Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations 

For more than 2,000 years, Egypt was one of the richest and most civilized lands in the ancient world. Much of what we know about this great civilization has been learned from its art and architecture. In particular, the ruins of tombs and temples have provided a valuable record of Egyptian life.

The Egyptians were extremely religious, and their belief in life after death was an important part of their culture. They believed that, in order for the spirit to live on, the dead person's body had to be preserved, or mummified, and buried along with supplies of food and drink, tools and utensils, valued possessions—all the things the person had needed or enjoyed on earth. The higher the person's station in life, the more extensive the preparations for the afterlife. Kings and other wealthy persons had elaborate tombs built. Sculptures and wall paintings in the tombs were also created for use in the next life.

The gods, too, needed proper care. Their temples were built as great palaces, with stables, orchards and farmlands, and staffs of attendants. Daily rituals and seasonal festivals were pictured on the temple walls. Rulers prided themselves on what they had done to improve the shrines of the gods.

The Early Dynastic Period (3000-2650 B.C.)

Egyptian history is usually divided according to the 30 dynasties (series of rulers of the same family) listed by an early historian. The first dynastic period began about 3000 B.C. with the legendary ruler Menes (also called Narmer), who united Egypt under one government and founded the capital city of Memphis.

A carved slate slab, or palette, made about 3000, shows Narmer, his raised arm holding a club, about to crush the head of his enemy. In the Narmer palette the human form is portrayed in a way that became standard in Egyptian art. The head and legs are shown from the side, while the eye and shoulders are shown from the front.

The Old Kingdom (2650-2150 B.C.)

The first great period of Egyptian civilization, called the Old Kingdom, began during the rule of King Zoser. The advances of the period were due mainly to Imhotep, the king's first minister. He was a skilled architect, statesman, and scholar. He was probably the architect of the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The Step Pyramid was the first stone building in history and the first of the many pyramids to appear during the next 1,000 years.

The Step Pyramid was designed as a tomb for Zoser and members of his family. It was an unusual pyramid because of its broad terraces, or "steps." It consisted of seven rectangles, each rectangle smaller than the one beneath it. Within the rock was a well where the king was buried. He was surrounded by a maze of corridors and chambers that contained endless materials for his afterlife. More than 30,000 stone vessels—jugs, bowls, and vases--were buried in the chambers. This pyramid, about 200 feet (60 meters) tall, was the most important of a great number of buildings enclosed within a high wall. An entrance gate, a great court for the celebration of religious festivals, and a second tomb were built nearby. All these buildings were constructed from small blocks of limestone, a soft rock common to the region.

The form of the pyramid that we are familiar with developed quickly. The most important and famous pyramids are the three great pyramids at Giza, on the west bank of the Nile River. They were built between about 2660 and 2560 for the kings Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus. The pyramids were meant to house the pharaohs' bodies and serve as reminders of their almighty power.

Building the great pyramid of Cheops (2551-28) was a tremendous feat. The pyramid is so large that it could contain comfortably the entire Capitol building of Washington, D.C. The pyramid is made of about 2,300,000 blocks of finely cut limestone. These stones have an average weight of 2 1/2 tons. The largest stones were cut and floated almost 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) down the Nile to the pyramid site. With only the simplest of tools, the stones were dragged up earth ramps and set in place.

The pyramid, the tomb of the king, was only one part of a group of structures that formed the pyramid complex. Adjoining the pyramid on its eastern, or Nile, side was the pyramid temple, where the king was worshiped. From this temple a covered causeway led to the valley temple, which had access to the Nile. Clustered around the royal tombs or dug into the surrounding cliffs were smaller, flat-roofed tombs called mastabas that held the bodies of nobles. Though sometimes built of mud brick, the mastabas were more often of limestone. The sides of the buildings sloped inward. Within the long building only a small area was made into chapels for offerings and chambers to hold statues of the dead. Far below the surface a burial chamber was hollowed in the rock. After burial the shaft was filled with large stone blocks.

Parts of temples have been found, but only the temple dedicated to the sun at Abu-Gurab (near Giza) remains. It, too, was approached by a long passageway and surrounded by a high wall. Unlike all other Egyptian temples, much of this temple was open to the sun. The most important part of the building was its great center court containing an altar and an obelisk, sacred symbol of the sun. An obelisk is a four-sided pillar tapering to a miniature pyramid at the top. Usually an Egyptian obelisk was cut from one piece of stone, often covered with writings of the kings' triumphs.

Sculpture and Painting
One of the earliest and most typical of royal Egyptian sculptures is a statute of the great Zoser found in his pyramid at Saqqara. This life-size statue shows the sitting pharaoh staring straight ahead. For a long time, only such calm poses were popular in Egyptian sculpture.

Many royal sculptures of hard stone were intended for the inside of a tomb of a king. But we can still see the remains of some public monuments. The outstanding example of these larger works is the Great Sphinx at Giza. A huge sculpture with a lion's body and a human head, the Sphinx was carved from the natural rock of the site. It is as high as a modern seven-story building.

Smaller, brightly painted limestone sculptures were also made for the tomb. They usually showed the owner as a youthful man. Minor members of the royal family and many nobles had statues made of red granite and other hard stones, but these were expensive. At all times throughout the Old Kingdom wood was used for statues. It, too, was brightly painted. The eyes were often inlaid, giving the statue a lifelike appearance. Most officials had several statues made for their tombs.

Wall carving, or relief sculpture—sculpture carved to stand out from a background—decorated the walls of the pyramid temples and tombs. Scenes from daily life—sports, crafts, hunts—were carved in rows.

Much less painting than architecture and sculpture remains from this period. The interior walls of the tombs of noblemen were lined with plaster and then painted. In many ways wall carvings were similar to paintings. In both, figures were placed on the walls in rows, one on top of the other. The carefully drawn outline was filled in with even, unshaded colors. In this way the painted wall carvings looked very flat, as though the figures were cutouts pasted to the wall.

The Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.)

About 2150 the central Egyptian government seems to have fallen apart. Egypt once more became a series of separate states in great confusion. During this time little building or sculpture was done.

Eventually, about 2040, a central government was again organized under a strong king. King Mentuhotep II revived the architecture of the Old Kingdom. His tomb included a courtyard, terrace, temple, and the king's burial chamber at the end of a long passage that had been cut into the solid rock of the cliffs. The tomb had a highly original design that was copied centuries later for Queen Hatshepsut's famous temple. Though now badly damaged, Mentuhotep II's tomb is of great interest because it is the oldest remaining temple at Thebes, the chief city of the south.

With the rise of King Amenemhet I about 1991, Egypt entered one of its great periods. Amenemhet returned to the tradition of using the pyramid as the royal tomb. His pyramid was constructed at El Lisht, not far south of Memphis. In general form his pyramid and those of his successors followed the Old Kingdom style—valley temple, passageway, upper temple, and finally the pyramid itself.

But the newer pyramids were smaller and poorly constructed. Instead of the great stone blocks used earlier, these Middle Kingdom pyramids were often built of mud brick covered with limestone. The limestone was always stolen, and the brick pyramids crumbled into huge mounds. And, despite efforts to protect them, the royal burial chambers in these pyramids were all robbed.

In this period the best tombs built by wealthy nobles were cut into great rock cliffs. The most famous are at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt, on the east side of the Nile. The tombs have columned entryways and halls. The inside walls are covered with paintings and relief sculptures.

The sculpture of the Middle Kingdom was one of the greatest achievements of Egyptian art. The best works were the portrait sculptures of Sesostris III and Amenemhet III. For the first time in Egyptian history, kings were realistically represented as mortal men. These kings show the wear and tear of life; their faces are handsome but deeply lined, and they look sad and weary. Since they were thought of as god-kings, this realism was unusual. But only the faces were realistic; the bodies of these statues looked youthful, slender, and strong.

Huge statues of kings were produced at this time in granite and other hard stones. Some statues were so oversized that they could not fit inside the temples but had to be placed in the open air. Smaller royal statues were sometimes made in wood.

Some wood sculpture was done larger than life-size. Wooden models of boats and houses and even scenes of daily life were made to be placed in tombs for use in the afterlife. Statuettes of human and animal figures were made of ivory and semiprecious stones.

The sculpture ordered by the nobility was similar to royal work. Harder stones were used more than limestone. Figures were shown in several new positions. Perhaps the most important was the cube, or block, statue. A man (never a woman) was shown seated on the ground with his knees drawn up against his chest. His entire body was wrapped in a great cloak. The sculpture gives the impression of a head coming out of a great cube.

The New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.)

The Middle Kingdom came to an end with a series of foreign invasions. Soon after the beginning of the 16th century the last of the invaders were driven from Egypt. The new Egyptian kings were warriors, and they began conquering nearby states. Their conquests made Egypt the richest and most civilized power of the time, the ruler of a great empire. The empire was rich in gold, there were countless slaves, and money from tribute added to the wealth. This explains the richness of New Kingdom architecture.

One of the important changes in architecture was the disappearance of the pyramid. The pyramids had failed to protect the royal burial from robbery. Kings and queens were now buried in tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. Long corridors with relief sculpture and religious writing on the walls led to a hall with columns. There the royal mummy rested in a great stone coffin. The temples were built separately on the edge of the desert, facing the Nile. Even today their ruins are a beautiful sight.

The most beautiful of these is the temple of Deir el-Bahri. It was built about 1470 by the famous Queen Hatshepsut. A series of terraces was surrounded by colonnades and connected by ramps. This temple was built entirely of fine limestone. In contrast, the nearby temple of Ramses II was built (about 1250) entirely of sandstone--a coarse material that is easy to work with.

The latest—and best preserved—of these temples was constructed for Ramses III about 1180. Known as Medinet Habu, it is really a group of buildings and includes a palace, smaller temples, and houses for priests. It was surrounded by a great brick wall. The temple itself had two great courts that led to a dimly lit hall completely filled with columns. Behind the hall, which was called a hypostyle hall, was the sanctuary where the statue of the god was placed. This dark, innermost section of the temple was open only to the king and the priests.

Across the Nile at Karnak the temple of Amun, the king of the gods, was rebuilt. It was enlarged into the largest temple ever known. Built mostly of sandstone, it was not constructed according to a fixed plan. Instead it was added to and changed by almost every king during the New Kingdom. Throughout the period Egyptian architects worked on a large scale. A long avenue of sandstone sphinxes connected the great temple at Karnak to a much smaller temple at Luxor, a few miles away.

The most spectacular building of the age is the famous temple of Abu Simbel, cut entirely from the rock. It was built by Ramses II about 1250. Four huge seated statues of the pharaoh, each nearly 70 feet (21 meters) high, were carved in front of the temple. (About A.D. 1850 a traveler described standing on the lip of one of the statues and not being able to reach the eyebrows!) The inside plan of the temple copied the design of the usual Egyptian temple, on a smaller scale.

Private (or nonroyal) tombs of the New Kingdom were built all over the country. The major ones of the nobility were at Thebes and were rock-cut. They are more interesting for their decoration—reliefs and paintings--than for their architecture. As in all periods, the private homes were built of mud and then whitewashed. They were surrounded by gardens with pools of water.

Sculpture and Painting
Much sculpture has survived from the New Kingdom. No one knows the names of the artists because Egyptian artists never signed their works.

King Amenhotep III (1391-1353) was a great patron of the arts. Two gigantic statues, called the Colossi of Memnon, on the west side of the Nile at Thebes mark the site of his mortuary temple. The statues, which show the king seated on his throne, are more than 60 feet (18 meters) tall. But the king was not interested only in erecting huge monuments. The art of his reign is remarkable most of all for its elegance and variety.

Egyptian art was becoming more realistic, moving away from the standard ways of representing the human form. For example, a sculpture done late in Amenhotep's rule shows the king in foreign dress. Also, for the first time in the long history of Egyptian art, certain flaws of the ruler's body are clearly depicted. He is shown as a plump, aging man.

Statues became even more realistic during the reign (1353-35) of Amenhotep III's son Akhenaten (originally Amenhotep IV). Instead of worshiping many gods, Akhenaten worshiped Aten as the only god of Egypt. His belief may have had something to do with the revolution in Egyptian art. The statues of Akhenaten made early in his reign portrayed him with a long, thin face and a generally weak body. It was a realistic--and shocking--way to represent the god-king of Egypt. His queen, Nefertiti, and his many daughters were also shown in this true-to-life and unflattering style.

Akhenaten created a new capital city called Akhetaten (modern-day Tell el-Amârna). A group of heads—some made of plaster—was found there in the studio of a sculptor. They were not engraved with names, but some of them were royal portraits. Among them was a famous limestone portrait of Nefertiti. In these heads the individual features of the person were shown. The great contribution of the brief period of Amarna art was the development of portraiture.

After the death of Akhenaten, rulers went back to the less personal and less realistic style of sculpture.

Relief sculpture in the New Kingdom shows great quality and originality. Many new subjects were introduced. For example, one temple relief depicts a voyage to Punt, with carvings of the incense trees, animals, and people of that distant land. In the same temple and also at Luxor, we find scenes of the birth of the king. Lively and long reliefs of the celebration of certain religious festivals can also be seen in temples.

Painting was more often used in tombs than relief sculpture. Painting in royal tombs was chiefly limited to outline drawings of religious rites. It was rather in the tombs of wealthy noblemen that the best pictures were painted. The paintings in Theban tombs were so fine that the New Kingdom has been called the Golden Age of Egyptian painting. As in earlier decorations, figures were painted in rows, one above the other. At the beginning of the period the figures were painted in bright colors on a sky-blue background. Later in the New Kingdom, as the style of painting grew freer and more natural, neutral or light-gray backgrounds were used in the tomb paintings.

A very important development took place in temple relief sculpture. To glorify the king, the courtyard walls were covered with complicated battle and hunting scenes. The large figures were brightly painted against white backgrounds.

The Late Periods (712-332 B.C.)

The centuries following the close of the New Kingdom (11th to 8th centuries) produced little beyond a weak continuation of New Kingdom traditions. Egypt was divided into two or more nations much of this time.

This decline ended suddenly in the late 8th century with the Kushite conquest of Egypt. The Kushites had come into Egypt from the south and had long been under Egyptian influence. A revival of the arts took place in Thebes in the 7th century. Not much of the Kushite architecture survives in Egypt, but architecture in the Egyptian style survives in the Kushite homeland in the Sudan. There the pyramid was again used as the royal tomb. These late pyramids were midgets compared with the earlier Egyptian ones.

Between 664 and 525 the capital was moved to Saïs in the Delta (northern Egypt). No major architecture of the time survives. Even royal tombs of the period are unknown. The same is true for the period of Persian conquest (525-404). Dynasty XXX (378-341) was the last native dynasty of Egypt. It has left a few shrines and hard stone reliefs.

The Ptolemaic Period (332-30 B.C.)

In 331 B.C., Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, the King of Macedonia. He founded a new capital city, Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast. After Alexander's death in 323, Egypt fell to one of his generals, Ptolemy, who founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The Ptolemaic rulers governed Egypt for 300 years, carrying on the traditions of the pharaohs. Huge temples were constructed at state expense. Indeed, most of the surviving temples of Egypt belong to the Ptolemaic period. Famous ones remain at Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Dendera. They were built on the site of earlier temples, the remains of which were used in the new buildings.

In plan and general form these late temples show little difference from earlier work. But there were many changes in details. Sandstone remained the most common building material. Sandstone was soft and could be easily carved. On top of columns clusters of flowers were carved and brightly painted. The walls of the temples were covered with religious and mythological scenes.

The Ptolemaic rulers had themselves represented in many standing statues. In style these statues were similar to those of the ancient pharaohs. The results were often ordinary. The period also saw the production of many so-called sculptors' models—small limestone statues and reliefs of gods, parts of buildings, and parts of the human body.

The last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt was Cleopatra VII, one of the most famous figures of ancient times. When her forces, combined with Mark Antony's, lost to Octavius Caesar (later Augustus) at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Egypt lost its independence and became a province of the Roman Empire. Although the Romans continued to create architecture in the old Egyptian style—at Philae and Dendera, for example—Egyptian art had lost its vitality, and the ancient traditions gradually passed away.

John D. Cooney
Curator of Egyptian and Classical Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Reviewed by Lawrence M. Berman
Department of Ancient Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art

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