Mud bricks, stone blocks and plenty of symmetry

The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture
February 20, 2004

The nobel Parthenon, the great ziggurat at Ur, the assorted fora and follies of Rome are all well and good, but when it comes to ancient architecture, the Egyptians did it first and they did it best. In temples, tombs and pyramids, they expressed their fundamental belief in the victory of order over chaos, which, like the cycle of life and death, had been ordained at the creation of the world.

The magnitude and wizardry of this sacred architecture had much humbler origins in structures made of mud and reeds. Prehistoric pottery from Egypt depicts simple buildings with curved roofs and animal totems, which suggests that erecting shrines for the gods was already a recognised need in the Nilotic cultures. Throughout Egyptian history, sun-dried mud bricks were the basic construction material for all domestic and commercial buildings.

By about 2600BC, however, the Egyptians had learnt to quarry, heave and pile up large stone blocks. They transformed the features of early reed and mud-brick shrines into a distinctive architectural language that was literally set in stone for the next 3,000 years.

It seems possible that the Egyptologist Dieter Arnold knows more about ancient Egyptian architecture than the Egyptians did themselves, and Ancient Egyptian Architecture adopts an encyclopaedic format to present his knowledge of building techniques, architectural styles, and individual sites and monuments.

Although the "A to Z" arrangement of the book requires the reader to have some foreknowledge of the subject, the text (which has been revised and expanded from the 1994 German original) is clearly and engagingly written, and supported by 350 well-chosen plans, drawings, and photographs. More than 600 entries cover building materials and architectural features, such as the cavetto cornice that flares above the top of doorways or pylons.

Entries are also devoted to entire archaeological sites, tombs and monuments, or types of buildings. Ample cross-referencing mitigates the fact that some entries are less than obvious - "ambulatory temple", for example, or "lowering heavy loads".

The powerful impact of Egyptian architecture is based not only on size and grandeur but also on the technical accomplishment of the structures. The deterioration of sun-dried brick over time means that the archaeological record is biased towards stone architecture. The Egyptians were biased towards stone architecture, too, in that stone-built temples were the fullest expression of the art form.

Paradoxically, temples were out of bounds to almost everyone, and high mud-brick enclosure walls shielded them from public view except for the very tops of massive pylon gateways and the pointed tips of obelisks that were erected in pairs in the forecourts. Inside, the combination of pylons, columns, and cavetto cornices was meant for the gods but has filtered down to us, replicated in "Egyptian revival" style.

Take it as another mark of success for Egyptian architecture, which would be pleased to see symmetry triumph in such perpetuity. To the Egyptians, formal stability and continuity outweighed fleeting stylistic changes, and it was a weight that the stout columns of Karnak could easily support.

Christina Riggs is curator of Egyptology, Manchester Museum, University of Manchester.

The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture

Author - Dieter Arnold
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 304
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 86064 465 1

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