Monuments of Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt is perhaps best known for its incredible monumental architecture typified by the pyramids. In some notable cases such as the Great Pyramid, people have refused to believe that their monuments were even man-made, preferring to ascribe them to a mythical civilisation (such as Atlantis) or an alien life-form. This, of course, does a great disservice to the ancient Egyptians ingenuity and skill, but also fails to recognise the developmental stages of their art and architecture. "Ockham's Razor" states that the simplest solution is usually the best, and in this case, the simplest answer is that the Egyptians did indeed build these incredible structures.
The ancient Egyptians believed that after death the soul travelled through the underworld to the Halls of Ma'at (or Halls of Judgement). There their heart was weighed against the feather of Ma'at and those who met the standard passed on to a blissful existence in the field of reeds. As a result, ancient Egyptian tombs often include a description of the achievements and virtues of the deceased, spells to aid the deceased in their dangerous journey and "magic doors" to allow the spirit to return and gain sustenance from offerings left in the tomb.
Pyramid building in ancient Egypt began with Djoser in the Third Dynasty (around 2650 B.C, orthodox chronology) and is most associated with the Old Kingdom. The most famous examples are the pyramids of Giza and in particular the Great Pyramid. However, pyramids were erected by a number of the Pharaohs during the Middle Kingdom. During the New Kingdom, Pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings, but the workmen who built their tombs were interred in miniature pyramids. Numerous small pyramids were built in Nubia between the Eighteenth and Twentieth dynasties, and the Saite Period (the twenty-sixth dynasty) saw the return to Egypt (at least in Thebes and Abydos) of small pyramid-like tombs.
Most of the pyramids of ancient Egypt were clearly used as tombs, and from the Fifth Dynasty they generally included a version of the "Pyramid Texts", "Book of Gates" or the "Amduat" (That which is in the Underworld). It is still disputed whether the Great Pyramid was ever used as a tomb.
In addition to the pyramids of the major sites there are also seven small pyramids (also known as "minor step pyramids") scattered along the edge of the Nile which are dated to the third and fouth dynasties.
The name "mastaba" derives from the arabic for "bench" as these tombs resemble a large bench when viewed from a distance. A rectangular structure (with its length commonly being about four times its width) covered and protected a deep trench which held the burial and burial provisions of the deceased. This form of tomb was favoured by the Predynastic and Early Dynastic pharaohs but was rarely used for royal burials after the development of the pyramid by Djoser's architect, Imhotep during the Old Kingdom. However, the mastaba remained popular with non-royal Egyptians.
The earliest mastabas are located at Giza, Tarkhan (Kafr Ammar or Kafr Turki) and Saqqara (Sakkara). These early mastabas were decorated with the palace facade design (serekh) which did not provide an entrance to the tomb. By the Second Dynasty the outer wall of the mastaba was simplified, but included two false doors to allow offerings to be presented to the deceased (who was often depicted on the door along with an offering table). From the Third Dynasty the false doors had developed into small beautifully painted chapels.
Mastabas were often built from mudbrick, which has a tendency to degrade over time. As a result we know that there were mastabas in many other locations (such as Abydos) but they have not survived the ravages of time. Luckily some of the mastabas at Giza and Saqqara were built from stone and so they have endured.
Rock Cut Tombs
Because the ancient Egyptians built their tombs and temples of stone and often located them away from the banks of the Nile (but built their homes and palaces of mudbrick and often located them closer to the river) we know a great deal more about these structures. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Malkata (Malqata) Palace (the palace of Amenhotep III on the West Bank near Thebes) was built from mudbrick and from stone and its location means that at least some information can be gleaned from its remains.
copyright J Hill 2010