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Egyptian Architecture - Comparative Analysis

( Originally Published 1917 )

A. Plans.—The plan of Egyptian temples differs in many respects from the Greek (p. 18). An imposing avenue of sphinxes led to the main entrance, flanked by slender obelisks which formed a strong contrast to the massive pylons. Courts and halls alike were designed to produce an impressive internal effect, and the hypostyle hall, seemingly unlimited in size, crowded with columns and mysteriously illuminated from above, was the grandest achievement of Egyptian planning (pp. 23, 24). The temples frequently consist of a series of additions spread over many centuries, and in this respect they resemble the growth of English cathedrals, as well as in disregard of symmetry in the planning of one part in relation to another. This may be seen particularly in temples erected under the Ptolemies, such as the Temple on the Island of Philae, where walls, courts, and pylons are on different axes, free from any pretence to regularity, thus producing remarkably picturesque grouping.

B. Walls.—Temple walls were immensely thick, of limestone, sand-stone, or more rarely of granite. The wall faces slope inwards or batter externally towards the top, giving a massive appearance (p. 31). Authorities trace the origin of this inclination either to the employment of mud for walls of early buildings or because this form of wall was better able to resist earthquakes. Columns, which are the leading external features of Greek architecture, are not used externally in Egyptian buildings, which normally have a massive blank wall crowned with the characteristic " gorge " cornice of roll and hollow moulding (p. 41 J). Walls, even when of granite, were generally carved in low relief, sometimes coated with a thin skin of stucco, about the thickness of a sheet of paper, to receive the colour (p. 40). Simplicity, solidity, and grandeur, obtained by broad masses of unbroken walling, are the chief characteristics of the style.

C. Openings.—Colonnades (p. 27) and doorways (pp. 28, 38 J), in a style which was essentially trabeated, were usually square-headed and spanned with massive lintels. Windows are seldom found in temples—a rare example being that at Medinet Habu (p. 38 k)—as light was admitted through clear-story screens in the earlier examples at Thebes, or, in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, over low dwarf walls between the facade columns, as at Luxor, Edfu (p. 31), Dendera, and Philae. Pierced stone window-panels of various patterns have been found (p. 24 n) and small slit-openings were also used in roofs and walls to light rooms and staircases (p. 24 D, E).

D. Roofs.—These were composed of massive slabs of stone supported by outer walls and closely spaced internal columns (pp. 24, 27, 31 A). Flat roofs of dwelling-houses served as pleasant rendezvous for enjoyment of the fresh breezes which sprang up at sunset, and they may also have been used for repose in the daytime with temporary awnings as protection from the sun. Flat temple roofs were utilised for priestly processions. The arch, although not showing externally, occurs in some of the earliest brick buildings, and also in roofs of the Twelfth Dynasty and in arched store-rooms of the Ramesseum in the Nineteenth Dynasty. Flinders Petrie points out that as mud bricks would be more easily crushed than kiln bricks, a parabolic arch was preferred to a semicircular, the apex of which would have been more likely to yield under pressure. In rock-cut temples ceilings are sometimes chiselled into an arched form, while in the tombs at Beni Hasan the roofing represents timber construction (p. 17 B).

E. Columns.—Columns, seldom over six diameters high, often appear in the form of papyrus or lotus stalks tied at intervals by bands (p. 41). The circular shafts curve in towards the base like sheathed stalks and sometimes stand on thick unmoulded bases which in shape somewhat resemble a Dutch cheese. Another form of support were the Osiris pillars used in the mortuary temples at Thebes, the forerunners of the Caryatids of the Greeks, while the 16-sided columns of the Tombs at Beni Hasan are another variety. Capitals mostly follow the forms of the lotus (emblem of Upper Egypt), the papyrus (emblem of Lower Egypt), and the palm, and are as follows : (a) The lotus bud, conventionalised (p. 41 J, x). (b) The lotus flower, which formed a bell-shaped capital sculptured and ornamented with colours (p. 41 L). (c) The papyrus plant (p. 41 B, C). (d) The palm capital with painted or sculptured palm leaves (p. 41 R). (e) Composite capitals formed of rings of lotus flowers and volutes, held by some to be prototypes of Greek Corinthian capitals (p. 41 N,P). (f) Hathor-headed capitals, as at Dendera and Philae, formed of heads of the goddess supporting the model of a temple front.

F . Mouldings.—Mouldings were few, and consisted of the bead or roll-moulding for the angles of buildings, and the hollow, generally used in conjunction with the bead, as the " gorge " moulding to crown the upper part of pylons and walls (p. 41 J). Mouldings were evidently considered to be out of place where walls were relieved by sculptured pictures from base to summit.

G. Ornament (p. 38).—This important element in the style was often symbolical, including such features as the solar disc or globe and vulture with outspread wings as a symbol of protection ; while diaper patterns, spirals (p. 38 A, B, E, G) and the feather ornament were largely used. The scarab, or sacred beetle used by the Egyptians as a symbol, obtained its sacred character as the emblem of resurrection probably because of its habit of allowing the sun to hatch its eggs in the desert sand. The decoration of temple walls consisted largely of representations of acts of adoration of the monarch to his gods, to whom he ascribed all his success in war. The Egyptians, masters in the use of colour, carried out their schemes of decoration chiefly in blue, red, and yellow. The wall to be decorated was probably prepared as follows : (a) the surface was first chiselled smooth and rubbed down ; (b) the figures or hieroglyphics were then drawn with a red line by an artist and corrected with a black line by the chief artist ; (c) the sculptor made his carvings in low relief or incised the outline, slightly rounding the enclosed form towards its boundaries ; (d) a thin skin of stucco was probably applied to receive the colour, and the painter carried out his work in the strong hues of the primary colours. The hieroglyphics (p. 42 B) were sometimes incised direct on the stone or granite and then coloured, as may be seen in the sculptures at the British Museum. They are instructive as well as decorative, and from them is learnt a great deal of what is known of Egyptian history (pp. 38 N, 42). The Egyptians possessed great power of conventionalising natural objects and they took the lotus, palm, and papyrus as motifs for design. These were nature symbols of the fertility given to the country by the overflowing Nile, and as such they continually appear both in construction and ornament.

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