Introduction | Architecture | Painting and Low-Relief Sculpture | Sculpture | Conclusion | Bibliography

Egyptian Architecture

Ancient Egyptian culture had a strong belief in the afterlife, so burials were extremely important. Tombs were thought to be the home of the dead when they weren't in the afterlife, so much importance was placed on them. Funerary structures took on different forms over the centuries, the main two categories being mud and stone.
Originally, bodies were buried in mud buildings called mastabas. MastabaThese buildings were rectangular or square and had flat roofs and sloped sides. The body would be buried underneath the mastaba, in tunnels. These would be built in complexes, which would include a chapel. Mastabas were very ancient customs, being used even in predynastic times, and those not important enough for pyramids would continue using mastabas following pyramids becoming popular. Pyramids began with 'step-pyramids' In the third dynasty, 2650 BC, king Djoser's architect Imhotep decided to build up from the mastaba in a triangular staircase towards the heavens. This not only cemented Djoser and his vizier's place in history, but was thought to be furthering his quest to make it to the afterlife.
Djoser's Step-PyramidAfter this initial experiment, pyramids were refined to have the flat, smooth sides most people today would associate with Egyptian pyramids. Pyramid building took place on a large scale with one being built for all important Pharaohs until about 1814 BC when the last known pyramid was built. The largest and most impressive pyramids were built at Giza. The only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World, they are impossible to miss. Unfortunately, they were not only an impressive reflection of the late Pharaohs, they were also a very clear signal to tomb robbers. As being buried with valuables was a fundamental part of the culture, it is not surprising that pyramids were raided extensively since construction.

The pyramids of Giza

By the time of the New Kingdom, it was decided that the large expense of the pyramids wasn't really worth it with looting being so prevalent. At this time, man-made stone structures pointing to the sky were replaced by natural ones: mountains. Tombs were carved into stone in several locations, most notably the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. These tombs were much more hidden, and we are still making new discoveries there today.



Pyramid of Djoser

Stone in limestone casing
Base: 109 x 125m
Height: 62m
Third Dynasty, 2650 BC
Saqqara, northwest of Memphis


Djoser's pyramid was the first pyramid constructed in ancient Egypt. While most mastabas of the time were a single level, Djoser's vizier and architect Imhotep built a series of smaller mastabas on top of each other in stone, and then covered it with a casing of limestone.

The Artist's Work:

The pyramid strongly resembles a staircase leading into the sky, and its purpose was to allow Djoser to ascend into heaven and return when he pleased. Mass labor was used to transport, cut, sand and place all of the stone used to build this six-tiered monument, but the plan and idea were Imhotep's alone. He is considered to be the first architect in history to be known by name.


At first glance, this pyramid looks unimpressive. Having seen so many pictures of the huge pyramids at Giza, this one seems small and almost crude. However, once I found out that it was the first of its kind, and was once covered in limestone, I began to be more impressed. I imagine all of Egypt was impressed when out of the plain mastabas rose a giant monument, a shining stairway to heaven. I am also fascinated by the parallels with pre-Columbian pyramids.