Upon first glance, Ancient Egyptian culture appears to be fixated on death. The grandest architectural remains from ancient times are temples and tombs - with the three great Old Kingdom pyramids icons in popular imagination. Of course these were structures built for immortality. Everyday structures have largely been lost. Our view of the culture as a whole is therefore skewed - though the Egyptian preoccupation with death was very real.
Egyptians, at least aristocratic Egyptians, believed implicitly in an afterlife, and that preparations for it could be made during one's lifetime. Their ka (spirit) would survive, but only if preparations were made. Thus, tomb construction and the consequent stocking of tombs with goods of all kinds, was a kind of insurance policy for the afterlife, ensuring a comfortable eternity.
arly in the Old Kingdom, square or rectangular stone-faced mounds were built above shafts leading to burial chambers. The mastaba itself housed a chapel and a statue of the dead in a secret cubicle. Pharaonic mastabas developed into quite elaborate structures, with exterior enclosures resembling royal palace and vast funerary districts with processional ways and temple complexes. During the third dynasty of the Old Kingdom, further elaboration led to the development of the Step Pyramid, where the mastaba has been extended vertically. Zoser's Pyramid (below) is the best known example.
The step pyramid itself is a wholly solid structure, build atop the original mastaba. It serves merely as a landmark.
Interestingly, these stone structures still reflected an earlier architecture of mud brick, wood and bundled reeds. Engaged columns echo the appearance of these earlier materials. These were symbolic and not merely decorative. The papyrus-like columns representing Lower Egypt, while palm-like or lotus-like columns evoked another geography.
The height of funerary culture took place during the Fourth Dynasty, when the three great pyramids at Gizeh were constructed. What remains is but a part of the funerary districts. These were massive public works projects that must have employed a good proportion of the Egyptian workforce outside of planting and harvesting seasons. They were not, as is generally assumed, the product of slave labour. Unlike mastabas, these massive structures enclosed a number of intricate galleries and burial chambers, with intricate, though ultimately unsuccessful, measures taken to protect the dead against grave robbers. An interesting and puzzling feature is the inclusion of narrow shafts extending diagonally from half way up the face of Cheop's (Khufu's) pyramid to the King's Chamber, deep inside the heart of the pyramid. They have been referred to as airshafts, but perhaps they had another purpose, lost to us today. Though other pyramids followed these three, none were of the same scale and grandeur, and the practice of pyramid building seems to have been abandoned.
Most notable of the architecture of the New Kingdom are the fine surviving temple structures. It mirrors palace construction in that it has three areas of increasingly restricted access. In the palace this involved, first, an area of introduction; secondly a reception area; and thirdly, a private area for the royal family itself. Entering through the massive pylon "gate" one entered a courtyard surrounded by a colonnade; next, one continued through a great pillared hall; and finally there were private rooms, with a treasury, halls, chapels, and, finally, a square sanctuary with four columns, housing the statue, or "double" of the god the temple honoured.
he entire area is enclosed by a windowless wall. Because of the weight of the massive lintels, columns were closely spaced. The resulting contrast of light and shadow was employed to great effect by the architects. Clerestory lighting above the hypostyle hall lent further drama. Interestingly, the Egyptians were aware of the possibilities of arcuated arches - they were employed in the brick storehouses of the Mortuary Temple of Ramses II - yet they were not used in the temples proper. As in other art forms, Egyptian temple architecture was essentially conservative. Decorative features continued to reflect earlier building materials and natural forms. Columns were shaped like lotus, palms, or bunched papyrus. Corner beading echoed the sheaves of rushes used in binding mud walls.