Time Travel in Architecture I: Egypt

Architecture Dated:  Jan. 21, 2016
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Architecture is always known to reflect time, society, culture, thoughts and beliefs of the people. It changes, deviates, adapts, adopts and emerges out to tell the story of every era of human civilization. Sometimes, the stories remain behind in the form of monuments or even ruins for a later generation to seek, explore and interpret. And, sometimes, these stories are truly mysterious. The story of Egypt, is one of such a kind.

HieroglyphsFigure 1: Hieroglyphs
Source: efdreams.com

Egyptian architecture is widely known for the pyramids that stand out as one of the wonders of the world. However, there are other mystic volumes of Egyptian architecture which were equally important during the time in which they were built. Architecture then and the socio-cultural structure went hand in hand. In fact, it can also be perceived as a sculpture of faith and ritualistic dogmas that was inhabited or even sometimes, in the case of pyramids, was left unoccupied. It is mysterious today, but however, interesting to know that the gravity of belief pushed an entire civilization to prepare for a new life in their present. The present, on the contrary, was nothing more than a meaningless virtual existence for them. The belief was a complete reversal of the concept of life and death as is commonly known today.

Pyramids of EgyptFigure 2: Pyramids of Egypt
Source: student.societyforscience.org

The banks of river Nile gave birth to a civilization more than 3000 years ago. This civilization belonged to Egypt, the gift of the Nile, and had a varied landscape ranging from fertile land along the river valley, to the arid followed by vast stretches of desert. The river met the end of its course at the Mediterranean Sea while the eastern part of the land merged with the Red Sea. Human beings adapted to the prevalent conditions of the climate, which was mostly warm and bright all throughout the year. And so did the architecture of the time.

Ancient map of EgyptFigure 3: Ancient map of Egypt
Source: womeninthebible.net

The bright light from the sun crept into the interiors though the roof slits and doors and there was no need for windows to brighten the interiors. As a result, most of the built spaces then would be deprived of any kind of fenestrations and would thus have long stretches of uninterrupted flat facades. In order to break the monotony of the built fabric, the Egyptians used these surfaces as a canvas for Hieroglyph. The roofs of buildings were flat since rains and storms would rarely occur. This, gave rise to socially responsive community spaces at the terrace levels of the dwellings and public buildings. The Nile Valley was the source of abundant clay suitable for the making bricks, which were sun dried. Reeds of palm and twigs were used in the trabeated construction as well to reinforce the walls and slabs. However, all this was only a small part of the architectural vocabulary of the Egyptians. Their architecture, as is known today, is symbolic of their faith and beliefs. It is nothing short of an epitome of iconic translations of thought, faith and social structure into architecture.

Tombs were the important component of Egyptian Architecture. Strangely enough, the tombs were believed to be the eternal home of the Egyptians. Based on their faith, there existed a covert kingdom in the west bank of the Nile where the sun would set at the end of each day. Thus the western bank of Nile became the land for the dead where tombs were built.

The tombs were of three types, namely, the Mastabas for the noblemen, the pyramids for the royal class, and the rock cut caves. The Mastabas were table-shaped tombs built above the ground covering an underground grave for the dead body. It was believed that every individual was born with the spirit of Ka or the spirit of the double. This meant that everybody would live a second life after their deaths. And thus, the tombs would not only be used to bury the dead, but also to store all precious possessions of the dead which were believed to be repossessed by the owner after a second birth. 1 The grave below connected with the superstructure by means of deep shafts and horizontal corridors would usually be rectangular in shape and would contain the Sarcophagus and a few rooms for storing the offerings for the spirit of Ka. Often, these rooms were elaborately decorated and the walls were carved with coloured relief work of important events in the life of the deceased. Small roofs were also constructed within the structure to keep the statues of the dead. There were known as ‘serdab’. 1 One such example of an Egyptian Mastaba would be the Mastaba of Aha at Saqqara built in the first dynasty. There were several hundreds of Mastabas that were constructed during the fourth and fifth Dynasties.

MastabasFigure 4: Mastabas
Source: egyptianreligionandburial.weebly.com

Next, and the most prominent fraction of Egyptian Architecture are the Pyramids built for the Pharaohs. These were massive un-inhabited structures that were built just to mark the end of mortal life of the Pharaohs of the Egyptian civilization. It is speculated, that the pyramids evolved from the Mastabas, first in the form of a stepped kind like the pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara, and then, followed by the bent type found at Dashur.1

It is fascinating to explore the level of detail and precision involved in the construction of these massive structures which were built more than 3000 years ago. While many mysteries of these mystic structures are yet to be scientifically justified, there are a few facts about the Pyramids that are noteworthy. The Egyptians used massive blocks of stone raised and arranged by means of levers and ramps made of earth and sand. These erected monuments were built as a part of a building complex comprising a temple and a room for storing the offerings and a channel from the Nile by which the funeral procession arrived. These gigantic tombs were built by thousands of slaves throughout the Pharaohs life time just for the gravity of belief in life after death. The Great Pyramid of Cheops, Giza, the Pyramid of Mykerinos and the Pyramid of Khafra, Giza are a few examples of the iconic and impactful architecture of the Egyptians.

Temple of KhonsFigure 5: Temple of Khons

Temples were an important component of Egyptian architecture, and they were of two kinds, cult and mortuary. While the cult temples were used for worship and rituals, the mortuary temples were used for ministration of the Pharos.1 Typically, an Egyptian temple would be characterised by hypostyle halls, series of chambers and a rather imposing entrance defined by huge walls known as Pylons. The temple of Isis and the temple of Khons are the most prominent example of Egyptian temples. Interestingly, the temple of Khons had a unique architectural definition created by its diminishing height of ceiling from the entrance to the sanctum thereby creating a sense of spatial tension between open, semi-open and closed spaces.

Last but not the least, the definition of Egyptian architecture is left incomplete without the tall Obelisks that point toward the sky. These were square in plan and were erected to show respect for the sun god, Ra. These became the symbol in architecture that gracefully defined the faith of the Egyptians who wholeheartedly worshiped the sun as the sole deity of mankind.1

Despite several studies and discoveries, the world of the Egyptians still remains a mystery for mankind. Perhaps the only clue that is left by them in our world is the remnants of their architecture and the world still awaits for the mystery to unfold. 

1Egyptian Architecture, G.K. Hiraskar, The Great Ages of World Architecture, 18th reprint, 2011
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