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Egyptian Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1917 )



Ancient Egyptian architecture was carried on, as far as the historical period is concerned, from about B.C. 5000 to the first century of the Christian Era.

The primitive architecture in the valley of the Nile appears to have consisted of puddled clay and reeds, or of sun-baked bricks, and some of its original character is seen in the later monumental style of stone and granite. Bundles of reeds were placed upright in the ground with stouter bundles at the angles of the building, and all were held together at the top by other horizontal bundles. The pressure of the flat clay roofs on the wall reeds may have produced the characteristic Egyptian " gorge " cornice, while the horizontal binders and stout angle bundles survived in the roll moulding of stone cornices and wall angles of the historic period (pp. 28, 41 j). While this was probably the prototype of Egyptian masonry walls, various theories have been advanced to account for the external slope or " batter " of the wall face, which is like a sort of continuous buttress (pp. 28, 31 A), while the inner side remains vertical. Viollet-le-Duc suggests that this practice was derived from the pyramids, which were found to resist earthquake shocks, while vertical-faced walls were thrown down, and he says that this form of construction was even enjoined by royal decree. Flinders Petrie and other writers point out that the Egyptians laid the bricks in concave beds for greater security, thus tilting the courses upwards towards the angles of the building, and giving the walls an inward inclination towards the top. The stability of walls would in any case be increased by tilting them inwards, whether the form was derived from clay-covered reeds or from bricks in concave courses. Whatever the origin or the object, instinct seems to have led these old Egyptians to avoid a vertical external face to their walls, and, whether in pyramids, tombs, or temples, this " batter " remained through-out one of the chief characteristics of their architecture. The surface decoration of the masonry walls is also held to have been derived from the pictures scratched on the early mud or plastered walls, which manifestly did not lend themselves to modelled or projecting ornament, though their flat and windowless surfaces were eminently suitable for incised relief and explanatory hieroglyphics (pp. 38, 42)—a method of popular teaching which has its parallel in the sculptured facades and stained glass windows of Mediaeval cathedrals. Egyptian columns (p. 41) have a distinctive character, and some suggest a vegetable origin, with shafts curved inwards at the base, like the sheathed stalk of a papyrus or lotus plant. One type of column may also be regarded as a reproduction in stone of reeds bound together and crowned with a capital in the form of a lotus bud (p. 41 G) or calyx of the papyrus flower (p. 41 C) or of the ubiquitous palm leaf. Brick vaults appear to have been constructed, as they sometimes are to this day, without " centering " or temporary support, but they were only used in utilitarian structures.

Egyptian monumental architecture, which is essentially a columnar and trabeated style, was mainly employed on pyramids, tombs, and temples, in contrast to the Assyrian, its nearest in age, which was devoted to spacious palaces for warrior-kings. Egyptian temples (p. 23), approached by impressive avenues of sphinxes—mythical monsters, each with the body of a lion and the head of a man, hawk, ram, or woman—possess in their massive pylons, great courts, hypostyle halls, mysterious chambers, and dark corridors a special character ; for each temple grew according to the increasing requirements of a powerful priesthood, or to satisfy the pious ambition of successive kings. Greek temples were each planned as one homogeneous whole, to shelter the statue of the god, and the component parts were all essential to the complete design, while Egyptian temples were often nothing but a string of successive buildings diminishing in height behind their imposing pylons.

Egyptian architecture proceeded along uninterrupted traditions, and when necessity dictated a change in the methods of construction or in the materials used, the traditional forms, hallowed by long use, were perpetuated in spite of novel conditions. It is impressive by its solemnity and gloom as well as by its ponderous solidity, which suggests that the buildings were intended to last to all eternity. This idea is not without foundation when we realise that the avowed purpose of the pyramids was to preserve the body for the return of the soul after long aeons of uncounted time.



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