THE origin of Egyptian architecture, like that of Egyptian history, is lost in the mists of antiquity. The remains of all, or almost all, other styles of architecture enable us to trace their rude beginnings, their development, their gradual progress up to a culminating point, and thence their slow but certain decline; but the earliest remains of the constructions of the Egyptians show their skill as builders at the height of its perfection, their architecture highly developed, and their sculpture at its very best, if not indeed at the commencement of its decadence; for some of the statuary of the age of the Pyramids was never surpassed in artistic effect by the work of a later era. It is impossible for us to conceive of such scientific skill as is evidenced in the construction of the great pyramids, or such artistic power as is displayed on the walls of tombs of the same date, or in the statues found in them, as other than the outcome of a vast accumulation of experience, the attainment of which must imply the lapse of very long periods of time since the nation which produced [15] such works emerged from barbarism. It is natural, where so remote an antiquity is in question, that we should feel a great difficulty, if not an impossibility, in fixing exact dates, but the whole tendency of modern exploration and research is rather to push back than to advance the dates of Egyptian chronology, and it is by no means impossible that the dynasties of Manetho, after being derided as apocryphal for centuries, may in the end be accepted as substantially correct. Manetho was an Egyptian priest living in the third century B.C., who wrote a history of his country, which he compiled from the archives of the temples. His work itself is lost, but Josephus quotes extracts from it, and Eusebius and Julius Africanus reproduced his lists, in which the monarchs of Egypt are grouped into thirty-four dynasties. These, however, do not agree with one another, and in many cases it is difficult to reconcile them with the records displayed in the monuments themselves.

The remains with which we are acquainted indicate four distinct periods of great architectural activity in Egyptian history, viz.: (1) the period of the fourth dynasty, when the Great Pyramids were erected (probably 3500 to 3000 B.C.); (2) the period of the twelfth dynasty, to which belong the remains at Beni-Hassan; (3) the period of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties, when Thebes was in its glory, which is attested by the ruins of Luxor and Karnak; and (4) the Ptolemaic period, of which there are the remains at Denderah, Edfou, and Philæ. The monuments that remain are almost exclusively tombs and temples. The tombs are, generally speaking, all met with on the east or right bank of the Nile: among them must be classed those grandest and oldest monuments of Egyptian skill, the [16] Pyramids, which appear to have been all designed as royal burying-places. A large number of pyramids have been discovered, but those of Gizeh, near Cairo, are the largest and the best known, and also probably the oldest which can be authenticated.[1] The three largest pyramids are those of Cheops, Cephren, and Mycerinus at Gizeh (or, as the names are more correctly written, Suphis, Sensuphis, and Moscheris or Mencheris). These monarchs all belonged to the fourth dynasty, and the most probable date to be assigned to them is about 3000 B.C. The pyramid of Suphis is the largest, and is the one familiarly known as the Great Pyramid; it has a square base, the side of which is 760 feet long,[2] a height of 484 feet, and an area of 577,600 square feet. In this pyramid the angle of inclination of the sloping sides to the base is 51° 51′, but in no two pyramids is this angle the same. There can be no doubt that these huge monuments were erected each as the tomb of an individual king, whose efforts were directed towards making it everlasting, and the greatest pains were taken to render the access to the burial chamber extremely hard to discover. This accounts for the vast disproportion between the lavish amount of material used for the pyramid and the smallness of the cavity enclosed in it (Fig. 8).

The material employed was limestone cased with syenite (granite from Syene), and the internal passages were lined with granite. The granite of the casing has entirely [17] disappeared, but that employed as linings is still in its place, and so skilfully worked that it would not be possible to introduce even a sheet of paper between the joints.

Showing the interior passages and chambers

Fig. 8.—Section across the Great Pyramid (of Cheops or Suphis).

The entrance D to this pyramid of Suphis was at a height of 47 ft. 6 in. above the base, and, as was almost invariably the case, on the north face; from the entrance a passage slopes downward at an angle of 26° 27′ to a chamber cut in the rock at a depth of about 90 feet below the base of the pyramid. This chamber seems to have been intended as a blind, as it was not the place for the deposition [18] of the corpse. From the point in the above described passage—marked A on our illustration of this pyramid—another gallery starts upwards, till it reaches the point C, from which a horizontal passage leads to another small chamber. This is called the Queen’s Chamber, but no reason has been discovered for the name. From this point C the gallery continues upwards till, in the heart of the pyramid, the Royal Chamber, B, is reached. The walls of these chambers and passages are lined with masonry executed in the hardest stone (granite), and with an accuracy of fitting and a truth of surface that can hardly be surpassed. Extreme care seems to have been taken to prevent the great weight overhead from crushing in the galleries and the chamber. The gallery from C upwards is of the form shown in Fig. 9, where each layer of stones projects slightly beyond the one underneath it. Fig. 11 is a section of the chamber itself, and the succession of small chambers shown one above the other was evidently formed for the purpose of distributing the weight of the superincumbent mass. From the point C a narrow well leads almost perpendicularly downwards to a point nearly at the bottom of the first-mentioned gallery; and the purpose to be served by this well was long a subject of debate. The probability is that, after the corpse had been placed in its chamber, the workmen completely blocked up the passage from A to C by allowing large blocks of granite to slide down it, these blocks having been previously prepared and deposited in the larger gallery; the men then let themselves down the well, and by means of the lower gallery made their exit from the pyramid. The entrances to the chamber and to the pyramid itself were formed by huge blocks of stone which exactly fitted into grooves prepared for them with the [20] most beautiful mathematical accuracy. The chief interest attaching to the pyramids lies in their extreme antiquity, and the scientific method of their construction; for their effect upon the spectator is by no means proportionate to their immense mass and the labour bestowed upon them.

Showing the stepped construction

Fig. 9.—Ascending Gallery in the Great Pyramid.

Showing the construction

Fig. 10.—The Sepulchral Chamber in the Pyramid of Cephren at Gizeh.

Fig. 11.—The Construction of the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid.

In the neighbourhood of the pyramids are found a large number of tombs which are supposed to be those of private persons. Their form is generally that of a mastaba or truncated pyramid with sloping walls, and their construction is evidently copied from a fashion of wooden architecture previously existing. The same idea of making an everlasting habitation for the body prevailed as in the case of the pyramids, and stone was therefore the material employed; but the builders seem to have desired to indulge in a decorative style, and as they were totally unable to originate a legitimate stone architecture, we find carved in stone, rounded beams as lintels, grooved posts, and—most curious of all—roofs that are an almost exact copy of the early timber huts when unsquared baulks of timber were laid across side by side to form a covering. Figs. 12 and 13 show this kind of stone-work, which is peculiar to the old dynasties, and seems to have had little influence upon succeeding styles.

A remarkable feature of these early private tombs consists in the paintings with which the walls are decorated, and which vividly portray the ordinary every-day occupations carried on during his lifetime by the person who was destined to be the inmate of the tomb. These paintings are of immense value in enabling us to form an accurate idea of the life of the people at this early age.

Fig. 12.—Imitation of Timber Construction in Stone, from a Tomb at Memphis.

Fig. 13.—Imitation of Timber Construction in Stone, from a Tomb at Memphis.

It may possibly be open to doubt whether the dignified appellation of architecture should be applied to buildings [22] of the kind we have just been describing; but when we come to the series of remains of the twelfth dynasty at Beni-Hassan, in middle Egypt, we meet with the earliest known examples of that most interesting feature of all subsequent styles—the column. Whether the idea of columnar architecture originated with the necessities of quarrying—square piers being left at intervals to support the superincumbent mass of rock as the quarry was gradually driven in—or whether the earliest stone piers were imitations of brickwork or of timber posts, we shall probably never be able to determine accurately, though the former supposition seems the more likely. We have here monuments of a date 1400 years anterior to the earliest known Greek examples, with splendid columns, both exterior and interior, which no reasonable person can doubt are the prototypes of the Greek Doric order. Fig. 14 is a plan with a section, and Fig. 15 an exterior view, of one of these tombs, which, it will be seen, consisted of a portico, a chamber with its roof supported by columns, and a small space at the farther end in which is formed the opening of a sloping passage or well, at the bottom of which the vault for the reception of the body was constructed. The walls of the large chamber are lavishly decorated with scenes of every-day life, and it has even been suggested that these places were not erected originally as tombs, but as dwelling-places, which after death were appropriated as sepulchres.

Showing view between columns


Showing position of columns

Fig. 14.—Plan and Section of the Tomb at Beni-Hassan.

The columns are surmounted by a small square slab, technically called an abacus, and heavy square beams or architraves span the spaces between the columns, while the roof between the architraves has a slightly segmental form. The tombs of the later period, viz. of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties, are very different from those of [23] the twelfth dynasty, and present few features of architectural interest, though they are remarkable for their vast extent and the variety of form of their various chambers and galleries. They consist of a series of chambers excavated in the rock, and it appears certain that the tomb was commenced on the accession of each monarch, and was driven farther and farther into the rock during the continuance of his reign till his death, when all work abruptly ceased. All the chambers are profusely decorated with paintings, but of a kind very different from those of the earlier dynasties. Instead of depicting scenes of ordinary life, all the paintings refer to the supposed life after death, and are thus of very great value as a means of determining the religious opinions of the [24] Egyptians at this time. One of the most remarkable of these tombs is that of Manephthah or Sethi I., at Bab-el-Molouk, and known as Belzoni’s tomb, as it was discovered by him; from it was taken the alabaster sarcophagus now in the Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. To this relic a new interest is given by the announcement, while these pages are passing through the press, of the discovery of the mummy of this very Manephthah, with thirty-eight other royal mummies, in the neighbourhood of Thebes.

Showing entrance to the tomb

Fig. 15.—Rock-cut Façade of Tomb at Beni-Hassan.

Of the Ptolemaic period no tombs, except perhaps a few at Alexandria, are known to exist.


It is very doubtful whether any remains of temples of the time of the fourth dynasty—i.e. contemporaneous with the pyramids—exist. One, constructed on a most extraordinary plan, was supposed to have been discovered about a quarter of a century ago, and it was described by [25] Professor Donaldson at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1861, but later Egyptologists rather incline to the belief that this was a tomb and not a temple, as in one of the chambers of the interior a number of compartments were discovered one above the other which were apparently intended for the reception of bodies. This singular building is close to the Great Sphinx; its plan is cruciform, and there are in the interior a number of rectangular piers of granite supporting very simple architraves, but there are no means of determining what kind of roof covered it in. The walls seem to have been faced on the interior with polished slabs of granite or alabaster, but no sculpture or hieroglyphic inscriptions were found on them to explain the purpose of the building. Leaving this building—which is of a type quite unique—out of the question, Egyptian temples can be generally classed under two heads: (1) the large principal temples, and (2) the small subsidiary ones called Typhonia or Mammisi. Both kinds of temple vary little, if at all, in plan from the time of the twelfth dynasty down to the Roman dominion.

Locations A to E shown in alphabetical order from bottom to top of the plan

Fig. 16.—Ground-plan of the Palace at Karnak.

The large temples consist almost invariably of an entrance gate flanked on either side by a large mass of masonry, called a pylon, in the shape of a truncated pyramid (Fig. 18). The axis of the ground-plan of these pylons is frequently obliquely inclined to the axis of the plan of the temple itself; and indeed one of the most striking features of Egyptian temples is the lack of regularity and symmetry in their construction. The entrance gives access to a large courtyard, generally ornamented with columns: beyond this, and occasionally approached by steps, is another court, smaller than the first, but much more splendidly adorned with columns and colossi; beyond this [26] again, in the finest examples, occurs what is called the Hypostyle Hall, i.e. a hall with two rows of lofty columns down the centre, and at the sides other rows, more or less in number, of lower columns; the object of this arrangement being that the central portion might be lighted by a kind of clerestory above the roof of the side portions. Fig. 17 shows this arrangement. This hypostyle hall stood with its greatest length transverse to the general axis of the temple, so that it was entered from the side. Beyond it were other chambers, all of small size, the innermost being generally the sanctuary, while the others were probably used as residences by the priests. Homer’s hundred-gated Thebes, which was for so long the capital of Egypt, offers at Karnak and Luxor the finest remains of temples; what is left of the former evidently showing that it must have been one of the most magnificent buildings ever erected in any country. Fig. 16 is a plan of the temple of Karnak, which was about 1200 feet long and 348 feet wide. A is the entrance between the two enormous pylons giving access to a large courtyard, in which is a small detached temple, and another larger one breaking into the courtyard obliquely. A gateway between a second pair of pylons admits to B, the grand Hypostyle Hall, 334 feet by 167 feet. Beyond this are additional gateways with pylons, separated by a sort [28] of gallery, C, in which were two gigantic obelisks; D, another grand hall, is called the Hall of the Caryatides, and beyond is the Hall of the eighteen columns, through which access is gained to a number of smaller halls grouped round the central chamber E. Beyond this is a large courtyard, in the centre of which stood the original sanctuary, which has disappeared down to its foundations, nothing but some broken shafts of columns remaining. At the extreme east is another hall supported partly by columns and partly by square piers, and a second series of pillared courts and chambers. The pylons and buildings generally decrease in height as we proceed from the entrance eastwards. This is due to the fact that, the building grew by successive additions, each one more magnificent than the last, all being added on the side from which the temple was entered, leaving the original sanctuary unchanged and undisturbed.

Showing the highly decorated columns

Fig. 17.—The Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, showing the Clerestory.

Fig. 18.—Entrance to an Egyptian Temple, showing the Pylons.

Besides the buildings shown on the plan there were many other temples to the north, south, and east, entered by pylons and some of them connected together by avenues of sphinxes, obelisks, and colossi, which altogether made up the most wonderful agglomeration of buildings that can be conceived. It must not be imagined that this temple of Karnak, together with the series of connected temples is the result, of one clearly conceived plan; on the contrary, just as has been frequently the case with our own cathedrals and baronial halls, alterations were made here and additions there by successive kings one after the other without much regard to connection or congruity, the only feeling that probably influenced them being that of emulation to excel in size and grandeur the erections of their predecessors, as the largest buildings are almost always of latest date. The original sanctuary, [29] or nucleus of the temple, was built by Usertesen I., the second or third king of the twelfth dynasty. Omenophis, the first king of the Shepherd dynasties, built a temple round the sanctuary, which has disappeared. Thothmes I. built the Hall of the Caryatides and commenced the next Hall of the eighteen columns, which was finished by Thothmes II. Thothmes III. built that portion surrounding the sanctuary, and he also built the courts on the extreme east. The pylon at C was built by Omenophis III., and formed the façade of the temple before the erection of the grand hall. Sethi I. built the Hypostyle Hall, which had probably been originated by Rhamses I., who commenced the pylon west of it. Sethi II. built the small detached temple, and Rhamses III. the intersecting temple. The Bubastites constructed the large front court by building walls round it, and the Ptolemies commenced the huge western pylon. The colonnade in the centre of the court was erected by Tahraka.

Extensive remains of temples exist at Luxor, Edfou (Fig. 19), and Philæ, but it will not be necessary to give a detailed description of them, as, if smaller in size, they are very similar in arrangement to those already described. It should be noticed that all these large temples have the mastaba form, i.e. the outer walls are not perpendicular on the outside, but slope inwards as they rise, thus giving the buildings an air of great solidity.

Fig. 19.—Plan of the Temple at Edfou.

Fig. 20.—Plan of one of the Mammisi at Edfou.

The Mammisi exhibit quite a different form of temple from those previously described, and are generally found in close proximity to the large temples. They are generally erected on a raised terrace, rectangular on plan and nearly twice as long as it was wide, approached by a flight of steps opposite the entrance; they consist of oblong buildings, usually divided by a wall into two [30] chambers, and surrounded on all sides by a colonnade composed of circular columns or square piers placed at intervals, and the whole is roofed in. A dwarf wall is frequently found between the piers and columns, about half the height of the shaft. These temples differ from the larger ones in having their outer walls perpendicular. Fig. 20 [31] is a plan of one of these small temples, and no one can fail to remark the striking likeness to some of the Greek temples; there can indeed be little doubt that this nation borrowed the peristylar form of its temples from the Ancient Egyptians.

Fig. 21.—Ground-plan of the Rock-cut Temple at Ipsamboul.

Fig. 22.—Section of the Rock-cut Temple at Ipsamboul.

Although no rock-cut temples have been discovered in Egypt proper, Nubia is very rich in such remains. The arrangement of these temples hewn out of the rock is closely analogous to that of the detached ones. Figs. 21 and 22 show a plan and section of the [32] largest of the rock-cut temples at Ipsamboul, which consists of two extensive courts, with smaller chambers beyond, all connected by galleries. The roof of the large court is supported by eight huge piers, the faces of which are sculptured into the form of standing colossi, and the entrance is adorned by four splendid seated colossi, 68 ft. 6 in. high. As was the case with the detached temples, it will be noticed that the height of the various chambers decreases towards the extremity of the excavation.

Plan view of Egyptian column with lotus bud capital


Fig. 23.—Egyptian Column with Lotus Bud Capital.

Fig. 24.—Egyptian Column with Lotus Flower Capital.

The constructional system pursued by the Egyptians, which consisted in roofing over spaces with large horizontal blocks of stone, led of necessity to a columnar arrangement in the interiors, as it was impossible to cover large areas without frequent upright supports. Hence the column became the chief means of obtaining effect, and the varieties of form which it exhibits are very numerous. The earliest form is that at Beni-Hassan, which has already been noticed as the prototype of the Doric order. Figs. 23 and 24 are views of two columns of a type more commonly employed. In these the sculptors appear to have imitated as closely as possible the forms of the plant-world around them, as is shown in Fig. 23, which represents a bundle of reeds or lotus stalks, and is the earliest type known of the lotus column, which was afterwards developed into a number of forms, one of which will be observed on turning to our section of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak (Fig. 17), as employed for the lateral columns. The stalks are bound round with several belts, and the capital is formed by the slightly bulging unopened bud of the flower, above which is a small abacus with the architrave resting upon it: the base is nothing but a low circular plinth. The square piers also have frequently a lotus bud carved on them. At the bottom of the shaft is frequently found [33] a decoration imitated from the sheath of leaves from which the plant springs. As a further development of this capital we have the opened lotus flower of a very graceful bell-like shape, ornamented with a similar sheath-like decoration to that at the base of the shaft (Fig. 24). This decoration was originally painted only, not sculptured, but at a later period we find these sheaths and buds worked in stone. Even more graceful is the palm capital, which also had its leading lines of decoration painted on it at first (Fig. 25), and afterwards sculptured (Fig. 26). At a later period of the style we find the plant forms abandoned, and capitals were formed of a fantastic combination of the head [34] of Isis with a pylon resting upon it (Fig. 27). Considerable ingenuity was exercised in adapting the capitals of the columns to the positions in which they were placed: thus in the hypostyle halls, the lofty central row of columns generally had capitals of the form shown in Fig. 24, as the light here was sufficient to illuminate thoroughly the underside of the overhanging bell; but those columns which were farther removed from the light had their capitals of the unopened bud form, which was narrower at the top than at bottom. In one part of the temple at Karnak is found a very curious capital resembling the open lotus flower inverted. The proportion which the height of Egyptian columns bears to their diameter differs so much in various cases that there was evidently no regular standard adhered to, but as a general rule they have a heavy and massive character. The wall-paintings of the Egyptian buildings show many curious forms of [35] columns (Fig. 28), but we have no reason for thinking that these fantastic shapes were really executed in stone.

Fig. 25.—Palm Capital.

Fig. 26.—Sculptured Capital.

Fig. 27.—Isis Capital from Denderah.

Fig. 28.—Fanciful Column from Painted Decoration at Thebes.

Almost the only sculptured ornaments worked on the exteriors of buildings were the curious astragal or bead at all the angles, and the cornice, which consisted of a very large cavetto, or hollow moulding, surmounted by a fillet. These features are almost invariable from the earliest to the latest period of the style. This cavetto was generally enriched, over the doorways, with an ornament representing a circular boss with a wing at each side of it (Fig. 29).

One other feature of Egyptian architecture which was peculiar to it must be mentioned; namely, the obelisk. [36] Obelisks were nearly always erected in pairs in front of the pylons of the temples, and added to the dignity of the entrance. They were invariably monoliths, slightly tapering in outline, carved with the most perfect accuracy; they must have existed originally in very large numbers. Not a few of these have been transported to Europe, and at least twelve are standing in Rome, one is in Paris, and one in London.

Featuring a winged scarab design

Fig. 29.—Crowning Cornice and Bead.

The most striking features, and the most artistic, in the decoration of Egyptian buildings, are the mural paintings and sculptured pictures, which are found in the most lavish profusion, and which exhibit the highest skill in conventionalising the human figure and other objects.[3] Tombs and temples, columns and obelisks are completely covered with graphic representations of peaceful home pursuits, warlike expeditions and battle scenes, and—though not till a late period—descriptions of ritual and mythological delineations of the supposed spirit-world which the soul has entered after death. These pictures, together with the [37] hieroglyphic inscriptions—which are in themselves a series of pictures—not only relieve the bare wall surface, but, what is far more important, enable us to realise the kind of existence which was led by this ancient people; and as in nearly every case the cartouche (or symbol representing the name) of the monarch under whose reign the building was erected was added, we should be able to fix the dates of the buildings with exactness, were the chronology of the kings made out beyond doubt.

The following description of the manner in which the Egyptian paintings and sculptures were executed—from the pen of Owen Jones—will be read with interest:—“The wall was first chiselled as smooth as possible, the imperfections of the stone were filled up with cement or plaster, and the whole was rubbed smooth and covered with a coloured wash; lines were then ruled perpendicularly and horizontally with red colour, forming squares all over the wall corresponding with the proportions of the figure to be drawn upon it. The subjects of the painting and of the hieroglyphics were then drawn on the wall with a red line, most probably by the priest or chief scribe, or by some inferior artist, from a document divided into similar squares; then came the chief artist, who went over every figure and hieroglyphic with a black line, and a firm and steady hand, giving expression to each curve, deviating here and confirming there the red line. The line thus traced was then followed by the sculptor. The next process was to paint the figure in the prescribed colours.”

Although Egyptian architecture was essentially a trabeated style,—that is to say, a style in which beams or lintels were usually employed to cover openings,—there is strong ground for the belief that the builders of that time [38] were acquainted with the nature of the arch. Dr. Birch mentions a rudimentary arch of the time of the fifth dynasty: at Abydos there are also remains of vaulted tombs of the sixth dynasty; and in a tomb in the neighbourhood of the Pyramids there is an elementary arch of three stones surmounted by a true arch constructed in four courses. The probability is that true brick arches were built at a very early period, but in the construction of their tombs, where heavy masses of superincumbent masonry or rock had to be supported, the Egyptians seem to have been afraid to risk even the remote possibility of their arches decaying; and hence, even when they preserved the form of the arch in masonry, they constructed it with horizontal courses of stones projecting one over the other, and then cut away the lower angles. One dominating idea seems to have influenced them in the whole of their work—esto perpetua was their motto; and though they have been excelled by later peoples in grace and beauty, it is a question whether they have ever been surpassed in the skill with which they adapted their means to the end which they always kept in view.



Floor (technically Plan).—The early rock-cut tombs were, of course, only capable of producing internal effects; their floor presents a series of halls and galleries, varying in size and shape, leading one out of the other, and intended by their contrast or combination to produce architectural effect. To this was added in the later rock-cut tombs a façade to be seen directly in front. Much the same account can be given of the disposition of the [39] built temples. They possess one front, which the spectator approaches, and they are disposed so as to produce varied and impressive interiors, but not to give rise to external display. The supports, such as walls, columns, piers, are all very massive and very close together, so that the only wide open spaces are courtyards.

The circle, or octagon, or other polygonal forms do not appear in the plans of Egyptian buildings; but though all the lines are straight, there is a good deal of irregularity in spacing, walls which face one another are not always parallel, and angles which appear to be right angles very often are not so.

The later buildings extend over much space. The adjuncts to these buildings, especially the avenues of sphinxes, are planned so as to produce an air of stately grandeur, and in them some degree of external effect is aimed at.


The walls are uniformly thick, and often of granite or of stone, though brick is also met with; e.g. some of the smaller pyramids are built entirely of brick. In all probability the walls of domestic buildings were to a great extent of brick, and less thick than those of the temples; hence they have all disappeared.

The surface of walls, even when of granite, was usually plastered with a thin fine plaster, which was covered by the profuse decoration in colour already alluded to.

The walls of the propylons tapered from the base towards the top, and the same thing sometimes occurred in other walls. In almost all cases the stone walls are built of very large blocks, and they show an unrivalled skill in masonry.



The roofing which remains is executed entirely in stone, but not arched or vaulted. The rock-cut tombs, however, as has been stated, contain ceilings of an arched shape, and in some cases forms which seem to be an imitation of timber roofing. The roofing of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak provides an arrangement for admitting light very similar to the clerestory of Gothic cathedrals.


The openings were all covered by a stone lintel, and consequently were uniformly square-headed. The interspaces between columns were similarly covered, and hence Egyptian architecture has been, and correctly, classed as the first among the styles of trabeated architecture. Window-openings seldom occur.


The columns have been already described to some extent. They are almost always circular in plan, but the shaft is sometimes channelled. They are for the most part of sturdy proportions, but great grace and elegance are shown in the profile given to shafts and capitals. The design of the capitals especially is full of variety, and admirably adapts forms obtained from the vegetable kingdom. The general effect of the Egyptian column, wherever it is used, is that it appears to have, as it really has, a great deal more strength than is required. The fact that the abacus (the square block of stone introduced between the moulded part of the capital and what it carries) is often smaller in width than the diameter of the column aids very much to produce this effect.



Mouldings are very rarely employed; in fact, the large bead running up the angles of the pylons, &c., and a heavy hollow moulding doing duty as a cornice, are all that are usually met with. Sculpture and carving occur occasionally, and are freely introduced in later works, where we sometimes find statues incorporated into the design of the fronts of temples. Decoration in colour, in the shape of hieroglyphic inscriptions and paintings of all sorts, was profusely employed (Figs. 27-30), and is executed with a truth of drawing and a beauty of colouring that have never been surpassed. As has been pointed out, almost every object drawn is partly conventionalised, in the most skilful manner, so as to make it fit its place as a piece of a decorative system.

Architectural Character.

This is gloomy, and to a certain extent forbidding, owing to the heavy walls and piers and columns, and the great masses supported by them; but when in its freshness and quite uninjured by decay or violence, the exquisite colouring of the walls and ceilings and columns must have added a great deal of beauty: this must have very much diminished the oppressive effect inseparable from such massive construction and from the gloomy darkness of many portions of the buildings. It is also noteworthy that the expenditure of materials and labour is greater in proportion to the effect attained than in any other style. The pyramids are the most conspicuous example of this prodigality. Before condemning this as a defect in the style, it must be remembered that a stability which should defy enemies, earthquakes, and the tooth of time, was far [42] more aimed at than architectural character; and that, had any mode of construction less lavish of material, and less perfect in workmanship, been adopted, the buildings of Egypt might have all disappeared ere this.

A repeated and complex spiral, wheel and lotus design

Fig. 30.—Painted Decoration from Thebes.


[1] Some Egyptologists incline to the opinion that the pyramid of Saqqára is the most ancient, while others think it much more recent than those of Gizeh.

[2] Strictly speaking, the base is not an exact square, the four sides measuring, according to the Royal Engineers, north, 760 ft. 7·5 in.; south, 761 ft. 8·5 in.; east, 760 ft. 9·5 in.; and west, 764 ft. 1 in.

[3] Conventionalising may be described as representing a part only of the visible qualities or features of an object, omitting the remainder or very slightly indicating them. A black silhouette portrait is an extreme instance of convention, as it displays absolutely nothing but the outline of a profile. For decorative purposes it is almost always necessary to conventionalise to a greater or less extent whatever is represented.


Showing kneeling winged bulls

Fig. 31.—Sculptured Ornament at Nineveh.