For at least ten thousand years, the Nile valley has been the site of one of the most influential civilizations in the world. Even today, its architectural monuments, which include Great Pyramid of Kafu and the Great Sphinx, are among the largest and most famous buildings in the world.
Due to the scarcity of wood, the two predominant building materials used in ancient Egypt were unbaked mud and stone. These minerals included sandstone, limestone, and granite, which were generally used for tombs and temples. From the Old Kingdom onward, stone was generally reserved for tombs and temples, while bricks were used even for royal palaces, fortresses, the walls of temple precincts and towns, and for subsidiary buildings in temple complexes.
Most ancient Egyptian towns have been lost because they were situated in the cultivated and flooded area of the Nile Valley, although the dry, hot climate of Egypt preserved some mud brick structures. Examples include the village Deir el-Medina and the fortresses at Buhen and Mirgissa. On the other hand, many temples and tombs have survived because they were built on ground unaffected by the Nile flood and were constructed of stone.
Thus, our impression of ancient Egyptian architecture is based mainly on its religious monuments, massive structures characterized by thick, sloping walls with few openings, possibly echoing a method of construction used to obtain stability in mud walls. In a similar manner, the incised and flatly modelled surface adornment of the stone buildings may have derived from mud wall ornamentation. Although the use of the arch was developed during the Fourth Dynasty, all monumental buildings are post and lintel constructions, with flat roofs constructed of huge stone blocks supported by the external walls and the closely spaced columns.
The exterior walls, as well as the columns and piers, were covered with hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant colors. Many motifs of Egyptian ornament are symbolic, such as the Scarab, or sacred beetle, the solar disk, and the vulture. Other common motifs include palm leaves, the papyrus plant, and the buds and flowers of the lotus. Hieroglyphics were decoration as well as records of historic events.
The Giza pyramid complex
The Giza Necropolis stands on the Giza Plateau, on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. This complex of ancient monuments is located some 8 kilometres (5 mi) inland into the desert from the old town of Giza on the Nile, some 20 kilometers (12 mi) southwest of Cairo city center. This Ancient Egyptian necropolis consists of the Pyramid of Khufu (also known as the Great Pyramid and the Pyramid of Cheops), the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (or Kephren), and the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure (or Mykerinus), along with a number of smaller satellite edifices, known as "queens" pyramids, and the Great Sphinx.
The pyramids, which were built in the Fourth Dynasty, testify to the power of the pharaonic religion and state. The Great Pyramid, which was probably completed c. 2580 BC, is the oldest and largest of the pyramids, and is the only surviving monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The pyramid of Khafre is believed to have been completed around 2532 BC, at the end of Khafre's reign. The date of construction of Menkaure's pyramid is unknown, because Menkaure's reign has not been accurately defined, but it was probably completed sometime during the 26th century BC.
The temple complex of Karnak is located on the banks of the River Nile some 2.5 kilometres (1.5 mi) north of Luxor. It consists of four main parts, the Precinct of Amon-Re, the Precinct of Montu, the Precinct of Mut and the Temple of Amenhotep IV (dismantled), as well as a few smaller temples and sanctuaries located outside the enclosing walls of the four main parts, and several avenues of ram-headed sphinxes connecting the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amon-Re and Luxor Temple.
The key difference between Karnak and most of the other temples and sites in Egypt is the length of time over which it was developed and used. Construction work began in the 16th century BC. Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling it to reach a size, complexity and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features is overwhelming.
- Main article: Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple is a large Ancient Egyptian temple complex located on the east bank of the River Nile in the city today known as Luxor (ancient Thebes). Construction work on the temple began during the reign of Amenhotep III in the 14th century BC. Horemheb and Tutankhamun added columns, statues, and friezes – and Akhenaten had earlier obliterated his father's cartouches and installed a shrine to the Aten – but the only major expansion effort took place under Ramesses II some 100 years after the first stones were put in place. Luxor is thus unique among the main Egyptian temple complexes in having only two pharaohs leave their mark on its architectural structure.
The temple proper begins with the 24 metre (79 ft) high First Pylon, built by Ramesses II. The pylon was decorated with scenes of Ramesses's military triumphs (particularly the Battle of Qadesh); later pharaohs, particularly those of the Nubian and Ethiopian dynasties, also recorded their victories there. This main entrance to the temple complex was originally flanked by six colossal statues of Ramesses – four seated, and two standing – but only two (both seated) have survived. Modern visitors can also see a 25 metre (82 ft) tall pink granite obelisk: this one of a matching pair until 1835, when the other one was taken to Paris where it now stands in the centre of the Place de la Concorde.
Through the pylon gateway leads into a peristyle courtyard, also built by Ramesses II. This area, and the pylon, were built at an oblique angle to the rest of the temple, presumably to accommodate the three pre-existing barque shrines located in the northwest corner. After the peristyle courtyard comes the processional colonnade built by Amenhotep III – a 100 metre (328 ft) corridor lined by 14 papyrus-capital columns. Friezes on the wall describe the stages in the Opet Festival, from sacrifices at Karnak at the top left, through Ammon's arrival at Luxor at the end of that wall, and concluding with his return on the opposite side. The decorations were put in place by Tutankhamun: the boy pharaoh is depicted, but his names have been replaced with those of Horemheb.
Beyond the colonnade is a peristyle courtyard, which also dates back to Amenhotep's original construction. The best preserved columns are on the eastern side, where some traces of original colour can be seen. The southern side of this courtyard is made up of a 32-column hypostyle court that leads into the inner sanctums of the temple, which begin with a dark antechamber.
Influence upon European architecture
Ancient Egyptian architecture has had influence upon the architecture and art of medieval Europe, notably in the early 17th century, when Renaissance designers brought elements of Egyptian art into the ornamentation of castles and other fine buildings. Examples include cyriads. These sculpted women are used to support the ornamentation above the pillars and columns. Examples of this phenomenon are found at Glamis Castle and Muchalls Castle in Scotland, where caryatid figures are incorporated into the overmantle plasterwork. These plasterwork interiors are considered the two finest in Scotland.
- Archibald Watt, Highways and Byways around Kincardineshire, Stonehaven Heritage Society (1985)