Ancient Egyptian Architecture Series:
Architecture of Ancient Egypt

Characteristics, History: Pyramids, Sphinx, Temples at Karnak.

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Pyramid of Khufu at Giza.
Built c.2550, it is also known as
the Pyramid of Cheops, or the
Great Pyramid of Giza.

Tomb of King Tutankhamun.
Built c.1320 BCE.

Ancient Egyptian Architecture
3,000 BCE - 200 CE


Architectural Characteristics
Predynastic Period (Before 3100 BCE)
Early Dynastic Period (3100-2686)
Old Kingdom Architecture (2686-2181)
1st Intermediate Period (2181-2055)
Middle Kingdom Architecture (2055-1650)
2nd Intermediate Period (1650-1550)
New Kingdom Architecture (1550-1069)
3rd Intermediate Period (1069-664)
Late Egyptian Architecture (664-30)
Roman Achitecture in Egypt (30 BCE-641 CE)
Famous Egyptian Pyramids
Famous Egyptian Temples
Karnak Temple Complex (c.1550-360 BCE)
Luxor Temple Complex (c.1400-1200 BCE)
How Egyptian Temples Were Designed
Egyptian Architects

The colossal columns of the huge
hypostyle hall at the Temple complex
at Luxor. Built c.1370 BCE.


The architecture of Ancient Egypt - a country of two parts, Upper and Lower Egypt - reflected two fundamental characteristics of Egyptian culture. First, the belief that life on earth was merely a brief interlude compared with the eternal afterlife to come. Second, the fact that Egypt was a theocracy, whose King (or Pharaoh) was worshipped as a God, with absolute powers: a ruler who owned a large chunk of Egypt's land and much of its resources. As a result of these two factors, a huge proportion of Egyptian architectural designs, building materials and labour force were devoted to the construction of huge Pharaonic tomb complexes, known as Pyramids, designed to preserve the Pharaoh's body and protect his belongings after death, so as to facilitate his passage into the after-life. A nationwide industry of Egyptian architects, master craftsmen, painters and sculptors toiled to produce the funerary artworks, jewellery and other artifacts required. In addition to building tombs, Egyptian architects strove (as instructed by the Pharaoh) to glorify the Gods by constructing temples in their honour, and to promote and preserve the values of the day. In this context, note that all forms of Egyptian art, such as architecture, painting, metalwork, ceramics and Egyptian sculpture - were regulated by a highly conservative set of traditional rules and conventions, which favoured order and form over artistic expression.

Despite their achievements in the area of monumental Pharaonic architecture, there is little evidence of town planning, except for workmen's towns at Kahun and Deir el-Medina - both instances of living quarters for people employed on the Pharaoh's tomb. At Akhenaten's short-lived capital of Amarna (c.1374-62 BCE), the town houses were like suburban villas. The essence of an Egyptian house was its setting within a garden. This is borne out by wall-paintings in tombs and drawings on papyri. Models of houses exist; two superb wooden examples were found in the tomb of the noble Meketre, about 2050 BCE, at Thebes. Egyptian houses were built of mud-brick and timber with occasional stone rests for column bases or thresholds. But an Egyptian house was built for a lifetime, a tomb for eternity.



Archtectural Characteristics and Materials

In general, Egyptian architectural designs were monumental but not architecturally complex: they used posts and lintels, not arches, although Egyptian stone masons had a strong influence on later Greek sculpture and architecture. The lack of wood was balanced by an abundance of sun-baked mud bricks, and stone (mostly limestone, but also granite and sandstone), although most major structures had to be built near the Nile, as building materials were transported by river. Stone was first introduced during the era of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181), initially only for tombs and temples, and architectural sculpture. Bricks were used for everything else, including royal palaces, fortified buildings, temple walls and outbuildings, as well as municipal and other civic complexes. Most famous Egyptian architecture was completed during two periods: the Old Kingdom (2686-2181) (mostly pyramids) and the New Kingdom (1550-1069) (mostly temples). See also: Architecture Glossary.


Egyptian architecture was a form of ancient art that evolved over 3,000 years, a time span which is traditionally categorized as follows:

Predynastic Architecture (Before 3100 BCE)
Few permanent structures built. Much of our knowledge of Predynastic designs during the era of Neolithic art, comes from hieroglyphs. Different burial customs were followed in Upper and Lower Egypt, thus tomb buildings were quite different. Important population centres located in Buto, Hierakonpolis and Naqada. For more information about contemporary culture, please see: Mesopotamian Art (c.4500-539 BCE).

Early Dynastic Architecture (1st-2nd Dynasties) (3100-2686)
This period, sometimes called the Thinite dynastic period, witnessed the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by Menes, and the founding of Memphis, the first capital. Hieroglyphic writing system created. Important Early Dynastic building designs revolved around the construction of mastabas, one-storey brick boxes with a burial chamber below, in which the deceased members of the ruling class were buried.

Old Kingdom Architecture (3rd-6th Dynasties) (2686-2181)
During this period, stone was first used in the construction of monumental buildings. Huge pyramids containing burial chambers of dynastic Pharaohs were surrounded by a complex of tombs and temples. Egyptian nobles and senior officials were interred in nearby rectangular structures called mastabas. Pyramid architecture reached a highpoint at Giza, Dashur and Saqqara. Famous Old Kingdom pyramids included the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza (c.2550), the Step Pyramid of Djoser (c.2630), the Sloped Pyramid of Snefru (c.2551), the Red Pyramid of Snefru (c.2605) and the Pyramid of Teti (c.2323). Pyramid interiors were often decorated with statues and other types of stone sculpture, as well as mural paintings. Another huge Old Kingdom structure was the Great Sphinx of Giza (c.2540). Also at this time, Heliopolis became the centre of the cult of the sun god Re.

For details, see: Early Egyptian Architecture.

For other examples of Third Millennium architecture, see: Stonehenge (c.3000 BCE), Newgrange Megalithic Tomb (c.3000 BCE) and its Neolithic sister site Knowth Megalithic Tomb (c.2500 BCE).

1st Intermediate Period (7th-11th Dynasties) (2181-2055)
At the close of the Old Kingdom, Egypt split into two zones - a northern zone ruled from Memphis and a southern zone ruled from Thebes - with separate dynasties. The ensuing civil strife and economic recession ruled out any elaborate tomb building, and artistic standards fell.

Middle Kingdom Architecture (12th-13th Dynasties) (2055-1650)
At the start of the Middle Kingdom, the southern city of Thebes became the Egyptian capital. A new necropolis was built in the hills across from Thebes, on the west bank of the Nile. For more than 500 years this area, known as the Valley of the Kings, hosted the tombs of Pharaohs and powerful nobles. This period witnessed a more stable political climate which led to a revival of architectural activity, although portrait sculptures of Middle Kingdom Pharaohs reveal faces marked by anxiety, in contrast to the serenity of Old Kingdom figures. This anxiety was reflected in a decline in the size and quality of royal pyramids and temples, erected close to the Fayum oasis, which were smaller and built mostly from dried brick with a stone facing. This lower quality architecture was partly compensated by the growing sophistication of Egyptian Middle Kingdom painting and relief sculpture.

For details, see: Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture.

2nd Intermediate Period (14th-17th Dynasties) (1650-1550)
More political turmoil errupted at the end of the Middle Kingdom. Asiatic Hyksos tribes with horses and chariots assumed control of northern Egypt; the Kings of Thebes ruled the south. No monumental architecture any any significance was built during this time.


New Kingdom Architecture (18th-20th Dynasties) (1550-1069)
The Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty reunited the country, expelled the Hyksos and oversaw a renaissance of the arts. Temples, rock-built tombs, granite statues and wall reliefs, as well as inscribed stones were erected along the entire length of the Nile valley. The new prosperity was typified by the precious metalwork, jewellery and sculptures discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The period also featured a brief revolutionary episode in Egyptian theology and architecture - the Amarna style - which occurred during the reign of King Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV). The most celebrated architectural achievements of the New Kingdom included the great stone temples dedicated to numerous gods. Typically including a colossal gateway, a colonnaded courtyard, a hall of columns and a shrine chamber, together with one or more chapels, their innermost chambers were accessible only to the Pharaoh and his high priests. Architectural design of columns, pillars and capitals was based on plant motifs, as was mural decoration. New Kingdom Pharaohs constructed extensive complexes of tombs and funerary temples in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, Karnak, Abydos, Tell el-Amarna, and Abu Simbel.

For details, see: Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture.

One of the most famous tombs in the Valley of the Kings belonged to King Tutankhamun (c.1341-1323) of the 18th dynasty, who ruled Egypt during the New Kingdom from 1332 to 1323 BCE. Discovered in 1922, his tomb - one of the few discovered almost intact - contained more than 5,000 treasures, including chairs, statues, gilt chariots, couches and gold.

3rd Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties) (1069-664)
After the era of the New Kingdom, Egypt split once again as internal divisions left the high priests of Amun in control of Thebes, while Libyan tribes ruled the north. In this climate, there were no architectural innovations and few monumental buildings were completed. Exceptions included the pyramid at El-Kurru, built in 721 by Piye, the first ruler of the Egyptian 25th dynasty; and the pyramid at Nuri (North Sudan), constructed in 664, by the Pharaoh Taharqa.

Late Egyptian Architecture: including
- (26th-31st Dynasties) (664-332)
, and
- Ptolemaic Architectural Designs (332-30)

Nubians conquered Egypt in the early part of the era, before the country was reunited under the Saite dynasty. Then, in the 5th century BCE, Egypt was taken over by Persia, before eventually regaining her independence from c.404-340. She was conquered again, this time by Alexander the Great, upon whose premature death in 323 control of Egypt passed to one of Alexander's senior generals, Ptolemy I. From now on, the influence of Greek art would gradually become more apparent. Architectural activity continued along the Nile Valley, but none of the tombs or temples built by the Ethiopians, the Saitic dynasty, or the Persians are noteworthy. To maintain order and establish legitimacy, the Ptolemies finished temples already begun, such as Nectanebo II's temple of Isis, and built new ones throughout the country, including Nubia. The most important are at Dendera, Esna, Edfu, Kom Om-bo, Philae. Of these, the Temple of Horus at Edfu (237-57) is the best preserved Egyptian temple complex. Erected during the Greek Ptolemaic period, one of its two hypostyle halls contains 18 massive sandstone columns. The Ptolemies themselves, however, lived and were buried in their newly founded, Greek-style capital of Alexandria, on the coast of the Mediterranean.

For details, see: Late Egyptian Architecture.

Roman Architecture in Egypt (30 BCE-200 CE)

Like the Ptolemaic Dynasty and other foreigners, the Romans assumed the ancient role of the Pharaohs, and continued to preserve the fiction of the king ruling with the gods in the interests of world order. This obliged them to institute a program of Roman architecture in Egypt under which temples were built to venerate the deities. Following the Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean, during the period 323-30 BCE, Greek influence began to appear in Egyptian building designs: a process continued after 30 by the Romans, although they added new architectural techniques and materials of their own. Roman architectural structures in Egypt include Trajan's Pavilion (c.164 CE) at Philae, in which Egyptian lotus blossom designs are used to decorate the capitals of Greek Corinthian columns. Its interior walls show Emperor Trajan making offerings to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. For more details about Roman building techniques, see: Roman Art. For Greek influence in other forms of fine art, see: Fayum Mummy Portraits (c.50 BCE - 250 CE).

For the development of architecture, sculpture and painting, see: History of Art. For chronology, see: History of Art Timeline.

Famous Egyptian Pyramids and Other Structures

The most famous surviving examples of monumental architecture in Egypt are the pyramids, although the ruined temple and tomb complexes at Karnak, Luxor and other sites, are still breathtaking. Artifacts from these sanctuaries can be seen in the best art museums around the world, notably the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, as well as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo.

The three most celebrated structures are probably The Great Pyramid at Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu and the "Pyramid of Cheops"); The Great Sphinx of Giza (The Terrifying One); and The Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara.

The Great Pyramid (built c.2540-2560 BCE)
Built as a tomb for the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (In Greek: Cheops), it is the largest of the three pyramids at the Giza Necropolis, and the oldest and best preserved of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. For more than 3800 years it was the tallest man-made structure in the world.

The Great Sphinx of Giza (built c.2550–2530 BCE)
This colossal limestone sculpture of a reclining sphinx (a mythical creature consisting of a human head on a lion's body) - world's largest monolith statue - is situated on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile. The Sphinx's head is believed to be a portrait of King Khufu.

Pyramid of Djozer (built c.2630 BCE)
Designed by Imhotep, one of the greatest architects of ancient Egypt, this is believed to be the earliest pyramid and the world's oldest structure made from dressed masonry.

See also: Megalithic Architecture.


Famous Egyptian Temples

The most famous temple architecture of Ancient Egypt can be seen in the old city of Thebes, whose northern ruins include the Karnak temple, and whose southern ruins feature the Luxor complex.

Karnak Temple Complex (c.1550-323 BCE)
Situated on the east bank of the River Nile a few kilometres north of Luxor. This complex has four main sections: the Precinct of Amon-Re, the Precinct of Montu, the Precinct of Mut and the Temple of Amenhotep IV, plus a few smaller temples. The main reason for its size, as well as the unique complexity of its architectural design and decoration, is because it was developed over a long period of time, and involved the active participation of architects employed by more than 30 Pharaohs. The complex's most striking feature is the pillared hall (hypostyle) in the great metropolitan temple of the state god Amon, erected by Ramesses I. This hall area contained 134 colossal columns arranged in 16 rows. The vast majority (122) are over 30-feet tall; the remaining 12 are 65-feet tall and some 12-feet in diameter.

Luxor Temple Complex (c.1400-1200 BCE)
Also located on the east bank of the Nile, this temple complex (part of the ancient city of Thebes) was started during the reign of Amenhotep III in the 14th century BCE. More columns, pillars, chapels, statues, and friezes were added by the architects of King Horemheb and Tutankhamun, while Akhenaten added a shrine to the Aten. But the biggest expansion was undertaken a century later by Ramesses II. Indeed, originally, the main entrance to the complex was guarded by six massive statues of Ramesses – four seated, two standing – of which only two seated statues remain. Sporadic construction work continued as late as the Ptolemies.

How Egyptian Temples Were Designed

If, after thousands of years, we can still identify the gods worshipped in the Egyptian temples and the kings who built them, and can still name the rooms and establish their cult functions in the over-all plan, it is thanks to their hieroglyphic inscriptions, reliefs, and decoration. These are essential elements of the architecture. They interpret the whole building, inside and out, as well as its portals, walls, columns, and ceilings; they also evoke with their own power the meaning and perpetuation of the daily ritual, and of the special ceremonies during the great festivals. Starting with the New Kingdom the relief sculpture on temple walls increasingly show the kingly role in the various phases of the liturgy. They ratify for eternity the sense of the ritual drama that symbolized the world order, and they elevate the mystery into a tangible, logical reality that is ever present. Not only the cult image in its sanctuary but the whole temple, with all its chapels, gates, pillars, reliefs, inscriptions, and emblems, was seen as having an existence which, after sleeping through the darkness of the night, had each morning to be ritually aroused from their slumber if the movement of the natural order was to continue.

Some idea of how a temple was built at Heliopolis by King Sesostris I may be gained from the text of a leather scroll. Under the aegis of the king the plans were discussed among his high officials and entrusted to the royal keeper of the seal, who directed the execution. With full pomp the king, accompanied by the high priests and the "scribe of the sacred book," processed to the building site to perform there the foundation-laying ceremonies.

The construction of a building with such awesome implications for the entire world order required special motives, thorough planning, and elaborate preliminary ceremonials before any real construction began. At Edfu this ceremony was based on a treatise by Imhotep, King Zoser's architect, that was written during the Third Dynasty but contained rites that were even older. The first record of the ceremony is from the Second Dynasty, in reliefs on the outer wall of a granite shrine from Hierakonpolis, and they are still found in temple reliefs of the Late Period. The king set out in festive procession, accompanied by the cult image, to the temple site. Here a ritual drama took place, in which the gods' roles were presumably taken by priests and priestesses. During the nocturnal hours the king fixed the four corner points and the correct orientation of the sanctuary as directed by the god Thoth, with the help of the stars. Then, aided by the goddess Seshat, he marked off the temple precinct by "driving in the stakes" and "stretching the cords." There followed a groundbreaking ceremony in which the king dug foundation trenches, filled them with white sand, a symbol of purity, and made the cornerstone sacrifice which, with the offerings, was buried at the four corners of the future building. Finally, in accordance with an immemorial custom that obviously goes back to the beginnings of Egyptian brick architecture, bricks were molded of Nile mud mixed with frankincense and placed at the four corners of the foundations. In this way the foundation stone was laid.

The reasons for erecting a temple were of many kinds. They lie in the demands of theology and of the priesthood, but especially in the royal obligation to maintain, with the gods, the world order. The architect of the temple, therefore, was the Pharaoh. The royal jubilee was the principal occasion for building temples, large and small, to symbolize the eternal continuance of the dynastic succession and confirm the close relations between the king and the gods.

The planners of an Egyptian temple had to take into account the entire prevailing theological system, the nature of the principal god for whom the sanctuary was to be built and those of his co-deities, together with all their festivals and cult requirements. Accordingly the details of the plan had to be worked out by a large team of theologians, translated into drawings, and presented for the king's approval. The designs of the late temples of Edfu and Dendera went back to ancient temple plans and to the treatise written by Imhotep. There are sketch plans of smaller sanctuaries and of a royal tomb complex of the New Kingdom on papyrus and limestone tablets; the plan of the temple at Heliopolis is on the back of an inventory tablet. In translating from the sketched plans to the building site a square grid was probably used, though at Kalabsha it was composed of rectangles.

See also: Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE).

Egyptian Architects

But who were the architects and what were their tasks? We know only a few by name, including Amenhotep (son of Hapu), Imhotep, Senemut, Ineni and a few others. Of these, the most famous is Imhotep, the architect of King Zoser's mortuary precinct and the tomb complex of his successor. His titles and functions, preserved on a statue of his royal master, were "chief sculptor, high priest of Heliopolis, hereditary prince, the first after the king, and keeper of the seal of the king of Lower Egypt." In 470 BCE the Persian king Darius dispatched Khenem-ib-Ra, a chief architect working under Amasis, the last great ruler of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, to lead an expedition to obtain stone blocks from the Wadi Hammamat. There he has left us his family tree, carved in the cliff. As proof of a long and prestigious professional tradition, he lists twenty-two generations of architects, starting with Kanofer, architect of King Khasekhemui (end of the Second Dynasty). The names of numerous architects have been handed down from all periods of Egyptian history; some tombs and statues bearing long biographical inscriptions have been preserved. The Egyptian language has no word for "architect"; each master-builder was called "director of all the king's works." They held a special position of trust in relation to the king and frequently acted as his vizier as well. In the New Kingdom, architects began their careers by entering the government service as "apprentice scribes." This reinforces the impression that their principal duties were organizational: recruiting and allocating labour, and procuring building materials, especially supervising the quarrying of stone and its transport from distant quarries to the capital. In inscriptions they boast of their outstanding technical achievements, such as the erecting of obelisks and colossal statues. Only rarely do they refer to the buildings they erected, and never to creative ideas.

Further Resources

For more about architectural methods, designs and buildings, see the following resources.

- Romanesque Architecture (c.800-1200)
- Gothic Architecture (c.1150-1375)
- Renaissance Architecture (1400-1600)
- Baroque Architecture (c.1600-1750)
- Neoclassical Architecture (1640-1850)

• For more information about the evolution of ancient buildings, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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