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Egyptian Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1917 )


I. Geographical.—Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs, of which the ancient name was Kemi, or the black land, consists of a narrow strip of fertile, alluvial soil along both banks of the Nile bordered by the sandy desert. It was the only country of the ancient world which, by means of the Red Sea, commanded outlets and inlets for foreign trade by both the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas. The Nile itself was of untold value, not only as a trade route and a means of communication, but also chiefly because its overflowing and fertilising waters made desert sands into fruitful fields, and it may truly be described as the rich life-blood which runs in the veins of Egypt. On its banks therefore, from time immemorial, the Egyptians founded their cities, both for the living and the dead, and here are the royal pyramids and the priestly temples.

II. Geological.—The natural products, such as timber, brick, clay, and stone, largely determine the character of the architecture of a country. Stone, including limestone, sandstone, and alabaster, as well as the harder syenite or granite, basalt and porphyry, was the material chiefly employed, not only for constructive and decorative architectural work, but also for vases, and even for personal ornaments, as the country was poor in metals. Foremost among the productions of Egyptian quarries was the famous limestone of the Mokattam Hills in the north ; then came the sandstone in the central districts, and the red granite or syenite of Aswan in the south, and it is partly owing to the hard and durable nature of these materials that so many monuments still exist. The gigantic scale which distinguishes Egyptian architecture was made possible not only by the materials, but also by the methods employed in the quarrying of enormous blocks of stone, and in transporting and raising them into position. Recent excavations have revealed the use of sun-dried and kiln-burnt bricks for dwelling-houses and royal palaces. There was little building timber, but acacia served for boats and sycamore for mummy cases ; while the indigenous date palm, whose fruit is the staple food of the people, was sometimes used in roofing. The quarrying of gigantic stones may have been accomplished by inserting timber wedges which, when swollen by water, split the rock into sizes suitable for the mason.

III. Climatic.—Egypt has been said to have but two seasons, spring and summer. The climate is equable and warm ; snow and frost are unknown, while storm, fog, and even rain are rare, and these conditions have contributed to the preservation of the buildings. Such a climate, with its brilliant and continuous sunshine, conduced also to simplicity of design ; for, as sufficient light reached the interior through doors and roof slits, there was no need for windows, and thus unbroken massive walls not only protected the interior from the fierce heat of the sun, but also provided an uninterrupted surface for hieroglyphics or pictorial representations of religious ritual, historic incidents, and daily pursuits. In the absence of rain, roof drainage was not a consideration, and fiat roofs of thick stone slabs sufficed to cover in the building, and to exclude the heat, while in the temples these roofs served for religious processions.

IV. Religious.—The close connection between religion and architecture is everywhere manifest ; for the priesthood was powerful, invested with unlimited authority and equipped with all the learning of the age. The religious rites of the Egyptians were traditional, unchangeable, and mysterious, and these traits are reproduced in the architecture, both of tombs and temples. The religion was monotheistic in theory, but became polytheistic in practice through the cult of many gods representing natural phenomena and the heavenly bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars, and by the deification of animals. Egyptian mythology was further complicated by the multiplication of local gods for different centres. The religious keynote of the Egyptians was one of awe and submission to the great power represented by the sun, while their chief worship was for Osiris, the man-god, who died and rose again, the god of death, and through death of resurrection to life eternal. Judged by the elaborate preparations for the care of their bodies after death, one may say that the Egyptians pre-eminently realised the truth that " in the midst of life we are in death," so the wealthy built themselves lordly tomb-houses against the time when they should enter the great land of silence. The prevalence of superstition is indicated by multitudes of amulets and fetishes, while for the masses of the people the magician with his spells and magic figures was their accepted priest.

In those dawning days of the world's history in Egypt there was no strict dividing line between gods and kings ; no need for the doctrine of the divine right of kings ; for kings were often ranked, both by themselves and by their people, as actual divinities. Often they filled the double function as kings of their people and priests of their gods, and yet again they were themselves gods, commanding priestly service. On the other hand, the gods themselves were invested with superhuman and therefore with inventive powers, as when the awesome art of writing was regarded as the invention of the god Thoth. So gods, kings, and priests kept sacred mysteries shrouded from the public vision, and the people groped in darkness and reached out vain hands to a world outside their own experience, which was only partially revealed to them through signs and symbols, and against the evil of which they sought to protect themselves by amulets and offerings. The gods were frequently associated in triads ; thus Ammon the sun-god, Mut his wife, the mother of all things, and Khons their son, the moon-god, were the great Theban triad ; while Ptah, a creator, Sekhet, a fire goddess, and I-em-hetep, a medicine god, formed the Memphis triad. Other gods were the powerful Osiris, god of the dead ; Isis, his wife ; Horns, god of the rising sun ; Hathor, goddess of love ; Set, dread god of evil, and Serapis, a bull-headed god, representing that strange cult of the sacred bulls. All these and many more, to the number of over 2,000, occur in turn or in combination, and the unchanging, traditional architecture of ancient Egypt appears and reappears in all the jealously closed temples, erected for the use of kings and priests in the service of the gods. The outstanding feature of the religion of the Egyptians was their strong belief in a future state, hence the erection of such everlasting monuments as pyramids for the preservation of the dead. According to Herodotus, the dwelling-house was regarded as a temporary lodging, and the tomb as the permanent abode. This religious attitude is typified in the two predominant types of buildings, and the supremacy of the solemn and mysterious temples of the gods is only challenged by the enduring and tremendous tomb pyramids of the kings. Here too is an epitome of the Egyptian outlook : hope of eternal life, the supremacy of the gods in the hidden world, the tyranny of kings in the seen world, and the power of the priests in touch with both worlds.

V. Social.—Prehistoric ages in Egypt are veiled in the vague ununcertainty of days that have no record save in some undated masonry that is from time to time dug out of the all-enveloping desert sands. Egyptian civilisation, however, is the most ancient of which we have any clear knowledge. Our information is derived from the Old Testament, and from Greek and Latin authors, as well as from internal records on papyri and tablets, but more particularly from Egyptian buildings with their inscriptions, through which it is traced back more than 4,000 years before the Christian era. It was the custom to record matters of history on temples, and of domestic and social interest on tombs and stelae.

Social and industrial conditions in Egypt were largely determined by the uninterrupted rule of a centralised, despotic government, which employed vast armies of unpaid labourers in the erection of monumental buildings when the annual inundations made agriculture impossible ; thus the continuity of social and industrial conditions may be traced in the building activities of the long line of Pharaohs. Prisoners of war were also turned on to the same work, and during the reign of Rameses II there were so many captives and foreigners in the country employed on public works that, as recorded in Exodus (i. 9–11), the natives viewed with alarm the growing power of these strangers in their midst. The Bible story of the two centuries of captivity of the Children of Israel in Egypt throws a vivid light on the system of labour, on the tyranny of overseers, on the tasks imposed, and on the social conditions of the labourers employed by the Pharaohs to build these enduring monuments of Old Egypt. Slave labour is written over them all, and we can picture the gangs of slaves working in the stone quarries, toiling on the rafts to drift the building materials down the Nile, and then hoisting them into position. Social life is also graphically depicted in wall-sculptures of tombs, such as that of the architect Thi, which portray the Egyptians at war, at play, at the chase, on the farm and in the weaving shed and workshop, as well as at business. Craftsmanship was evidently held in high esteem, and the Egyptians attained great skill in weaving, glass-blowing, pottery-turning, metal-working, and in making musical instruments, jewellery, and furniture. All these flourishing industries secured for the industrious Egyptians a high degree of prosperity. The pursuit of learning, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy was continuously carried on, especially by the priests, and much Egyptian literature has been preserved on papyri made from the pith of the papyrus plant, of which the Harris papyrus in the British Museum, with its account of the reign of Rameses III, is a notable example. New discoveries of such records as the Turin papyrus and of tablets, such as those of Abydos, Sakkara, and Karnak, as well as of funeral stelae, make increasing contributions to our knowledge of Egyptian life and customs.

The kings of ancient Egypt are known as Pharaohs, a name given them by the Hebrews and derived from the Egyptian Peraa, the Great House. The Pharaohs, like the Colossi of Memnon, are silhouetted against the mysterious desert background ; sometimes they appear as gods or demi-gods, often as mystery priests, generally as builders, invariably as despots, but never as fathers of their people. A study of the social system in ancient Egypt conjures up a sinister picture of an almighty Pharaoh at one end of the scale and millions of slaves and forced labourers at the other, and of this system the royal pyramids and priestly temples are the outward and material testimony to this day. The Pharaohs practised religious rites, patronised the arts, protected their country, waged wars, fostered trading enterprise, and encouraged industries and handicrafts, but the common people would seem to have been of no account in all these ambitious undertakings for the aggrandisement of the great House of Pharaoh. All these conditions were as traditional and unchanging in their general aspect throughout successive dynasties as was Egyptian architecture, and both alike were the product of the Nile and the surrounding desert.

The Pharaohs have been divided into thirty dynasties by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who, about B.C. 300, compiled a history of Egypt in Greek. These dynasties are here grouped in three divisions with the approximate dates of Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, but authorities differ widely, especially as to the beginning of the historic period, and some Egyptologists even date the Ancient Kingdom back to B.C. 5000.

1. Ancient Kingdom (Dynasties I–XI), B.C. 4400–2466.—Menes, the first dynastic king, is reputed to have founded Memphis in Lower Egypt, and it remained the capital until the " New Empire," though Thebes was growing into prominence. During the Third Dynasty civilisation progressed ; living-houses were built of brick and tomb-houses or "mastabas " were made to take the body at full length. The art of writing was practised, and the hieroglyphic system began. From flat-topped " mastabas " of nobles we now pass to the pointed pyramids of kings, those fortresses of the royal dead which held out against storm and sand only to be rifled by alien marauders. The Fourth Dynasty saw the building of many pyramids, first by Seneferu at Medum and Dahshur, then by Cheops—ever associated with the mystery of the Sphinx—who built the Great Pyramid, while Chephren erected the second, and Mykerinos the third, all at Gizeh, and the Fifth Dynasty is marked by the Pyramid of Unas at Sakkara. The Sixth Dynasty is noted for the Pyramid of Pepi I, also at Sakkara, for which the quarries of Syene were worked. Trade and handicrafts flourished, and a record of an expedition to Punt for embalming-myrrh shows how home crafts depended on foreign products even at that day.

2. Middle Kingdom (Dynasties XII–XVII), B.C. 2466-1600.–Amenemhat I of the Twelfth Dynasty was energetic and enterprising; he brought social order out of anarchy, made a survey of the country, set boundaries to the provinces, carried out irrigation, worked the quarries at Tura, restored the temples and founded the great Temple at Karnak. Other kings there were, such as the Usertsens, who fostered commerce and built temples and pyramids. Ameuemhat III, a man of many parts, fostered art and industry, irrigated the Fayum, and probably built there the Labyrinth described by Herodotus. Monuments in the British Museum testify to his personality, while scarabs and stelae show the general prosperity and progress under the Twelfth Dynasty. Then followed five Dynasties of such confusion that even the succession of the kings is uncertain. Nomad tribes from Syria and the eastern desert overran the Delta and their leaders became the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings who, though they adopted the Egyptian language and religion, were so hated by people and priests that there was no rest in the land till the usurpers were driven out at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty.

3. New Empire (Dynasties XVIII–XXX), B.C. 1600–332.–The New Empire was glorious alike in the arts of peace and war. The founder, Amasis I, finally crushed the Hyksos power in the Delta, pursued them into Palestine, suppressed sedition and inaugurated the culminating epoch of Egyptian art when Thebes became the capital and many buildings were erected. Thothmes I (B.C. 1550) commenced those additions to the Temple of Ammon, Karnak, by which successive Pharaohs made it the most imposing building in Egypt, and he was the first Pharaoh buried in the Tombs of the Kings in the Theban Mountains. Egypt prospered under the firm rule of kings who had now made themselves the paramount power, free from feudal interference, and Egypt became more of a military state. Then came Hatshepsu, the " Queen Elizabeth " of Egypt, who patronised the arts of peace, re-established religious rites, and carved out of the mountain-side her fascinating, terraced Temple of De"r-el-Bahari, which, covered with coloured pictures of the pursuits she loved, gleams like a gem set in the living rock. Thothmes III was one of the greatest of the Pharaohs and is famous alike for foreign wars and home reforms, while he rebuilt and decorated many temples. Thothmes IV (B.C. 1450) cleared away the sand from the Great Sphinx, as recorded on the tablet between its paws. Amenophis III built the Temple at Luxor, dignified that at Karnak by pylons and sphinxes, and erected the famous Colossi of Memnon. Amenophis IV daringly broke away from dynastic and religious traditions, deserted Thebes, and founded his capital at Tel-el-Amarna with a great palace and a temple to the sole god Aten, whose symbol was the solar disc." A heretic Pharaoh is a striking anomaly in a country bound by such strong chains to tradition and orthodoxy. Rameses I (B.C. 1350), founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty, the most brilliant epoch of Egyptian art, commenced the great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. Seti I carried on wars without and temple-building within, continued his father's work at Karnak, restored many shattered monuments, built his great Temple at Abydos and his own sepulchre among the Tombs of the Kings. Rameses II (B.C. 1330), surnamed " the Great " and the " Pharaoh of the Oppression," exploited the labour of the Israelites to build store cities. He finished and erected many temples, such as the Rock Temple at Abu-Simbel, the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, and the Ramesseum at Thebes, but craftsmanship had begun to deteriorate. Rameses III (B.C. 1200) was a religious devotee who made such offerings to the priests that about one-sixth of the land belonged to the temple revenues. The name of Rameses was borne by nine successive kings, whose power waned as that of the priests of Ammon waxed strong. It is significant of the times that, while the temples of the gods were still respected, the tombs of the kings were desecrated and rifled of their treasure, and so the Twentieth Dynasty tottered to its end. The Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, a period of good government and trade prosperity, saw a revival of the art of the early period. Psammetichus I (B.C. 666) encouraged the immigration of Greeks, who brought in new ideas. Then, after a period of Assyrian invasions, Egypt again extended her Mediterranean trade, developed the arts and crafts of bronze casting, pottery, and portrait painting, and attained a high standard in commercial and legal procedure. Necho (B.C. 612) attempted a canal between the Red Sea and the Nile, but the undertaking was only completed by Darius (B.C. 521-486). From B.C. 525 Egypt was a Persian province for about 100 years under Cambyses the conqueror, Darius the administrator, Xerxes the tyrant, and other rulers.

4. The Ptolemaic Period (B.C. 332-30).—Alexander the Great, who rescued the Egyptians from their hated oppressors, was hailed by the priests as the son of Ammon. He founded Alexandria as the capital, and it became the centre of Greek culture. On his death in B.C. 323, Egypt fell to his general, Ptolemy, and for three centuries the lower valley of the Nile was the seat of a prosperous and powerful kingdom. Greek customs and methods of government crept in, but the Ptolemies upheld the gods, built temples of the native type at Dendera, Esna, Edfu, and Philae, patronised native art, and married the daughters of Egypt. The reign of Ptolemy II is famous for the Pharos, or light-house, the history by Manetho, and the Greek version of the Septuagint. Ptolemy V was so great a benefactor of the temples that the priests accorded honours to him and his ancestors in a decree which has proved the " open sesame " to our knowledge of Ancient Egypt ; for this threefold inscription in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek writing on the Rosetta Stone, dug up in A.D. 1798 and now in the British Museum, provided a long-sought key to those wonderful hieroglyphic records of Egyptian history. Struggles with Rome were continuous, and on the death of Cleopatra Egypt became a Roman province.

5. The Roman Period (B.C. 30-A.D. 395).—Egypt under Caesar entered on another phase of prosperity, and many Roman emperors took Egyptian titles and even inscribed them, in the Egyptian manner, in cartouches. Thus did the Imperial masters of the world seek to find favour with this important grain-producing province. From this period dates the famous " Pharaoh's Bed " at Phihae. Hadrian twice included Egypt, as he did Britain, in his Imperial visits. Under Constantine, Roman control in Egypt extended even to religion, when in A.D. 324 Christianity was declared to be the religion of the Empire ; the Bible was translated into Coptic, but controversies and troubles soon overtook the Christians in Egypt. When Theodosius the Great issued his edict in A.D. 378 many temples were either diverted to Christian use or churches were built within their precincts—a curious mingling in architecture of the old and the new. Thus a change passed over the spirit of Old Egypt and dealt the death-blow to her indigenous and traditional architecture, which no longer served its original purpose and so ceased to be a living growth and became merely a relic of the past.

6. Later Periods (A.D. 395 to the present day).—The Byzantine Period (A.D. 395-640).—Changes of Empire influenced politics and art even in the distant provinces, and when Egypt was ruled by the Eastern Roman emperors from Constantinople, Christian churches were erected in the Byzantine style, another mingling of east and west, which has placed domed Byzantine churches side by side with trabeated Egyptian temples (p. 26).

Egypt under the Arabs (A.D. 640-1517).—The country fell under the influence of those social customs which are inextricably bound up with the Mahometan religion ; conditions which from A.D. 1517 onwards were further enforced under Ottoman rule (p. 832).

Egypt then passed in the nineteenth century first under French and in A.D. 1881 under British protection, which ushered in a new and brighter era for all classes of her population, and since A.D. 1914 her destinies have been presided over by a Sultan under British suzerainty.

VI. Historical.—Historical influences, as distinct from internal and social, are here considered as arising from military and commercial contact with other countries. It is interesting to observe that historical events are generally recorded on temples, and social matters on tombs. Under social influences we have sketched the successive dynasties and have indicated those kings whose personality left the greatest impression upon their country. It now therefore only remains to show the salient historical or external events and foreign wars which were factors in Egyptian development. The earliest historical incidents are naturally connected with the land nearest to the Egyptian borders, i.e. the Sudan, the country of the Nubians or Ethiopians. As early as the Fourth Dynasty, according to the Palermo Stele, Seneferu of the False Pyramid raided the Sudan and brought back prisoners and loot from that vast territory which is the Biblical Cush, and which, during the Middle Kingdom, was finally conquered and, with its gold, copper, and turquoise mines, added to the realm of Egypt. The masterful Amenemhat I subjugated four tribes in the coveted Sudan, and his son Usertsen I exacted tribute there, worked the copper mines and built a fort and a temple at Wadi Haifa ; while Usertsen III finally conquered that country and built forts along the Nile to protect the transport of gold. Various kings sent expeditions to Sinai for copper, for Egypt depended on other countries for metals. Later, the incursions of nomadic tribes resulted in centuries of hated Hyksos rule and there were often two rival kings, till after years of strife the usurpers were expelled and pursued into Syria by Amasis I. He invaded Nubia and exacted more tribute, as did also the next three Pharaohs, and Egyptian power penetrated too into Western Asia as far as the Euphrates. Queen Hatshepsu carried out a trade expedition to Punt in the south to secure ebony, ivory, gold, and myrrh for temple service and for the embalming of the dead, and all the story of the expedition is recorded on her temple walls of Der-el-Bahari. The great Thothmes III waged victorious wars in Phoenicia, Western Asia, and the Sudan, and the treasure he secured was devoted to temple building, including a great Hall of Columns at Karnak where his successes are proudly recorded. So wars went on against Syria and Nubia till Amenophis III, the Memnon of the Greeks, declared himself to be not only the conqueror, but also the god of Nubia. He carried on friendly intercourse with Asia, and through intermarriage introduced a foreign element into Egypt, which largely found expression in the monotheistic tendencies of his son who forsook Ammon, king of gods, and worshipped Aten as the sole god. He was a great warrior, a mighty hunter, and also a prolific builder, to whose genius his new capital, Tel-el-Amarna, and many monuments bear witness ; while the Tel-el-Amarna tablets record his foreign expeditions. He was a priest rather than a soldier, and while he was busy building his new capital and temple for the god of his choice he lost his hold over the Empire in Asia. Seti I reverted to raids on the Sudan for gold and on Sinai for copper, and his activities were emulated by his son, Rameses the Great, who carried his sword into Syria as far as Beyrout, and married a daughter of that country. More a builder than a soldier, his name is inscribed on well-nigh every Egyptian monument, while he is often referred to as the " Pharaoh of the Oppression."

Meneptah, perhaps the " Pharaoh of the Exodus," had to combat attacks from Lybia and from the Mediterranean coasts, while Rameses III conquered, both by land and sea, armies from Crete, Cyprus, Syria, and Lybia, and so the sea-power of Egypt was established. Then Egypt gradually declined in power till the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, when followed another period of inactivity, till Shishak I, in the Twenty-second Dynasty, re-established Egyptian rule in Syria, Nubia, and Palestine, and pillaged Jerusalem. The Assyrian Empire now threatened the peace of Egypt (B.C. 670) and Esarhaddon defeated the Egyptians and took Memphis, while Ashur-bani-pal, his son, invaded the country and sacked Thebes. Psammetichus (B.C. 666) began his reign as a mere vassal of Assyria, but with help from Asia Minor he threw off the foreign yoke and even restored prosperity and re-established foreign trade along the Mediterranean, and this military and commercial intercourse introduced new ideas and once again the Delta, with Memphis as the capital, became the centre of Egyptian power. Under Necho, however, Egypt fell again under Assyrian rule. Then came Cambyses, the Persian, who dethroned Psammetichus III, and for one hundred years Egypt was a Persian province, prosperous under Darius, oppressed under Xerxes the Great, and in revolt under Artaxerxes I ; but Artaxerxes III again secured Persian ascendency over Nectanebus II, the last native king of the Egyptians, who chafed under Persian rule till Alexander the Great (B.C. 332) defeated Darius III and was hailed at Memphis as saviour and as the son of Ammon. His capital, Alexandria, became the centre for Greek scholars and artists, and thus did the Greeks again influence architecture and the allied arts.

The first of the Ptolemies, the Greek general who succeeded Alexander, encouraged the influx of Jewish traders, and this increased the prosperity of the country. So the tale of the Ptolemies went on with occasional wars and expeditions, but Ptolemy V (B.C. 205) had invoked the help of Rome against Syria, and later it came about that Ptolemy XIV and his sister Cleopatra were placed by their father under the care of Rome ; finally, on the death of Cleopatra, Egypt became a Roman province (B.C. 30). So Greek officials gave way to Roman, and Egypt was exploited as the granary of Rome, while Nubia was invaded for her mineral wealth, and Claudius even succeeded in diverting the Indian trade from Arabia to Egypt. Under Nero it is said that Christianity first reached Egypt, where it soon entered on many conflicts and, as elsewhere, suffered many vicissitudes. At times many Christian or Coptic churches were either erected or adapted, and by the time of Hadrian architecture had assumed a Graeco-Roman style. During the reign of Constantine the Great (A.D. 324-337) the government of Egypt was reorganised, and on the division of the Roman Empire Egypt came under the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople. Under Justinian (A.D. 527-565) a new and more stable administration was formed, but in A.D. 616 the country was captured by the Persians, and in A.D. 640 passed to the Mahometans, whose architecture is described later (p. 838). Thus art in Ancient Egypt continued strangely unchanged through various phases of foreign influence from Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome ; and, through all, the indigenous architecture maintained that solemn dignity so suited to the immense stretches of surrounding desert.

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