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Ancient Egypt's History

Old Kingdom - Architecture



The kings of the early dynasties had tombs at Abydos and Saqqara built in imitation of palaces or shrines. From these tombs have come large amounts of pottery, stonework, and ivory or bone carving that attest to a high level of development in Early Dynastic Egypt. The Egyptian language, written in hieroglyphics, or picture writing , was in its first stages of evolution.

In the 3rd Dynasty the architect Imhotep built for Zoser (reigned about 2737-2717 BC) a complex at Saqqara, the burial ground near the capital of Memphis, that included a stepped pyramid of stone and a group of shrines and related buildings. Designed to protect the remains of the king, the great Step Pyramid is the oldest monumental architecture preserved; it also illustrates one of the phases toward the development of the true pyramid (see Pyramids).

The architecture of the Old Kingdom—the designation used by historians for the 3rd through the 6th dynasties—can be described as monumental in the sense that native limestone and granite were used for the construction of large-scale buildings and tombs. Of the temples built during this period little remains.

The pyramid complex at Giza where the kings of the 4th Dynasty were buried illustrates the ability of Egyptian architects to construct monuments that remain wonders of the world. The Great Pyramid of Khufu originally stood about 146 m (480 ft) high and contained about 2.3 million blocks with an average weight of 2.5 metric tons each. Many theories have been advanced to explain the purpose of pyramids; the answer is simple: They were built to preserve and protect the bodies of the kings for eternity. Each pyramid had a valley temple, a landing and staging area, and a pyramid temple or cult chapel where religious rites for the king's spirit were performed. Around the three major pyramids at Giza a necropolis (city of the dead) grew up, which contained mastaba (Arabic mastabah, “mud-brick bench”) tombs, so called because of their resemblance to the sloped mud-brick benches in front of Egyptian houses. The mastabas were for the members of the royal family, high officials, courtiers, and functionaries. For the most part these tombs were constructed over shafts that led to a chamber containing the mummy and the offerings, but some tombs were cut into the limestone plateau and not constructed from blocks of stone.

From the tombs at Giza and Saqqara it is clear that the houses they imitate were arranged on streets in well-planned towns and cities. Little is known for certain about the domestic architecture of the Old Kingdom, because houses and even palaces were built of unbaked mud brick and have not survived. The temples and tombs, built of stone and constructed for eternity, provide most of the available information on the customs and living conditions of the ancient Egyptians.