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Police in Ancient Egypt › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Joshua J. Mark

In any society, members of the community recognize they are required to restrain certain impulses in order to participate in the community. Every civilization has had some form of law which makes clear that the benefits of peaceful coexistence with one's clan, city, village, or tribe outweigh the gratification of selfish desires, and should one act on such desires at others' expense, there will be consequences. In ancient Egypt, the underlying form of the law which modified behavior was the central value of the entire culture: ma'at, (harmony and balance). Ma'at, personified as a goddess, came into being at the creation of the world and was the principle which allowed everything to function as it did in accordance with divine order. The ancient Egyptians believed that, if one adhered to this principle, one would live a harmonious existence and, further, be assured of passage to paradise in the next life. After death, one's heart would we weighed in the balance against the white feather of ma'at, and if found heavier through selfish behavior, one's soul was denied paradise and would cease to exist.Adhering to ma'at simply meant living a balanced life with respect for one's self, one's family, immediate community, and the greater good of one's society. It also included a respect for the natural world and the animals which inhabited it and a reverence for the unseen world of the spirits and the gods.


People being what they are, however, there were many instances in which an individual would elevate his or her own self-interest above that of others, and so the Egyptians had to introduce more specific laws than simply the suggestion that one should conduct one's self with moderation and consideration for others. These laws would have been nothing more than further suggestions, however, if the authorities had no way to enforce them and so the occupation of policeman was created.


During the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2613-2181 BCE) there was no official police force. The monarchs of the period had personal guards to protect them and hired others to watch over their tombs and monuments. Nobles followed this paradigm and hired trustworthy Egyptians from respectable backgrounds to guard their valuables or themselves. By the time of the 5th Dynasty, toward the end of the Old Kingdom, this model began to change with kings and nobles choosing their guards from among the military and ex-military as well as from foreign nations, such as the Nubian Medjay warriors. Armed with wooden staffs, this early police was tasked with guarding public places (markets, temples, parks) and often used dogs and trained monkeys to apprehend criminals. A relief from the 5th Dynasty tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum depicts a police officer apprehending a thief in the market place with one of these monkeys. The monkey is restraining the thief by the leg as the officer approaches to arrest him.Dogs were used primarily in the same way, for apprehension, but also served in their familiar capacity as guardians. The breeds most often depicted as police dogs from this period are the Basenji and Ibizan.
The Old Kingdom collapsed and ushered in the era of the First Intermediate Period of Egypt (2181-2040 BCE) during which the central government was weak and the individual nomarchs (district governors) held more or less supreme power over their regions. Records from the First Intermediate Period are sparse because there was no strong central government bureaucracy to keep and catalogue them but the same basic model seems to have applied: the upper class hired private guards to protect their homes and property, and these guards were drawn from a class of society, often Nubian, with some military experience. Bedouins were often employed to police the borders and assist in protecting trade caravans while Egyptian guards served in more domestic spheres. There was no standing army in Egypt at this time, and so these men were also posted as sentries at forts along the border, guarded the royal tombs, and served as personal bodyguards and protectors for traders on expeditions to other lands. The Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1782 BCE) saw the creation of the first standing army under the reign of Amenemhat I(c. 1991-1962 BCE) of the 12th Dynasty. These soldiers were highly trained professional warriors who now were posted at garrisons along the border and were sometimes sent along with royal trade expeditions. The somewhat informal arrangement of employing warriors as guards was replaced by the development of a professional police force with specific focus on enforcing law; the new army took over most of the old guard's responsibilities. This period also saw the creation of a judicial system which was far superior to that of the past. Previously, court cases were heard by a panel of scribes and priests who would weigh the evidence and consult with each other and their god. If one were wealthy enough, one could easily bribe this panel and walk free. In the Middle Kingdom, the position of the professional judge was created. Judges were men versed in the law and paid by the state who were so amply compensated and cared for that they were considered incorruptible. The creation of judges led to the development of courts which required bailiffs, court scribes, court police, detectives, and interrogators. The Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1782 - c. 1570 BCE) was another era of weak central government and uneven record keeping. The Hyksos, a foreign people, held the Delta region and much of Lower Egypt and the Nubians had encroached from the south into Upper Egypt. Some of the Nubians, however, sold their services to the princes of Thebes as mercenaries in their army and as guardians for trade expeditions. These were the Medjay warriors, legendary in their own time for their skill and courage in battle. When Ahmose I (c. 1570-1544 BCE) drove the Hyksos from Egypt, he employed these mercenaries in his army and afterwards, once order was restored, they formed the core of the professional police force of Egypt.

Egyptian Warriors

Ahmose I initiated the era known as the New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1570 - c. 1069 BCE) in which this police force became more organized and the judicial system as a whole was reformed and developed further. There was never any occupation which corresponded to a lawyer in ancient Egypt but the practice of allowing witnesses to testify on behalf of the accused – while an officer of the court prosecuted – became commonplace. Police officers served as prosecutors, interrogators, bailiffs, and also administered punishments. The police, in general, were responsible for enforcing both state and local laws, but there were special units, trained as priests, whose job was to enforce temple law and protocol. These laws often had to do with not only protecting temples and tombs but with preventing blasphemy in the form of inappropriate behavior at festivals or improper observation of religious rites during services.


As head of state, the pharaoh was commander-in-chief of the military and also the police force but, in practice, his vizier was the top official of the judicial system. The vizier chose the judges and appointed the chief of police whose title, Chief of the Medjay, was a carry-over from the time when the police force was mainly comprised of Nubian warriors. The Chief of the Medjay was always an Egyptian who employed other Egyptians as his deputies while Nubians continued to make up the units who served as the pharaoh's personal bodyguards, watched over markets and other public places, and protected the royal trade caravans. The chief also appointed what would amount to sub-chiefs of different municipalities who selected their own deputies and assigned constables to different beats.

Stela of Ptahmay

Ultimately, a police precinct was responsible to the vizier, but practically they answered to their individual chiefs who then answered to the Chief of the Medjay. The exception to this rule were the temple police who were under the supervision of the head priest of a given temple. Even these men, however, were ultimately accountable to the vizier. There was no oath taken upon becoming a police officer; one was expected to recognize one's place in society, as dictated by the order established by ma'at, and perform one's duties accordingly. There were different types of police units who were given specific responsibilities and duties. Temple priests, for example, not only guarded the temple but monitored – and modified – behavior of participants at festivals and religious services.Egyptologist Margaret Bunson elaborates:
The temple police units were normally composed of priests who were charged with maintaining the sanctity of the temple complexes. The regulations concerning sex, behavior, and attitude during and before all religious ceremonies demanded a certain vigilance and the temples kept their own people available to insure order and a harmonious spirit. (207)
Other police units were assigned duty guarding caravans, protecting border crossings, watching over the royal necropolises, supervising the transport and the daily labor of slaves (especially in the mines), and safeguarding important administrative buildings in urban centers. The Molossian became the preferred police dog at this time and was used especially for guarding tombs and public places. Rural communities usually took care of their own judicial problems through appeal to a village elder, but even many of these had some sort of constable who enforced the laws of the state. Among the most common crimes, especially toward the latter part of the New Kingdom, was tomb robbing and court documents from this time (c. 1100 - c. 1069 BCE) make clear that this problem was of almost epidemic proportions. As the New Kingdom was slowly collapsing, the bureaucracy which enabled state payment of workers, judges, police, and everyone else crumbled with it. The best-known example of this is the difficulties of the government in paying the tomb workers of the village of Deir el-Medina in c. 1157 BCE which resulted in the first known labor strike in history. While some of these workers decided to simply lay down their tools and protest their ill treatment, others took matters into their own hands and developed the habit of robbing tombs.


It was difficult to catch a tomb robber in the act and, if caught, to prosecute successfully for the very same reason that people were robbing tombs: the decline of the power of the central government meant that each person had to do what they could to survive as best as possible – and this included policemen, legal scribes, and judges. There are many documents which establish that people caught robbing tombs were interrogated, judged, and punished but there are others which make clear that one could buy one's freedom with the very loot one had stolen by paying off an authority figure.

Statue of Nebhepetra

The level of corruption toward the end of the New Kingdom affected every social class and occupation in the land. In one case, a tomb worker, priest, and the watchman responsible for safeguarding the necropolis were all indicted in a robbery and the priest's son was called as a witness to the crime as well as a suspect:
The priest, Nesuamon, son of Paybek, was brought in because of his father. He was examined by beating with the rod. They said to him: "Tell the manner of thy father's going with the men who were with him." He said: "My father was truly there. I was only a little child and I know not how he did it." On being further examined, he said: "I saw the workman, Ehatinofer, while he was in the place where the tomb is, with the watchman, Nofer, son of Merwer, and the artisan ___, in all, three men. They are the ones I saw distinctly. Indeed, gold was taken and they are the ones whom I know." On being further examined with a rod, he said, "These three men are the ones Isaw distinctly." (Lewis, 260)
Nesuamon's claim that he was "only a little child" should not be interpreted to mean he was young in years; he was only claiming that he was innocent of participating in the theft and knew nothing of how it was carried out. Court documents regularly specify use of the bastinade to beat prisoners on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet in order to exact a confession. As a suspect, Nesuamon is 'examined' through these beatings, but witnesses who were considered unreliable could expect similar treatment. In this case, the fate of the father and the three men, as well as Nesuamon, is unknown but, if found guilty, they could have faced punishment ranging from flogging to amputation of the nose or hand and even the death penalty. In Egyptian state courts, guilt was assumed and innocence had to be proven beyond doubt. There are a number of instances in which the accused is beaten with the rod and maintains innocence, refusing to give a confession; in such cases, the person is set free. The stigma of being arrested followed the individual afterwards, however, and some records show people who were exonerated still being referred to years later as 'great criminal' which simply meant that they had once been accused of a crime.


In the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1069-525 BCE) the police force was still operational but with little of the efficiency of the New Kingdom at its height. The Third Intermediate Period ’s records are sparse when compared to earlier eras of Egypt's history because with the government divided between Tanis and Thebes in the early years – and numerous civil wars later – there did not exist the kind of stability and bureaucracy of the periods known as 'kingdoms'. The police force and judicial system were still operating but exactly how closely they were aligned with the earlier understanding of ma'at is dubious. There is ample evidence that court scribes, judges, and police could be bought. During the 21st Dynasty, founded by the nomarch Smendes (c. 1077-1051 BCE), police corruption by way of taking bribes to look the other way and even extortion of citizens by police officers appears common practice. The famous Papyrus of Any (known today as Papyrus Boulaq IV), dating from around this era, offers the following advice:
Befriend the herald (policeman) of your quarter,
Do not make him angry with you.
Give him food from your house,
Do not slight his requests;
Say to him: "Welcome, welcome here."
No blame accrues to him who does it. (Dollinger, 2)
Although the passage has been interpreted to simply mean one should be friendly with the local constable, the last line – "no blame accrues to him who does it" – has suggested to some scholars that the earlier advice of not making the policeman angry, giving him food, agreeing to his requests, and allowing him into one's home point to the possibility that citizens at this time were paying protection money to local officers. As noted, a person accused of a crime was presumed guilty until proven innocent, and the testimony of a police officer was taken far more seriously than that of a citizen. It was therefore in one's best interest to be on good terms with the local police. The interpretation of the Any passage as referring to widespread corruption is probably sound in that the level of accountability police officers were held to during the New Kingdom did not exist for the most part in the Third Intermediate Period. The corruption of the judicial system – from the judges to the scribes to the police – is well established during the decline of the New Kingdom and continued into the following eras. Under the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE) the police force was reformed and operated at a much higher level of integrity but, again, would never reach the heights it had known in the early years of the New Kingdom. The traditional understanding of the concept of ma'at had been undermined by what many people recognized as a betrayal of the most sacred value of the culture by those who were expected to protect and uphold it. The labor strike of c. 1157 BCE by the tomb workers of Deir el-Medina was a completely unprecedented event in Egyptian history and pointed to the failure of the government, especially the pharaoh, to maintain ma'at in caring for the people. However ma'at was understood following the New Kingdom, it never seems to have carried the same cultural weight it once did. The early Ptolemaic pharaohs certainly did their best to revive ma'at and bring back the grandeur of Egypt's past but this initiative was not a priority for successive kings. A police force still existed under the Ptolemies but this dynasty had armies to protect caravans, man border garrisons, and serve as bodyguards and the police force was no longer considered as important as it once had been. When Egypt was annexed by Rome and occupied, Roman soldiers were stationed throughout the country and the Egyptian police force became irrelevant and disappears from the historical record.

Ancient Egyptian Art › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

The artworks of ancient Egypt have fascinated people for thousands of years. The early Greek and later Roman artists were influenced by Egyptian techniques and their art would inspire those of other cultures up to the present day. Many artists are known from later periods but those of Egypt are completely anonymous and for a very interesting reason: their art was functional and created for a practical purpose whereas later art was intended for aesthetic pleasure. Functional art is work-made-for-hire, belonging to the individual who commissioned it, while art created for pleasure - even if commissioned - allows for greater expression of the artist's vision and so recognition of an individual artist. A Greek artist like Phidias (c.490-430 BCE) certainly understood the practical purposes in creating a statue of Athena or Zeus but his primary aim would have been to make a visually pleasing piece, to make "art" as people understand that word today, not to create a practical and functional work. All Egyptian art served a practical purpose: a statue held the spirit of the god or the deceased; a tomb painting showed scenes from one's life on earth so one's spirit could remember it or scenes from the paradise one hoped to attain so one would know how to get there; charms and amulets protected one from harm; figurines warded off evil spirits and angry ghosts; hand mirrors, whip-handles, cosmetic cabinets all served practical purposes and ceramics were used for drinking, eating, and storage. Egyptologist Gay Robins notes:
As far as we know, the ancient Egyptians had no word that corresponded exactly to our abstract use of the word `art'. They had words for individual types of monuments that we today regard as examples of Egyptian art - 'statue', 'stela', 'tomb' -but there is no reason to believe that these words necessarily included an aesthetic dimension in their meaning. (12)
Although Egyptian art is highly regarded today and continues to be a great draw for museums featuring exhibits, the ancient Egyptians themselves would never have thought of their work in this same way and certainly would find it strange to have these different types of works displayed out of context in a museum's hall. Statuary was created and placed for a specific reason and the same is true for any other kind of art. The concept of "art for art's sake" was unknown and, further, would have probably been incomprehensible to an ancient Egyptian who understood art as functional above all else.


This is not to say the Egyptians had no sense of aesthetic beauty. Even Egyptian hieroglyphics were written with aesthetics in mind. A hieroglyphic sentence could be written left to right or right to left, up to down or down to up, depending entirely on how one's choice affected the beauty of the finished work. Simply put, any work needed to be beautiful but the motivation to create was focused on a practical goal: function. Even so, Egyptian art is consistently admired for its beauty and this is because of the value ancient Egyptians placed on symmetry. The perfect balance in Egyptian art reflects the cultural value of ma'at (harmony) which was central to the civilization. Ma'at was not only universal and social order but the very fabric of creation which came into being when the gods made the ordered universe out of undifferentiated chaos. The concept of unity, of oneness, was this "chaos" but the gods introduced duality - night and day, female and male, dark and light - and this duality was regulated by ma'at.

Proto-Historical Statue from Egypt

It is for this reason that Egyptian temples, palaces, homes and gardens, statuary and paintings, signet rings and amulets were all created with balance in mind and all reflect the value of symmetry. The Egyptians believed their land had been made in the image of the world of the gods and, when someone died, they went to a paradise they would find quite familiar. When an obelisk was made it was always created and raised with an identical twin and these two obelisks were thought to have divine reflections, made at the same time, in the land of the gods. Temple courtyards were purposefully laid out to reflect creation, ma'at, heka (magic), and the afterlife with the same perfect symmetry the gods had initiated at creation. Art reflected the perfection of the gods while, at the same time, serving a practical purpose on a daily basis.


The art of Egypt is the story of the elite, the ruling class. Throughout most of Egypt's historical periods those of more modest means could not afford the luxury of artworks to tell their story and it is largely through Egyptian art that the history of the civilization has come to be known. The tombs, tomb paintings, inscriptions, temples, even most of the literature, is concerned with the lives of the upper class and only by way of telling these stories are those of the lower classes revealed. This paradigm was already set prior to the written history of the culture. Egyptian art begins in the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000-c.3150 BCE) through rock drawings and ceramics but is fully realized by the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c.2613 BCE) in the famous Narmer Palette. The Narmer Palette (c. 3150 BCE) is a two-sided ceremonial plate of siltstone intricately carved with scenes of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by King Narmer. The importance of symmetry is evident in the composition which features the heads of four bulls (a symbol of power) at the top of each side and balanced representation of the figures which tell the story.The work is considered a masterpiece of Early Dynastic Period art and shows how advanced Egyptian artists were at the time.

Narmer Palette

The later work of the architect Imhotep (c.2667-2600 BCE) on the pyramid of King Djoser (c. 2670 BCE) reflects how far artworks had advanced since the Narmer Palette. Djoser's pyramid complex is intricately designed with lotus flowers, papyrus plants, and djed symbols in high and low relief and the pyramid itself, of course, is evidence of the Egyptian skill in working in stone on monumental artworks. During the Old Kingdom (c.2613-2181 BCE) art became standardized by the elite and figures were produced uniformly to reflect the tastes of the capital at Memphis. Statuary of the late Early Dynastic and early Old Kingdom periods is remarkably similar although other art forms (painting and writing ) show more sophistication in the Old Kingdom. The greatest artworks of the Old Kingdom are the Pyramids and Great Sphinx at Giza which still stand today but more modest monuments were created with the same precision and beauty. Old Kingdom art and architecture, in fact, was highly valued by Egyptians in later eras. Some rulers and nobles (such as Khaemweset, fourth son of Ramesses II ) purposefully commissioned works in Old Kingdom style, even the eternal home of their tombs. In the First Intermediate Period (2181 -2040 BCE), following the collapse of the Old Kingdom, artists were able to express individual and regional visions more freely. The lack of a strong central government commissioning works meant that district governors could requisition pieces reflecting their home province. These different districts also found they had more disposable income since they were not sending as much to Memphis. More economic power locally inspired more artists to produce works in their own style. Mass production began during the First Intermediate Period also and this led to a uniformity in a given region's artwork which made it at once distinctive but of lesser quality than Old Kingdom work. This change can best be seen in the production of shabti dolls for grave goods which were formerly made by hand.

Shabti Dolls

Art would flourish during the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) which is generally considered the high point of Egyptian culture. Colossal statuary began during this period as well as the great temple of Karnak at Thebes. The idealism of Old Kingdom depictions in statuary and paintings was replaced by realistic representations and the lower classes are also found represented more often in art than previously. The Middle Kingdom gave way to the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782 - c. 1570 BCE) during which the Hyksos held large areas of the Delta region while the Nubians encroached from the south. Art from this period produced at Thebes retains the characteristics of the Middle Kingdom while that of the Nubians and Hyksos - both of whom admired and copied Egyptian art - differs in size, quality, and technique.
The New Kingdom (c. 1570-c.1069 BCE), which followed, is the best known period from Egypt's history and produced some of the finest and most famous works of art. The bust of Nefertiti and the golden death mask of Tutankhamun both come from this era. New Kingdom art is defined by a high quality in vision and technique due largely to Egypt's interaction with neighboring cultures. This was the era of Egypt's empire and the metal-working techniques of the Hittites - who were now considered allies, if not equals - greatly influenced the production of funerary artifacts, weaponry, and other artwork. Following the New Kingdom the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE) and Late Period (525-332 BCE) attempted with more or less success to continue the high standard of New Kingdom art while also evoking Old Kingdom styles in an effort to recapture the declining stature of Egypt. Persian influence in the Late Period is replaced by Greek tastes in the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE) which also tries to suggest the Old Kingdom standards with New Kingdom technique and this paradigm persists into the Roman Period (30 BCE-646 CE) and the end of Egyptian culture.



Throughout all these eras, the types of art were as numerous as human need, the resources to make them, and the ability to pay for them. The wealthy of Egypt had ornate hand mirrors, cosmetic cases and jars, jewelry, decorated scabbards for knives and swords, intricate bows, sandals, furniture, chariots, gardens, and tombs. Every aspect of any of these creations had symbolic meaning. In the same way the bull motif on the Narmer Palette symbolized the power of the king, so every image, design, ornamentation, or detail meant something relating to its owner. Among the most obvious examples of this is the golden throne of Tutankhamun (c. 1336-c.1327 BCE) which depicts the young king with his wife Ankhsenamun. The couple are represented in a quiet domestic moment as the queen is rubbing ointment onto her husband's arm as he sits in a chair. Their close relationship is established by the color of their skin, which is the same.Men are usually depicted with reddish skin because they spent more time outdoors while a lighter color was used for women's skin as they were more apt to stay out of the sun. This difference in the shade of skin tones did not represent equality or inequality but was simply an attempt at realism. In the case of Tutankhamun's throne, however, the technique is used to express an important aspect of the couple's relationship. Other inscriptions and art work make clear that they spent most of their time together and the artist expresses this through their shared skin tones; Ankhesenamun is just as sun-tanned as Tutankhamun. The red used in this composition also represents vitality and the energy of their relationship. The couple's hair is blue, symbolizing fertility, life, and re-birth while their clothing is white, representing purity. The background is gold, the color of the gods, and all of the intricate details, including the crowns the figures wear and their colors, all have their own specific meaning and go to tell the story of the featured couple.

Tutankhamun & Ankhsenamun

A sword or a cosmetic case was designed and created with this same goal in mind: story-telling. Even the garden of a house told a story: in the center was a pool surrounded by trees, plants, and flowers which, in turn, were surrounded by a wall and one entered the garden from the house through a portico of decorated columns. All of these would have been arranged carefully to tell a tale which was significant to the owner. Although Egyptian gardens are long gone, models made of them as grave goods have been found which show the great care which went into laying them out in narrative form. In the case of the noble Meket-Ra of the 11th Dynasty, the garden was designed to tell the story of the journey of life to paradise. The columns of the portico were shaped like lotus blossoms, symbolizing his home in Upper Egypt, the pool in the center represented Lily Lake which the soul would have to cross to reach paradise, and the far garden wall was decorated with scenes from the afterlife. Every time Meket-Ra would sit in his garden he would be reminded of the nature of life as an eternal journey and this would most likely lend him perspective on whatever circumstances might be troubling at the moment.


The paintings on Meket-Ra's walls would have been done by artists mixing colors made from naturally occurring minerals.Black was made from carbon, red and yellow from iron oxides, blue and green from azurite and malachite, white from gypsum and so on. The minerals would be mixed with crushed organic material to different consistencies and then further mixed with an unknown substance (possibly egg whites) to make it sticky so it would adhere to a surface. Egyptian paint was so durable that many works, even those not protected in tombs, have remained vibrant after over 4,000 years. Although home, garden, and palace walls were usually decorated with flat two-dimensional paintings, tomb, temple, and monument walls employed reliefs. There were high reliefs (in which the figures stand out from the wall) and low reliefs (where the images are carved into the wall). To create these, the surface of the wall would be smoothed with plaster which was then sanded. An artist would create a work in minature and then draw gridlines on it and this grid would then be drawn on the wall.Using the smaller work as a model, the artist would be able to replicate the image in the correct proportions on the wall. The scene would first be drawn and then outlined in red paint. Corrections to the work would be noted, possibly by another artist or supervisor, in black paint and once these were taken care of the scene was carved and painted. Paint was also used on statues which were made of wood, stone, or metal. Stone work first developed in the Early Dynastic Period and became more and more refined over the centuries. A sculptor would work from a single block of stone with a copper chisel, wooden mallet, and finer tools for details. The statue would then be smoothed with a rubbing cloth. The stone for a statue was selected, as with everything else in Egyptian art, to tell its own story. A statue of Osiris, for example, would be made of black schist to symbolize fertility and re-birth, both associated with this particular god.

Egyptian Priestess Takushit

Metal statues were usually small and made of copper, bronze, silver, and gold. Gold was particularly popular for amulets and shrine figures of the gods since it was believed that the gods had golden skin. These figures were made by casting or sheet metal work over wood. Wooden statues were carved from different pieces of trees and then glued or pegged together. Statues of wood are rare but a number have been preserved and show tremendous skill. Cosmetic chests, coffins, model boats, and toys were made in this same way. Jewelry was commonly fashioned using the technique known as cloisonne in which thin strips of metal are inlaid on the surface of the work and then fired in a kiln to forge them together and create compartments which are then detailed with jewels or painted scenes. Among the best examples of cloisonne jewelry is the Middle Kingdom pendant given by Senusret II (c.1897-1878 BCE) to his daughter. This work is fashioned of thin gold wires attached to a solid gold backing inlaid with 372 semi-precious stones. Cloisonne was also used in making pectorals for the king, crowns, headdresses, swords, ceremonial daggers, and sarcophagi among other items.

Pectoral of Senusret II


Although Egyptian art is famously admired it has come under criticism for being unrefined. Critics claim that the Egyptians never seem to have mastered perspective as there is no interplay of light and shadow in the compositions, they are always two dimensional, and the figures are emotionless. Statuary depicting couples, it is argued, show no emotion in the faces and the same holds true for battle scenes or statues of a king or queen. These criticisms fail to recognize the functionality of Egyptian art. The Egyptians understood that emotional states are transitory; one is not consistently happy, sad, angry, content throughout a given day much less eternally. Art works present people and deities formally without expression because it was thought the person's spirit would need that representation in order to live on in the afterlife. A person's name and image had to survive in some form on earth in order for the soul to continue its journey. This was the reason for mummification and the elaborate funerary rituals: the spirit needed a 'beacon' of sorts to return to when visiting earth for sustenance in the tomb.

Egyptianized Statue of Augustus

The spirit might not recognize a statue of an angry or jubilant version of themselves but would recognize their staid, complacent, features. The lack of emotion has to do with the eternal purpose of the work. Statues were made to be viewed from the front, usually with their backs against a wall, so that the soul would recognize their former selves easily and this was also true of gods and goddesses who were thought to live in their statues. Life was only a small part of an eternal journey to the ancient Egyptians and their art reflects this belief. A statue or a cosmetics case, a wall painting or amulet, whatever form the artwork took, it was made to last far beyond its owner's life and, more importantly, tell that person's story as well as reflecting Egyptian values and beliefs as a whole. Egyptian art has served this purpose well as it has continued to tell its tale now for thousands of years.

Ancient Egyptian Architecture › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

The pyramids are the most recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt. Even though other civilizations, such as the Maya or the Chinese, also employed this form, the pyramid in the modern day is synonymous in most people's minds with Egypt. The pyramids at Giza remain impressive monuments thousands of years after they were built and the knowledge and skill required to construct them was gathered over the many centuries prior to their construction. Yet the pyramids are not the apex of ancient Egyptian architecture ; they are only the earliest and best known expressions of a culture which would go on to create buildings, monuments, and temples just as intriguing.


Ancient Egyptian history begins prior to the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000 - 3150 BCE) and continues through the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 - 30 BCE). Artifacts and evidence of overgrazing of cattle, in the area now known as the Sahara Desert, date human habitation in the area to c. 8000 BCE. The Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 - 2613 BCE) built upon the knowledge of those who had gone before and Pre-Dynastic art and architecture was improved on. The first pyramid in Egypt, Djoser 's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, comes from the end of this Early Dynastic Period and a comparison of this monument and its surrounding complex with the mastaba tombs of earlier centuries show how far the Egyptians had advanced in their understanding of architectural design and construction. Equally impressive, however, is the link between these great monuments and those which came after them. The pyramids at Giza date from the Old Kingdom (c. 2613 - 2181 BCE) and represent the pinnacle of talent and skill acquired at that time. Ancient Egyptian history, however, still had a long and illustrious path before it and as the pyramid form was abandoned the Egyptians focused their attention on temples. Many of these whose ruins are still extant, such as the templecomplex of Amun -Ra at Karnak, inspire as much genuine awe as the pyramids of Giza but all of them, however great or modest, show an attention to detail and an awareness of aesthetic beauty and practical functionality which makes them masterpieces of architecture. These structures still resonate in the present day because they were conceived, designed, and raised to tell an eternal story which they still relate to everyone who visits the sites.


At the beginning of time, according to Egyptian belief, there was nothing but swirling waters of dark chaos. From these primordial waters rose a mound of dry land, known as the ben-ben, around which the waters rolled. Upon the mound lighted the god Atum who looked out over the darkness and felt lonely; so he mated with himself and creation began. Atum was responsible for the unknowable universe, the sky above, and the earth below. Through his children he was also the creator of human beings (though in some versions the goddess Neith plays a part in this). The world and all that human beings knew came from water, from dampness, moistness, from the kind of environment familiar to the Egyptians from the NileDelta. Everything had been created by the gods and these gods were ever-present in one's life through nature. When the Nile River overflowed its banks and deposited the life-giving soil the people depended upon for their crops it was the work of the god Osiris. When the sun set in the evening it was the god Ra in his barge going down into the underworld and the people gladly participated in rituals to make sure he would survive attacks from his nemesis Apophis and rise again the next morning. The goddess Hathor was present in the trees, Bastet kept women's secrets and protected the home, Thothgave people the gift of literacy, Isis, although a great and powerful goddess, had also been a single mother who raised her young son Horus in the swamps of the Delta and watched over mothers on earth.

Djed pillars

The lives of the gods mirrored those of the people and the Egyptians honored them in their lives and through their works. The gods were thought to have provided the most perfect of worlds for the people of ancient Egypt; so perfect, in fact, that it would last forever. The afterlife was simply a continuation of the life one had been living. It is not surprising, then, that when these people constructed their great monuments they would reflect this belief system. The architecture of ancient Egypt tells this story of the people's relationship with their land and their gods. The symmetry of the structures, the inscriptions, the interior design, all reflect the concept of harmony (ma'at) which was central to the ancient Egyptian value system.


In the Pre-Dynastic Period images of the gods and goddesses appear in sculpture and ceramics but the people did not yet have the technical skill to raise massive structures to honor their leaders or deities. Some form of government is evident during this period but it seems to have been regional and tribal, nothing like the central government which would appear in the Old Kingdom. The homes and tombs of the Pre-Dynastic Period were built of mud brick which was dried in the sun (a practice which would continue throughout Egypt's history).Casas fueron de paja estructuras de cañas que estaban embadurnado de barro para las paredes antes del descubrimiento de la fabricación de ladrillos. Estos edificios tempranos eran circulares u ovales antes se utilizaron ladrillos y, después, se convirtieron cuadrada o rectangular. Comunidades se reunieron para la protección contra los elementos, animales salvajes, y los extraños y se convirtieron en ciudades que rodeaban a sí mismos con las paredes. A medida que la civilizaciónavanzada, también lo hizo la arquitectura con la apariencia de las ventanas y puertas arriostrados y adornados con marcos de madera. La madera era más abundante en Egipto en este momento, pero aún no en la cantidad de sugerir a sí mismo como un material de construcción en gran escala. El ladrillo casa de barro ovalada se convirtió en la casa rectangular con un techo abovedado, un jardín y al patio. El trabajo en ladrillos de barro se evidencia también en la construcción de tumbas, que, durante el período dinástico temprano, se vuelven más elaborado y complejo en el diseño. Estas tumbas oblongas tempranas (mastabas) continuaron siendo construidas con ladrillos de barro, pero ya en este momento la gente estaba trabajando en la piedra para crear templos a sus dioses. monumentos de piedra (estelas) comienzan a aparecer en Egipto, junto con estos templos, por la segunda dinastía (c 2890 -.. c 2670 aC).Obeliscos, grandes monumentos de piedra en posición vertical con cuatro lados y una parte superior cónica, comenzaron a aparecer en la ciudad de Heliópolis en esta época. El obelisco (conocido por los egipcios como tekhenu, "obelisco" es la grieganombre) es uno de los ejemplos más perfectos de la arquitectura egipcia que refleja la relación entre los dioses y el pueblo, ya que siempre se suscitaron en pares y se pensó que los dos creada en la tierra se reflejaban por dos piezas idénticas planteadas en los cielos al mismo hora. La explotación de canteras, la talla, el transporte, y el aumento de los obeliscos requeridos enorme habilidad y la mano de obra y enseñó a los egipcios, así como trabajar en piedra y mover objetos pesados sobre inmensamente a muchas millas. El dominio de mampostería preparó el escenario para el próximo gran salto en la arquitectura egipcia: la pirámide.

Paso pirámide en Saqqara Complejo

Complejo funerario de Zoser en Saqqara fue concebido por su visir y arquitecto jefe de Imhotep (c 2667 -.. C 2600 aC) que imaginó una gran mastaba tumba de su rey construida de piedra. La pirámide de Djoser, no es un "verdadero pirámide", pero una serie de mastabas apilados conocidos como "un paso pirámide". Aún así, fue una hazaña muy impresionante que nunca se había logrado antes. Historiador Desmond Stewart comenta sobre esto:
djoser de pirámide escalonada de Saqqara marca uno de esos acontecimientos que parecen inevitables, pero después de que hubiera sido imposible sin un genio de la experimentación. Que el funcionario real Imhotep era un genio que sabemos, no de la leyenda griega, que lo identifica con Esculapio, el dios de la medicina, sino de lo que los arqueólogos han descubierto de su todavía más impresionante pirámide. La investigación ha demostrado que, en cada etapa, que estaba dispuesto a experimentar a lo largo de nuevas líneas. Su primera innovación fue la construcción de una mastaba que no era oblonga, pero cuadrado. Su segunda concierne al material del que fue construido (citado en Nardo, 125).
La construcción del templo, aunque en un nivel modesto, ya había informado a los egipcios con mampostería. Imhotep imaginó el mismo a gran escala. Las primeras mastabas habían sido decoradas con inscripciones y grabados de cañas, flores y otras imágenes de la naturaleza; Imhotep quería continuar con esta tradición en un material más durable. Su gran, imponentes de la pirámide mastaba tendría los mismos toques delicados y simbolismo como las tumbas más modestas que habían precedido y, mejor aún, éstos serían todos labradas en piedra en lugar de barro seco. El historiador Mark Van de Mieroop comenta sobre esto:
Imhotep reproducido en piedra lo que se había construido previamente de otros materiales. La fachada de la caja de la pared tenía los mismos nichos como las tumbas de ladrillos de barro, las columnas se parecían atados de caña y el papiro, y cilindros de piedra en los dinteles de las puertas representadas pantallas de caña enrolladas. Mucha experimentación estaba involucrado, que es especialmente evidente en la construcción de la pirámide en el centro del complejo. Tenía varios planes con formas mastaba antes de que se convirtió en la primera pirámide escalonada en la historia, acumulando seis niveles mastaba-como una encima de la otra... El peso de la enorme masa era un reto para los constructores, que colocan las piedras en una inclinado hacia el interior con el fin de evitar que el monumento ruptura (56).

Detalle, pirámide escalonada de Zoser

Cuando se haya completado, la pirámide escalonada se elevó 204 pies (62 metros) de altura y fue la estructura más alta de su tiempo. El complejo circundante incluye un templo, patios, santuarios, y viviendas para los sacerdotes que cubren un área de 40 acres (16 hectáreas) y rodeado por una pared de 30 pies (10,5 metros) de altura. La pared tenía 13 puertas falsas cortadas en ella con sólo una entrada verdadera corte en la esquina sureste; a continuación, toda la pared estaba rodeada por una zanja 2.460 pies (750 metros) de largo y 131 pies (40 metros) de ancho. La tumba real de Zoser se encuentra por debajo de la pirámide en el fondo de un pozo de 92 pies (28 metros) de largo. La cámara de la tumba en sí estaba encerrado en granito, pero, para llegar a él, había que atravesar un laberinto de pasillos, todo pintado de vivos con relieves y con incrustaciones de azulejos,dando lugar a otras habitaciones o callejones sin salida llenos de vasijas de piedra talladas con los nombres de los reyes anteriores. Estalaberinto fue creado, por supuesto, para proteger la tumba y graves los bienes del rey, pero, por desgracia, no logró mantener alejados a los ladrones de tumbas antiguas y la tumba fue saqueada en algún momento de la antigüedad. Pirámide escalonada de Djoser incorpora todos los elementos más resonantes en la arquitectura egipcia: simetría, el equilibrio, y la grandeza que reflejaban los valores fundamentales de la cultura. La civilización egipcia se basa en el concepto de Maat (la armonía, el equilibrio), que fue decretado por sus dioses. La arquitectura del antiguo Egipto, ya sea en una escala pequeña o grande, siempre representado estos ideales. Palacios fueron construidos incluso con dos entradas, dos salas del trono, dos salas de recibir con el fin de mantener la simetría y el equilibrio en la representación de ambos Alto y Bajo Egipto en el diseño

El Imperio Antiguo y las pirámides

Las innovaciones de Imhotep se llevaron aún más por los reyes de la cuarta dinastía del Imperio Antiguo. El último rey de la dinastía tercero, Huni (c 2630 -. 2613 aC), se pensó durante mucho tiempo han iniciado los proyectos masivos de construcción del Reino Antiguo en la construcción de la pirámide de Meidum, pero que honor merece el primer rey de la cuarta dinastía, Sneferu (c 2,613 -. 2589 BCE). Egiptóloga Barbara Watterson escribe: "Sneferu inició la edad de oro del Imperio Antiguo, sus logros más notables son las dos pirámides construidas por él a Dahshur" (50-51). Sneferu comenzó su trabajo con la pirámide de Meidum ahora se conoce como la "pirámide derrumbada" o, a nivel local, como la "pirámide falsa" debido a su forma: se asemeja a una torre de más de una pirámide y su carcasa exterior descansa alrededor de ella en una montón gigantesco de grava.

Pirámide de Meidum

La pirámide de Meidum es la primera pirámide construida en Egipto verdadera. A "verdadera pirámide" se define como un monumento perfectamente simétrico cuyos pasos han sido rellenado para crear lados sin fisuras que se estrechan hacia un punto en la parte superior. Originalmente, cualquier pirámide comenzó como una pirámide escalonada. La pirámide de Meidum no duró, sin embargo, porque se hicieron modificaciones al diseño original de la pirámide de Imhotep que resultó en la carcasa exterior de descanso sobre una base de arena en vez de roca, provocando su colapso. Los eruditos están divididos sobre si el colapso ocurrió durante la construcción o durante un período de tiempo más largo. Los experimentos de Sneferu con forma de pirámide de piedra sirvieron bien a su sucesor. Keops (2589 - 2566 aC) aprendió de su padre's experimentos dirigidos y su administración en la construcción de la gran pirámide de Giza, El último de los originales siete maravillas del mundo antiguo. Contrariamente a la creencia popular de que el monumento fue construido por esclavos hebreos, los trabajadores egipcios en la Gran Pirámide estaban bien cuidados y realiza sus funciones como parte de un servicio a la comunidad, como pagado trabajadores, o durante el tiempo en que el cultivo de inundación hecho del Nilo imposible. Los estudiosos Bob Brier y la nota Hoyt Hobbs:
Were it not for the two months every year when the Nile's water covered Egypt's farmland, idling virtually the entire workforce, none of this construction would have been possible. During such times, a pharaoh offered food for work and the promise of a favored treatment in the afterworld where he would rule just as he did in this world.For two months annually, workmen gathered by the tens of thousands from all over the country to transport the blocks a permanent crew had quarried during the rest of the year. Overseers organized the men into teams to transport the stones on sleds, devices better suited than wheeled vehicles to moving weighty objects over shifting sand. A causeway, lubricated by water, smoothed the uphill pull. No mortar was used to hold the blocks in place, only a fit so exact that these towering structures have survived for 4,000 years - the only Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today (17-18).
There is no evidence whatsoever that Hebrew slaves, or any kind of slave labor, went into the construction of the pyramids at Giza, the city of Per-Ramesses, or any other important site in Egypt. The practice of slavery certainly existed in Egypt throughout its history, as it did in every ancient culture, but it was not the kind of slavery popularly depicted in fiction and film based on the biblical Book of Exodus. Slaves in the ancient world could be tutors and teachers of the young, accountants, nursemaids, dance instructors, brewers, even philosophers. Slaves in Egypt were either captives from military campaigns or those who could not pay their debts and these people usually worked in the mines and quarries.

The Pyramids

The men and women who worked on the Great Pyramid lived in state-provided housing on the site (as discovered by Lehner and Hawass in 1979 CE) and were well compensated for their efforts. The more skilled a worker was, the higher their compensation. The result of their work still amazes people in the modern day. The Great Pyramid is the only wonder left of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World and justifiably so: until the Eifel Tower was completed in 1889 CE, the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure on earth built by human hands. Historian Marc van de Mieroop writes:
The size boggles the mind: it was 146 meters high (479 feet) by 230 meters at the base (754 feet). We estimate that it contained 2,300,000 blocks of stone with an average weight of 2 and 3/4 tons some weighing up to 16 tons. Khufu ruled 23 years according to the Turin Royal Canon, which would mean that throughout his reign annually 100,000 blocks - daily about 285 blocks or one every two minutes of daylight - had to be quarried, transported, dressed, and put in place...The construction was almost faultless in design. The sides were oriented exactly toward the cardinal points and were at precise 90-degree angles (58).
The second pyramid constructed at Giza belongs to Khufu's successor Khafre (2558 - 2532 BCE) who is also credited with creating the Great Sphinx. The third pyramid belongs to his successor Menkaure (2532 - 2503 BCE). An inscription from c.2520 BCE relates how Menkaure came to inspect his pyramid and assigned 50 of the workers to the new task of building a tomb for his official, Debhen. Part of the inscription reads, "His majesty commanded that no man should be taken for any forced labour" and that rubbish should be cleared from the site for construction (Lewis, 9). This was a fairly common practice at Giza where the kings would commission tombs for their friends and favored officials.

The Pyramids of Giza

The Giza plateau today presents a very different image from what it would have looked like in the time of the Old Kingdom. It was not the lonely site at the edge of the desert it is today but a sizeable necropolis which had shops, factories, markets, temples, housing, public gardens, and numerous monuments. The Great Pyramid was sheathed in an outer casing of gleaming white limestone and rose from the center of the small city, visible from miles around. Giza was a self-sustaining community whose people were government workers but the construction of the enormous monuments there in the 4th Dynasty was very costly. Khafre's pyramid and complex are a little smaller than Khufu's and Menkaure's smaller than Khafre's and this is because, as 4th Dynasty pyramid building continued, resources dwindled. Menkaure's successor, Shepsekhaf (2503 - 2498 BCE) was buried in a modest mastaba at Saqqara. The cost of the pyramids was not only financial but political. Giza was not the only necropolis in Egypt at the time and all of these sites required maintenance and administration which was carried out by priests. As these sites grew, so did the wealth and power of the priests and the regional governors (nomarchs) who presided over the different districts the sites were in. The later rulers of the Old Kingdom built temples (or pyramids on a much smaller scale) as these were more affordable. The shift from the pyramid monument to the temple signalled a deeper shift in sensibilities which had to do with the growing power of the priesthood: monuments were no longer being built to honor a certain king but for a specific god.


The power of the priests and nomarchs, along with other factors, brought about the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Egypt then entered the era known as the First Intermediate Period (2181 - 2040 BCE) in which individual regions essentially governed themselves. The kings still ruled from Memphis but they were ineffectual.

Egyptian Construction

The First Intermediate Period has traditionally been depicted as a time of decline because no great monuments were raised and the quality of the art is considered inferior to that of the Old Kingdom. Actually, though, the artwork and architecture is simply different, not sub-par. In the Old Kingdom, architectural works were state sponsored, as was art work, and so was more or less uniform to reflect the tastes of royalty. In the First Intermediate Period regional artists and architects were free to explore different forms and styles. Historian Margaret Bunson writes:
Under the nomarchs, architecture survived the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Their patronage continued into the Middle Kingdom, resulting in such remarkable sites as Beni Hassan (c. 1900 BC) with its rock carved tombs and large chapels complete with columned porticos and painted walls (32).
When Mentuhotep II (c. 2061 - 2010 BCE) united Egypt under Theban rule, royal commissioning of art and architecture resumed but, unlike in the Old Kingdom, variety and personal expression was encouraged. Middle Kingdom architecture, beginning with Mentuhotep's grand mortuary complex at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, is at once grand and personal in scope.

Temple of Amun, Karnak

Under the reign of king Senusret I (c. 1971 - 1926 BCE) the great Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak was begun when this monarch erected a modest structure at the site. This temple, like all Middle Kingdom temples, was constructed with an outer courtyard, columned courts which led to halls and ritual chambers, and an inner sanctum which housed a god's statue. Sacred lakes were created at these sites and the entire effect was a symbolic representation of the beginning of the world and the harmonious operation of the universe. Bunson writes:
Temples were religious structures considered the "horizon" of a divine being, the point at which the god came into existence during creation. Thus, each temple had a link to the past, and the rituals conducted within its court were formulas handed down for generations. The temple was also a mirror of the universe and a representation of the Primeval Mound where creation began (258).
Columns were an important aspect of the symbolism of a temple complex. They were not designed only to support a roof but to contribute their own meaning to the whole work. Some of the many different designs were the papyrus bundle (a tighly carved column resembling papyrus reeds); the lotus design, popular in the Middle Kingdom, with a capital opening like a lotus flower; the bud column whose capital appears to be an unopened flower, and the Djed column which is probably most famous from the Heb Sed Court at Djoser's pyramid complex but was so widely used in Egyptian architecture it can be found from one end of the country to the other. The Djed was an ancient symbol for stability and frequently used in columns either at the base, at the capital (so it appears the Djed is holding up the sky), or as an entire column.

Palm-leaf Column of Ramesses II from Herakleopolis

Homes and other buildings continued to be made from mud brick during the Middle Kingdom; stone was only used for temples and monuments and this was usually limestone, sandstone or, in some cases, granite which required the greatest skill to work in. A little known masterpiece of the Middle Kingdom, long ago lost, was the pyramid complex of Amenemhat III (c. 1860 - 1815 BCE) at the city of Hawara. This complex was enormous, featuring twelve great separate courts which faced one another across an expanse of columned halls and interior hallways so intricate that it was called "the labyrinth" by Herodotus. The courts and hallways were further connected by corridors and colonnades and shafts so that a visitor might walk down a familiar hall but take an unfamiliar turn and wind up in a completely different area of the complex than the one they had intended. Criss-crossing alleys and false doors sealed by stone plugs served to confuse and disorient a visitor to protect the central burial chamber of the pyramid of the king. This chamber is said to have been cut from a single block of granite and to have weighed 110 tons. Herodotus claimed it was more impressive than any of the wonders he had ever seen.


Kings like Amenemhat III of the 12th Dynasty made great contributions to Egyptian art and architecture and their policies were continued by the 13th Dynasty. The 13th Dynasty, however, was weaker and ruled poorly so that, eventually, the power of the central government declined to the point where a foreign people, the Hyksos, rose in Lower Egypt while the Nubians took portions of land to the south. This era is known as the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782 - 1570 BCE) in which there was little advancement in the arts. The Hyksos were driven from Egypt by Ahmose I of Thebes (c. 1570 - 1544 BCE) who then secured the southern borders from the Nubians and initiated the era known as the New Kingdom (1570 - 1069 BCE). This period saw some of the most magnificent architectural feats since the Old Kingdom. In the same way that modern visitors are awed and intrigued by the mystery of how the pyramids at Giza were built, so are they by Hatshepsut 's funerary complex, the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the many works of Amenhotep III, and the magnificent constructs of Ramesses II such as Abu Simbel.

Temple of Hatshepsut

The rulers of the New Kingdom built on a grand scale in keeping with Egypt's new elevated status as an empire. Egypt had never known a foreign power like the Hyksos taking control of their land and, after Ahmose I drove them out, he initiated military campaigns to create buffer zones around Egypt's borders. These areas were expanded by his successors, most notably Thutmose III (1458 - 1425 BCE), until Egypt ruled an empire which stretched from Syria, down the Levant, across to Libya, and down through Nubia. Egypt became immensely wealthy during this time and that wealth was lavished on temples, mortuary complexes, and monuments. The greatest of these is the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak. As with all the other temples in Egypt, this one told the story of the past, the people's lives, and honored the gods but was an immense work-in-progress with every ruler of the New Kingdom adding to it. The site covers over 200 acres and is comprised of a series of pylons (monumental gateways which taper towards the top to cornices), leading into courtyards, halls, and smaller temples. The first pylon opens onto a wide court which invites the visitor further. The second pylon opens onto the Hypostyle Court which measures 337 feet (103 meters) by 170 feet (52 meters). The hall is supported by 134 columns 72 feet (22 meters) tall and 11 feet (3.5 meters) around in diameter. Scholars estimate one could fit three structures the size of Notre Dame Cathedral inside the main temple alone. Bunson comments:
Karnak remains the most remarkable religious complex ever built on earth. Its 250 acres of temples and chapels, obelisks, columns, and statues built over 2,000 years incorporate the finest aspects of Egyptian art and architecture into a great historical monument of stone (133).

Temple of Amun Plan, Karnak

As with all other temples, Karnak is a paragon of symmetrical architecture which seems to rise organically from the earth toward the sky. The great difference between this structure and any other is its grand scale and the scope of the vision. Each ruler who contributed to the building made greater advances than their predecessors but acknowledged those who had gone before. When Thutmose III built his festival hall there he may have removed monuments and buildings of earlier kings whom he then acknowledged with an inscription. Every temple symbolizes Egyptian belief and culture but Karnak does so in large letters and, quite literally, through inscriptions. Thousands of years of history may be read on the walls and columns of the Karnak temple. Hatshepsut (1479 - 1458 BCE) contributed to Karnak like every other ruler but also commissioned buildings of such beauty and splendor that later kings claimed them as their own. Among her grandest is her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Luxor which incorporates every aspect of New Kingdom temple architecture on a grand scale: a landing stage at the water's edge, flagstaffs (relics of the past), pylons, forecourts, hypostyle halls, and a sanctuary. The temple is constructed in three tiers reaching 97 feet (29.5 meters) and visitors are still amazed by the building in the present day. Amenhotep III (1386 - 1353 BCE) built so many monuments throughout Egypt that early scholars credited him with an exceptionally long reign. Amenhotep III commissioned over 250 buildings, monuments, stele, and temples. His mortuary complex was guarded by the Colossi of Memnon, two figures 70 feet (21.3 m) high and each weighing 700 tons. His palace, now known as Malkata, covered 30,000 square meters (30 hectares) and was elaborately decorated and furnished throughout the throne rooms, apartments, kitchens, libraries, conference rooms, festival halls, and all the other rooms.

Colossi of Memnon

Although Amenhotep III is famous for his opulent reign and monumental building projects, the later pharaoh Ramesses II (1279 - 1213 BCE) is even more well known. Unfortunately this is largely because he is so often equated with the unnamed pharaoh in the biblical Book of Exodus and his name has become recognizable through film adaptations of the story and the incessant repetition of the line from Exodus 1:11 that Hebrew slaves built his cities of Pithom and Per-Ramesses. Long before the author of Exodus ever came up with his story, however, Ramesses II was famous for his military exploits, efficient rule, and magnificent building projects. His city of Per-Ramesses ("City of Ramesses") in Lower Egypt was widely praised by Egyptian scribes and foreign visitors but his temple at Abu Simbel is his masterpiece. The temple, cut from solid rock cliffs, stands 98 feet (30 meters) high and 115 feet (35 meters) long with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, two to each side, depicting Ramesses II on his throne; each one 65 feet (20 meters) tall. Beneath these giant figures are smaller statues (still larger than life) depicting Ramesses' conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites. Further statues represent his family members and various protecting gods and symbols of power. Passing between the colossi, through the central entrance, the interior of the temple is decorated with engravings showing Ramesses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods.

The Small Temple, Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel is perfectly aligned with the east so that, twice a year on 21 February and 21 October, the sun shines directly into the inner sanctum to illuminate statues of Ramesses II and the god Amun. This is another aspect of ancient Egyptian architecture which characterizes most, if not all, of the great temples and monuments: celestial alignment. From the pyramids at Giza to the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the Egyptians oriented their buildings according to the cardinal points and in keeping with celestial events. The Egyptian name for a pyramid was Mer, meaning "Place of Ascension" (the name "pyramid" comes from the Greek word pyramis meaning "wheat cake" which is what they thought the structures looked like) as it was believed that the shape of the structure itself would enable the dead king to rise toward the horizon and more easily begin the next phase of his existence in the afterlife. In this same way, temples were oriented to invite the god to the inner sanctum and also, of course, provide access for when they wanted to ascend back to their own higher realms.


The New Kingdom declined as the priests of Amun at Thebes acquired greater power and wealth than the pharaoh while, at the same time, Egypt came to be ruled by weaker and weaker kings. By the time of the reign of Ramesses XI (c. 1107 - 1077 BCE) the central government at Per-Ramesses was completely ineffective and the high priests at Thebes held all the real power. The Late Period of Egypt is characterized by invasions by the Assyrians and the Persians prior to the arrival of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Alexander is said to have designed the city of Alexandria himself and then left it to his subordinates to build while he continued on with his conquests. Alexandria became the jewel of Egypt for its magnificent architecture and grew into a great center of culture and learning. The historian Strabo (63 BCE - 21CE) praised it on one of his visits, writing :
The city has magnificent public precincts and royal palaces which cover a fourth or even a third of the entire area. For just as each of the kings would, from a love of splendour, add some ornament to the public monuments, so he would provide himself at his own expense with a residence in addition to those already standing (1).

Lighthouse of Alexandria

Alexandria became the impressive city Strabo praises during the time of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 - 30 BCE). Ptolemy I(323 - 285 BCE) began the great Library of Alexandria and the temple known as the Serapeum which was completed by Ptolemy II (285 - 246 BCE) who also built the famous Pharos of Alexandria, the great lighthouse which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The early rulers of the Ptolemaic Dynasty continued the traditions of Egyptian architecture, blending them with their own Greek practices, to create impressive buildings, monuments, and temples. The dynasty ended with the death of the last queen, Cleopatra VII (69 - 30 BCE), and the country was annexed by Rome. The legacy of the Egyptian architects lives on, however, through the monuments they left behind. The imposing pyramids, temples, and monuments of Egypt continue to inspire and intrigue visitors in the present day. Imhotep and those who followed after him envisioned monuments in stone which would defy the passage of time and keep their memory alive. The enduring popularity of these structures today rewards that early vision and accomplishes their goal.


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