Ancient Egyptian Religious Architecture
Length: 1288 words (3.7 double-spaced pages)
One of the greatest cultural achievements of Ancient Egypt was undoubtedly in their architecture associated with religion.
"Temples, tombs and pyramids - all have witnessed this earth for thousands of years. What better than to say that these architectural achievements show us that Egypt's greatest virtue lay in its architecture" (Fumeaux:11, 1964)
When one travels to Egypt, what does he/she see - pyramid after temple after tomb, each standing the test of time. One stands out - they are all associated with religious beliefs, they all have stood unmoving for thousands of years, and they all involve mechanical genius- the moving of colossal stones without the use of the wheel. The finest example such mechanics is shown in the construction of the revered pyramid. These three factors, all belonging to the religious architecture of ancient Egypt, do nothing else but prove its greatness.
Egypt's grand architectural design was a result of the religious values and beliefs that were in place at the time. Thousands of years ago, 'Ancient Egypt accepted the challenge of reeds and swamps, hot sands and floods, and build the 'first' nation' (Romer:75, 1982). There were few things to impress themselves upon the Egyptian mind; their psychological impact however was immense. There was the Nile itself, source of all life, there was the mysterious regularity of the Sun, Moon and stars; there was fertility and death. It was out of fear and mystery of these things that
"...the Egyptians made their complex heirachy of Gods, and their strange religion. In the service of that religion they made their architecture" (Romer: 75,1982).
Thus, the art and architecture of Ancient Egypt stemmed directly from their religion. Egyptian theology, with its deified pharaohs and strange animal-headed gods, was complicated, but the most important belief was that survival after death depended upon the preservation of the body. This belief would influence the architectural design of the tomb, where the corpse was ultimately sealed (Silverman:142, 1997). Immortality was only for privileged royal and priestly beings (Stierlin:54, 1983).This implies that their tombs would be somewhat prestigious and not just and ordinary burial site. At the day of resurrection the Ka or soul would re-enter the dead body; this meant that it must be there, intact, ready for that moment. It followed logically, that 'once the corpse was embalmed or mummified, it must be preserved in an impregnable tomb.
'(Fumeaux:9, 1964) Impregnability, however, had to be provided in more than one form - security for the corpse, and security for their possessions - furniture, food, jewels and various other elaborate objects, awaiting a second existence at the resurrection. So it is seen that the design of the tomb is based upon the religious and cultural beliefs. This particular design was ultimately 'extremely advanced for the time period' (Romer:76, 1982), and supports the claim that the great achievements of ancient Egypt lie in their religious architecture.
One of the most outstanding factors that makes the Egyptians religious architecture so great is the fact that it has remained unmoved for thousands of years, undeterred by all that has taken place around. The Egyptian tomb, for it to last as long as it has, had to be extremely durable. Apart from prehistoric graves, the earliest tombs were the mastabas of the I-III Dynasties of the Archaic Period (Fumeaux:9, 1964). These mastaba tombs were quite small with stepped sides and a flat top. They were almost solid but somewhere in the core was a series of rooms, including a burial chamber containing the sarcophagus of the dead, with all his/her items for the afterlife (Romer:76, 1982). Externally there was a recess that looked like a blocked up door. Through this false door the spirit could return to the body. It also served as a place where offerings could be made to the dead (Stierlin:61, 1983). The name mastaba came from the Arabic for a bench of the type found outside the doors of Arab houses (Fumeaux:9, 1964). If one were to look at a solid bench, one would think it was solid, durable, and impregnable.
"Functionally, therefore, the mastaba was designed to achieve permanence. Aesthetically the mastaba was designed to look permanent in an impressive way... it involved metal tools, mathematics, transport and organized labour. It was, in all its apparent simplicity - architecture" (Stierlin: 61, 1983)
Evidence of this durability is seen a little to the north of Memphis, on the plateau of Giza, where 'mastaba tombs are still seen standing today', even after thousands of years (Fumeaux:9, 1964). The tombs had served its purpose - the designers of the tomb were successful, but how it is expected, if the greatest achievements of Ancient Egypt lay in their religious architecture.
Undoubtedly the most striking reflection of Egypt's architectural prowess is in the mechanical construction of their monuments, in particular the pyramid, with its 'sheer size alone enough to dumbfound any passer-by' (Silverman:135, 1997). The largest (c.2575 BC) pyramid was build by Cheops (Fumeaux: 12, 1964). This great pyramid contained six and a quarter million tons of stone. It was 480 feet high before the apex stones were lost. Each side of the square base was 760 feet, with a mathematical error of about 0.03 per cent. Each polished block weighed about two and a half tons (Fumeaux:12, 1964).
"The joints between them were one-fifteenth of an inch - jeweler's work unexcelled by the builders of the Parthenon"(Silverman:135, 1997).
One-fifteenth of an inch - to achieve such precision there must have been advanced mechanical processes at the time. The dimensions of such a construction as the pyramid are enough for it to be considered a great achievement, but the greatness extends to the actual mechanics of construction. Herodotus says that '100,000 men worked for twenty years fed on a diet of onions' (Romer:82, 1982). The blocks of stone, some of them 20 by 6 feet, would be brought from the quarry by barge at the height of the Nile flood, but they had to be handled at both ends of the journey and then dragged up a ramp to the Pyramid site, some one hundred feet from the river (Funeaux:12, 1964).
"Wedges, rockers, levers and cradles were all used. The missing element was the wheel - no carts, no pulleys, no cranes. No construction on such a large scale as the Great Pyramid had ever been attempted in preceding civilizations." (Silverman:136, 1997).
The fact that a construction on such a large scale had never been built in former civilizations, but was successfully done by the ancient Egyptians, even more than once, is underlying evidence supporting the notion of religious architecture being one of Egypt's greatest achievements.
When such clear and concise evidence is found supporting the magnanimity of ancient Egypt's architecture, it is impossible not to believe that
"When one look upon the civilization of Ancient Egypt, they cannot help but to gaze in wonder and awe at their monumental achievements - their temples, tombs and their Great Pyramids" (Fumeaux:12, 1964).
Such huge wonders constructed with such precision and skill to last thousands of years can only be seen as conclusive evidence that the advanced religious architecture of ancient Egypt - the tombs, temples and pyramids were one of its greatest accomplishments.
Fumeaux, R.J. 1969, Western Architecture, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London
Kousoukis, J.A. 1990, History of the Ancient World : Ancient Egypt, Longman Chesire, Melbourne
Romer, J. 1982,Romer's Egypt, The Rainbird Publishing Group Ltd, London
Romer, J. 1984, Ancient Lives: The Story of the Pharoh's Tombmakers, Micheal O'Mara Books Ltd, London
Silverman, M.J 1989, Ancient Egypt: A Clear and Concise History, Toppan Publishing Inc, New York
Stierlin, H.R. 1983, The Pharohs, Educational Resources Publishing Ltd, Geneva
Time Life Books, 1996, What Life Was Like on the Banks of the Nile, Time Life Inc, Virginia