Ancient Egypt is one of the most influential civilizations throughout history, which developed a vast array of diverse structures and great architectural monuments along the Nile, including pyramids and temples.
The Egyptian language, which formed a separate branch among the family of Afro-Asiatic languages, was among the first written languages, and is known from the hieroglyphic inscriptions preserved on monuments and sheets of papyrus.In the third millennium BC. Religious literature is best known for its hymns to and its mortuary texts. About 90% of Egypt’s population is Muslim, with a Sunni majority. About 9% of the population is Coptic Christian; other religions and other forms of Christianity comprise the remaining one percent. As early as 4000 BC, ancient Egyptians were playing harps and flutes, as well as two indigenous instruments: the ney and the oud. However, there is little notation of Egyptian music before the 7th century AD, when Egypt became part of the Muslim world. Percussion and vocal music became important at this time, and has remained an important part of Egyptian music today.
Egypt Seasons & Climate
The climate in Egypt varies from surprisingly cold to extremely hot. Along the northern coast of the country the climate is Mediterranean during winter (December through March) – cool, windy and humid, with occasional rains. Sometimes Mt. Sinai can be covered with snow! Summer in Egypt (June through September) is usually very dry with extremely hot temperatures into the 90°’s and 100°’s, sometimes breaking 120° F. Many of Egypt’s best-preserved sites are in desert regions where it never rains. The parched atmosphere and desert winds can sway temperatures from hot in the day to freezing at night.
The Nile River played an important role in shaping the lives and society of Ancient Egypt. The Nile provided the Ancient Egyptians with food, transportation, building materials, and more.
The Nile River
The Nile River is the longest river in the world. It is over 4,100 miles long! The Nile is located in northwest Africa and flows through many different African countries including Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Burundi. There are two major tributaries that feed the Nile, the White Nile and the Blue Nile.
Upper and Lower Egypt
The Nile River flows north through Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea. Ancient Egypt was divided into two regions, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. This looks a bit confusing on a map because Upper Egypt is to the south and Lower Egypt is to the north. This is because the names come from the flow of the Nile River.
The most important thing the Nile provided to the Ancient Egyptians was fertile land. Most of Egypt is desert, but along the Nile River the soil is rich and good for growing crops. The three most important crops were wheat, flax, and papyrus.
- Wheat – Wheat was the main staple food of the Egyptians. They used it to make bread. They also sold a lot of their wheat throughout the Middle East helping the Egyptians to become rich.
- Flax – Flax was used to make linen cloth for clothing. This was the main type of cloth used by the Egyptians.
- Papyrus – Papyrus was a plant that grew along the shores of the Nile. The Ancient Egyptians found many uses for this plant including paper, baskets, rope, and sandals.
Around September of each year the Nile would overflow its banks and flood the surrounding area. This sounds bad at first, but it was one of the most important events in the life of the Ancient Egyptians. The flood brought rich black soil and renewed the farmlands.
Ancient Egyptian philosophical thought was closely related to their religious beliefs. Egyptian society was based on the concept of Ma’at, which means balance and order. Ideal conduct for ancient Egyptians was both practical and religious. Texts such as the Book of the Dead stress the virtues of charity, benevolence, prudence, social justice, mercy, and the love of intellectual pursuits. Moral thoughts and desires were as important as moral actions. The ancient Egyptians believed that man was composed of three parts: the body, spirit, and soul. The fate of the soul was determined by its actions during life, whether good or bad, and the amulets, prayers, and gifts offered to gain the favor of the gods.
Due to the scarcity of wood, the two predominant building materials used in ancient Egypt were sun-baked mud brick and stone, mainly limestone, but also sandstone and granite in considerable quantities. From the Old Kingdom onward, stone was generally reserved for tombs and temples, while bricks were used even for royal palaces, fortresses, the walls of temple precincts and towns, and for subsidiary buildings in temple complexes. The core of the pyramids consisted of locally quarried stone, mudbricks, sand or gravel. For the casing stones were used that had to be transported from father away, predominantly white limestone from Tura and red granite from upper Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian houses were made out of mud collected from the Nile river. It was placed in molds and left to dry in the hot sun to harden for use in construction.
Many Egyptian towns have disappeared because they were situated near the cultivated area of the Nile Valley and were flooded as the river bed slowly rose during the millennia, or the mud bricks of which they were built were used by peasants as fertilizer. Others are inaccessible, new buildings having been erected on ancient ones. Fortunately, the dry, hot climate of Egypt preserved some mud brick structures. Examples include the village Deir al-Madinah, the Middle Kingdom town at Kahun, and the fortresses at Buhen and Mirgissa. Also, many temples and tombs have survived because they were built on high ground unaffected by the Nile flood and were constructed of stone.
Thus, ancient Egyptian architecture is based mainly on religious monuments, massive structures characterized by thick, sloping walls with few openings, possibly echoing a method of construction used to obtain stability in mud walls. In a similar manner, the incised and flatly modeled surface adornment of the stone buildings may have derived from mud wall ornamentation. Although the use of the arch was developed during the fourth dynasty, all monumental buildings are post and lintel constructions, with flat roofs constructed of huge stone blocks supported by the external walls and the closely spaced columns.
Exterior and interior walls, as well as the columns and piers, were covered with hieroglyphic and pictorial frescoes and carvings painted in brilliant colors. Many motifs of Egyptian ornamentation are symbolic, such as the scarab, or sacred beetle, the solar disk, and the vulture. Other common motifs include palm leaves, the papyrus plant, and the buds and flowers of the lotus. Hieroglyphs were inscribed for decorative purposes as well as to record historic events or spells. In addition, these pictorial frescoes and carvings allow us to understand how the Ancient Egyptians lived, statuses, wars that were fought and their beliefs. This was especially true when exploring the tombs of Ancient Egyptian officials in recent years.
Ancient Egyptian temples were aligned with astronomically significant events, such as solstices and equinoxes, requiring precise measurements at the moment of the particular event. Measurements at the most significant temples may have been ceremonially undertaken by the Pharaoh himself.
The word ‘mastaba’ comes from the Arabic word for a bench of mud, and when seen from a distance a mastaba does resemble a bench. Historians speculate that the Egyptians may have borrowed architectural ideas from Mesopotamia since at the time they were both building similar structures.
The above-ground structure of a mastaba is rectangular in shape with inward-sloping sides and a flat roof. The exterior building materials were initially bricks made of sun dried mud, which was readily available from the Nile River. Even after more durable materials like stone came into use, all but the most important monumental structures were built from the easily available mud bricks. Mastabas were often about four times as long as they were wide, and many rose to at least 30 feet in height. The mastaba was built with a north-south orientation, which the Ancient Egyptians believed was essential for access to the afterlife. This above-ground structure had space for a small offering chapel equipped with a false door. Priests and family members brought food and other offerings for the soul, or ba, of the deceased because Egyptians believed that the soul had to be maintained in order to continue to exist in the afterlife.
Inside the mastaba, a deep chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone and bricks. The burial chambers were cut deep, until they passed the bedrock, and were lined with wood. A second hidden chamber called a “serdab” (سرداب), from the Persian word for “cellar”, was used to store anything that may have been considered essential for the comfort of the deceased in the afterlife, such as beer, cereal, grain, clothes, and precious items. The mastaba housed a statue of the deceased that was hidden within the masonry for its protection. High up the walls of the serdab were small openings that would allow the ba to leave and return to the body (represented by the statue); Ancient Egyptians believed the ba had to return to its body or it would die. These openings “were not meant for viewing the statue but rather for allowing the fragrance of burning incense, and possibly the spells spoken in rituals, to reach the statue”.
DJOSER’S STEP PYRAMID
The Pyramid of Djoser (or Zoser), or step pyramid (kbhw-ntrw in Egyptian) is an archeological remain in the Saqqaranecropolis, Egypt, northwest of the city of Memphis. It was built during the 27th century BC for the burial of Pharaoh Djoser byImhotep, his vizier. It is the central feature of a vast mortuary complex in an enormous courtyard surrounded by ceremonial structures and decoration.
This first Egyptian pyramid consisted of six mastabas (of decreasing size) built atop one another in what were clearly revisions and developments of the original plan. The pyramid originally stood 62 metres (203 ft) tall, with a base of 109 m × 125 m (358 ft × 410 ft) and was clad in polished white limestone. The step pyramid (or proto-pyramid) is considered to be the earliest large-scale cut stone construction, although the pyramids at Caral in South America are contemporary and the nearby enclosure known as Gisr el-mudir would seem to predate the complex.
The Djoser complex is surrounded by a wall of light Tura limestone 10.5m high. The wall design recalls the appearance of 1st Dynasty tombs, with the distinctive paneled construction known as the palace façade, which imitates bound bundles of reeds. The overall structure imitates mudbrick. The wall is interrupted by 14 doors, however only one entrance, in the south corner of the east façade, is functional for the living. This arrangement resembles Early Dynastic funerary enclosures at Abydos in which the entrance was on the east side. The remaining doors are known as false doors, and were meant for the king’s use in the afterlife. They functioned as portals through which the king’s ka could pass between life and the afterlife. The functional door at the southeast end of the complex leads to a narrow passageway that connects to the roofed colonnade.
Outside the enclosure wall, Djoser’s complex is completely surrounded by a trench dug in the underlying rock. The trench measures 750 m long and 40 m wide and is a rectangle on a North-South axis. The walls of the trench were originally decorated with niches and its function seems to have been to make entry into the complex more difficult.
Roofed colonnade entrance
The roofed colonnade led from the enclosure wall to the south of the complex. A passageway with a limestone ceiling constructed to look as though it was made from whole tree trunks led to a massive stone imitation of two open doors. Beyond this portal was a hall with twenty pairs of limestone columns composed of drum shaped segments built to look like bundles of plant stems and reaching a height of 6.6 m. The columns were not free-standing, but were attached to the wall by masonry projections. Between the columns on both sides of the hall were small chambers, which some Egyptologists propose may have been for each of the provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt. At the end of the colonnade was the transverse hypostyle room with eight columns connected in pairs by blocks of limestone. This led to the South Court.
The South Court is a large court between the South Tomb and the pyramid. Within the court are curved stones thought to be territorial markers associated with the Heb-sed festival, an important ritual completed by Egyptian kings (typically after 30 years on the throne) to renew their powers. These would have allowed Djoser to claim control over all of Egypt, while its presence in the funerary complex would allow Djoser to continue to benefit from the ritual in the afterlife. At the southern end of the court was a platform approached by steps. It has been suggested that this was a platform for the double throne. This fits into the theory proposed by Barry Kemp, and generally accepted by many, that suggests the whole step pyramid complex symbolizes the royal palace enclosure and allows the king to eternally perform the rituals associated with kingship. At the very south of the South Court lay the South Tomb.
The South Tomb has been likened to the satellite pyramids of later Dynasties, and has been proposed to house the ka in the afterlife. Another proposal is that it may have held the canopic jar with the king’s organs, but this does not follow later trends where the canopic jar is found in the same place as the body. These proposals stem from the fact that the granite burial vault is much too small to have facilitated an actual burial.
The substructure of the South Tomb is entered through a tunnel-like corridor with a staircase that descends about 30m before opening up into the pink granite burial chamber. The staircase then continues west and leads to a gallery that imitates the blue chambers below the step pyramid.
Current evidence suggests that the South Tomb was finished before the pyramid. The symbolic king’s inner palace, decorated in blue faience, is much more complete than that of the pyramid. Three chambers of this substructure are decorated in blue faience to imitate reed-mat facades, just like the pyramid. One room is decorated with three finely niche reliefs of the king, one depicting him running the Heb-sed. Importantly, Egyptian builders chose to employ their most skilled artisans and depict their finest art in the darkest, most inaccessible place in the complex. This highlights the fact that this impressive craftsmanship was not meant for the benefit of the living but was meant to ensure the king had all the tools necessary for a successful afterlife.
The superstructure of the Step Pyramid is six steps and was built in six stages, as might be expected with an experimental structure. The pyramid began as a square mastaba (one should note that this designation as a mastaba is contended for several reasons) (M1) which was gradually enlarged, first evenly on all four sides (M2) and later just on the east side (M3). The mastaba was built up in two stages, first to form a four-stepped structure (P1) and then to form a six-stepped structure (P2), which now had a rectangular base on an east-west axis. The fact that the initial mastaba was square has led many to believe that the monument was never meant to be a mastaba, as no other known mastabas had ever been square. When the builders began to transform the mastaba into the four step pyramid, they made a major shift in construction. Like in the construction of the mastaba, they built a crude core of rough stones and then cased them in fine limestone with packing in between. The major difference is that in mastaba construction they laid horizontal courses, but for the pyramid layers, they built in accretion layers that leaned inwards, while using blocks that were both bigger and higher quality. Much of the rock for the pyramid was likely quarried from the construction of the great trench. It is widely accepted that ramps would have been used to raise heavy stone to construct the pyramid, and many plausible models have been suggested. Apparatuses like rollers in which the heavy stone could be placed and then rolled were employed in transport.
Under the step pyramid is a labyrinth of tunneled chambers and galleries that total nearly 6 km in length and connect to a central shaft 7 m square and 28 m deep. These spaces provide room for the king’s burial, the burial of family members, and the storage of goods and offerings. The entrance to the 28 m shaft was built on the north side of the pyramid, a trend that would remain throughout the Old Kingdom. The sides of the underground passages are limestone inlaid with blue faience tile to replicate reed matting. These “palace façade” walls are further decorated by panels decorated in low relief that show the king participating in the Heb-sed. Together these chambers constitute the funerary apartment that mimicked the palace and would serve as the living place of the royal ka. On the east side of the pyramid eleven shafts 32 m deep were constructed and annexed to horizontal tunnels for the royal harem (The existence of this “harem” is debated). These were incorporated into the preexisting substructure as it expanded eastward. In the storerooms along here over 40,000 stone vessels were found, many of which predate Djoser. These would have served Djoser’s visceral needs in the afterlife. An extensive network of underground galleries was located to the north, west and south of the central burial chamber and crude horizontal magazines were carved into these.
The burial chamber was a vault constructed of four courses of well-dressed granite. It had one opening, which was sealed with a 3.5 ton block after the burial. No body was recovered as the tomb had been extensively robbed. Lauer believes that a burial chamber of alabaster existed before the one of granite. He found interesting evidence of limestone blocks with five pointed stars in low relief that were likely on the ceiling, indicating the first occurrence of what would become a tradition. The king sought to associate himself with the eternal North Stars that never set so as to ensure his rebirth and eternity.
North Temple and Serdab Court
The northern (funerary/mortuary) temple was on the north side of the pyramid and faced the north stars, which the king wished to join in eternity. This structure provided a place in which the daily rituals and offerings to the dead could be performed, and was the cult center for the king. To the east of the temple is the serdab, which is a small enclosed structure that housed the ka statue. The king’s ka inhabited the ka statue in order to benefit from daily ceremonies like the opening of the mouth, a ceremony that allowed him to breathe and eat, and the burning of incense. He witnessed these ceremonies through two small eye holes cut in the north wall of the serdab. This temple appears on the north side of the pyramid throughout the Third Dynasty, as the king wishes to go north to become one of the eternal stars in the North Sky that never set. In the fourth Dynasty, when there is a religious shift to an emphasis on rebirth and eternity achieved through the sun, the temple is moved to the east side of the temple where the sun rises, so that through association the king may be reborn every day.
The Heb-sed court is rectangular and parallel to the South Courtyard. It was meant to provide a space in which the king could perform the Heb-sed ritual in the afterlife. Flanking the east and west sides of the court are the remains of two groups of chapels, many of which are dummy buildings, of three different architectural styles. At the north and south ends there are three chapels with flat roves and no columns. The remaining chapels on the west side are decorated with fluted columns and capitals flanked by leaves. Each of the chapels has a sanctuary accessed by a roofless passage with walls that depict false doors and latches. Some of these buildings have niches for statues. Egyptologists believe that these buildings were related to the important double coronation of the king during the Heb-sed.