Construction in Ancient Egypt
by The Egyptian Government
There is consensus among historians and Egyptologists that the ancient Egyptians were the first builders ever known to man; they taught humanity how to design and erect buildings; thus laying grounds for human civilization, urbanization and man's settlement in a specific homeland of his own for the first time in history.
Great achievements with simple tools
Ancient Egyptians actually reached unmatched high levels in architectural design and construction engineering. Even at present it is still hard to conceive how they could have all these buildings and structures erected with such high level of perfection and precision, using only primitive and naive tools far incomparable with modern machinery and equipment. Even a layman would think that ancient Egyptians' knowledge of theoretical and applied sciences was as advanced as ours today. However, their knowledge was purely experimental and their tools so simple. These mainly consisted of a builder's thread to delineate vertical lines, an angle, a measuring arm (52cm-long) and a straight edge. With these primitive tools, however, they could make schematic drawings, plans and cross-sections for their colossal but very fine structures that still astound the world. Looking at the existing Pharaonic monuments, we should keep aside our conception of today's technological advancement. At that early time in history, stone blocks were molded with solid stones, copper or bronze tools. Courses of block work, column bodies and crowns, beams and ceilings were hoisted to the required level over mud and earth ramps up to the top of sand heaps adjacent to walls. Lifting devices used consisted of wooden gliders, rollers, ropes and levers. Well-trained teams of workers rowed stone-carrying boats across the Nile, then pulling the huge boulders overland to their destination. The process demanded backbreaking efforts and considerable endurance and patience on the part of huge numbers of workers and other staff, working in harmony and unison. Undoubtedly this was a significant success factor for ancient Egyptian architects.
At present, one can easily appreciate the aesthetic and artistic value of ancient Egyptian temples and tombs with their copious ornaments, mind-boggling artistic elements carved out with exceptional creativity. Ancient Egyptian buildings reflected builders conception of things as well as the needs of the society. In building their tombs and temples, ancient Egyptians put to good use their wealth of knowledge and creative genius; almost in the same way modern nations focus their attention on improving their technological and professional capabilities. With ancient Egyptians, construction was an unceasing practice. Under the reign of the one and same king, and often several times, houses of deities were rebuilt or expanded, with mural decorations refurbished or completed under orders of the king, whose duty was to have temples erected or renovated.
Construction and Religious Rituals
With ancient Egyptians, construction was inseparably associated with religious rituals. Temples and tombs figured high within the main religious rituals. Certain ancient Egyptian words were used to describe architectural drawings, foundations and construction works well as the purpose of religious building. Indeed, buildings themselves with their form and decorations were stone incarnation representations of religion and rituals. According to ancient Egyptians beliefs, such buildings, made of very solid materials, had the power of giving life through the magic of simulation in this world and immortality in the after life, even if no religious rituals were performed there. According to some texts, a temple, with its contents, is a miniature of the world of the dead. Accordingly, certain parts of the tombs were shaped like houses and temples.
The pyramid may be compared to the first hill where the sun was first born and the corridors of the Valley of Kings to those existing in the nether world. Construction supervisors and scholars in charge of the rituals as well as master builders used to perform magic rituals ordered by the royal decree to erect royal tombs and temples. Pursuant to royal permission and with due regard for all prevailing conventions and the nature of the land, as well as astrological considerations; they could define the orientation and location of the building. Meanwhile, technical aspects and rituals required for the construction process were prepared. Visible components such as architectural and construction works were as important as invisible ones such as burial of offerings and sacrificial animals and re-using rocks carved out of other sacred places. In fact, ancient Egyptians used funerary inscriptions and scenes of religious rituals and afterlife mainly for religious purposes rather than for mere decoration. Inscriptions and paintings were laid in endless rows on the walls of temples, courtyards, and rooms depending on their religious use. Examples included stars portrayed on ceilings, swamp lotuses on ceiling cornices, solar snakes, celestial eagles, with rows of water and land spirits below. The famous Egyptian cornice on top of doors, temple gates, towers and rooms were stone geometrical forms of stone, while sets of inscriptions on the upper parts of temple walls were replicas of arches earlier used. With such astounding genius of harmonizing materials, location, paintings and ornamentation with worldly needs and religious rituals, the ancient Egyptian architect could create magnificent symmetrical and highly impressive masterpieces.
Building and the Status of Stone
Ancient Egyptians used two words for stones; one to denote precious stones, such as turquoise and emerald brought in small bags from eastern mines, red carnelian from Nubia and lapis lazuli from Asia.
Semi-precious stones were used most adroitly in making amulets or inlaid into wood or gold. The other type was stone blocks used by sculptors and builders. These were found in plenty, especially lime stone. Rough stones were used in building interior walls and foundations, while fine stones, cut out with special care, were used in decorating main walls or erecting colossal temples. Yellow limestone was brought from Al-Silsila Mount, white limestone from Tura, and gray or red granite from Aswan and alabaster from central Egypt. The temple of Ramsis I, where almost all these types of stone were used, is the best illustration. Basalt was often used in paving roads and laying lower courses of buildings. Generally, the above-mentioned stones, in addition to diorite, marble and porphyries were used in making statues and utensils. Convertible diorite was used in making the famous Chephren statue. Many scarabaeuses and other objets d'arte were made of soft steatite.
Using robust copper or bronze chisels, Ancient Egyptians not only carved out limestone but also molded the hardest of rocks and stones and inscribed their fine hieroglyphics on them. Long before circa 4000 BC, their ancestors of the Modern Stone Age made beautiful utensils with only very simple tools.
Before the Iron Age, Ancient Egyptians had no steel tools to use in consummating such works that can not be made at present without special tools such as power drills. In this context, anthropologists argue that although working methods used by ancient Egyptians were slower and harder, they were no less effective than ours today. Studies of remaining ancient tools and illustrations of sculptors at work show that their working modalities were as follows: The overall design was made, using a global-shaped hammer of more solid stone, then cut with a saw and sanded out. Stone was carved with pointed-end tools and drilled with a tool counterpoised with a bag of pebbles. Cutting devices were made of hammered copper sharpened with an abrasive material like modern sandpaper.
It is worth mentioning that, trying to imitate ancient Egyptians, a young French artist attempted to use hammered copper in carving granite, but failed. However, he succeeded in creating precisely imitated pieces by using flint tools in granite sculpture. This may be the starting point to get more precise knowledge of the ancient Egyptian sculpture and to revive the ways of the great ancient Egyptians who showed the whole world how the art of sculpture and building should be.
Evolution of Pharaonic Architecture Ancient Egyptians knew how to fortify their cities and to surround their tombs with mud bricks and to build roomy temples; for almost in 3200 BC, ancient Egyptians started using sun-dried mud bricks on a large scale; a practice that persisted for long. However, the temples of the most famous deities were built with beautiful stone to stand time. However, in 2800 BC, a genius architect called Imhoutep thought of using stones in building premises of secret rituals where people lived in life and afterlife. Years after years many generations of skillful builders invented new architectural styles. They improved the style of building the pyramids and temples by using more stone blocks. The Old Kingdom witnessed setting of features, styles and decorations of ancient Egyptian architecture.
Most famous ancient Egyptian buildings
The pyramids have the deepest impression on the whole world's imagination. They are the greatest and most famous structures ever in human history. The extraordinary great pyramid was built by Cheops, son of Snefro. It covers an area of 13 feddans with an original height of 146, of which 9 meters at the top were lost. The four angles of the pyramid tilting at 51 and 52 degrees, face the original four directions.
It was coated with a bright layer of which only some traces still remain. The only entrance of the pyramid is located to the north side at a 16 meters height. The burial chamber, where the sarcophagus of the king lies bare, is made of granite. The ceiling of the chamber consists of nine granite blocks weighing some 400 tons. Above, there lie five separate niches, of which four have flat ceiling, while the upper one has a slanting one to avoid collapse under the weight of the overlying building.
Skillful ancient Egyptians later devised more sophisticated methods for transporting earth and stone to build defense structures. Through out Pharaonic eras, sensitive border were secured by strong defense means. From the early dynasties onward, royal palaces were surrounded with high clay walls erected around the outer courtyards of the tombs of princes in later eras. Other examples include Zoser wall in Sakkara and walls around certain sarcophagi. Oval-shaped fortresses were built with round supports in the same style used in earlier epochs. During the Middle Kingdom, more sophisticated defenses were erected, consisting of huge 5-6 meter-high, mud brick castles with dual walls, barriers and terraces and sometimes with mobile towers and trenches. Fourteen fortresses were ingeniously built on the islets and mountains lying between the first and third cataracts on the Nile by Snosert III, conqueror of Nubia. Another manifestation of this style can be seen in the Prince's Wall, built by Amnemhat I in Al-Tolombat Valley to fend off Asian invaders. Probably, that style of fortress building may be the origin of the myth widely circulated up to the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt, that an ancient Egyptian king had built a defense wall extending from Al Farama in Sinai to Heliopolis. To a large extent, the fortifications built by ancient Egyptians in that area are much similar to the Great Wall of China. Later, when ancient Egyptians conquered Asia during the Modern Kingdom, they adopted the common Asian fortress design known as the Migodol. This was almost similar to the European castles of the Middle Ages, with the outer walls fitted with arrow shooting ports and small towers. On the other hand, the gate of the temple of Ramsis II in Habu was only a replica of the Asian-Syrian-style fortress. Since time immemorial, Egyptian fortresses were totally invulnerable.
Edfu was the capital of the second region in Upper Egypt. It was a city of great importance and prosperity during the Old Kingdom. It owes its fame to a spacious Ptolemaic temple, one of the most famous religious monuments in Egypt. The 137-m-long, 79-m-wide and 36-m-high temple is still exceptionally almost intact, with its hall, columns, stairs and ceiling still maintaining their original state. In addition, its colors and decorations still look fresh. It is not even hard to imagine how all these looked like at the peak of their glory. At the entrance, there lie two obelisks in front of the entrance with statues in the courtyard. The hall of columns look so live that a visitor may think he will soon see priests with their immaculate robes strolling around the place.
"All I have seen in Thebes and all I have strongly admired on the west bank of the Nile was by no means comparable to the Karnak. No people, ancient or modern, had thought of art or architecture in such a superb and extensive scale or with such grandeur as the ancient Egyptians did. They made me think of people each 100-feet-tall," said Champillion. Al Karnak temple itself is a world where one may get totally lost. In order to perceive the overall system of these mind-boggling buildings, one should climb to the top of the first edifice built there. In front of the Temple, there lie the grand court of the Ethiopians and Sheshanq Gate. At the back there lies the great roofed hall built by Ramses, followed by Hetshepsut's obelisk and Thohomous' granite temple and ceremonial hall. In the background, there lie the eastern gate, with the Sacred Lake, ruins of Osiris tomb, the temple of the infant deity Khonso, faced by Eurgetes edifice and Opit temple.
Sanctification of obelisks dates back to the pre-dynasty period. The architectural use of obelisks all over ancient Egypt took its origins in Heliopolis especially during the Modern Kingdom. Ancient Egyptians used to build two obelisks, one at each side of the temple gate. In certain cases when the sun cult was restored, a single obelisk was erected at the center of the temple. An example of this design can be seen in the sacred stone in Heliopolis. Those obelisks with vertical sides and tilted pyramidal-shaped caps were reminders of the sun cult. Made of red Aswan granite, very little is yet known about how those structures were carved transported or erected. One obelisk could weigh hundreds of tons; the biggest unfinished one, still lying at its quarry in Aswan, weighs more than 1000 tons. At present, only five obelisks still survive in Egypt while more than 50 ones stand in the main squares in capitals of Europe and USA. On the 30th anniversary of building the Aswan High Dam, the international Dams Commission, selected the Aswan High Dam as the best hydraulic and engineering project in the 20th century This was the result of a study conducted over three years by a panel of prominent dam experts, involving a comparative analyze of 120 international dams all over the world. Although, the Aswan High Dam is not the highest and biggest in the world, yet, it is next to none, in terms of economic advantages in the fields of agriculture and industry, electric power generation, fish wealth development and protection against floods and draught. This international testimony proves that the Aswan High Dam is the best in the world