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Egyptian Architecture - Examples

( Originally Published 1917 )


The Great Sphinx, Gizeh (pp. 11, 17), near Cairo, is the most famous of all the mystery-laden monuments of Old Egypt. It has remained immutable through forgotten centuries ; the austere guardian alike of the illimitable desert, and of the lost ages of the world, which stretch out, as it were, behind its gigantic form. For centuries it was jealously hidden by desert sand, until it was unearthed in A.D. 1816 by Caviglia in the ancient quarry where it first took shape, partly hewn out of the living rock, partly built up of masonry and finished off by the sculptor's chisel ; while between the great paws there is what may have been a sacrificial altar slab. The date of this perplexing monument, whose purpose is veiled in impenetrable mystery, is a matter of doubt, but it is known to have existed in the reign of Cheops previous to B.C. 3700, and it was certainly repaired by Chephren, his successor. The Sphinx, in the form of a semi-recumbent lion with the head of a man, probably representing Horus, god of the rising sun, is 65 ft. high and 150 ft. long, while the face is 13 ft. 6 ins. wide, and the mouth 8 ft. 6 ins. The mutilation of the monument dates from the first Mahometan invasion, and the sculptured beard, which was found buried in the sand, is now in the British Museum. The Sphinx has long since passed into a symbol for an insoluble problem, and there still seems little prospect of raising the veil of mystery in which it is shrouded, or of finding the key to the sanctuary of its inner meaning.


The Tombs were of three main types : (a) Royal pyramids, (b) Mastabas, and (c) Rock-hewn tombs.

(a) Royal pyramids.—The Pyramids of Gizeh, near Cairo, erected during the Fourth Dynasty (B.C. 3733-3566), form one of several groups within the necropolis of the ancient capital city of Memphis, and rank among the oldest of Egyptian monuments (p. 17 A). These pyramids were built by the kings as their tombs, to secure the preservation of the body till that time should have passed when, according to their belief in immortality, the soul would once more return to the body. Herodotus and many writers have described the manner of constructing these mounds of masonry, which were the most extravagant of all ancient structures ; for the relative return in the higher beauties of art was small compared with the outlay of labour and material. Small too was their utility, for they failed in the object for which they were designed, as they were successively rifled by Persians, Romans, and Arabs.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu) (B.C. 3733) (pp. 17 A, 18), originally 482 ft. high, is 76o ft. square on plan with an area of about 13 acres, or more than twice that of S. Peter, Rome. The four sides, which, as in all the pyramids, face the cardinal points, are nearly equilateral triangles, which make an angle of about 52 degrees with the ground, and meet at the apex. It is remarkable that such huge blocks of stone, many of which measure 20 ft. by 6 ft., should be so perfectly finished and fitted to one another. The methods of quarrying and transporting these blocks over long distances by land and water, and of raising them into position, are still uncertain, although various theories have been proposed by M. Choisy and other writers, and one method suggested is that it was effected by rockers (p. 18E). The entrance, which is on the northern side, is 47 ft. 6 ins. above the ground level, and opens into a passage, which, as shown (p. 18 B), first slopes downwards, and afterwards ascends by way of the Grand Gallery to the heart of the pyramid, where is situated the entrance to the tomb chamber of the king (34 ft. 6 ins. by 17 ft., and 19 ft. high), protected by a massive stone portcullis, weighing about 50 tons, fitting into a rebate or recess. Here, in a triple sheath of granite sarcophagus, sycamore coffin, and bituminous mummy cloths, lay the body of the dead Pharaoh ; while the Ka was in faithful attendance on the royal dead till the soul should return to the body it had temporarily deserted. Two air shafts (8 ins. by 6 ins.) lead to the outer face of the pyramid. In origin they may have been either sanitary, for ventilation, or mystical, as passages for the Ka. The upper part of this chamber is elaborately constructed with stones one above another, probably to uphold the superincumbent weight of masonry (p. 18 A). The two other chambers in the Great Pyramid are the Queen's Chamber, connected with a passage leading off that to the King's Chamber, and another below the ground level. The exterior was originally cased with a sloping face of limestone slabs, which have now almost entirely disappeared, exposing the stepped surface beneath.

The Pyramid of Chephren (Khafra) (B.C. 3666) (pp. 11, 17 A), and the Pyramid of Mykerinos (Menkaura) (B.C. 3633), which still retains much of its casing, complete the triad of the pyramid group at Gizeh, but there are other important pyramids at Abu-Roash, Zawyet-el-Aryan, Abusir, Sakkara, and Dahshflr.

(b) Mastabas.—The Mastabas were rectangular, fiat-roofed structures with sides sloping at an angle of about 75 degrees, and they were probably derived from the rude heaps of stones piled over earlier mummy holes (p. 8 J). They consisted of three parts : (i) The outer chamber, in which were placed the offerings to the Ka or " double," decorated with festal and other scenes which are valuable from an historical standpoint. (ii) The inner secret chamber, known as the " serdab," which contained statues of the deceased members of the family. (iii) The chamber containing the sarcophagus, reached by an underground shaft.

The Mastaba of Thi, Sakkara (p. 8 F G H), well preserved and restored, dates from the Fifth Dynasty, and was erected to Thi, who held the position of royal architect and superintendent of pyramids. It consists of a small vestibule, beyond which is a large court, where offerings to the deceased were made, and from which a mummy shaft led to the tomb chamber. The masonry is accurately jointed, and the bas-reliefs are some of the finest and most interesting in Egypt (p. 18 F). A second tomb chamber, 22 ft. 9 ins. by 23 ft. 9 ins. and 12 ft. 6 ins. high, has mural reliefs which represent harvesting, ship-building, slaughtering of sacrificial animals, as well as arts and crafts of Old Egypt while Thi himself is pictured in a papyrus thicket, sailing through the marshes.

(c) Rock-hewn tombs.—The Tombs, Beni Hasan (B.C. 2778–2565), to the number of thirty-nine, form a remarkable group cut in the rock (p. 17 B, 18 L-P), and belong to the Twelfth Dynasty, which was marked by great progress in the arts. The entrance to the Tomb of Khnemu-hetep has two sixteen-sided columns, slightly fluted and with an entasis, and they are sometimes considered to be the prototype of the Greek Doric Order, and the projecting cornice has representations of beam-ends carved out of the solid rock, thus reproducing in stone a timber form.

The Tombs of the Kings, Thebes (p. 8 Q–U), form a contrast with the pyramids of the earlier kings. These tombs, cut deep into the mountain rock, consist of chambers connected by passages, and were intended only for the reception of the royal sarcophagi. The most important are those of Rameses III, IV, and IX and of Seti I, discovered by Belzoni in A.D 1817. They are all very similar, with corridors cut in the rock, each leading to an ante-room, beyond which is the sepulchral chamber, which contained the granite sarcophagus. Hieroglyphics on the corridor walls include texts from books relating to ceremonies essential for ensuring the immortality of the departed, while coloured bas-reliefs frequently represent him as sailing through the under-world, accompanied by the sun-god.

Sepulchral temples, such as those of Der-el-Bahari, Medinet Habu, and the Ramesseum, all of which are at Thebes, were attached to the tombs for funereal rites and offerings to the dead.


The temples were sanctuaries into which only kings and priests penetrated, and they differ therefore from Greek temples, Christian churches, and Mahometan mosques ; for they were not used for common prayer or public ritual, but for mysterious rites and priestly processions which took place within the jealously guarded precincts. Only king and priests might pass beyond the hypostyle hall, and the temple was therefore a kind of royal oratory, built by the king as a pledge of his piety and as an offering to the gods. There does not appear to have been any uniform system governing the main direction of Egyptian temples, such as that which determined the axis of a Christian church or a Mahometan mosque, but theories as to orientation with regard to particular stars have been enunciated by Sir Norman Lockyer and other authorities. There were temples at various places along the Nile, but the chief temple groups are at Thebes, the capital of the New Empire (Dynasties XVII–XX), which covered a large area on both sides of the Nile, and its site on the eastern bank is now occupied by the villages of Karnak and Luxor. On the western bank lay the Necropolis or Tombs of the Kings and Queens with their mortuary temples.

The Temple of Khons, Karnak (B.C. 1200) (pp. 11, 23) may be taken as the usual type characterised by entrance pylons, courts, colonnades, halls, and priests' chambers, all enclosed by a high girdle wall. The entrance, between pylons, or massive sloping towers fronted by obelisks, was apapproached through an imposing avenue of sphinxes. Then came a large outer court, open to the sky and therefore called " hypaethral, surrounded on three sides by a double colonnade. This in turn led into the hypostyle hall, to which light was admitted by a clear-story, formed by the increased height of the columns of the central aisle. Beyond was the sanctuary, and beyond this again was a small columned hall, and the whole was surrounded by passages and chambers used in connection with the temple service. The temple was protected by a great wall of the same height as the halls themselves, and which therefore, like them, decreased in height towards the sanctuary end.

The Great Temple of Ammon, Karnak (B.C. 1633–323) (PP. 11, 24, 27), the grandest of all Egyptian temples, was originally commenced by Amenemhat about B.C. 2466, and was connected by an avenue of sphinxes with the Temple at Luxor. It was not built on one complete plan, but owes its size, disposition, and magnificence to the additions of many kings, from the Twelfth Dynasty down to the Ptolemaic period. It has six pylons, added by successive Pharaohs, and consists of a great court, 338 ft. by 275 ft., and a vast hypostyle hall with other halls and courts leading to the sanctuary. The whole occupies a site of 1200 ft. by 36o ft., while the great hypo-style hall, about 320 ft. by 16o ft. internally, covers about three-quarters the area of Notre Dame, Paris. The roof of enormous slabs of stone is supported by 134 columns in sixteen rows ; the central avenues are about 8o ft. in height (as compared with 140 ft. at Amiens Cathedral) and have columns, 69 ft. high and 11 ft. 9 ins. in diameter, with capitals of the lotus-blossom type, while, in order to admit light through the clear-story, the side avenues are lower, with columns 42 ft. high and 9 ft. in diameter, the capitals being of the lotus-bud type (p. 24 B F). The effect produced by this forest of columns is most awe-inspiring ; the eye is led from the smaller columns of the side avenues, which gradually vanish into semi-darkness and give an idea of unlimited extent, to the larger columns of the central avenues lighted by the clear-story, which is formed in the difference of height between the central and side avenues—a method of clear-story lighting more fully developed during the Gothic period in Europe. Incised inscriptions in colour, which cover the walls, column shafts and architraves, give the origin and history of the temple, the names of the gods to whom it was dedicated, and of the royal personages who contributed to its grandeur. In these ancient hieroglyphics we find the germ of the idea which, centuries later, led in Christian churches to the employment of coloured mosaics and frescoes, stained-glass windows, and sculptured statues to record the incidents of Bible history and the lives of saints and heroes. Thus have the exponents of successive and diverse religions had recourse to an appeal to the eye for manifesting their authority and for setting their religious tenets before the common people.

The Temple of Ammon, Luxor (B.C. 1450) (pp. II, 34 A), commenced by Amenophis III and dedicated to the Theban triad Ammon, Mut, and Khons, was afterwards added to by Rameses II. In the foreground are ruins of the court of Rameses II, with a colonnade of lotus-bud capitals and a seated colossus of Rameses II, connected by a colonnade 174 ft. long of columns 52 ft. high, with bell capitals, leading into the court of Amenophis III in the distance.

The Temple of Ammon, Der-el-Bahari (B.C. 1550) (p. 33 A), on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, was commenced by Queen Hatshepsu, daughter of Thothmes I, but was never completed. The temple is interesting, as it is quite different from all others in Egypt, and consists of three terraced courts stepped out of the rock and connected by inclined planes. The upper court is flanked by the Sacrificial Hall, with a vaulted roof, and a court containing the only ancient Egyptian altar, while on the central axis is the sanctuary, cut deep into the rock. The wall sculptures are especially interesting, as they represent in low relief Egyptian spear-men by the bank of a river indicated by the zigzag band, which is the usual symbol for water (p. 42 A).

The Temple of Seti I, Abydos (B.C. 1350), completed by Rameses II (B.C. 1330), has two pylons, two forecourts, and two hypostyle halls, and it is unique in that it has seven sanctuaries, instead of one, arranged side by side, and dedicated to six gods and the deified king ; and to each there is a separate gateway and portal. The sanctuaries are roofed with stone slabs in horizontal courses, each course projecting beyond that immediately below, and the undersides are rounded off by the chisel into the form of a vault. This Temple also differs from others in having a wing at right angles to the main structure, because the rising ground made it difficult to continue the building on the same axis. The historical reliefs on the walls of close-grained limestone are amongst the finest in Egypt.

The Great Temple, Abu-Simbel (B.C. 1300) (p. 32 A, B), is one of the most stupendous and impressive of all those hewn out of the living rock. The entrance forecourt leads to an imposing facade, 119 ft. wide and 100 ft. high, formed as a pylon carved with four seated colossal statues, over 65 ft. high, of the founder, Rameses II. The vestibule beyond has eight Osiris pillars and vividly coloured wall reliefs. Eight small chambers, probably used for temple utensils and furniture, adjoin this vestibule, and beyond is a small hypostyle hall, 36 ft. by 25 ft., with four pillars. Behind is a long narrow chamber off which is the sanctuary with an altar and four seated figures of deities.

The Small Temple, Abu-Simbel (p. 32 C), founded by Rameses II and dedicated to his consort Nefert-ari and Hathor, was hewn out of the rock adjoining the great temple. The facade, 90 ft. wide and 40 ft. high, has six recesses occupied by colossal statues, 33 ft. high, representing Rameses and his consort, separated by buttress-like projections, carved with votive inscriptions. A narrow entrance doorway, surmounted by a representation of Rameses sacrificing to Ammon and Horus, leads through a vestibule to the sanctuary.

The Temple, Edfu (B.C. 237) (p. 31), commenced by Ptolemy III, is the best preserved of this period. A massive pylon, faced with reliefs and inscriptions, gives access to a great court surrounded by a colonnade, and beyond is the great hypostyle hall, with its facade of six columns, of which the central intercolumniation forms the portal and the narrower spaces between the other columns have low screen walls over which the light is admitted. Twelve columns with elaborate capitals support the roof of the hall, beyond which was a smaller hypostyle hall with twelve columns crowned with Hathor-headed capitals. Behind this again were vestibules, smaller chambers, and last of all the sanctuary.

The Temple of Isis, Philae (pp. 27 B, 28), of the Ptolemaic period (B.C. 332-30), is an example of a type frequently found in Egypt, in which the successive additions are not on the same axial line. The forecourt, entered through massive pylons, 150 ft. broad and 6o ft. high, has on the west the birth house, a small colonnaded temple dedicated to Hathor-Isis, and to the birth of her son, Horns, and on the east is a colonnaded building used by the priests, with columns resting on double bases, and with palm and floral caps of varying design supporting an architrave with votive inscriptions. On the farther side of the court is a second pylon, 105 ft. broad and 40 ft. high, leading to the temple proper, consisting of courts, hypostyle hall, two smaller vestibules, sanctuary, and other chambers, all in nearly total darkness. The walls, both inside and out, are covered with inscriptions. The " Kiosk" (p. 28 A), also known as " Pharaoh's Bed," stands to the east of the main temple and was erected by the Emperors Augustus and Trajan, though never completed. This small temple, with four columns at the ends and five on the flanks, has floral capitals of varying design, surmounted by deep stone blocks intended to be carved with Hathor heads and small shrines, and support an architrave and a typical cornice. This, like the temple, is submerged during a part of the year, and frequently only the upper parts of the columns are visible.

The Temple of Hathor, Dendera (p: 33 B), another Ptolemaic example, but not completed till the reign of Augustus, is without. pylons, forecourt, or enclosing wall, but has a great vestibule of twenty-four columns, with six on the facade which have low screen walls between them on either side of the central entrance. Then comes the hypostyle hall of six columns with elaborate Hathor-headed capitals, and on either side of this hall and beyond are chambers for various uses, and last of all are two ante-chambers and the sanctuary. The temple roof, used for priestly processions, is reached by staircases on either side.

The Temple, Elephantine (B.C: 1450) (p. 23) is one of the so-called " Mammisi " temples, which consisted of a small chamber known as the birth house and sacred to the mysterious rites of the goddess Isis. This chamber with its statue and altar, surrounded by columns and approached by a flight of steps, is sometimes, though perhaps erroneously, regarded as the prototype of the later Greek temple which was built as a shelter for the god.


The obelisks or monumental pillars, which stood in pairs to dignify temple entrances, are huge monoliths, square on plan and tapering to a pyramidal summit, with a metal capping, and have a height of nine or ten times the diameter at the base, and the four slightly rounded sides are cut with hieroglyphic records still visible. The transport of such large blocks of stone, without steam power, was an extraordinary engineering feat. The granite was probably quarried by the insertion of wooden wedges which expanded after soaking and thus split the granite into blocks. The transport was accomplished on great barges, as depicted in sculptures, and the obelisk was placed on its foundation by hauling it up a causeway of earth, and then tilting it into position. Many obelisks were removed from Egypt by the Roman Emperors, and there are at least twelve in Rome alone.

The Obelisk in the Piazza of S. John Lateran (p. 34 B) was brought to Rome from the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis, where it was originally erected by Thothmes III, and is the largest in existence. It is a monolith of red granite from Syene, 105 ft. high without the modern pedestal, 9 ft. square at the base and 6 ft. 2 ins. at the top, and weighs about 450 tons.

" Cleopatra's Needle," the Obelisk on the Thames Embankment, London, was also originally erected at Heliopolis (B.C. 1500) and was brought to England from Alexandria. It is 68 ft. 6 ins. high, 8 ft. square at the base, and weighs 180 tons.


Many houses in crude bricks have been excavated, while others are shown on paintings and sculptures, according to which they appear to have had one, two, or three storeys. We also learn much about the humbler dwellings of Old Egypt from the clay models which have been unearthed and are now in the British Museum and elsewhere. The model (p. 37 A) shows an open yard for household work with rooms behind, while outside steps sometimes wind up to another floor with flat or domed roofs which were formed of puddled clay or sun-baked bricks. The Egyptian House (p. 37 B) at the Paris Exhibition, 889, was constructed by M. Charles Garner from an ancient painting, and had a garden in front laid out in a formal style, with fish ponds. The house was divided by a corridor in the centre, giving access to the rooms, and a staircase at the back led to a covered roof-loggia over the whole house. The building was brilliantly painted in yellow for the upper part of the house and blue for the tall wooden columns which supported the angles of the " gorge " cornice. The earliest houses in the history of domestic architecture of which remains have been found are those erected for the workmen employed in the building of the Pyramid of Illahun, and deserted on its completion. They varied in size from the single room of the ordinary labourer to the habitations of the chief inspectors, and were built in unburnt brick, with open courts in the larger examples, to give light and air to the rooms around.

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