Monumental Architecture in Bronze Age Egypt and Crete

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Monumental Architecture in Bronze Age Egypt and Crete

The significance of monumental architecture lies not only in the function it is built to serve but also in the cultural values it represents. Monumental architecture is aesthetic as well as functional, and in its aesthetic aspects it is a form of cultural expression. In Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations, the development of monumental architecture was influenced primarily by the political structure of the state. Perhaps the most disparate forms of monumental architecture in this region were developed in Pharaonic Egypt and Minoan Crete, reflecting the differences in their political systems. The socio-political structure of these two cultures can be sharply contrasted through an examination of a predominant type of monumental architecture found in each region.

Monumental architecture in Pharaonic Egypt is represented primarily by the funerary complexes of the pharaohs. The principal function of these elaborate complexes was to ensure that the pharaohs, who were exalted as living gods, would attain the afterlife they desired. This required that two basic conditions be fulfilled: the body had to be preserved from disturbance or destruction; and the material needs of the body and the ka had to be met (Edwards 20). Pharaonic burial complexes were also centers of worship for the god-king interred there and were designed to exalt his memory and deeds.

Egyptian burial complexes evolved from the simple rectangular mastaba to the great pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty. The true pyramid evolved from the mastaba through an intermediary form, the step pyramid, the earliest example of which is Zoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara, which dates to the Third Dynasty (c. 2680 BC). The Step Pyramid was revolutionary for several reasons. It is the earliest known free-standing monument built entirely of stone in Egypt (Fakhry 20); it is also the earliest example of evolutionary architectural development beyond the mastaba. In form the step pyramid is a series of superimposed mastabas and represents the stairway that the spirit of the pharaoh was to climb to reach the sky-realm and join the crew of the solar barque traveling across the heavens (Aldred 47).

The Step Pyramid was designed by Imhotep, the Chancellor of King Zoser, and was originally planned as a stone mastaba 7.0 meters high based on a square ground-plan (Aldred 45-46). However, this design underwent six alterations, and in its final form the Step Pyramid rose in six unequal steps to a height of 62.

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"Monumental Architecture in Bronze Age Egypt and Crete." 19 Jun 2018
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3 meters on a base of 125 x 109 meters (Aldred 46). It is surrounded by the most extensive array of funerary buildings of any known pyramid complex (Edwards 61). These buildings were designed to serve the needs of the pharaoh in the afterlife, where it was assumed he would be called upon to perform the same functions that he had performed while alive. The buildings are ceremonial rather than functional, and most are solid sham-buildings of limestone filled with rubble (Lloyd 84). The entire funerary complex is surrounded by a niched enclosure wall roughly ten meters high with a peripheral length of over two kilometers (Edwards 50; Lloyd 81).

The Step Pyramid and related buildings are constructed of local limestone and were originally faced with fine white limestone quarried at Tura (Aldred 46). The pyramid was constructed of “small blocks which could be easily handled . . . showing that the technique of quarrying and manipulating heavy pieces of stone had not then been mastered” (Edwards 51-52). The limestone blocks were transported to the building site on the Nile and were carted overland on sledges pulled by men or oxen. As the pyramid rose in height, the blocks were conveyed to the level under construction via ramps of earth and rubble held in place by brick retaining walls and were then laid in place with a thin layer of mortar (Fakhry 12-13).

As an example of Egyptian monumental architecture, the Step Pyramid reveals much about Egyptian social values and the central structure of the Egyptian state. The fact that monumental architecture was associated exclusively with burial complexes and temples demonstrates the paramount importance placed upon the afterlife by the Egyptians. While ordinary buildings were needed to last only for a lifetime and could be replaced whenever necessary, tombs—or “castles of eternity”—were designed to last forever (Edwards 20). Monumental funerary complexes such as the Step Pyramid at Saqqara were reserved primarily for the pharaoh; they are very much individual monuments. As burial complexes, they provided no substantive material or economic good for the community. That the pharaoh was able to command the manpower and resources necessary to build a massive funerary complex which provided no material benefits for its builders evinces the tremendous power and authority he wielded. In Pharaonic Egypt both political and religious power were concentrated in the person of the pharaoh, whose status as a living god ensured his position as the ultimate authority in the state and subjected the people wholly to his command (Frankfort 52). Even the shape of the pyramid is indicative of Egyptian socio-political structure; the slope of the four sides produces an inward-facing structure which rises to a single point—the pharaoh.

The monumental architecture of Minoan Crete differs markedly from that of Pharaonic Egypt, reflecting the differences in their socio-political structures. Minoan monumental architecture consists of a number of palace complexes; these complexes were essential for virtually every aspect of Minoan life and were viewed as sacred buildings (Cadogan 32-33). Each of the palace complexes served as the economic, political, and religious center for the surrounding countryside.

The Minoan palaces were first built c. 2000 BC and were destroyed, probably by a natural disaster, c. 1700 BC. They were rebuilt within a relatively short time span (one to two generations) and were—with one exception—destroyed c. 1450 BC, possibly by invading Mycenaeans. The largest of the palace complexes, at Knossos, was destroyed c. 1375 BC, almost certainly by the Mycenaeans. This palace may have served as the architectural model for the others (Davaras 240) and possibly exerted some form of suzerainty over them (Lloyd 207). The palace at Knossos is roughly square, measuring approximately 150 meters on each side, and occupies an area of 20,000 square meters (Davaras 217-18). Indicative of its function as an economic distributive center, a majority of this area was given over to magazines used primarily for the storage of agricultural goods. The palace originally had two or possibly three stories and was built of rubble masonry or mud brick supported by a wooden framework and plastered or faced with limestone or gypsum (Higgins 23). The central feature of the palace is a rectangular courtyard measuring 50 x 25 meters (Cadogan 60); this central courtyard is an integral feature of all Minoan palace complexes and conforms to a standard size and shape. Unimpeded by fortification walls, the palace was built outwards from this courtyard in successive stages. The architecture is marked by a lack of symmetry and a sense of natural and organic growth (Higgins 22).

This naturalistic sensibility permeated the Minoan civilization, a civilization characterized by a reverence for life. The palace complexes were the focal point of the Minoan socio-political structure. That they were both religious and political centers suggests that the rulers were priest-kings (or priestess-queens), integrating both secular and spiritual authority, much as in Egypt. Unlike in Egypt, the existence of several palace complexes indicates that Minoan Crete was not a single political unit. The lack of fortification walls around any of the palace complexes suggests that there was no competition between palaces. The Minoan palace complexes were intrinsically communal in nature, in function resembling villages more than palaces. The palaces furthered economic and material needs by functioning as distributive centers, met religious needs in their role as temples and religious centers, and, as the centers of secular authority, provided a political structure for the island. Thus the Minoan people received both material and spiritual benefits from the palace complexes.

Although the cultures of Pharaonic Egypt and Minoan Crete existed in the same temporal and geographical milieu, they developed contrasting socio-political structures and distinct, individual styles of monumental architecture. Egyptian society was dominated by the existence of a living god, the pharaoh, at the summit of the social and political order. As a reflection of that hierarchy, Egyptian monumental architecture revolved around the individual person of the pharaoh. While Egyptian society was organized around the needs of this individual, the culture of Minoan Crete was organized around the needs of the community, a valuation reflected in its monumental architecture. The unique architectural forms developed by these two societies were thus as much a product of their philosophies and mind-sets as were their socio-political structures. Their pyramids and palaces stand today as imposing physical manifestations of their societal and cultural values.


Aldred, Cyril. Egyptian Art in the Days of the Pharaohs: 3100-320 BC. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

Cadogan, Gerald. Palaces of Minoan Crete. New York: Methuen, 1980.

Davaras, Costis. Guide to Cretan Antiquities. Park Ridge, New Jersey: Noyes Press, 1976.

Edwards, I. E. S. The Pyramids of Egypt. London: Penguin, 1988.

Fakhry, Ahmed. The Pyramids. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Frankfort, Henri. The Birth of Civilization in the Near East. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954.

Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

Lloyd, Seton, Hans Wolfgang Müller, and Roland Martin. Ancient Architecture: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Greece. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1974.

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