is distinguished by a pattern of vertical niches that soon becomes the hieroglyphic symbol for “palace.” The Early Dynastic tombs remain extensive complexes, but essentially they are similar to the pattern of the Old Kingdom mastaba, in which a more or less rectangular superstructure stands above burial shafts cut into the earth. This pattern would seem to be the norm until Djoser builds his funerary complex, including the first pyramid, out of stone instead of brick.

Apart from the pyramid and the use of stone, Djoser’s complex follows a familiar pattern established in the early temples, including an enclosure wall with the niched facade of the palace; here, the pyramid itself takes the role of the earthen mound often found in early temples. While the superstructure of the pyramid now comprises several levels, the interior of this tomb is still cut into the earth, rather than being built inside of the pyramid.

In the reign of Sneferu, the early step pyramids have been refined to the true pyramid. By this point, the entire funerary complex has been transformed. Pyramids now contain the burial, rather than standing above them. The pyramid complex now features a temple for the service of the king, as well as a small town to serve the needs of the priests who staff this temple. Family members and favored courtiers were often buried nearby, in the hope of sharing in some measure in the eternal life that was still the prerogative of the king. Important queens sometimes received small pyramids; the rest were buried in mastabas.

The kings of the Fifth Dynasty laid the foundations for national temple design. Previously, temples remained local constructions following local designs; now, kings began building a series of sun temples, adapting the exterior design of the pyramid complex to an open-air enclosure facing a thick obelisk in emulation of the Benben stone at Heliopolis. This design ends with the Fifth Dynasty, but the Sixth further refines and standardizes the mortuary temple of the pyramid complex into a pattern that would henceforth become the standard for Egyptian temples for the rest of its history. A narrow passage opened into a broad courtyard marked by pillars in the form of papyrus plants, representing the Primordial Swamp. Beyond this courtyard, which eventually became the Hypostyle Hall of New Kingdom temples, was a series of antechambers that led into the sanctuary itself, where images of the king or of the god resided and could receive offerings. Just as the statue of the king could house his Ka, the statue of the god could house the god’s power.

National traditions fell into abeyance during the First Intermediate Period, and local traditions like burial in tomb passages cut into cliff faces dominated. The Middle Kingdom tried to revive national architectural traditions as much as was possible; some concessions had to be made, such as the construction of pyramids in mud brick instead of stone. Many temples were built, but most have subsequently been replaced by newer constructions, but some surviving samples, like the mortuary temple of Montuhotep, show a surprising level of originality, with its two-tiered facade and exposed pillars.

Temples and tombs seemed to have preoccupied the Egyptians, but the Middle Kingdom also had prosaic concerns. Among these were the construction of fortresses, such as Buhen in Lower Nubia. Early towns had been fortified with walls since the middle of the Fourth Millennium BC, but Egyptian power in the Old Kingdom had not required extensive fortification. Middle Kingdom strikes south of the First Cataract, followed up by Egyptian settlements, necessitated fortresses to protect the new colonies.

The fall of the Middle Kingdom brought another return to regionalism, but when at last a Theban dynasty restored unity and inaugurated the New Kingdom, wealth on a new order of magnitude would spark unprecedented construction.

Temples great and small were built throughout the land; for the most part, they held closely in their floor plan to the standards set by Sixth Dynasty mortuary temples. The concept of the temple as a model of creation was refined, with Hypostyle Halls representing the reeds of the Primordial Swamp, and the sanctuary of the god being built higher, representing the mound that rose from that swamp. New Kingdom temples also added an important element to the outside of the temple, a large facade known as a pylon. The pylon was generally shaped like the hieroglyph representing the horizon.

Tombs, paradoxically, were more modest affairs. Having concluded that large, visible tombs invited robbery, kings now took to secret burials in rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Ironically, it was now commoners who built tombs surmounted by small pyramids.

Sites like Deir-el-Medina also offer us glimpses at the homes of commoners, albeit of comparatively affluent professionals and their families. Here we see blocks of connected rectangular houses with multiple rooms, a vast improvement over the single-room houses of the Predynastic. Available living space, and “air-conditioned” sleeping quarters, were provided by steps leading up to the flat roof.

The decline of the New Kingdom curtailed construction, although some of the northern dynasties in the Late Period enjoyed periods of heightened activity. It is not until the Ptolemies that Egyptian building resumes the grandeur of the New Kingdom, but while sculpture and relief betray Greek influences, the essential layout of the temples remains largely true to the standards of the New Kingdom.

Overall, in architecture as in other areas of life, Egypt favored continuity more than change. From the models of Predynastic houses and the earliest royal tombs at Abydos to the last great temples of the Ptolemies, there is a distinctly Egyptian character recognizable throughout.


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