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Egyptian Architecture

( Originally Published 1915 )

When we remember that all the time, since the beginning of the Christian Era, is not far from half as long as the period from the time of the Pyramids to the birth of Christ, we get some feeling of the long ages through which the Egyptians lived. Millions of them were slaves, working, not through love, but by force; building their tremendous monuments.

The Egyptians had knowledge of science and could do things which today we do not know how to imitate. Some of their arts are lost to us, such as how to preserve the bodies of the dead, nor can we make colors that will remain unfaded for thousands of years as theirs have done. They also understood geometry, chemistry, medicine, anatomy, and music. That they practised many of the principles of mechanics is shown by their ability to move the great stones of their Pyramids, and their monuments, and temples. They also manufactured glass, some of it of a kind that we cannot now produce.

The architecture of Egypt has been divided into three great periods: First comes the Ancient Empire, from about 5000 B.C. to about 3000 B.C. This was the period of the Pyramids. The next period is called the Middle Empire, and extends from about 3000 B.C. to about 1700 B.C. This is the period of the rock-cut tombs. The third, and last, of the great periods is the one called the New Empire, which extends from about 1700 B.C. to about 350 B.C., and this is the period during which the great temples were built, such as Karnak, Luxor, and Edfou. Although we have selected the Pyramids for our illustration, we ought to remember that the period of the temples was the greatest, and produced lasting monuments of the greatest beauty.


Let us note, in particular, five things about the monuments of Egypt:

First, their great mass and size. A single stone was sometimes over twenty-five feet long, and it had to be brought miles from the quarry.

Second, note and remember their peculiar style of column.

Third, imagine all of their works to be covered with the greatest profusion of color. They had their own ideas about decoration, and often covered every inch of a building with pictures, symbols, and designs. Many were carved, some only painted, and all of them had some meaning connected either with religion or with the rulers. The rawness of the colors, most of them the crude primary colors, is also characteristic of the Egyptian style.

Fourth, note the fact that the structure of their buildings was almost always that which we have described as the architecture of the beam or lintel. We define a lintel as a beam of wood, or iron, or stone, or some other substance, over the top of a door, or window, or any other opening, to carry the weight of the wall above.

We have just used the word " structure." Let us stop for a moment at this word, for structure and structural are words that we often meet with in books on architecture. The structure of a building is the most important thing about it, for everything else depends upon it. Everything rests upon the structure, and the minor parts, if they are honest, will follow the main lines of the structure. Good lines in the decoration of a building should follow the basic structure, and to say that a decoration or ornament is " not structural " is to condemn it. Let us be sure that we know what this means. For instance, if the structure of a building was of the lintel type, and we concealed this by covering it up with material so as to make it appear like an arch, we should be neither honest nor structural.

If a column is so placed that it does not support anything, it becomes merely an ornament. Such a column has not the dignity of one that is doing real work. In general, that which is honest in architecture, as in life, is good ; while anything that is make-believe, and pretends to be something that it is not, is poor, and does not command our admiration. It is a law in architecture, that beauty comes first from utility, and that nothing must ever be done to deceive. If you bear this in mind, you will rightly feel ashamed of some of the buildings which you may see in most modern towns.

Fifth, note another peculiarity of Egyptian architecture in the slope or slant so often given to the walls, where ours would be exactly upright or vertical. If the Egyptian idea of greatest strength was a sloping wall, do you suppose they would have spoken of an honest man as a sloping man?

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