Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Architecture and Design

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Earliest Temples and Tombs

First Structures

The earliest temples and tombs built in Egypt are in Abydos in Middle Egypt. Egyptologists have been aware of these structures since the late 1890s. In the roughly 100 years that Egyptologists have discussed these sites, there were differing opinions on whether they were temples, tombs, or forts. Other discussions of them suggested that some of these buildings were cenotaphs, structures built only to honor certain kings but not to house their burials. Most recently scholars have realized that these buildings represent the earliest royal tombs—located in the section of Abydos called in Arabic Umm el Gaab (“Mother of Pots”)—and the earliest cult temples dedicated to deceased kings, located in the section of Abydos called in Arabic Kom es-Sultan (“Mound of the Ruler”) about two kilometers from the tombs. Moreover, the two sets of buildings can be divided into pairs that resemble later funeral complexes consisting of a burial and a temple where the deceased king was eternally worshipped.

Early Excavation

One of the first archaeologists to work in Egypt, the Englishman W. M. F. Petrie (1843-1942), excavated some of the earliest temples and tombs. Petrie worked all over Egypt, but during 1899-1900 and 1902-1903, he concentrated his efforts on a site in Middle Egypt called Abydos. Several villages are now resident at the site formerly known as Abydos, including the village of Kom es Sultan and the village of Umm el Gaab. Petrie worked first in the village of Umm el Gaab, then two years later at the village of Kom es Sultan. At Umm el Gaab Petrie found and identified the cemetery of kings of the First and Second Dynasties (3100-2675 B.C.E.). The underground portion of these tombs was lined with wood protected by a surrounding wall of mud brick. Some of the twelve known burials had more than one room, and some were lined with green faience tiles—an early glazed material. In later eras such tiles resembled bundles of reeds that formed the earliest sorts of temporary buildings built by the Egyptians. Many Egyptologists assume that the Egyptians used these tiles in a similar way at the Umm el Gaab burials. Builders probably intended the entire underground burial to reproduce the king’s house on earth so that he would have a home in the next world. Thus this pattern of designing the burial after houses on earth began with the very earliest royal tombs. Above ground was a platform, built of brick. The platform was marked by a stele (an upright slab of stone), that was inscribed with the king’s name. Similar but smaller tombs designed for the king’s courtiers were located around the king’s tomb. This practice marks the beginning of a tradition of including the king’s courtiers’ tombs on the same site that continued through the next thousand years.

Tombs In Saqqara

From 1936 to 1956, the English archaeologist Walter B. Emery excavated large First-dynasty mastaba tombs at Saqqara in northern Egypt (Lower Egypt). These tombs contained many grave goods including jars labeled as the king’s property. These labels led Emery to identify these Saqqara mastabas as the real tombs of the First-dynasty kings since he believed that the tombs discovered by Petrie at Umm el Gaab were cenotaphs, memorials to the kings that never contained burials. After considerable debate, most Egyptologists believe that the Saqqara tombs belonged to high officials of the First Dynasty while the actual kings’ tombs were located in Abydos at Umm el Gaab. Even so, some books and articles written during the mid-twentieth century continue to refer to Saqqara as the burial place of First-dynasty kings.

Funerary Enclosures (“Forts”) at Kom Es Sultan

Petrie worked his second season at Abydos in 1902-1903 at the area known as Kom es Sultan. There he found the mud brick foundations of five buildings with huge mud brick walls. The walls were up to eleven meters (36 feet) tall and were roughly 65 by 122 meters (213 by 400 feet) long. Petrie believed that these massive walls and large enclosed spaces could only be intended as forts. These structures were built completely above ground and had no underground chambers such as were found at the tombs of Umm el Gaab. The patterned, mud brick walls were laid in what Egyptologists later came to call the “palace façade” pattern. This pattern was repeated throughout ancient Egyptian history, both in buildings and in representation in relief and on statues, and led Egyptologists to arrive at a better understanding of the function of these enclosures. The Egyptians used the walled enclosure with panels, called the palace façade motif, in hieroglyphic writing contemporary with the earliest temples discussed here. A drawing of this motif surrounded the names of buildings the Egyptians called the “fortress of the gods” in hieroglyphic writing. Egyptologists believe that this writing connects the names to the buildings found at Kom es Sultan in Abydos. The buildings were given names such as “Thrones of the Gods” and “Procession of the Gods” which suggests that the Egyptians thought of these buildings as places where the gods gathered. The Egyptians called these gods the “Followers of Horus.” Because the king himself was the incarnation of the god Horus the “Followers of Horus” were local gods from the provinces who gathered at the Fortress of the Gods to deliver taxes. The design of the surviving buildings indicates that this process would continue for the king even after he had died and gone to the next world.

Fortress of the Gods

It is possible to generalize about the architecture of the Fortress of the Gods from the archaeological remains at Kom es Sultan in Abydos and the hieroglyphic writings of the names of these buildings. Located on the west bank of the Nile River, the building’s entrance faced the river, suggesting that the gods arrived in boats sailing on a canal that led to the enclosure. Support for this theory comes from the discovery of boats buried along the east side of the enclosure of King Khasekhemwy (fifth king of Dynasty 2, before 2675 B.C.E.) near Abydos. The other architectural feature inside the enclosure was a mound of sand. This mound may be the remains of the platform where the king, as the god Horus, reviewed the assembled gods. These enclosures are prominent remains from the First and Second Dynasties. They diminish in importance during later periods, but still were built as late as the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.). Scholars constructed this new interpretation of the buildings at Umm el Gaab and Kom es Sultan based on knowledge of later buildings. The pyramid complexes built by kings in the Third through Sixth Dynasties contained both a burial and either one or two temples intended for preserving the cult of the deceased king. Increased knowledge of these later structures during the early twentieth century allowed archaeologists to reexamine the buildings at Abydos. Based on knowledge of the basic functions of buildings in the later pyramid complexes, archaeologists have discovered parallel uses for the pairs of buildings that First- and Second-dynasty kings constructed in Abydos.

Pyramid Complexes

Part of a Whole

The pyramid is the most widely known Egyptian architectural structure. Yet the pyramid itself is only part of a much larger complex. Egyptian kings built pyramid complexes during a distinct time period. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2675-1630 B.C.E.) most, but not all, kings built pyramids as tombs. There are approximately 47 pyramid complexes that Egyptologists have identified from this period. This does not include the pyramids built in the Sudan by Nubian kings at a later time, because they were part of a separate tradition over 1,000 years after the Egyptians stopped building pyramids.

Pyramid Complex Types

Egyptologists recognize two major types of pyramid complexes. In the older type, the main axis of the complex was oriented north and south. This orientation associates the complex with the Egyptian belief that the northern stars represented the gods in the next world. The stars were the physical expression of the belief that the deceased king became Osiris, king of the dead, and that his son on earth was the god Horus who ruled after him. Often the pyramid in the north/south complex was a step pyramid. In such cases many Egyptologists believe the step pyramid represented a staircase to the stars. The second type of pyramid complex has a main axis that runs east and west and reflects a different belief system regarding the afterlife. This orientation associates the complex with the course of the sun and the sun-god, Re. In this Egyptian belief system, Re rode in a boat that traveled across the daytime sky from east to west and then traveled in the land of the dead at night, emerging in the east again in the morning. The deceased king joined Re in his journey in the boat, called a solar barque. There was no real opposition between people who believed in one or the other of these two myths. In fact, many Egyptians believed that both myths were true. Ancient Egyptians often had divergent explanations or beliefs they held as equally valid. This multiplicity of solutions presents problems today when the inclination is to seek for a simple and exclusive answer to a question. Though these ideas explain individual pyramid complexes, Egyptologists still do not understand why a king would choose to build a north/south rather than an east/west pyramid complex or vice versa. Often Egyptologists try to explain the choice between the two kinds of complexes as a choice in emphasizing one myth of the afterlife over the other.

Parts of a Pyramid Complex

Both north/south pyramid complexes and east/west pyramid complexes have similar elements. They included the pyramid itself, sites for performing daily rituals, and subsidiary burials. Almost every pyramid complex had unique features in addition to these common features. The meaning of these features is almost never clear. The pyramid itself is the most important common element in a pyramid complex. Egyptians first built step pyramids (pyramids constructed in layers that decreased in size at higher elevations) in the Third Dynasty and built mostly true pyramids (pyramids with smooth sides) beginning in the Fourth Dynasty and later. Besides the difference in outward appearance, there are major differences between the interiors of step pyramids and true pyramids. The step pyramids included ritual areas and storage in addition to a burial chamber inside them. True pyramids sometimes included ritual sites and limited storage areas, but emphasized the burial chamber. The Egyptians observed rituals in pyramid complexes with true pyramids at temples built near the pyramid and at the entrance to the complex in the valley. The Egyptians added temples to the newer, true pyramids that they built beginning in the Fourth Dynasty. Often they built a temple adjacent to the pyramid, known today as a pyramid temple. They also built a temple in the valley below the pyramid that served as an entrance to the complex. Egyptologists call these temples “valley temples.” Scholars continue to debate the purpose of these buildings. Older interpretations suggest that the pyramid temple was the site of the funeral and was not used after the king’s burial. Most recent scholarship suggests that the pyramid temple, like the valley temple, was the site of continuing rituals that the Egyptians planned for eternity. Pyramid complexes also included burials for other royal family members. No real proof exists as to who was buried in these subsidiary burials, though Egyptologists often call them “queen’s burials.” They often take the form of small pyramids and vary greatly in number from one complex to another. Recently scholars have suggested that subsidiary burial sites were meant to accommodate different parts of the king’s soul. These parts would include the ka, the ba, the akh, and the mummy itself. The ka was the part of a king’s soul that was passed from one king to another and that designated an individual as the true Horus. The ba was the part of the soul that traveled between this world and the next, conveying offerings to the deceased in the next world. The akhrepresented the transformation of the earthly individual into a divine individual that could dwell in the next world. The mummy served as a home for the ba when it was on earth. The pyramid, pyramid temple, and subsidiary burials occupied a space on the plateau that rises above the Nile river valley on the west side. The Egyptians built the valley temple in the valley at the edge of the desert where the agricultural land ended. A covered, stone causeway connected the valley temple with the rest of the pyramid complex.

The North-South Pyramid Complex: King Djoser’s Complex at Saqqara


King Djoser’s complex at Saqqara is the first example of a north/south oriented pyramid complex, built in the Third Dynasty (2675-2625 B.C.E.). This predominant orientation alternated throughout the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2675-1630 B.C.E.) with a pyramid complex that was oriented east/west. A good example of this second type of orientation is the Great Pyramid of Giza, built about 100 years after Djoser’s Saqqara complex. While the north/south orientation is primarily associated with the eternal gods the Egyptians recognized in the circumpolar stars that never disappeared, the east/west orientation is primarily associated with the sun-god Re. The alternation between north/south and east/west orientations for pyramid complexes has thus been interpreted to have a religious dimension. Further, Djoser’s pyramid complex reveals that the split between Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt can be traced back to the Third Dynasty, a split that is more fully established in later times by texts. Though the Egyptians had already been reading and writing for hundreds of years before the construction of Djoser’s complex, there are few surviving extended texts from this period. Thus a seemingly obvious political fact such as the early establishment of the importance of Upper and Lower Egypt can only be established in the Third Dynasty by architecture. Finally, evidence for the celebration of the religious-political Jubilee (sed) Festival can be established from the architecture of Djoser’s complex. Buildings that Egyptologists know to be used mainly for such a festival were located on the east side of the complex.

First Well-Preserved Stone Building

King Djoser’s complex at Saqqara is the earliest preserved example of stone architecture in Egypt. The Egyptian archaeologist Nabil Swelim has convincingly argued that it represents an early culmination of stone architecture. While archeologists are aware of the existence of foundations from earlier buildings, Djoser’s complex is the first stone building in Egypt whose architect is known: Imhotep. A large-scale stone wall—277 by 544 meters (908 by 1,784 feet)—surrounds the complex. The wall was built in the palace façade motif with panels and with the addition of towers at intervals around the entire wall. Unlike the earlier enclosures of the First and Second Dynasties, Djoser’s wall surrounded extensive architecture as well as large courtyards. The buildings inside Djoser’s complex included a monumental entranceway, step pyramid, a series of buildings designed as a backdrop for the king’s Jubilee Festival (sed -festival), two model palaces, and a model of an Upper Egyptian-style tomb.

Symbolic, Non-Functional Buildings

Imhotep designed four areas of symbolic, non-functional buildings in Djoser’s complex in Saqqara: the Pavilion of the North, the Pavilion of the South, the South Tomb, and the Jubilee Festival Courtyard. These buildings are full-size models rather than functional buildings. Builders constructed only the exterior façade of the building, like a stage set. It was not possible to enter any of these buildings, though some of them had doors carved in stone. French archaeologist Jean-Phillipe Lauer, the excavator of the complex, believes that the non-functional buildings were for the use of the king’s ka, or spirit, in the afterlife. Some evidence suggests that workers purposely buried the non-functional buildings soon after construction, though it is not clear why.

Functional Buildings

While it is readily apparent which elements of the tomb were not functional, it is not as easy to determine which elements of the complex were in use. The northern end of the enclosure is still unexcavated, leaving scholars in doubt as to how it was used, and the ruined state of the complex likewise hinders an accurate perspective. Lauer argued that the functional elements in the complex were the entrance at the southeast corner of the enclosure, the pyramid which served as a tomb for Djoser, and the Northern temple used for the funeral service. The American archeologist Mark Lehner suggested that it is more likely that Djoser’s funeral procession entered the building over the still-existing ramp at the northeast corner than through the functional entranceway at the southeast. None of the passageways that lead from the southeast entrance to the northern temple are wider than one meter (39 inches), so a funeral procession through the complex would be very difficult. The functional entrance way to Djoser’s complex is located at the southeast corner of the enclosure wall. This location parallels similar functional entrances in the southeast corners of the enclosures that kings of the First and Second Dynasties built at Abydos. Djoser’s entranceway, however, was built of stone carved to imitate a building built of reeds and wood. A monumental doorway leads to a hallway surrounded on both sides with engaged columns attached to the sidewalls painted green and carved to resemble columns made from bundles of reeds. The limestone roof is painted brown and carved to resemble logs. Clearly this entranceway imitates the type of ritual buildings that Egyptians built of these light materials previous to the Third Dynasty.

The Step Pyramid

The pyramid itself stands slightly off-center in the complex toward the south. It reaches sixty meters (167 feet) in height in six layers and is the only Egyptian pyramid that has a rectangular base rather than a square base. Lauer interpreted the construction history as a series of additions. The first stage of the building was a square mastaba built in stone. Roughly every three years of Djoser’s nineteen-year reign, workers added an additional layer. Lauer and German archaeologist Dieter Arnold have interpreted the expansions as gradual, reflecting emerging ideas about the king’s future in the afterlife. The German Egyptologist Rainer Stadelmann, on the other hand, believes that Imhotep planned the step pyramid shape from the beginning. In any case, the shape represented a staircase to the northern stars. These stars represented the god Osiris because they never disappear as do stars in other parts of the heavens. Thus they are eternal, like Osiris. Beneath the Step Pyramid at Djoser’s complex are over 400 rooms connected by tunnels. The total length of the rooms and tunnels combined is 5.7 kilometers (3.5 miles). The rooms include the king’s burial chamber and a palace to serve as the home for the king’s spirit. The king’s burial chamber was accessed through a vertical shaft in the pyramid that was seven meters (22.9 feet) on each side and reached a depth of 28 meters (91.8 feet), lined entirely in granite. At the bottom of the shaft was a burial chamber lined with four courses of granite blocks. After the burial, workers lowered a 3.5-ton granite block to block the shaft and prevent future access by robbers. The palace for the king’s spirit, located under the east wall of the pyramid, was lined with limestone and decorated with relief sculptures. Other areas were lined with faience tiles arranged to imitate mats made of reeds. The storage rooms were on the east side of the pyramid and housed over forty thousand jars, some inscribed with Djoser’s name, but many more made in earlier times for other kings. Some scholars believe that many of these stored materials came from earlier tombs that had been removed from the Saqqara plateau to make room for Djoser’s complex. Nevertheless, the great wealth stored in the pyramid demonstrates both the opulence of the king’s life on earth and in the next world.

Jubilee Festival (Sed) Court

The Jubilee Festival (sed) Court at Djoser’s complex was conceived as a space where the king’s ka—royal spirit—could celebrate the Jubilee Festival for eternity. Egyptian kings celebrated the Jubilee Festival (sed) after roughly thirty years of rule and then every two years thereafter as long as the king lived. During the festival, the gods of the nomes (Egyptian provinces) visited the king in the form of statues to pledge loyalty to him. The details of the ritual remain unknown. The kings of the First Dynasty celebrated this festival, both in life and in the afterlife at the so-called forts of Kom es Sultan at Abydos. There is evidence that kings continued to celebrate this festival in every period of Egyptian history, but Djoser’s courtyard is the only three-dimensional representation of the physical setting of the festival. The Jubilee Festival Court contains non-functional buildings in two rows that face each other across an open space. These buildings housed the spirits of the visiting gods, probably in the form of statues, during the festival. The dummy non-functional buildings, built of stone, are only façades. The stone is carved to resemble buildings built of woven mats, bundles of reeds, and logs. In some cases doorways carved in stone appear to be open, but it is impossible to enter any of the buildings. At the south end of the open space is a platform reached by steps. This platform supported the royal thrones, one for Lower Egypt and one for Upper Egypt. There the king celebrated the end of the ceremony wherein the gods officially reconfirmed him as king. Since only the spirits of the deceased king and the gods used this space, the American archaeologist Mark Lehner suggested that workers buried it in sand soon after its construction, though the reason for this is unknown. While living, the king probably celebrated this festival at the royal palace.

Pavilion of the North and the South

Two of the non-functional buildings at Djoser’s complex represent the palaces of Upper and Lower Egypt. They are called the Pavilion of the North and the Pavilion of the South. They are located near the northeast corner of the pyramid, not far from the mortuary temple. The two buildings face each other across an open courtyard. Lauer suggested that the two buildings symbolically represent the palaces Djoser maintained in life as the king of Upper Egypt and the king of Lower Egypt. Both buildings are only façades and may have been buried along with all the dummy buildings in the complex after completion. These buildings attest to the earliest political division in Egyptian thinking, the division between Upper and Lower Egypt. The Egyptians often called their country “The Two Lands” (tawy) in reference to this division. The king was actually regarded as a king of two different places that were combined in his person.

The South Tomb

The South Tomb at Djoser’s complex is located against the center of the south enclosure wall. Below the building are structures similar to the burial structures under the pyramid, including the vertical shaft leading to the burial chamber and an underground palace decorated with limestone relief sculptures and faience tiles. The vertical shaft in the south tomb replicates the dimensions of the vertical shaft in the pyramid, but the burial vault is so small that it is unclear what could have been buried there. It was only 1.6 by 1.6 meters (5.2 by 5.2 feet) square with a height of 1.3 meters (4.2 feet). Egyptologists have suggested that it could represent the burial of the king’s ka in the form of a statue, the burial of the royal placenta, the burial of the royal crowns, or that it symbolically represented the burial of the king of Upper Egypt. Before this time, the Egyptians buried the king in Abydos in Upper Egypt (southern Egypt). Some Egyptolgoists believe that the south tomb was a reference to this Egyptian tradition, now abandoned. The many possible explanations stem from the fact that so little evidence remains to be interpreted. Egyptologists may never know definitively why such great effort was expended to build the South Tomb.

The First True Pyramids

Major Changes

The royal funeral complexes of the Fourth Dynasty (2625-2500 B.C.E.) exhibit three major changes from Djoser’s previously built complex at Saqqara. First, the step pyramid of Dynasty Three evolved to become the true pyramids of Dynasties Four through Twelve (2625-1759 B.C.E.). The second major change was the rotation from a north/south orientation at Djoser’s complex in Saqqara to an east/west orientation beginning with King Sneferu’s pyramid complex at Meidum. Finally, the third major change was the development of a place in the complex specifically for an ongoing ritual on Earth that would continue long after the king’s death. These developments reflected important changes in Egyptian thinking about the king’s afterlife and in Egyptian religion. During the Fourth Dynasty, the cult of the sun-god Re rose to prominence, displacing earlier associations of the king with the god Horus, son of the king of the afterlife, Osiris. By the time of King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the king’s title was the Son of Re. This new emphasis explains all three major changes in the king’s pyramid complex. The step pyramid shape was a reference to the ladder the king climbed to reach the stars at night in the afterlife. The true pyramid, however, was a symbol of the sun-god Re. The north/south orientation found at Djoser’s complex emphasized the importance of the northern night sky and its fixed stars. The east/west orientation of the Fourth-dynasty pyramids emphasized the course of the sun from east to west. Finally, the ritual installation implies that the purpose of funeral complexes had changed between the Third and Fourth Dynasties. Whereas the Third-dynasty nonfunctional buildings and subterranean palaces were stage sets built for the king’s ka to continue its life, the Fourth-dynasty complexes tied together this world with the next, creating an institution that required constant input from this world in order to sustain order in both this world and the next. This input was made and received at the pyramid complexes in the form of a ritual performed there to energize the pyramid as a place where the king’s ba-spirit merged into the daily cycle of birth, death, and rebirth of the sun.

Standard Buildings

In addition to the pyramid itself, Fourth-dynasty pyramid complexes also included a temple attached to the east side of the pyramid called both the pyramid temple and the mortuary temple in Egyptological literature. There are also often subsidiary pyramids near the main pyramid known as the queen’s pyramids. The pyramid temple is connected to another temple located further to the east by a covered causeway. The eastern temple is usually called a valley temple because in most cases it is located in the Nile Valley while the pyramid, subsidiary pyramids, and pyramid temple are located on the higher desert plateau. Even though there were no standardized plans for complexes until the Fifth Dynasty (2500-2350 B.C.E.), these elements are present in all of the pyramid complexes constructed during the Fourth Dynasty.

King Sneferu’s Three Pyramids

King Sneferu, first king of the Fourth Dynasty, came to the throne approximately 2625 B.C.E. During the first fifteen years of his reign until about 2610 B.C.E. Sneferu’s workmen constructed the Meidum Pyramid, located at Meidum, south of modern Cairo on the west bank of the Nile River. Though earlier scholars identified the Meidum Pyramid as the work of Sneferu’s father, King Huni (before 2625 B.C.E.), new evidence has emerged to indicate that the name of the Meidum Pyramid in ancient times was Djed Sneferu—”Sneferu Endures.” Thus it is most likely that Sneferu built this pyramid. In the second fifteen years of his reign, Sneferu built two more pyramids at Dahshur. These pyramids are called the Bent Pyramid and the North Pyramid (also known as the Red Pyramid). Sneferu also built a smaller pyramid in Seila, further south. This smaller pyramid followed in the tradition of King Huni, his father. He built perhaps five smaller pyramids located throughout Egypt rather than just one large pyramid.

Sneferu’s Meidum Complex

The German archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann believed that Sneferu built his Meidum complex in two stages. The first stage began when he first rose to power. The second stage occurred during Sneferu’s last years when he was living farther north in Dahshur. Stadelmann believed that originally the central core of the pyramid was a step pyramid, because the construction of this inner core resembled earlier construction completed during the Third Dynasty in which the builders used a series of inward-leaning layers of masonry rather than regular courses. Rather than place each new course of stone on top of the previous course and attempt to level the new course, the builders purposely tried to direct the pressure from each new course of stone toward the center of the pyramid on a diagonal rather than straight down. The builders hoped this would make the pyramid more stable. Yet the appearance of this step pyramid is not completely understood. Sneferu converted the pyramid into a true pyramid shape near the end of his reign, about Year 28 or 29 (2597-2596 B.C.E.). The structure, in turn, changed dramatically when the site functioned as a rock quarry during the Middle Ages, resulting in the destruction of several layers. Sheikh Abu Mohammed Abdallah described the Meidum pyramid as having five layers when he saw it between 1117 and 1119 C.E. In 1737, the Swedish traveler Frederick Louis Norden saw only three layers, as is visible today. During this 620-year period, a large amount of stone must have been removed from the site. Recent attempts at reconstructing the original appearance of the pyramid suggest it had up to eight layers. Moreover, at some time in antiquity the outer casing that Sneferu had added to turn the earlier step pyramid into a true pyramid collapsed. Recent excavations revealed that this collapse probably occurred after construction had been completed at Meidum. Earlier commentators speculated that the collapse had occurred during construction and in fact had led to the abandonment of the monument. The absence of evidence such as workmen’s corpses or of Fourth-dynasty tools found in the rubble surrounding the pyramid’s core makes this theory unlikely. The timing of the collapse is important. If it occurred in the middle of construction, subsequent construction technique changes should be seen as a response to the collapse. If, on the other hand, the collapse occurred much later, as is now believed, then the collapse has no direct bearing on decisions that engineers made at Sneferu’s two later pyramids.

Interior of the Meidum Pyramid

The interior of the Meidum pyramid set the new precedent for configuring the burial. Rather than a vertical shaft as was found in Djoser’s dynasty-three pyramid, at Meidum the entrance to the burial came from the north face of the pyramid. A descending passage, 58 meters long and 0.84 meters by 1.65 meters (190 by 2.7 by 5.4 feet), led down to two small rooms. At the end of the second room, a vertical shaft led up to a burial chamber 5.9 by 2.65 by 5.05 meters (19.3 by 8.6 by 16.5 feet). Corbelled blocks—blocks placed on top of each other but projecting slightly over the edge of the lower course from two sides to eventually meet at the ceiling—formed the roof of the chamber. This is the first known example of this early form of arch in Egypt, though it remains incomplete. The remains of cedar logs found in the shaft leading to the burial chamber may have been pieces of a wooden coffin, although no sarcophagus was found. W. M. F. Petrie, the English archaeologist who first excavated at Meidum, did find pieces of a wooden coffin in a plain style. The change in the entrance to the burial chamber from a vertical shaft to a descending passage is difficult to interpret. It could have been a technical improvement making it easier to bring the sarcophagus into the burial. On the other hand, such drastic changes are often a change in symbolism that reflects a real change in belief. It is not possible to determine conclusively which kind of change is at work in this instance.

Other Elements at Meidum

The other elements found at the Meidum Pyramid demonstrate its value as a bridge between past and future pyramid styles. The subsidiary pyramid south of the main pyramid perhaps had the same function as the South Tomb at Djoser’s complex in Saqqara, though that function is not fully understood. Looking to the future, a small altar on the east side of the main pyramid, with two blank, unfinished steles, is a precursor of the pyramid temples built later in Dynasty Four at Dahshur and more elaborately at Giza by Sneferu’s son and grandsons. A covered causeway, another common feature of later pyramid complexes, connected Sneferu’s Meidum pyramid to the valley, but not to any known temple. Only mud brick walls were found at the valley end of the causeway showing that the valley temple was never completed in stone as Egyptologists would expect if Sneferu himself had completed the structure.

Sneferu’s Bent Pyramid at Dahshur

In the fifteenth year of King Sneferu’s reign (2610 B.C.E.), he abandoned his building project at the Meidum Pyramid and moved his court 25 miles north to Dahshur. At this point in his reign, the Meidum Pyramid was still a step pyramid, more similar in shape to Djoser’s pyramid at Saqqara than to the true pyramids built later. The move to Dahshur indicates a break with the step-pyramid style in an effort to create a true pyramid. The builders’ first attempt was the pyramid that Egyptologists call the Bent Pyramid. Step pyramids slope at approximately 78 degrees on each face. A true pyramid like the Great Pyramid at Giza has faces that slope at 53 degrees. The faces of the lower section of the Bent Pyramid were first constructed with a slope at sixty degrees, but this slope was too steep to form a true pyramid that could be supported adequately. At some point in the construction, the builders added more stone to the lower levels and reduced the slope to 54 degrees, 27 minutes, in order to support the inner core. As work proceeded, further structural problems emerged that forced the builders to reduce the angle of slope even further to 43 degrees on the upper half of the pyramid. This reduction accounts for the distinct bend in the shape of this pyramid. The base measures 188 meters (617 feet) and is 105 meters (345 feet) high. It is thus substantially larger than Djoser’s Step Pyramid or the Meidum Pyramid. The interior of the Bent Pyramid is unique because it has two passageways: one beginning on the north side and one beginning on the west side. The northern entrance, like the northern entrance at Meidum, slopes downward. It continues for 74 meters (242.7 feet) until it reaches the center of the pyramid. A vertical shaft then leads to a burial chamber that measures 6.3 by 4.96 meters (20.6 by 16.2 feet). The corbelled ceiling is seventeen meters (55.7 feet) above the floor of the chamber. The second, western entrance slopes downward for 65 meters (213.2 feet). It leads to a second corbelled chamber 7.97 by 5.26 meters (26.1 by 17.2 feet) with a ceiling height of 16.5 meters (54.1 feet). This chamber is in reality directly above the chamber reached from the northern entrance. Some time later, workers created a rough tunnel through the masonry to connect the two chambers. No clear explanation exists to explain the presence of two entrances. Speculation, though, has focused on the western entrance as a reflection of a second burial known from earliest times at Abydos. The western orientation of the second passage could also somehow connect with the cult of Osiris, king of the dead, with whom the king’s essence traditionally unites at death. Thus in this view, the Bent Pyramid’s internal plan could refer symbolically both to the idea of the king uniting with the circumpolar stars and to the idea that the king unites with Osiris in death. The small chapel on the eastern side of the pyramid would be a link to the king’s role as Son of Re, the sun god. The chapel at the Bent Pyramid parallels the chapel at the Meidum Pyramid by its position on the east side. These two chapels are also similar because they consist of only an altar and two steles. Later in the Fourth Dynasty, a much more elaborate pyramid temple would be included on the east side of the pyramid. Rainer Stadelmann, however, disputed a real connection between the purpose of these chapels and the later temples. He posited the theory that the construction of these chapels occurred when it became clear that Sneferu would not be buried either at Meidum nor at the Bent Pyramid. The subsidiary pyramid located south of the Bent Pyramid demonstrates that the builders had learned from their experience with the Bent Pyramid. The angle of slope resembles the 53 degree angle at Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza. The construction method also avoided some of the errors associated with the Bent Pyramid. Horizontal layers of masonry now replaced the inward-sloping blocks that made the Bent Pyramid so unstable. It paralleled the subsidiary pyramid at Meidum and perhaps somehow reflected the same purpose as the South Tomb at Djoser’s complex in Saqqara. Thus it could have been used to bury a statue or somehow refer to the second tombs for each king known from the First Dynasty at Abydos.

The Pyramid Complex at the Bent Pyramid

The pyramid complex at the Bent Pyramid includes a chapel on the east side and a covered limestone causeway that leads to a second small temple to the east. These features parallel some of the previous construction at Meidum and also suggest parallels with later construction at Giza. The chapel at the Bent Pyramid is quite similar to the chapel at the Meidum Pyramid. They both consist of ten-meter (32.8-foot) tall steles and an offering table. At the Bent Pyramid, the steles are decorated with images of King Sneferu seated above the palace façade motif. The pyramid complex is linked to the eastern temple by a 210-meter (688.9-foot) limestone-covered causeway. Though the eastern temple is not actually located in the valley, it seems also to be a precursor to the eastern valley temples built later in the Fourth Dynasty. The temple was a stone building, 27 by 48 meters (88.5 by 157.4 feet). It had an open court with a pillared portico and six statue shrines at the rear. For this reason the German archaeologist Dieter Arnold called it a “statue temple” of the king.

Sneferu’s statue temple included depictions of the king in the crowns of Upper Egypt, Lower Egypt, and the Double Crown which combines the two, thus representing all of the king’s political roles. In addition, there are relief sculptures on the walls of the temple that depict the king accompanied by the gods and performing ceremonies. In the entrance thenomes (provinces) are depicted delivering goods to the king brought from the entire country. Part of the temple’s great importance is that it contained the first known royal relief sculptures meant to be seen above ground. The Bent Pyramid Complex thus represents a transitional stage between Djoser’s earlier complex in Saqqara and the later complexes at Giza.

Sneferu’s North Pyramid Complex at Dahshur

Egyptologists’ knowledge of King Sneferu’s North Pyramid Complex at Dahshur benefits greatly from the fact that excavations there began in the 1980s when excavation techniques allowed for the recovery of much greater detail. Its excavator, Rainer Stadelmann, for example, found inscriptions in the rubble of the North Pyramid Complex that allowed him to demonstrate that the construction began in Sneferu’s thirtieth year, the same year that the subsidiary pyramid at the Bent Pyramid complex was completed. Evidence from inscriptions also established that workers completed thirty courses of stone during four years of labor on the North Pyramid. The North Pyramid (also called the Red Pyramid) was the third large-scale pyramid started by King Sneferu’s workers. The base sides measure 220 meters (722 feet) and the height reaches 105 meters (345 feet). The angle of slope is quite low at 43 degrees, 22 minutes. This pyramid is thus 32 meters (104.9 feet) longer on each base side than the Bent Pyramid, but reaches approximately the same height. The interior of the North Pyramid is simpler than the Bent Pyramid. One entrance only descends from the northern face for 62.63 meters (205.4 feet). It reaches two rooms of 3.65 by 8.36 meters (11.9 by 27.4 feet) with corbelled ceilings. A short passage leads to the burial chamber that was 4.18 by 8.55 meters (13.7 by 28 feet) with a ceiling height of 14.67 meters (48.1 feet). Though human remains were found in the burial chamber, it cannot be determined that they were part of Sneferu’s mummy. The North Pyramid Complex includes the first real pyramid temple on the east face of the pyramid, though it was completed in mud brick rather than stone. Stadelmann traced the plan of this building, which included both the pillared court and the statue sanctuary that were part of King Khufu’s pyramid temple attached to the Great Pyramid at Giza in the next reign. There was perhaps also a causeway built of mud brick, though excavation has failed to reveal this feature. At the end of the causeway was a town, rather than the expected temple, where archaeologists discovered a stele of Dynasty Six (reign of Pepi I, 2338-2298 B.C.E.). The construction of both the pyramid temple and the causeway in mud brick suggests that workers finished these features quickly after Sneferu’s death. Perhaps that is also the reason that this complex lacks a subsidiary pyramid and a valley temple. Or perhaps the Bent Pyramid, with its eastern statue temple, served the same function for Sneferu as the later Valley Temple built by his son, King Khufu, would later serve at the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Religion Driving Technology

Sneferu’s three pyramids are a testament to the way that religious innovation drove the development of Egyptian technology. The decision to abandon step pyramid building, which was already well understood, for the uncertain technology required for a true pyramid was a major diversion of resources. Egyptian engineers had to experiment and innovate because of a religious idea. This idea, as nearly as can be understood today, was to emphasize in the pyramid complex the ascendance of the god Re in religious thinking. This ascendance required that the king be buried in a true pyramid rather than a step pyramid. This innovation required three attempts at large-scale pyramid building. The details are lost to us, but the implications for the power of a religious idea in Egyptian society are significant.

Fourth-Dynasty Architecture and History

The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza are among the world’s most famous architectural monuments. In ancient times the Greeks included the Great Pyramid among the Seven Wonders of the World. The Egyptians themselves took an interest in the pyramids, restoring the adjacent buildings as late as 1,000 years after they were originally built. Yet in spite of the tremendous awe and curiosity that the pyramids inspire, they are limited sources for the writing of history. The pyramids attest that the Fourth Dynasty (2625-2500 B.C.E.) must have been a period of strong central government, religious vitality, and technological innovation. Yet the details of these historical trends must be derived from the physical remains of buildings rather than from written texts. In the Fourth Dynasty the Egyptians had not yet started inscribing extended biographical texts in their tombs, a practice of the Sixth Dynasty 300-400 years later, that provides historical details in the later period. None of the extensive records that scholars believe once existed about the administration of the pyramids in the Fourth Dynasty have survived into modern times. None of the records that the Egyptians maintained for their own knowledge of their history have survived except for records of a much later period. Thus nearly everything that can be inferred in modern times about the Fourth Dynasty stems from modern knowledge of the pyramids at Giza, except for very limited information from short inscriptions in nobles’ tombs. A careful look at the plans and details of each building is necessary in order to reconstruct the history of this period. The only supplementary material comes from the Greek historian Herodotus who visited the pyramids in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E.

The Giza Plateau

Three kings built the most famous pyramid complexes in Egyptian history on the Giza plateau during the years 2585 to 2510 B.C.E. Khufu (in Greek, Cheops), his son Khafre (in Greek, Chephren), and his grandson Menkaure (in Greek, Mycerinus) established funeral monuments that rank among the great architectural accomplishments of ancient times. As the American archaeologist Mark Lehner observed, the coordination of the designs of the three separate monuments is one of the most impressive aspects of ancient planning and engineering. Each of the pyramids is nearly perfectly oriented to the cardinal points—north, south, east, and west—of the compass. The southwest corners of all three pyramids align perfectly, forming a straight line that runs northwest to southeast. The alignment between the west face of Khufu’s pyramid and Khafre’s pyramid temple’s east façade is repeated with the west face of Khafre’s pyramid and the east façade of Menkaure’s pyramid temple. Moreover, the south side of the Great Sphinx aligns perfectly with the south face of Khafre’s pyramid. This evidence of mathematical sophistication in addition to the enormous size of the monuments has continued to impress visitors to Egypt since the Greek historian Herodotus visited them in the fifth century B.C.E.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

The Great Pyramid measures 230.33 meters (756 feet) on each side and reached a height of 146.59 meters (481 feet). It was taller than any building constructed by humans anywhere in the world before the twentieth century C.E. The Great Pyramid of Khufu’s enormous size has led the German archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann to question if ancient records claiming that Khufu ruled 23 years could be accurate. Even if Khufu ruled thirty years, one average-size stone block would need to be placed every two or three minutes of a ten-hour workday every day of the reign. This “average block” is often said to be about 2.5 tons. Yet the largest blocks at the bottom of the Great Pyramid weighed up to fifteen tons while some of the relieving stones inside the pyramid weigh from fifty to eighty tons each. During that ten-hour day, 230 cubic meters (8,122 cubic feet) of stone would be set in place at his pyramid, causeway, two temples, subsidiary pyramid, queen’s pyramids, or officials’ mastaba tombs. Over the course of his reign, workers built 2,700,000 cubic meters (95,350,000 cubic feet) of stone architecture. These statistics continue to inspire awe at the ancient Egyptians’ accomplishments with such simple tools. The construction techniques reveal that the Egyptian builders had learned well the lessons derived from construction at Meidum and Dahshur during the reign of Khufu’s father, Sneferu. The level platform for a base and the laying of stone blocks in horizontal rows rather than inverted layers proved to be a much more stable building technique than those used at the Meidum Pyramid or the Bent Pyramid of Dahshur. There was a clear evolution from the Meidum Pyramid to the Great Pyramid in technique. This evolution demonstrates the Egyptian ability to learn from previous errors. They were not so conservative in their thinking that they could not benefit from experience. The interior of Khufu’s Great Pyramid contains three chambers reached by a series of three passages. The Swiss Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt explained the existence of three chambers in 1911 as changes in the plan made to fool tomb robbers. In the late twentieth century Egyptologists have found other possible explanations for the existence of the three chambers, though they have retained the early, sometimes erroneous, names for them. The lowest chamber, called the Subterranean Chamber, is carved directly into the bedrock—the solid surface beneath the desert sand—and reached by the 58.5-meter (191.9-foot) Descending Passage that originates in the north face of the pyramid. The planed dimensions of the Subterranean Chamber were 14 by 7.2 meters (45.9 by 23.6 feet) and 5.3 meters (17.3 feet) high—a huge, high-ceilinged chamber—though it was never finished. Borchardt thought that the workers constructed the Subterranean Chamber first, but then abandoned it as the original tomb chamber and left it unfinished. Stadelmann, on the other hand, surmised that the unfinished nature of the chamber suggested that it had been last, its construction permanently interrupted by Khufu’s death. Stadelmann believed the Subterranean Chamber represented the underworld. The so-called Queen’s Chamber gained its name from early Arab explorers to the pyramid, and could be reached by the Ascending Passage that diverges from the Descending Passage. The Queen’s Chamber is located in the center of the pyramid directly on the east/west axis. This chamber is 5.8 by 5.3 meters (19 by 17.3 feet) with a ceiling six meters (19.6 feet) above its floor—another high-ceilinged room. The Queen’s Chamber contains a corbelled niche 4.7 meters high (15.4 feet). Here, Lehner suggested, was the site of a ka-statue representing the king’s soul. The actual burial was in the King’s Chamber. This chamber—the largest, with the highest ceiling—was 10.6 by 5.2 meters (34.7 by 17 feet) with a ceiling 5.8 meters (28.5 feet) above its floor. It is reached through the Ascending Passage from which it is possible to proceed through the Grand Gallery, which is 46.7 by 2.1 meters (153.2 by 6.8 feet) with a height of 8.7 meters (28.5 feet). The King’s Chamber is lined in red granite and also contains the king’s red-granite sarcophagus. W. M. F. Petrie, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English archaeologist, observed that the sacophagus is too wide to have fit through the present door, which suggests that it was placed in the King’s Chamber before the masonry for the higher levels of the pyramid were put in place. This fact led Lehner to conclude that this chamber must have always been planned as the burial chamber or at least that was already the plan at this stage of construction. The other unusual elements of the interior of this pyramid are the so-called airshafts that extend from the Queen’s Chamber to the south and from the King’s Chamber to the south and north. Scholars interpret these shafts as symbolically allowing Khufu to merge with both the northern, circumpolar stars and the stars of the constellation Orion in the south. This interpretation of the “airshafts” shows how religious ideas can be inferred from architectural details. Here it seems the overall east/west orientation associated with the sun-god Re combines with the north/south orientation associated with the gods of the nighttime sky. It is important to remember that the associations of east/west with Re and north/south with the circumpolar stars are also inferred from later documents dating to the Sixth Dynasty. Thus the architecture provides possible confirmation that ideas documented in later dynasties were actually present in the Fourth Dynasty. The Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass located the foundations of the subsidiary pyramid at the southeast corner of the Great Pyramid in the 1990s. It probably represented a parallel to such subsidiary pyramids at Meidum, the Bent Pyramid, and the North Pyramid of Dahshur, though each of these subsidiary pyramids occupies a slightly different location in relation to the main pyramid. The southeast corner is important to the plans of many pyramid complexes. For Djoser’s Saqqara complex, it is the location of the only true door into the complex. The southeast corner is also often used in pyramid complexes to house the ka-statue of the king or to symbolize the ancient custom of a southern tomb in Abydos in a northern necropolis. The three Queen’s Pyramids on the east side of the Great Pyramid of Khufu were each approximately one-fifth the size of the Great Pyramid. They each contained burial chambers reached from passages that began on the north side of the pyramid and then turned to the west. Each of the Queen’s Pyramids had a chapel where offerings could be made to the occupant. The most northern of the three pyramids is thought to belong to Hetepheres, Khufu’s mother. The middle queen’s pyramid might have belonged to Queen Meritetes who lived during the reigns of Sneferu, Khufu, and his son Khafre. She is also thought to be the mother of Kawab, a son of Khufu buried in the mastaba tomb directly east of this queen’s pyramid, but not the mother of the two sons of Khufu who ascended to the throne—Djedefre and Khafre. The third Queen’s Pyramid belonged to Queen Henutsen, another of Khufu’s queens, according to an inscription carved nearly two thousand years later at the chapel attached to it. The prominence of these queens’ burials suggested the existence of a matriarchal system in Egyptian history to nineteenth-century anthropologists, although modern Egyptologists have since abandoned the theory as being difficult to support with concrete evidence. Part of the theory’s fragility rests on interpreting these buildings which cannot even be definitively proven to have belonged to queens. Only foundations and part of the basalt paving stones of Khufu’s Pyramid Temple remain. Yet archaeologists have calculated that it measured 52.5 meters by 40 meters (171.9 by 131.2 feet). The building contained a large courtyard surrounded by pillars. Three rows of pillars separated this courtyard from a smaller broad room containing cult statues. A door separated the broad room and the courtyard also. This general layout featuring a courtyard, a group of pillars without real structural purpose, and a room for statues remained the basic outline for all Egyptian tomb chapels for the 2,000 years following the construction of Khufu’s Pyramid Temple. Builders decorated parts of this temple with relief sculpture, including a procession of estates and Jubilee Festival (sed) rituals. This decoration associates the pyramid temple with Sneferu’s statue temple at the Bent Pyramid and the Jubilee Festival (sed) Court built by Djoser at the Step Pyramid Complex in Saqqara. Only the most tantalizing ruins of the causeway and Valley Temple of Khufu’s Great Pyramid remain. Like Sneferu’s causeway, Khufu’s causeway must have been covered with relief sculpture. These sculptures might have been the ones described by Herodotus when he visited Giza in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. Hawass discovered the foundations of the Valley Temple forty meters (131 feet) below the Giza Plateau, but the ruins have yielded few clues about the original structure.

Djedefre’s Inauguration of a Pyramid Complex at Abu Roash

King Djedefre (2560-2555 B.C.E.) was Khufu’s first son to follow him to the throne. If Djedefre’s brother King Khafre and nephew King Menkaure—the next two kings—had not chosen to build at Giza and align their monuments with those built by Khufu, Djedefre’s decision to build at Abu Roash would not have seemed unusual. After all, his grandfather, King Sneferu, built his funeral monuments in two new sites, Meidum and Dahshur, and his father Khufu inaugurated the new site at Giza. Yet our knowledge of what followed Djedefre’s reign has led some scholars to suggest that Khufu’s sons were in conflict. The only evidence for this conflict is the fact that Djedefre inaugurated a new site for his funeral complex and that his brother and nephew returned to Giza when they became kings. Proponents of the theory that Khufu’s sons quarreled have still not made a convincing case. In fact there is evidence that Djedefre completed his father Khufu’s burial and that any destruction found at Djedefre’s monuments at Abu Roash occurred 2,000 years after his successor Khafre came to the throne. Djedefre’s nephew Menkaure left a statue at Abu Roash that suggests that he honored his uncle’s memory, though no later king completed the pyramid. The pyramid of Djedefre at Abu Roash would have resembled the Meidum Pyramid built by his grandfather Sneferu if it had been completed. The angle of slope would have been 52 degrees. The base length was 106.2 meters (348 feet), thus less than half of Khufu’s 230.33 meters (756 feet) of base length at the Great Pyramid. Though only twenty courses were completed, the projected height was about 67 meters (220 feet). Compared to Khufu’s 146.59 meters (481 feet), Djedefre’s monument was also much shorter. The pyramid itself had an entrance on the north side that led 49 meters (160.76 feet) to an interior pit measuring 21 by 9 meters (68.8 by 29.5 feet) and twenty meters (65.6 feet) deep. A pyramid temple’s location—on the east side, but closer to the northeast corner than to the southeast corner—did not follow Khufu’s model of centering the pyramid temple on the east face of the pyramid. The building’s completion in mud brick indicates that workers finished it quickly, probably after the sudden death of Djedefre. The subsidiary pyramid’s location—opposite the southwest corner of the pyramid rather than on the southeast as at the Great Pyramid—is similar in placement to Djoser’s South Tomb at Saqqara. The architect’s plan for a very long causeway from the north side of the pyramid to the valley was not completed. It would have been 1,700 meters (5,577 feet) long had it been completed.

Khafre’s Pyramid at Giza

King Khafre, son of King Khufu and brother of the previous king Djedefre, decided to build a funeral complex at Giza that paralleled and aligned with his father’s complex at Giza. The pyramid itself is smaller than the Great Pyramid, but appears equally as tall because of its placement on a section of the Giza plateau ten meters (33 feet) higher than the base of the Great Pyramid. Khafre’s pyramid is 215 meters (705 feet) on each side of the base, about fifteen meters (56 feet) shorter per side than the Great Pyramid. Its height is 143.5 meters (471 feet), 3.09 meters (10 feet) shorter than the Great Pyramid. Khafre’s pyramid preserves the outer casing of Tura limestone on the upper levels that once covered the entire pyramid. The interior of the pyramid contains two descending passages that begin on the north face of the pyramid. The lower passage begins at ground level. It leads to a subsidiary chamber 10.41 by 3.12 meters (34.1 by 10.2 feet) with a ceiling 2.61 meters (8.5 feet) above the floor. The chamber’s location below ground level has led to its comparison to Khufu’s Subterranean Chamber or Queen’s Chamber. American archaeologist Mark Lehner associated it with a statue chamber. The passage continues beyond the chamber and ascends to meet the other, higher descending passage. The passages merge and continue to the burial chamber, a 14.14 by 5-meter (46.3 by 16.4-foot) room with a ceiling 6.83 meters (22.4 feet) above the floor. This chamber contains a black granite sarcophagus. When the Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni entered the chamber in 1818, he found the lid on the floor and the sarcophagus empty except for some bones belonging to a bull. The German archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann suggested that tomb robbers in antiquity had left the bones in the sarcophagus, though to what purpose is unknown. Khafre’s subsidiary pyramid was located in the center of the south side of his pyramid. Only the foundations remain along with the underground portion of the building. One of two descending passages began outside the actual outline of the pyramid and descended into the bedrock. This passage led to a dead end that contained a niche located on the central axis of the pyramid. Archaeologists discovered pieces of wood inside the niche that, when reassembled, formed a divine booth, a distinctive structure the Egyptians used to house statues. In relief sculptures found in the tomb of Khufu’s granddaughter, Queen Meresankh, a divine booth is depicted holding a statue of this queen. The existence of an actual divine booth in the subsidiary pyramid of Khafre adds weight to the theory that these smaller pyramids housed the burial of a statue. Scholars used this evidence to associate all of the subsidiary pyramids found at Fourth-dynasty pyramid complexes with the South Tomb in Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex in Saqqara. Khafre’s pyramid temple and valley temple are the best-preserved of the Giza temples. They also have been fully excavated, thus making modern knowledge of them much more complete. The pyramid temple contains the five parts that became the standard in the later pyramid complexes: the entrance hall, the broad columned court, a group of five niches for statues of the king associated with the king’s five official names, a group of five storage chambers associated with the five phyles (rotating groups of workers who ran the temple), and an inner sanctuary with a pair of steles and a false door. The material for this 56 by 111-meter (183.7 by 364.1-foot) building consisted of limestone megaliths cased with either granite or Egyptian alabaster (calcite). It is likely that the complex included many statues, probably removed during the New Kingdom by Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.) for other royal projects.

Statue Niches for the Names of the King

The equation of five statue niches in the pyramid temple with the five names of the king presents a good example of the way that architecture confirms the presence of later historical phenomena in the Fourth Dynasty. It is certain that by the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.) each Egyptian king had five official names and titles. Parts of each of them are known as early as the First Dynasty, yet they are not attested all together as one official name until the Twelfth Dynasty. The names were associated with different deities, including Horus, the two goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet, the Horus of Gold (another form of Horus), the king’s birth name (called the praenomen) associated with the king as he incorporates in his person both Upper and Lower Egypt, and finally the name that proclaimed the king to be the son of Re. The five niches strongly suggest that the official names were grouped together into the official titles of the king in the Fourth Dynasty, roughly 600 years before textual evidence exists. Yet this “fact” remains an inference from architecture. No actual examples of the five official titles of the king from the Fourth Dynasty are known.

Five Storage Chambers

Most Egyptians living during the Old Kingdom were members of one of the five za, called a phyle in English. A phyle was a group of workers assigned for one-fifth of the year to work for the state. The work included construction and any other kind of service that a temple needed. The evidence for the existence of the phyles comes in its fullest form from the Abu Sir Papyri, a daily journal of workers’ activities at the pyramid of King Neferirkare written in the Fifth Dynasty (2472-2462 B.C.E.). Supplementary written evidence for the existence of the phyles is found at the Great Pyramid. The names of the different phyles were written on individual blocks. Scholars believe that the supervising scribe wrote the name of the phyle responsible for moving the block on it. Because there were five phyles, scholars infer that each of the five storerooms in the pyramid temple belonged to one of the phyles.

The Valley Temple of Khafre’s Giza Complex

Khafre’s valley temple, like his pyramid temple, is the best-preserved valley temple in Giza. It measures 44.6 by 44.5 meters (146.3 by 145.9 feet) and fronted on the dock of a canal excavated by the Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass in 1995. Like the pyramid temple, its construction material consisted of monolithic limestone blocks cased in either granite or Egyptian alabaster (calcite). The valley temple contained 23 statues of King Khafre, including the famous statue of him with the Horus falcon hovering on his shoulders, now in the Cairo Museum. Herbert Ricke and Siegfried Schott, early twentieth-century German Egyptologists, believed that the statues were critical to a ritual repeated daily that lasted 24 hours of every day. Dieter Arnold, the German archaeologist, suggested that the valley temple relates to the now 500-year-old tradition of a site in the funerary complex where the deceased king could receive the statues of visiting gods as a continuation of the Jubilee Festival (sed) in the next world. Egyptologists have largely abandoned Ricke’s older theory that the pyramid temple and pyramid functioned only for the funeral service.

The Great Sphinx

Though the Great Sphinx is actually a work of sculpture rather than architecture, it is integral to the architectural plan of Khafre’s pyramid complex at Giza. It was the first truly colossal work of sculpture created by the Egyptians. The body is 22 times larger than a real lion, which it represents. The carved human face of the Great Sphinx is thirty times larger than an average man’s face. The face hovers twenty meters (66 feet) above the ground. The lion’s body combined with the king’s head was an important symbol of the king’s ability to protect the country from its enemies. In front of the Great Sphinx stood a temple that might not have been completed in Khafre’s time. Part of the difficulty in interpreting its original meaning is that both King Amenhotep II (1426-1400 B.C.E.) and King Thutmose IV (1400-1390 B.C.E.) restored it during the New Kingdom. All of the inscriptions date to this later period, leaving no textual evidence contemporary with the original building of the structure. Ricke, however, interpreted Amenhotep II’s building with 24 columns as a place for sun worship with each column representing an hour of the day. The New Kingdom association of the Great Sphinx with the sun-god Reharakhty (“Re-Horus on the Horizons”) adds to the possibility that Ricke had the correct interpretation of the building. Mark Lehner added to the argument the observation that on the day of the summer solstice, the shadows of the sphinx and pyramids merge to form the hieroglyphs used to write Reharakhty’s name. This fact suggests that the name was original to the Old Kingdom and not a New Kingdom addition.

Menkaure’s Pyramid Complex at Giza

King Menkaure, son of King Khafre and grandson of King Khufu, built the third pyramid at Giza. It is the smallest of the three kings’ pyramids, but the most completely preserved. Its base dimensions are 102.2 by 104.6 meters (335 by 343 feet). It is thus roughly 103 meters (around 414 feet) shorter on each side than Khufu’s Great Pyramid. Menkaure’s pyramid is 65 meters (213.3 feet) high, 81 meters (around 268 feet) shorter than the Great Pyramid. Menkaure’s pyramid thus represents less than one-quarter of the area of the Great Pyramid and only one-tenth of the mass. Lehner speculated that the reduction in size stemmed from the reduced amount of space then available in Giza after the construction of the first two pyramids rather than an indication of diminished importance. The more elaborate decoration of Menkaure’s pyramid and valley temples, along with an apparent increased attention to their complexity and size, supports this theory, as does the greater use of granite in Menkaure’s temple—a more expensive building material than the limestone used in the other two Giza pyramid complexes. A single tunnel that begins on the north face of the pyramid allows access to the interior of the tomb. The tunnel—1.05 meters wide and 1.2 meters (3.4 by 3.9 feet) high—descends 31.7 meters (102 feet) to a paneled chamber. The chamber—3.63 by 3.16 meters (11.9 by 10.3 feet)—has walls carved with the false door motif. The false door represents the first return of internal decoration of a pyramid since the time of Djoser, over 100 years earlier. A horizontal chamber leads from the paneled chamber to an antechamber (an outer room that serves as an entrance to the main room) measuring 14.2 by 3.84 meters (46.5 by 12.5 feet) with a ceiling 4.87 meters (15.9 feet) above the floor. A short ascending tunnel was abandoned in antiquity, but a descending tunnel from the antechamber leads to the burial chamber. A small room on the right of the passage before reaching the burial chamber may have been for storage. The burial chamber is 6.59 by 2.62 meters (21.6 by 8.5 feet) with a ceiling 3.43 meters (11.2 feet) above the floor. In the granite-lined burial chamber the English explorer Richard H. W. Vyse found the sarcophagus in 1837. He shipped it to England in 1838, but it was lost at sea in a storm between Malta and Spain and was never recovered. In addition to the sarcophagus, Vyse found a wooden coffin dating to Dynasty 26 but inscribed with Menkaure’s name. This wood coffin was roughly 2,000 years younger than the pyramid. In addition, human bones dating to the Christian period in Egypt were in the upper chamber. This evidence of activity of such varied periods indicates that access to the pyramid after the Old Kingdom was more frequent than Egyptologists once suspected. South of the main pyramid, Menkaure’s workers built three small pyramids. Two were either never finished or were intended to be step pyramids. The third small pyramid might originally have been planned as a subsidiary pyramid for the king’s ka (soul). The presence of a granite sarcophagus in it suggests, however, that it was also used as a queen’s pyramid because such coffins were used to bury mummies rather than a kastatue. All three pyramids had mud brick chapels attached. Menkaure’s son, King Shepseskaf, completed his pyramid temple and causeway in mud brick after his death, although apparently the intention was to finish it in limestone covered with granite. The decoration intended for the pyramid temple was the paneled palace façade motif, customary for at least 400 years in royal funeral complexes. This decoration links Menkaure’s Pyramid Temple to the earlier royal enclosures in Abydos. On the wall facing the east face of the pyramid, the builders erected a false door and placed a statue of Menkaure striding forward in front of it. This arrangement recalls similar false doors with statues in contemporary mastaba tombs built for the king’s extended family. The causeway was incomplete. The mortuary temple was built at the mouth of the wadi (a dry river bed) formerly used to bring construction materials from the Giza quarry. The American archaeologist Mark Lehner observed that the plan to block this wadi suggests that the builders did not intend to use the quarry again, which indicates that Menkaure’s valley temple was the last major construction at Giza. Though the builders completed the limestone foundations of the temple, King Shepseskaf completed the building in mud brick. George Reisner, the German excavator of the temple, established that squatters moved into it soon after its completion. The squatters stored the sculpture completed for the temple in storage facilities, leaving them to be discovered in the early twentieth century. Reisner’s careful excavation allows Egyptologists to determine that the squatters lived in the temple for many generations, at least through the Sixth Dynasty, roughly 210 years after Menkaure’s death.

Funeral Complex of Shepseskaf

King Shepseskaf chose a tomb type entirely different from his royal ancestors. He erected a tomb at Saqqara, returning to the royal cemetery that had been used roughly 150 years earlier by King Djoser. The tomb, called in Arabic the Mastabat el-Fara’un (Mastaba of the Pharaoh), was a gigantic structure shaped like a contemporary nobleman’s mastaba—a building that is rectangular in profile—rather than like a royal pyramid. Though Egyptologists agree that this sudden change represented an important shift in policy, the actual meaning of that shift cannot be established with the information currently available. The Mastabat el Fara’un is 99.6 by 74.44 meters (327 by 244 feet). The two sidewalls slope at seventy degrees and are joined by a vaulted ceiling. The bottom course is granite but the remainder of the building used limestone. A descending corridor inside leads 20.95 meters (69 feet) to a chamber and a further passage to an antechamber. Another short passage with a side room with statue niches slopes downward to the burial chamber with false vaulting carved into the ceiling. Inside the burial chamber was a stone sarcophagus similar to the one made for Shepseskaf’s father, Menkaure. This sarcophagus type, the room with statue niches, and the false vaulting in the burial chamber are the major similarities between Shepseskaf’s tomb and that of his father. These features will perhaps be significant if scholars draw any conclusion as to why Shepseskaf chose to change royal burial customs so dramatically. The German archaeologist Dieter Arnold emphasized the similarities the structure shares with the palace of the living king. The paneling of the lowest course of the mastaba suggests the palace façade of the living king. This emphasis on the living king also suggests that there might have been reliefs showing the food offerings made to the king after his death in the temple built on the east side of the mastaba and in the unexcavated valley temple. This theme was already important for noblemen’s tombs in this period. If this interpretation is true, it would suggest that Shepseskaf conceived himself as more human than previous kings had claimed to be.

Historical Questions

The pyramid complexes built at Giza in the Fourth Dynasty illustrate the advantages and disadvantages historians face when using architecture as the major source for information about a historical time period. Historians concentrate on the change and continuity in plans and techniques found among the Fourth-dynasty complexes and both their precursors and successors. Sometimes it is easier to identify a major change than it is to understand what the change meant. Both Djedefre and Shepseskaf chose to build funerary monuments outside of Giza, a surprising development in light of Khafre and Menkaure’s decisions to build at Giza. Though Djedefre’s choice to build outside Giza would initially seem to parallel his grandfather’s and father’s own decisions to build funeral monuments in new sites, it has struck some historians as aberrant. They have even seen it as evidence of a feud among the Fourth-dynasty princes. Djedefre’s brother and successor, Khafre, chose to build near his father’s pyramid and even to make connections between the plans of the two complexes. Khafre’s son and successor, Menkaure, followed in his father’s footsteps, but Menkaure’s son, Shepseskaf, behaved in a most unusual way by both abandoning Giza for Saqqara and, what’s more, building a giant mastaba rather than a pyramid. The real significance of these events cannot be determined in any definitive way. Yet other historical inferences, supported by textual evidence, seem to help us understand where the Fourth Dynasty was located in a long tradition. For example, it is possible to understand the use of five statue niches in Khafre’s pyramid temple as placing the tradition of five official royal titles squarely into the Fourth Dynasty. Direct textual evidence for the use of the five official names for the king does not otherwise exist in this period, but only much later. The existence of five separate storage rooms can also be explained as evidence for the independence of the five phyles that worked to maintain the temple.

Architecture of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties

Standardization and New Locations

During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, architects followed a standard plan for the royal pyramid complex. The experimentation of the examining Fourth-dynasty pyramid complexes came to an end. Kings also chose a new site called Abu Sir for their complexes after Userkaf initially built his complex at Saqqara, the site of Djoser’s Third-dynasty complex. Finally, kings of this era drastically reduced resources directed to pyramid building from the Fourth Dynasty. Instead, they diverted some resources to sun temples dedicated to the god, Re. The meaning of these trends must be inferred without much help from other kinds of evidence. In general, Egyptologists believe that kings now directed more resources toward temples for the god Re and away from their own pyramid complexes because the kings themselves had lost status in their society in comparison with Fourth-dynasty kings.

The Pyramid Complex of Userkaf at Saqqara

Userkaf (2500-2485 B.C.E.), the first king of the Fifth Dynasty, built his pyramid complex at Saqqara, aligning it with the northeast corner of Djoser’s complex built in the Third Dynasty (2675-2625 B.C.E.). The 49-meter (161-foot) tall pyramid with base sides of 73.3 meters (240 feet) was smaller than Djoser’s step pyramid, being eleven meters (35.5 feet) shorter in height and 48 meters (157 feet) shorter on a side. In addition to being smaller, Userkaf’s pyramid was not as well constructed. Workers laid the core haphazardly before casing it in limestone, and the core subsequently collapsed when workers removed the casing for other purposes in later times. Inside, the pyramid has a north entrance leading to a descending passage 18.5 meters (61 feet) long. This passage led to an antechamber 4.14 meters long by 3.12 meters (13.5 by 10.2 feet) wide. Another horizontal passage exiting from the right side led to the burial chamber, 7.87 meters long and 3.13 meters wide (25.8 by 10.2 feet). A passage to the left led to a storage area. The arrangement of the buildings associated with Userkaf’s pyramid resembles Djoser’s Third-dynasty pyramid complex much more than the complex at Giza built only two generations previously. The pyramid temple is located on the south side of the pyramid. A small offering chapel remains on the east side of the pyramid, the side reserved for the pyramid temple in the Fourth Dynasty at Giza. The pyramid temple contains niches for the statue cult, but they are oriented to the south wall of the temple, away from the pyramid rather than toward it as had been the case in Giza. The subsidiary pyramid is located at the southwest corner of the main pyramid rather than on the east or southeast as at Giza. At least two interpretations have been offered for this change in plan. The Egyptian archaeologist Nabil Swelim observed that Userkaf’s pyramid would not fit at the northeast corner of Djoser’s complex unless the pyramid temple was moved to the south side. He regards this layout as the result of practical problems. The alternative explanation connects the role that the sun-god Re played in the beliefs of the kings of the Fifth Dynasty with this change in plan. According to this explanation, Re became much more important to the Fifth-dynasty kings. This importance can be deduced from their efforts to build the first temples for this god and from some much later literary evidence linking Userkaf and his successors with Re. Thus the pyramid temple’s placement at the south side of the pyramid ensured that it had an unobstructed view of the sun. The German archaeologist Dieter Arnold has further observed, however, that beginning with the time of Djoser and then Sneferu, Old Kingdom kings alternated between building a temple complex oriented north/south (the Djoser type) and complexes oriented east/west (the Meidum type). Without further evidence it will never be clear which of these explanations is closer to the truth. Another important point to consider is the relationship between the kings of the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. The kings of the Fifth Dynasty seem to represent a new family in that they were not direct descendents of Shepseskaf, the last king of the Fourth Dynasty. In Papyrus Westcar, a story written nearly 900 years after these events, the writer claims that Userkaf’s father was the sun-god, Re, not a human. If this papyrus reflects an older tradition original to the Fifth Dynasty, perhaps Userkaf built his pyramid in Saqqara to associate himself with the earlier king, Djoser, whose pyramid complex was nearby. This tradition also helps explain Userkaf’s sun temple at Abu Sir.

Userkaf’s Sun Temple at Abu Sir

Old Kingdom documents mention six sun temples dating to each of the six kings of the Fifth Dynasty. The oldest of the temples is Userkaf’s sun temple at Abu Sir. The only other one to be discovered and excavated is the sun temple built by Nyuserre, the fifth king of the dynasty (ruled 2455-2425 B.C.E.). Userkaf’s sun temple represents the first known effort of an Egyptian king to build a temple other than his own funerary monument. Userkaf built his sun temple in Abu Sir, a site that would later be utilized for pyramid complexes and sun temples by other Fifth-dynasty kings. Userkaf’s sun temple also represents the first clear example of a temple built and then rebuilt by subsequent kings, a common theme in the later architectural history of Egypt. Both Neferirkare, the third king of the dynasty, and Nyuserre added to the temple. The name of this temple, Nekhen Re (The Stronghold of Re), associates it with early temple enclosures at the town called Nekhen (Stronghold) in Middle Egypt. The excavator, Herbert Ricke, believed that the first building stage of the temple contained the same key elements as the earlier Stronghold: a rectangular enclosure and a central mound of sand. Neferirkare added an obelisk with altars in front of it in the second building phase. Thus this sun temple contained the first-known example of this typically Egyptian form. Phases three and four, built by Nyuserre, included five benches. Ricke thought the benches were platforms where priests placed offerings to the god. He discovered a stele inside one of the benches inscribed with the name of the “Great Phyle,” one of the five groups of priests and workers responsible for work at the temple on a rotating basis. It is possible that the five benches represented each of these five groups, though archaeologists found no other steles. A causeway linked the sun temple with a valley temple. Nyuserre may have constructed the valley temple during the fourth phase of building, or he may have rebuilt an original building of Userkaf’s complex.

Pyramids at Abu Sir

The Fifth-dynasty kings—Sahure (2485-2472 B.C.E.), Neferirkare Kakai (2472-2462 B.C.E.), Shepseskare (2462-2455B.C.E.), Reneferef (2462-2455 B.C.E.), and Nyuserre (2455-2425 B.C.E.)—built their pyramids at Abu Sir, just north of Saqqara. Though the first king of the Fifth Dynasty, Userkaf, built his pyramid complex in Saqqara, he initiated construction at Abu Sir by building his sun temple on this new site. Sahure, second king of Dynasty 5 who ruled 2485-2472 B.C.E., built a pyramid with base sides 78.75 meters (258 feet) long and 47 meters (154 feet) high. It was thus 151.25 meters (498 feet) shorter on a side and 99 meters (327 feet) lower than Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza. Instead of a gigantic pyramid, Sahure concentrated his efforts on decorating the complex with relief sculpture. The interior of the pyramid was also much simpler than the complicated system of passages that builders provided for the pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty. An entrance on the north side led to a 1.27 by 1.87-meter (4.1 by 6.1-foot) passage that ran on a level plane for approximately 162.4 meters (533 feet). The amount of rubble still in the passage makes precise measurements impossible. The passage led to a burial chamber measuring 12.6 meters (41.3 feet) by 3.15 meters (10.3 feet). This simple T-shaped interior resembles the interior of a nobleman’s tomb, suggesting that Sahure regarded himself more like other high officials than did the kings of the Fourth Dynasty who claimed to be gods. The architect’s plan for Sahure’s pyramid complex became the standard for nine of the known complexes of the following Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. Arnold suggested that this phenomenon resulted from the work of a series of architects who had inherited the office of King’s Architect for many generations, though it is just as likely that this model served the needs of a long line of kings while they experimented with the sun temples, a new area of focus.

The Standard Pyramid Temple

Architects positioned the standard pyramid temple on the east side of the pyramid, and included a vaulted entrance hall decorated with relief sculpture. This covered hall led to an open courtyard allowing the architect to exploit the contrast between the darkness of the hall and the bright sunlight of the court. This contrast, alternating light and darkness, was a basic tool of all Egyptian architecture. Relief sculpture also decorated the walls of the courtyard depicting the king protecting Egypt from enemies. Another hall led to a room decorated with scenes from the Jubilee Festival (sed). The relief there showed the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt greeting the king and confirming his right to rule the country. This room offers evidence that the Jubilee Festival depicted in it continued at the king’s burial complex as it had been known beginning with the Jubilee Festival (sed) courtyard in the funerary complex of Djoser in the Third Dynasty (2675-2625 B.C.E.). The rear of the pyramid temple held five niches for the five statues of the king and an offering place. The five statues of the king probably represented each of the five standard names that a king took at his coronation. The pyramid temple’s plan thus reflects an Egyptian’s idea of the proper evidence that a king had ruled legitimately in the eyes of the gods and also a listing of his functions through the use of sculptural relief.

The Standard Causeway and Valley Temple

The standard causeway connected the upper pyramid temple and the lower valley temple. In the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, remains of relief sculpture lined the walls of the causeway. Artists represented two basic subjects. First they showed the king protecting the whole complex from Egypt’s human enemies and taming nature. Second, they showed humans on earth supplying the complex with food from all over Egypt. The architect used three different stones in the valley temple, probably with color symbolism in mind. The floor was black basalt, referring to the black mud of Egypt’s fertile valley. The dado (the lower part of the wall) was red granite, a reference either to the surrounding desert or a punning allusion to holiness, since the Egyptian words for “red” and “holy” sounded alike. Finally, the upper walls were white Tura limestone, decorated with a carved and painted relief depicting the king defeating his enemies. The building served as an entrance to the whole complex and stood as a statement of the basic order of the Egyptian world.

Uses of the Pyramid Complex

The pyramid complexes were primarily tombs for the kings. Yet Egyptologists have long abandoned the German Egyptologist Herbert Ricke’s theory that the buildings of the complex were solely for the funeral. The discovery of the Abu Sir Papyri, the records of Neferirkare’s pyramid complex subsequent to the king’s death, provides evidence of the numerous activities that continued in the complex after the burial. The Pyramid Texts found inside the pyramids beginning with the reign of Unas (2371-2350 B.C.E.) also inform us about the rituals which continued in the pyramid complex, in the Egyptian ideal, for eternity. There were at least two offering services for the king every day—one in the morning and one in the evening. Other rituals centered on the five statues of the king found in the five niches of the pyramid temple. At least three of these statues depicted the king as the god Osiris, king of the dead. The ritual included feeding, cleaning, and clothing the deceased king. Priests then received the food used in the ritual as part of their salary. When they were not attending to their deceased king, priests and administrators engaged in other tasks, including astronomical observations to determine the proper day for celebrating festivals and the administrative tasks associated with delivering, storing, and disbursing large amounts of commodities that arrived at the complex on a regular basis. These goods included food and clothing used during the rituals. The pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom were probably very busy places rather than just tombs. Some of the complexes operated for much longer periods than others. The cult of Khufu at the Great Pyramid, for example, continued with its own priests as late as the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (664-525 B.C.E.) over 2,000 years after the building of the complex.

Events and Trends

Architecture allows Egyptologists to follow general trends in the history of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. The rise of the sun-god Re’s importance seems to co-exist with a lowered status of the king himself, compared to Fourth-dynasty kings. This observation depends on the fact that royal pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties were so much smaller than the Fourth-dynasty pyramids. Khufu’s Great Pyramid required ten times more stone to build than Nefirkare’s pyramid, built in the Fifth Dynasty. Considering that Fifth-dynasty building methods were also more economical because they used some fill rather than being solid stone as the Fourth-dynasty pyramids were, it is even more striking that Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty kings spent fewer resources on themselves than Fourth-dynasty kings had done. Because Egyptologists lack other records to supplement this picture, the actual events that led to this change cannot be examined. It is not clear, for example, whether there were fewer resources to spend on the king because of wars or famines, or whether the change was solely due to an altered ideology. These questions await further evidence before real answers can be offered.

Mastaba Tombs of the Old Kingdom

House for Eternity

The mastaba tomb’s name comes from the Arabic word meaning “bench,” for its resemblance to a mud brick bench sitting on the desert sand. Such benches are often located in front of houses. One name that the ancient Egyptians gave to tombs was per djet, “house of eternity.” The Egyptians thought of the tomb as one of the places in which their souls would live after they died. The soul divisions included the ba that could travel between the mummy and the next world, the ka that could inhabit a statue of a deceased person, and the akh that was transformed in the tomb into a spirit that could live in the next world. Not only did the ba and the ka spend time with the mummy and the statue of the deceased in the tomb, but also supplies that a person would need in the next life were stored in the tomb, just as there were storage facilities in a house. A deceased person could even receive mail at the tomb just as mail could be delivered to a person in this life. In fact all the functions that a person performed in life—sleeping, eating, dressing, receiving friends—were performed in the tomb by the deceased.

Earliest Egyptian Tombs

In the very earliest periods, Egyptians buried their dead in oval-shaped pits in the desert. From the Nagada I Period (3800-3500 B.C.E.), grave goods such as pots, tools, and weapons were included in the grave along with the body. These graves were unmarked, but the grave goods show that from the earliest period the Egyptians believed that people needed supplies to take with them to the next world. In the Nagada II Period (3500-3300 B.C.E.), the Egyptians dug more rectangular pits for graves and sometimes lined them with basket-work, reed matting, or wood. These simple linings were the precursors of coffins. It was only during the first two dynasties (3100-2675 B.C.E.) that the Egyptians began to build superstructures over pit graves called mastabas. At first they built them of mud brick, but later switched to stone. The type remained the basic burial architecture for the region around Memphis used by the wealthy into 3100B.C.E. and later.

Mastabas of Dynasties One, Two, and Three

The mastabas built during the First and Second Dynasties were decorated with the palace façade motif derived from the enclosure wall of the contemporary royal palace as well as the funerary enclosures of kings in this period. First-dynasty mastabas had plastered and painted exteriors, though this feature apparently did not continue into the Second Dynasty. Though the first mastabas had storage chambers, storage moved to the substructure during the course of the First Dynasty. A staircase led to these storage chambers and the burial chamber. The mastaba became a solid brick block with retaining walls and a rubble core. On the east side of the mastaba, architects placed two offering niches where the living could make offerings. Later, architects built exterior chapels on the east side of the tomb, in addition to interior chapels shaped like a corridor, and cruciform chapels on the interior. The living used all of these places to make offerings to the dead. Yet, no definite progression of these types can currently be deduced. They continued into the Third Dynasty as the typical burial for the wealthy, even as kings began to build step pyramids.

Fourth-Dynasty Mastabas

At the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty (2625-2500 B.C.E.), mud brick continued to be the main construction material of mastabas with some elements such as lintels—the top element of a doorway that rests on the sides of the doorway called jambs—made of stone. By the time Khufu built the Great Pyramid, however, all of the surrounding mastaba tombs were limestone. Probably this change is due to the fact that these mastabas belonged to the very richest non-royal people. Most of them were at least relatives of the royal family and held high office in the bureaucracy. The mastaba itself was mostly solid with a corridor that led to two chapels on the east side, built over shafts excavated into the bedrock. The shaft extended to the roof of the mastaba that gave the only access to it and to the burial chamber. At the bottom of the shaft a tunnel extending to the west led to the burial chamber. A stone sarcophagus, decorated with the palace façade motif similar to the older superstructures, rested in a niche in the west wall. A canopic chest—the name given to the container holding the mummified lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines—lay buried in a niche either on the south or southeast wall. Egyptians employed elaborate measures to thwart tomb robbers, such as filling the tunnel with rubble after the burial or inserting large blocking stones. These precautions were largely unsuccessful. Nearly all of the Old Kingdom mastabas were robbed in antiquity.

Fifth—and Sixth—Dynasty Mastabas

The superstructure of Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty mastabas (2500-2170 B.C.E.) was more complex than the earlier, solid-core mastabas. Designers now included interior chapels in the superstructure. These chapels were often L-shaped, though cruciform (cross-shaped) chapels also existed. The overall size of these chapels was only a tiny part of the solid core of the structure. Very wealthy people began to include interior chapels with multiple rooms sometimes connected by columned halls near the end of the Fifth Dynasty and beginning of the Sixth Dynasty. More and more, the mastaba began to resemble a nobleman’s house. Stairs to the roof from the interior of the mastaba allowed access to the burial shaft that continued to be accessed there. The burial shaft extended through the mastaba core then continued into the bedrock. A tunnel led west to the burial chamber. In the burial chambers of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties designers buried the deceased in a pit excavated into the bedrock, and placed a stone lid over the pit after the mummy’s burial.

The False Door

The structure in mastaba tombs known as the false door is a stylized model of a door. It combines an offering place, door jambs, a lintel, and a stela, each carved from stone, though some Third-dynasty examples are wood. The name of the deceased was inscribed on each element, along with his or her titles. If there were two false doors in the western interior wall of the mastaba, the southern one was inscribed for the deceased tomb owner while the northern one was inscribed for his wife. The stela above the false door was often decorated with an image of the deceased at the symbolic funerary meal as well as images of the deceased’s family performing rituals that ensured continued life in the next world. The false door, according to Egyptian belief, allowed the ka (soul) of the deceased to travel between the world of the living and the world of the dead and deliver food offerings to the deceased, one of the ka’s main functions after death.

Opposing Trends

It is striking that Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty mastabas are so much bigger and more elaborate than Fourth-dynasty mastabas. This trend is exactly the opposite of the changes from Fourth to Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty royal pyramids, which became smaller over the same time period. These trends suggest again that resources were increasingly directed away from the royal pyramid and instead to other goals during the course of the Old Kingdom.

Domestic Architecture in the Old Kingdom

Planned Towns

Archaeologists have discovered only a few Old Kingdom towns, all of which are located adjacent to or in Old Kingdom pyramid complexes. The towns demonstrate both the problems that the central government faced in maintaining pyramid complexes and also the way the original function of many buildings was quickly lost as squatters occupied buildings. The pyramid town at Abu Sir was located along the south and east walls of the pyramid temple of King Neferirkare (2472-2462 B.C.E.). Against an inner enclosure wall, there were nine mud brick houses in a row running south and southeast with a tenth house at the northeast corner of the temple. These houses were home to the scribes of the Abu Sir Papyri, the only ancient evidence of the day-to-day function of the pyramid complexes. Given the number of people mentioned in the Abu Sir Papyri lists of rations, there was probably another town, not yet discovered by modern archeologists, somewhere nearby. This pyramid temple/pyramid town demonstrates one of the basic problems which all states or institutions face when constructing large buildings: maintenance. The hastily finished columns of the forecourt were originally wood. Termites apparently destroyed the wooden columns fairly soon after completion, and haphazard repairs replaced the wood with less attractive mud brick supports. This kind of repair was probably typical given the administrators’ diminishing resources and increasing responsibilities. By the end of the Old Kingdom, there were twenty pyramid complexes to maintain. It is clear from the treatment they received that the Old Kingdom state had no policy for maintaining historic buildings. It was not until the New Kingdom that kings began to replace mud brick structures in temples in the towns with stone construction. For example, Ramesses II’s son Khaemwase tried to restore some of the important Old Kingdom buildings in the Memphis area.

Changing the Function of Buildings

The pyramid town at the valley temple of Menkaure shows even more clearly the course of events at Old Kingdom pyramid complexes as old temple endowments could no longer support the original intentions of the builders. Since the valley temple of Menkaure is today too ruined to allow meaningful views of the original intentions of the builder, it is useful to imagine the valley temple of Khafre, his immediate predecessor, as the prototype of the original intentions of the builder. We will then follow the history of Menkaure’s valley temple as it changed from a holy site to a village. Today’s visitor to the valley temple of Khafre at Giza can see the massive walls of white limestone which create an overwhelming sense of peace and majesty, as must have been originally intended. At Menkaure’s valley temple the statuary which had been prepared for the building would have added even more to the atmosphere, but the walls were left unfinished after Menkaure’s premature death. His successor, Shepseskaf, finished the building in mud brick, which must have reduced the majestic effect considerably. Gradually workmen transformed the temple into a fortified mud brick village. Some 300 years after the temple’s original completion, it would have been unrecognizable to its builders. In the village, by the Sixth Dynasty, an additional entranceway supported by two columns had been constructed which led to a vestibule with four columns supporting the roof. A right turn then led to the main courtyard, now filled with mud brick houses and granaries. In modern times, archaeologists discovered the famous statues of Menkaure now in the Boston and in the Cairo museums in the rooms originally designed for supply storage. At some point during the Old Kingdom, a flood caused some damage to the building. The repairs to that damage led to the remodeling of the building for the temple’s new use as a village rather than a temple. The restorations were, in fact, a formal recognition of the new use of the building. Eschewing use of the old sanctuary, workers set up a small shrine in a room with four columns. Four statues of Menkaure were set up there on an altar made from an old worn slab of alabaster set up on two upright stones. In order to reach this makeshift sanctuary, the priest would walk through a mud brick village. All of the associated archaeological material in this village suggest that squatters built it and lived in it during Dynasty Six. A decree of Pepi II found in the inner gateway suggests that this village would have been a normal town in this later period. This situation was certainly very far from Menkaure’s and even his successor Shepseskaf’s intentions for the building.

Transition to the Middle Kingdom

Nebhepetre Mentuhotep

Between the end of Dynasty 6 (2170 B.C.E.) and the inauguration of the Middle Kingdom in the Mid-eleventh Dynasty (2008 B.C.E.) royal architecture did not exist because the central government had collapsed. Egypt was ruled by provincial officials. Royal architecture in the Middle Kingdom begins again with King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, the founder of the Middle Kingdom. Nebhepetre Mentuhotep was among the most famous kings in ancient Egyptian history. He reestablished the central government of Egypt after the First Intermediate Period (the period without central government from 2130-2008 B.C.E.), and ushered in a unified period now called the Middle Kingdom about 2008B.C.E. Kings for the next 1,000 years claimed Nebhepetre Mentuhotep as an ancestor because they believed it helped them establish their own legitimacy to rule Egypt.

Mentuhotep’s Funerary Temple and Tomb

The funerary temple for Mentuhotep was unlike those built by his predecessors in ruling Egypt, the kings of the Old Kingdom who built pyramid complexes. Instead Nebhepetre Mentuhotep built a temple and tomb based on local traditions in Thebes, the area where he was born. For reasons unknown, only Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled approximately 500 years after him, imitated his temple. The major architecture during his reign was his tomb and temple built in Deir el Bahri on the west bank of the Nile opposite modern Luxor. This region is also known as Thebes. Deir el Bahri is surrounded by cliffs that mark the beginning of the Sahara. The tomb itself was carved out of the mountain. Directly at the base of the mountain, Mentuhotep’s builders constructed a T-shaped platform with the longer part of the “T” extending from the mountain and the wider part of the “T” stretching north and south. Priests could access the platform by a long causeway that formed the entrance to the building. Approaching from the causeway, the priest would reach an area called the central edifice, 22.2 meters (72.8 feet) square. A columned ambulatory (a sheltered walkway) surrounded a central core that has been reconstructed in three different ways. The original excavator, Swiss archaeologist Edouard Naville, reconstructed the now destroyed central core as a pyramid. He knew that the Abbott Papyrus, written hundreds of years after this temple’s construction, described this building as a mer, the ancient Egyptian word for pyramid. The German archaeologist Dieter Arnold, however, restudied the blocks from the temple in the 1970s and demonstrated that the walls of the central edifice were not strong enough to support a pyramid as a central core. Arnold argued that the word mer during the time of the writing of the Abbott Papyrus meant only “tomb,” and no longer meant “pyramid” exclusively, and reconstructed a cube on the central edifice. The German archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann subsequently suggested that a mound was built on the central edifice. This mound would be a reference to the sand mounds found in the most ancient Egyptian funerary structures at Abydos. This reconstruction, though, is purely hypothetical. Behind the ambulatory is a hypostyle hall, literally a room filled with columns. This room contained eighty octagonal columns leading to a rock-cut niche containing a statue of the king. The king appears to stride directly out of the mountain. A tunnel cut in the bedrock leads to the burial chamber.

Other Architectural Elements

The royal tomb itself is cut into the mountain. A tunnel 44.9 meters (147 feet) under the mountain and 150 meters (492 feet) long leads to a granite-lined vault. An alabaster shrine, surrounded by basalt, filled the burial chamber, and probably contained the king’s mummy in a wooden sarcophagus. A garden surrounded the causeway that led up to the central edifice. The designer planted 53 tamarisk trees and a large sycamore fig in the garden. Twelve statues of Mentuhotep dressed as Osiris, the king of the dead, faced the east. At some point the statues were decapitated though it is not known why. The English Egyptologist Howard Carter, who later discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, excavated the Secondary Tomb after a horse stumbled over it. The tomb thus gained the name Bab el-Hosan (“Gate of the Horse”). There Carter found a forecourt and open trench enclosed with mud brick leading to a tunnel. A statue of Mentuhotep wrapped in linen as if it were a mummy lay in a chamber at the end of the tunnel. The Bab el-Hosan probably represented the same kind of secondary royal burial known as early as the First Dynasty. These secondary or subsidiary burials formed a part of the early complexes in Abydos and in Old Kingdom Pyramid complexes.

Unique Structure

The funerary temple built by Nebhepetre Mentuhotep is difficult for Egyptologists to understand. The building has nearly no precedents and no successors. This originality, which modern people prize, was unusual in ancient Egypt. Later kings would return to imitating the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom. The lack of similar buildings makes it impossible to restore the damaged parts with any certainty.

The Pyramids of the Middle Kingdom

Revival of Old Kingdom Traditions

Amenemhet I (c. 1938-1909 B.C.E.) and Senwosret I (c. 1919-1875 B.C.E.), the first two kings of the Twelfth Dynasty, built pyramid complexes in the area near Memphis which revived the traditions of pyramid building practiced in Dynasties Four to Six (2625-2170 B.C.E.) and signaled a return to the Old Kingdom capital in the north. Yet it is clear that kings devoted fewer resources to pyramid building at the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.) than had been allocated for the projects built in the Old Kingdom. Little remains of these relatively poorly built complexes. Innovative building techniques used for these structures appear to be attempts to substitute sand fill or mud brick for solid masonry construction. As a result of these new, cheaper techniques, little remains of the Twelfth-dynasty royal pyramid complexes. The pyramids built by the later kings of the Twelfth Dynasty—Amenemhet II (1876-1842 B.C.E.), Senwosret II (1844-1837 B.C.E.), Senwosret III (c. 1836-1818 B.C.E.), and Amenemhet III (1818-1772 B.C.E.)—reflect attempts to introduce new elements to the pyramid complex imported from Theban traditions. They also revived traditions of pyramid building from the time of Djoser (2675-2625 B.C.E.). These changes suggest that both Senwosret III and Amenemhet III had reconceived their roles as kings in a way that recalled traditions preceding the dominance of the sun cults of the Fourth through Sixth Dynasties. The details of these changes are unfortunately lost because these buildings are also very poorly preserved.

Amenemhet I’S Pyramid at Lisht

When Amenemhet I (1938-1909 B.C.E.) moved the Egyptian capital back to the Memphis area from Thebes, he established a new town called Itj-tawy (“Seizer of the Two Lands”). No one has yet discovered the location of Itjtawy, though it likely was close to Lisht, the site of Amenemhet I’s pyramid. Though Amenemhet I used the form of Old Kingdom pyramids, his building techniques differed greatly. The core of his pyramid included limestone blocks, mud brick, sand, debris, and relief sculpture that had been removed from Khufu’s temples at Giza. Some Egyptologists believe that Khufu’s relief was included to provide a spiritual connection to the earlier king. The pyramid complex of Amenemhet I resembled the standard Old Kingdom pyramid complex. Though poorly preserved today, it included a pyramid temple, causeway, and valley temple. Though the lack of preservation hinders extensive architectural commentary, some Theban features are noteworthy. The causeway was open to the sky, more similar to Nebhepetre Mentuhotep’s causeway at Deir el Bahri than to Khufu’s roofed causeway in Giza. In addition, the architect placed the pyramid temple on a terrace slightly below the pyramid, not unlike the terraced plan of contemporary Theban tombs such as Nebhepetre Mentuhotep’s funeral temple. It is possible that Amenemhet I thought of these features as customary since he also originated in the Theban area.

The Pyramid of Senwosret I at Lisht

Today the pyramid of Senwosret I (1919-1875 B.C.E.) is a 23-meter (75-foot) high mound of mud brick. Originally the pyramid was 105 meters (344 feet) square at the base and 61.26 meters (201 feet) high. The Great Pyramid was more than twice as high and twice as wide at the base than Senwosret’s pyramid, but the smaller size is similar to the pyramids built in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. The construction of Senwosret’s pyramid was innovative, but represents a wrong turn in construction techniques. Senwosret’s builders constructed an internal skeleton made from limestone walls to form a pyramid. They filled the skeleton with roughly shaped stones. They then faced the pyramid with fine limestone blocks that were joined with wooden cramps, similar to clamps that held two stones together. These cramps probably weakened the overall structure rather than strengthened it since the wood buckled under the weight of the stone. The interior burial chamber of the pyramid is under the water table and has not been explored in modern times. The entrance was from the north, similar to traditional pyramid complexes built in the Old Kingdom. The major elements of an Old Kingdom pyramid complex were present in this Middle Kingdom complex, including a subsidiary pyramid located at the southeast corner of the main pyramid, a pyramid temple on the east side of the pyramid (though little of it remains today except for piles of mud brick), and a closed causeway leading to a valley temple which has not yet been discovered. The causeway contained at least eight complete statues of Senwosret I dressed as Osiris, the divine king of the dead. The statues on the south side of the causeway wore the White Crown of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt) while the statues on the north side wore the Red Crown of Lower Egypt (northern Egypt). The complex also included nine queen’s pyramids. Queen Neferu, Senwosret’s wife, occupied the first. A second was the burial place of Princess Itayket, the king’s daughter.

The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III

Senwosret III (1836-1818 B.C.E.) built his pyramid complex at Dahshur, the site first occupied by King Sneferu at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty (2626-2585 B.C.E.). Yet Senwosret III did not imitate Sneferu’s plan that led to the Fourth-dynasty type pyramid complex. Instead Senwosret III began the revival of Djoser’s Third-dynasty type funeral monument with a dominating north/south axis. He built a “true” pyramid 105 meters (345 feet) square and 78 meters (256 feet) high that contrasts with Djoser’s step pyramid. Yet, the arrangement of the parts of the complex follow Djoser’s pattern while incorporating some of the Twelfth-dynasty features of pyramid complexes. The entrance passage on the west side is a marked change from previous pyramid entrances, which were located on the north side. A chapel located on the north side of the pyramid perhaps reflects the older tradition, as does a small temple located on the east side of the pyramid. Seven queen’s pyramids remind the viewer of the nine queen’s pyramids built by Senwosret I at his pyramid complex at Lisht. These more traditional structures were built early in the reign. Sometime later in the reign, Senwosret III added the south temple and a paneled enclosure wall with an entrance at the southeast corner. Though the large south temple was destroyed, perhaps sometime in the New Kingdom, enough decoration remains to suggest that it was the location of the Jubilee Festival (sed). Again, these elements recall Djoser’s complex at Saqqara.

Senwosret III’s Abydos Tomb

Not only did Senwosret III revive architectural elements of Djoser’s Third-dynasty pyramid complex, he also revived First- and Second-dynasty practice by building a tomb in Abydos, the traditional cult center for the god Osiris. The German archaeologist Dorthea Arnold suggested that his actual burial took place in the now-destroyed temple the king built in the south. If true, it would demonstrate that kings of the Twelfth Dynasty were ultimately more comfortable with older, Upper Egyptian customs than they were with the customs of the Old Kingdom kings who ruled in the Fourth through Sixth Dynasties. Senwosret III and his son Amenemhet III, in fact, bridge very ancient traditions with the future customs which return royal burials to Upper (southern) Egypt during the New Kingdom.

Amenemhet III’s Two Pyramid Complexes

Amenemhet III (1818-1772 B.C.E.) built a traditional, Old Kingdom pyramid complex at Dahshur in the first part of his 46-year reign. In the second part of his reign he built a second pyramid complex at Hawara, near the entrance to the Faiyum basin. This second pyramid complex followed the predominately north/south orientation first used by Djoser in the Third Dynasty. As the American archaeologist Mark Lehner observed, Amenemhet III was the last great pyramid builder, but he followed the design of Djoser, the first great pyramid builder, bringing the history of pyramid complexes in Egypt full circle. The pyramid that Amenemhet III built at Dahshur resembles only a tower of mud brick today. Originally, each side measured 105 meters (344 feet) with a height of 75 meters (246 feet). Thus it resembled the pyramid of Senwosret I but slightly shorter. The pyramid had a mud brick core faced with Tura limestone. Two entrances—one from the east, one from the west—led into a complicated series of chambers and tunnels. The interior of this pyramid recalls Djoser’s step pyramid more than any of the simple Old Kingdom interior structures. This pyramid has a ka-chapel, six other small chapels, and burial chambers for two queens. By the fifteenth year of the king’s reign (1803B.C.E.) some of the interior rooms began to collapse. According to Lehner, the foundation of the pyramid was too close to the groundwater, making the earth too soft to support the weight of the building. Also there were too many rooms inside the pyramid with unsupported roofs. It is likely that when the builders realized their mistake they quickly finished the rooms in mud brick. A new pyramid complex at Hawara eventually held Amenemhet III’s burial. Amenemhet III’s pyramid at Hawara was nearly the same size as his pyramid at Dahshur. Again the pyramid was 105 meters (344 feet) on each side. This pyramid was 58 meters (190 feet) tall, a full seventeen meters (56 feet) shorter than the Dahshur pyramid. Clearly the builders at Hawara reduced the angle of the pyramid—resulting in a lower height—in order to avoid the problems they had faced with the Dahshur pyramid. They also greatly reduced the number of interior chambers and tunnels. The burial chamber had only a single entrance from the south, with the southern entrance recalling the general north/south orientation of the building, as was the design of Djoser’s pyramid complex at Saqqara. In general Amenemhet III followed the pattern of Djoser’s pyramid complex when he built at Hawara. The Hawara complex was 385 by 158 meters (1,263 by 518 feet) with the length oriented north/south. The pyramid temple was south of the pyramid, completely unlike the eastern pyramid temples found during the Old Kingdom. The entrance to the walled complex was at the southeast corner, again mirroring Djoser’s choice at Saqqara. The pyramid temple was so vast that ancient Greek and Roman tourists called it the Labyrinth, comparing it to the legendary Labyrinth of Minos in Crete. Today Amenemhet III’s building has almost entirely disappeared, the result of quarrying in later times. Only the descriptions left by the Greek and Roman authors Herodotus (484-430 B.C.E.), Manetho (third century B.C.E.), Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.E.), Strabo (64 B.C.E.-19 C.E.), Pliny (23-79 C.E.), and Pomponius Mela (first century C.E.) allow modern scholars to analyze its meaning. Herodotus thought the Labyrinth surpassed the pyramids in the wonder it inspired. Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Pliny all disagree on the number of rooms and courts in the building, but they all imply that each of the administrative districts of Egypt (nomes) and/or each of the regional gods had a courtyard and room within the Labyrinth. German archaeologist Dieter Arnold recognized that these authors were describing a very large version of Djoser’s Jubilee Festival (sed) courtyard. Here too, each of the nome gods of Egypt was represented with its own small temple or chapel. Clearly Amenemhet III’s pyramid temple represented this very ancient tradition of providing a Jubilee Festival courtyard where the king could celebrate in the next world.

Drawing on Tradition

The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty drew on all of the previous traditions of pyramid building for their new structures. They were clearly aware of Djoser’s pyramid complex in Saqqara, the standard Old Kingdom pyramid complex; Nebhepetre Mentuhotep’s funerary temple; and even the most ancient royal burials at Abydos. Yet they seem to be unaware of the construction techniques practiced by their predecessors. Twelfth-dynasty builders continued to experiment, but never successfully built buildings as sturdy as those built in the Old Kingdom. Moreover, it is never entirely clear what they hoped to accomplish by imitating one ancient tradition after another. Without supporting textual evidence, it might never be possible to do more than recognize the references that each Twelfth-dynasty king made to the past.

Rock-Cut Tombs of the Middle Kingdom

Location, Plans, and Political Power

One indication of the central government’s control over its officials in ancient Egypt was the location and plan of official’s tombs. At times when the central government exercised strong control over the provinces, officials wanted to be buried near the king. This was clearly the case in the Old Kingdom when cities of the dead surrounded the pyramids. These Old Kingdom mastabas were gifts from the king to his top officials. In general their plans were similar since they were all built in the same place by the same people. In contrast, during the early Middle Kingdom, provincial officials preferred to locate their tombs in their home provinces. Nomarchs, the officials who ruled the 42 Egyptian provinces that Egyptologists call nomes, established their own cities of the dead that included many local officials. This tradition of local burial began in the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.), a time when the absence of a central government caused the individual nomes to behave as independent entities. Even with the reestablishment of strong central government in the Twelfth Dynasty, nomarchs who lived during the first four reigns of the period (1938-1837 B.C.E.) preferred burial in their hometowns rather than in Itj-tawy, the national capital. Furthermore, in the Middle Kingdom, local variations in tomb plans were common. Local traditions, especially of rock-cut tombs, grew in Beni Hasan, Bersheh, and Asyut, among other places. Then in the reign of Senwosret III (1836-1818 B.C.E.), the burial of provincial officials returned to the area around the king’s pyramid in relatively similar mastaba tombs. Egyptologists regard this change as evidence that the king had reasserted his authority over the provinces. A comparison of three provincial tombs demonstrates how Egyptologists have analyzed this situation: the tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hasan, the tomb of Djeheutyhotep at Bersheh, and the tomb of Hepdjefa I at Asyut—all built in the early Twelfth Dynasty.

The Tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hasan

Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt is 23 miles south of the modern city of Minya on the east bank of the Nile. Eight of the 39 tombs excavated in the mountains belonged to a succession of men who held the title “Great Overlord of the Oryx Nome,” the ancient name of Beni Hasan. Amenemhet was Great Overlord, or nomarch, during the reign of Senwosret I (1919-1875 B.C.E.). The pathway to his tomb led up the mountain from the cultivated plain in the river valley to a court cut directly into the bedrock of the mountain. The face of the mountain itself was smoothed to form a façade. The façade is supported by two columns, also cut from the mountain itself. The columns are octagonal and support an architrave, the series of beams that columns support. The architrave carries a cornice, a projecting moulding that imitates the ends of rafters made of wood, though carved in stone. The columns taper to the top and carry an abacus, a plain slab of stone balanced between the top of the columns and the bottom of the architrave, while standing on a wide base. The abacus helps to distribute the weight of the architrave over the column. The base also supports the column and spreads its weight on the floor. Though built more than 1,500 years earlier, the columns and architrave resemble classical Greek architecture. The visitor would then pass between the columns into a square room cut into the mountain. The roof of this room is supported by four columns, each with sixteen sides. The columns support two architraves that run from the front to the back of the room. The architraves appear to support three vaults. The vaults spring from the two sidewalls to the architraves on the two columns and another vault between the columns. The columns, architraves, and vaults all were carved from the stone of the mountain. Centered in the rear is a niche containing a statue of Amenemhet, also carved from the mountain itself. Paintings illustrating daily life in the Oryx nome and military training decorate the sidewalls.

The Tomb of Djeheutyhotep at Bersheh

Bersheh is on the east bank of the Nile opposite Mallawi, a modern town in central Egypt. In ancient times it was in the Hare Nome. Djeheutyhotep was the Great Overlord of the Hare Nome during the reigns of Amenemhet II through the time of Senwosret III (1844-1818 B.C.E.). His tomb reflects a local tradition of rock-cut tombs that began in the First Intermediate Period. The court of the tomb stood before a façade cut from the mountain. Two round columns carved at the top to imitate palm leaves supported the entrance to the tomb that is behind the columns and leads upward to a rectangular room. Against the middle of the rear wall are three steps leading up to a shrine that once held a statue. The painted walls depict scenes of daily life, including a famous painting of workmen dragging a colossal statue of Djeheutyhotep. The shape and numbers of columns, shapes of the rooms, and arrangement of the shrine differ from the contemporary tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hasan, indicating that the two traditions of rock-cut tombs developed separately.

The Tomb of Hepdjefa I at Asyut

Asyut is located on the west bank of the Nile at a bend in the river that flows east to west. In ancient times it was the capital of the Lycopolite Nome. The Great Overlords of the Lycopolite Nome built their tombs in their home-towns from the end of the Sixth Dynasty until the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty. Hepdjefa I lived in the time of King Senwosret I and was also a contemporary of Amenemhet of Beni Hasan. Hepdjefa, who lived the farthest away from the seat of central power in Itj-tawy, built for himself the largest tomb known from the Middle Kingdom. It contains seven rooms cut into the mountain along a central axis. A wide passageway leads from a forecourt to a wide rectangular chamber. The rectangular chamber has three doors on the back wall. Two of the doors, located on the sides, lead to small rectangular rooms. The third door, located in the center of the back wall at the top of two steps, leads to another long hall that splits into a U-shaped room. Finally a smaller hallway located in the center of the “U” leads to a small square room. The front rooms contain inscriptions, notably the contract Hepdjefa made with his priests to continue his cult for eternity. The only scenes are in the back shrine. Here low reliefs depict scenes of sacrifice.

Local Traditions and Central Power

In the generations following these three nomarchs, high officials were once again buried around the king’s pyramid. The tombs at a central location were once again uniform in plan. This contrast with the earlier period is very suggestive for historians. The plans and decorations at the tombs of Amenemhet, Djeheutyhotep and Hepdjefa I clearly developed independently. Amenemhet and Djeheutyhotep developed tombs with a small number of rooms. Amenemhet’s tomb utilized a colonnade in the front and four columns in the interior room. Djeheutyhotep used only two columns in the front, but they were carved to resemble palms while Amenemhet’s columns were carved with geometric facets. Hepdjefa’s tomb was even more elaborate with seven rooms, but no columns at all. Decoration also differed. Amenemhet gave much space to depicting military training. Djeheutyhotep emphasized his colossal statue. Hepdjefa recorded an inscription. This variety, especially when it disappears in the reign of Senwosret III, suggests that the nomarchs were also much more independent politically. Thus architecture can be extremely informative about the political history of Egypt.

A Planned Town of the Middle Kingdom: Kahun

Pyramid Town for Senwosret II’s Cult

In 1889 the English archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie, the founder of scientific archaeology in Egypt, excavated the pyramid town he called Kahun. The town was located just over one kilometer from the valley temple of Senwosret II’s pyramid complex at Lahun. The Egyptians built the town to house the priests, administrative personnel, and workers who maintained the cult of Senwosret II at the pyramid after his death. The texts found here reveal that the town’s name was originally Hotep-Senwosret, “Senwosret is Satisfied.” The town’s urban planning reveals the extent of social stratification in this period and the failure of planning to meet everyone’s needs.

The Town’s Function

Beyond proximity to the pyramid complex of Senwosret II, the texts found in the town reveal its function. One group of texts deals almost exclusively with the administration of the pyramid complex. A second group, which has never fully been published, deals with a wider circle of people. Some of the documents deal with places outside Kahun, even including construction at a project in the reign of Amenemhet III, 50-75 years after the town’s founding.

Description of the Town

The town was square, roughly 384 meters by 335 meters. The streets run north/south and east/west in a grid pattern, aligned both with the cardinal points of the compass and the pyramid complex of Senwosret II. Such a grid pattern could only be the result of advance planning. One main street on the north side of the town runs east/west with ten large houses on it that Petrie called mansions. One of the mansions is located on the highest point in town, an area Petrie called the acropolis. On the west side of the town, closest to the pyramid complex, there were 220 small houses. The small houses were located on streets that ran east/west. Each of these streets ran into a wider north/south street that led to the gate nearest the valley temple. The town’s plan clearly reveals two social classes living in separate quarters.

Elite Houses

The large houses built for the elite were 2,520 square meters (27,125 square feet)—huge houses in any time or place. A staircase carved into the bedrock led from street level to the house on the acropolis. The house itself appears similar to the other large houses on the street, but Petrie believed this house belonged to the mayor because of its position. All the elite houses were rectangular in shape with internal divisions that were also a series of rectangles. The archaeologist Barry Kemp has compared the house plans at Kahun with contemporary models of houses found in tombs. He found that the focus of the house was a central courtyard that often contained a pool and garden. The walls surrounding the court were plastered and painted in black, blue, yellow, and white. A portico at one end of the courtyard had wooden columns, also brightly painted. Even the flat roof of the portico was painted blue with gold stars on the underside. From the courtyard, it was easy to reach a reception room, the equivalent of an American living room. This room usually had four columns supporting the roof. Arranged around the reception room were bedrooms with built-in platforms for beds in alcoves. Arranged around the bedrooms were additional, smaller courtyards that allowed light and air into them. The house also had workrooms and granaries to store grain. The models show that these workrooms included a bakery, brewery, cattle shed, and butchering area. These houses provided a lot of space and privacy to the members of the elite class at Kahun.

Small Houses

The small houses contained about 120 square meters (1,291 square feet). According to the surviving texts, the people who lived there were manual laborers, soldiers, low-level scribes, doorkeepers for the temple, and singers and dancers of both sexes for the temple. The houses themselves have no regular plan, though they are all basically rectangular in outline and also in the internal divisions. The English archaeologist Barry Kemp suggests that the residents remodeled an original standard plan to suit each family’s needs. A series of census documents for the town provides a glimpse of who lived in these houses and the function of these dwellings. The soldier Hori, his wife Shepset, and their son Sneferu originally occupied one house. At some point Shepset’s mother and five sisters joined the household, raising the number of residents from three to nine. By the time Sneferu was an adult, his mother, grandmother, and three aunts lived in the house with him. This fluctuation shows the likelihood that the residents made internal adjustments to the plan to accommodate larger and smaller numbers of people living in them at different times.

New Kingdom Temples

New Kingdom

The New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) was the period of Egypt’s greatest geographical extent. At the end of the Middle Kingdom (about 1630 B.C.E.), a Semitic-speaking ethnic group ruled the eastern delta, closest to the Sinai Desert and the northern portion of Egypt. Whether a conquest or gradual infiltration of peoples, this group called the Hyksos (from the Egyptian term heka-hasut, meaning “rulers of foreign countries”) ruled the northern portion of the country. The New Kingdom commenced when a series of princes who ruled in Thebes in Upper (southern) Egypt drove the Hyksos out of Egyptian territory. They eventually ruled a united Egypt and expanded their rule to Syria in the northwest and well into the modern Sudan in the south. Taxes coming from these regions made Egypt the richest country in the Mediterranean world at the time and led to increased investments in architecture.


Since the nineteenth century, Egyptologists have classified New Kingdom temples as either a cult temple for a god or a mortuary temple for the deceased king. The false perception of the god’s temple as a place where the Egyptians celebrated a permanently established cult and the mortuary temples as a place to hold a funeral fostered this division. Egyptologists such as Gerhard Haeney, Dieter Arnold, and Alexander Badawy recognized that, from an Egyptian perspective, the so-called mortuary temple is a specific kind of permanent cult temple. In the mortuary temple, the deceased king is one of the minor gods worshipped in a cult primarily devoted to Amun, the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon during the New Kingdom. The cult continued in a mortuary temple long beyond the day of the king’s funeral. The architectural plans for gods’ temples and mortuary temples are very similar. The major difference between the two stems from the numerous additions kings made to gods’ temples over long periods of time. While kings often added to gods’ temples—obscuring their original plans—temples that included a deceased king’s cult usually had no major additions. Thus in the following analysis of New Kingdom temples the royal mortuary temple will be treated as a specific kind of god’s temple rather than a completely different sort of temple altogether.

Typical God’s Temple

A god’s temple was his house, i.e. his dwelling place. The most common ancient Egyptian words for “temple” were per(house), or hout (mansion, estate). Beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.E.), temple architects developed a standard plan that resembled the three-part plans of ordinary houses and of royal palaces: the forecourt, the public room, and the private rooms. Multiple additions made to important temples like Amun’s temple at Karnak often obscure the original plan. Thus the “standard plan” does not really refer to any one temple but to the necessary component parts, and is a useful tool for analyzing individual temples. The three parts of the standard temple plan are an open forecourt leading to a shrine called the pronaos, the public room known as the hypostyle hall, and the private rooms which in a temple are called the naos or shrine. The forecourt in a temple parallels the courtyard immediately beyond the gateway in an Egyptian house. The pronaos in a temple parallels the typical vestibule in a house, while the hypostyle hall is usually shaped as a broad hall, wider than it is long. These are parallel to similarly shaped public rooms in a house. The naos, or shrine, housed the statue of the god and parallels the private bedrooms belonging to the family in a typical Egyptian house. In a temple, the architect also emphasized the dramatic contrasts of light and dark between the public rooms and private rooms. In addition, the floor gently rose as a visitor proceeded from the entrance to the naos, creating a sense that the visitor ascended from the secular sphere outside the temple to the heavenly sphere of the god in the naos. A mud brick wall surrounding the entire temple, called the temenos wall, contributed to the sense of separation from the secular world inside the temple.

The Entrance to a Standard Temple

Egyptologists call the entrance to a standard temple the pylon. The pylon often stands at the end of a processional way lined with sphinxes. Often colossal statues of the king, both seated and standing, were positioned in front of the pylon. The pylon itself was divided into two towers and a lower, central doorway. The towers are rectangular with sloping sides. The ascending edges of the towers are decorated with torus—a semi-circular or three-quarter circular molding. The top edges of the towers are decorated with a cavetto cornice—a concave or hollow molding. Both types of molding suggest the origins of the pylon tower in the wood, mat, and reed structures built during the Predynastic Period. The tower was often several stories high and contained a staircase inside. The doorway itself was lower than the towers and decorated with a winged sun disk. The door was usually wood with occasional metal covering. The pylon was most often built of stone, though archaeological remains of mud brick pylons are known. Artists decorated pylons with scenes of the king protecting Egypt from its enemies. Cedar flagpoles were positioned in front of the pylon, often in niches cut into the tower structure. These flagpoles were taller than the pylon tower and supported banners that identified the temple. In Egyptian the pylon was called the bekhen. Egyptian texts describe the pylon as the “luminous mountain horizon of heaven.” The shape of the pylon resembles the hieroglyph that depicts two mountain peaks with the sun rising between them. The sun in the case of the temple pylon is the god striding out of the temple doorway. This symbolism was particularly appropriate for deities associated with the sun such as Amun, Re, and Atum, though the entrances to all temples took the form of pylons.

The Forecourt in the Standard Temple Plan

The forecourt—known in Egyptian as weba—stands immediately behind the pylon in the standard temple plan. It was normally rectangular, the same width as the hypostyle hall behind it. In some temples the fore-court contains an altar for offerings. Rows of columns support a roof for a portico running on four sides of the forecourt. A ramp in the center of the back wall leads the visitor into the hypostyle hall. The forecourt was part of the public area where the common people observed the procession of the god, a major part of temple ritual. There also the people could see relief scenes carved on the sidewalls that depict the king in both historical and religious activities. Historical activities might include leading the army to victory, while religious scenes showed the king worshipping the gods. The sunny central court served to set up the contrast between dark and light as the visitor proceeded through the dark gateway into the light of the courtyard.

The Hypostyle Hall in the Standard Temple

Egyptologists gave the Egyptian wadjit the name “hypostyle hall.” This name is a Greek word meaning “full of columns” since it contains many more columns than is needed to support the roof. The hypostyle hall is wider than it is long. The central axis of the building passes through its middle aisle. At least in the Ramesside Period (1292-1075 B.C.E.), the columns along the central aisle are taller than the columns on the sides of the building. This allows for a roof that is higher in the center than on the sides. The gap between the roof resting on the taller columns and the roof resting on the shorter columns, covered by a stone grill, allowed diffused light to enter the building. This arrangement is called aclerestory. The internal decoration of the hypostyle hall depicts the king making offerings to various gods. In some hypostyle halls there were divisions among the “hall of appearance,” “hall of offering,” and “intermediate hall.” These names suggest but do not entirely explain the use of the hypostyle hall. The “appearance” of the god was a ritual where certain people could see the god’s statue. The offerings were the opportunity to feed the god.

The Sanctuary in the Standard Temple Plan

Just as the back rooms of an Egyptian house were the private family rooms, the back of an Egyptian temple is the sanctuary (naos)—the private rooms where the god sleeps, dresses, and washes. The god, in this case, was a statue, often made from precious metal. Only the high priests entered this room to assist the god in his daily routine. In some cases the private rooms also included a storage area for the god’s barque, a boat that priests used to transport the god in procession. Often there were multiple sanctuaries in a temple to accommodate the worship of multiple gods in one temple.

Purification Facilities

Temples often included a “pure court” used to slaughter animals for sacrifice and an artificial lake where the priests washed. In some rituals the lake was also used for the god’s ritual voyages. The lakes were sometimes shaped like a “U” that enclosed part of the temple or were rectangular.

Temple Orientation in the New Kingdom

The determination of temple orientation is much more complex in the New Kingdom than in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Old and Middle Kingdom temples’ orientation falls into two groups. The so-called Djoser type favored a north/south axis. The Meidum type favored an east/west axis. Research conducted by Alexander Badawy, the Egyptian Egyptologist, shows that New Kingdom temples’ orientation stemmed from their relationship to the Nile River or the local canal that led from the Nile to the temple entrance. The temple axis seems always to have been perpendicular to the Nile or the canal. Thus temples’ orientation seems to shift from place to place with the meanders of the river. This is the reason that archaeologists refer to “local north,” when describing a particular building, a concept that corresponds with the direction that the river flows downstream.

Thebes and the Estate of Amun

Name and Location of Thebes

Thebes, located on the east and west banks of the Nile River around modern Luxor, was known as Waset in Egyptian, capital of the fourth Upper Egyptian nome (province). The Greeks called it Thebes, identifying it with one of their own cities after they conquered Egypt in the fourth century B.C.E. Some scholars believe that the name Thebes was a Greek pronunciation of Egyptian ta-ipet, meaning “The Harem,” that Egyptians used to describe the Luxor temple. In addition to the Luxor temple, the Karnak temple, the temple of Medinet Habu, and the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri form the major monuments that scholars have identified as the Estate of Amun during the New Kingdom. Each of them played an important role in the major festivals of the god Amun, chief of the Egyptian pantheon.

Karnak Temple: Amun’s Home

The Karnak temple was the god Amun’s home. It is the largest Egyptian temple ever built. It stands inside an enclosure wall that surrounds 16,000 square meters (172,222 square feet). Scholars have worked to excavate and record Karnak since the late nineteenth century and still have not nearly completed this task. The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty built the first structure on the site, but the present plan originates in the Eighteenth-dynasty remodeling of the site. At this time the government evacuated and leveled the whole town surrounding Karnak to provide a platform for the new temple. Essentially the plan established a temple perpendicular to the river with an axis that ran east/west. The kings of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties continued to expand the temple, adding a north/south axis. In total there are ten pylons at Karnak, reflecting the numerous additions to the building continuing into the second century C.E.Within the temple complex are precincts dedicated to the god’s wife, Mut, and their son, Khonsu. There are also smaller chapels dedicated to Egypt’s other important gods, including Montu, the war god; Osiris, king of the dead; and Ptah, the chief god of Egypt’s northern capital, Memphis. The mass of the people went to the eastern gate of the temple where the shrine of “Amun of the Hearing Ear” allowed ordinary people to approach the god with requests. Royal statues in the temple and at least two festival temples dedicated to the royal ancestors emphasized the connection between Amun and the king. Egyptian religion was clearly part of Egyptian politics. North of the main temple was an additional temple dedicated to the wargod, Montu. South of the main structures was the Temple of Mut, the mother goddess. Though the temple as a whole was dedicated to the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon, Amun (also called Amun-Re), one of the most important buildings in it was the “Festival Hall of Thutmose III.” At the entrance to the building stand four colossal statues of Thutmose III dressed and posed as the god Osiris. These statues established for the ancient viewer the connection between the temple and the office of king. Osiris was the first king of Egypt, according to Egyptian myth. When he died, his son Horus became rightful king while Osiris became king of the dead. All living kings of Egypt identified themselves as Horus while the deceased king was Osiris. Inside this limestone building, the columns resembled the poles of a military tent, recalling Thutmose III’s numerous military expeditions. Recalling these expeditions also emphasized the king’s role as Egypt’s protector. The decoration of the interior also established the king’s role as ruler of the universe. Relief sculpture includes a series of scenes depicting the underworld god Sokar, the solar god Re, the procreative form of the god Amun, the Jubilee Festival called sed, and the king’s ancestors. Re and Sokar associated the king with all that is above and below the earth. The procreative Amun helped the king assure the fertility of the earth. The Jubilee Festival—perhaps the most ancient of all Egyptian festivals as was demonstrated in the architectural layout of the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara—renewed the king’s power in a perpetual cycle. Finally, the king’s ancestors helped to establish him as the “correct” Horus in a succession of Osiris and Horus who ruled the underworld and Egypt throughout eternity. This building, along with another festival hall built by Amenhotep II but now destroyed, shows the close connection between worship of Amun at this temple and the legitimacy of the king.

Processions and Processional Ways

The four major temples of the Estate of Amun—Karnak, Luxor, Medinet Habu, and Deir el Bahri—were linked in ancient times by processional ways and axis alignments designed for the celebration of processional festivals. A processional way is a road, permanently decorated for use in a formal parade. Axis alignment refers to the practice of building two distant structures on the same axis so that one imaginary straight line would pass through the center of both buildings. One processional way ran from Karnak to Luxor, about three kilometers (1.86 miles) both on the east bank of the river. Karnak’s east/west axis was aligned with Deir el Bahri’s east/west axis across the river. Luxor and Medinet Habu were also aligned with each other across the river. The main festivals celebrated at these temples featured the god’s procession from Karnak to Luxor (Feast of Opet), from Luxor to Medinet Habu (Feast of Amunemopet), and from Karnak to Deir el Bahri (Feast of the Valley). The stone-paved processional routes passed through a series of pylons in Karnak. Lines of sphinxes stood on both sides of the street. Along the way were small, formal shrines that provided a place for the priests carrying the god’s barque, a ceremonial boat, to rest on a stone pedestal. The route from Karnak led south to Khonsu’s temple, Mut’s temple, and to the Luxor temple. The most important of these processional festivals was the Feast of Opet.

Feast of Opet

The Feast of Opet took place annually in late August during the New Kingdom. On the Egyptian calendar this was the second month of the season of inundation when the Nile flooded. In the reign of Hatshepsut the festival lasted eleven days, but by the time of Ramesses III it lasted 27 days. In Hatshepsut’s time the festival procession proceeded along the north/south axis of the temple, exited the south gate, and followed the processional way to the Luxor temple. The priests paused six times at stations where they could support the barque on a stand in a sacred booth. Amun’s barque was accompanied by soldiers, dancers, and singers who provided part of the spectacle of the procession. In Ramesses III’s time the temples distributed to the people 11,341 loaves of bread, 85 cakes, and 385 jars of beer during each day of the festival. During Hatshepsut’s reign the procession returned to Karnak from Luxor by water, sailing on the Nile.

Luxor Temple: Women’s Quarters of Amun’s Estate

The present Luxor temple, built by Amenhotep III and expanded by Rameses II, represented the women’s quarters in Amun’s estate. The Egyptians called it ta-ipet, “the harem.” During the Opet Festival, the Egyptians celebrated the divine birth of the king at this location. This divine birth provided a religious explanation for how the king could be both a human and the genetic son of the god Amun. The Egyptians visualized the genetic relationship literally, as attested in reliefs from both Deir el Bahri and the Luxor temple. They believed that the spirit of Amun inhabited the king’s human father at the moment of conception, an act ritually recreated in the Luxor temple by the king with a living woman, probably the queen, annually during the Opet Festival. Moreover, the act of conception, in Egyptian thought, conveyed a spirit called the royal ka into the fetus of the unborn king. Amun created the royal ka as part of his essence that gave the child possessing the royal ka a legitimate right to rule Egypt. The festival also re-infused the royal ka in the living king. This festival was the main purpose of the inner rooms of the Luxor temple. The king was part of the god’s procession from Karnak to Luxor. The king then entered the inner rooms at the temple and mystically re-enacted both his own conception and his rejuvenation by absorbing the royal ka. Perhaps the best illustration of the way this helped the king is found in King Horemheb’s coronation at Luxor. Horemheb was the second general to become king at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty after the last royal heir, Tutankhamun, died. Horemheb merged his coronation with the Festival of Opet, infusing his originally non-royal self with the royal ka, and thus becoming the legitimate king.

Linking East and West Thebes

In general, Amun’s living quarters were on the east bank of the Nile at Thebes. On the west bank of the river, associated with the land of the dead, lived other forms of Amun inhabited by the spirits of deceased kings. All of the Eighteenth-dynasty kings built temples on the west bank that Egyptologists have called mortuary temples. In reality these temples were residences for forms of Amun that would eventually merge with each of the deceased kings. The two most important locations for these temples were Deir el Bahri and Medinet Habu. Deir el Bahri was the site of the Eleventh-dynasty temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep and of Hatshepsut. Medinet Habu was the site of Ramesses III’s mortuary temple built in the Twentieth Dynasty, but was also recognized as the location of a mound where the gods had created the earth. The Festival of the Valley connected Karnak and Deir el Bahri. The Festival of Amunemopet connected Luxor and Medinet Habu with a procession between them.

Deir El Bahri and the Feast of the Valley

Nebhepetre Mentuhotep built the first mortuary temple in Deir el Bahri in the Eleventh Dynasty, but in the Eighteenth Dynasty the more important temple was the mortuary temple constructed by Hatshepsut. This unique building, based on Nebhepetre Mentuhotep’s neighboring structure, consisted of three terraces connected by two ramps. On the two lower levels are colonnades opposite walls illustrating important events from Hatshepsut’s reign. These relief sculptures include the hauling of obelisks from Aswan for the Karnak temple, Hatshepsut’s divine birth, and the expedition to Punt (probably in Ethiopia) to bring back incense for Amun. This terrace also holds shrines for Hathor, the goddess of the necropolis, and for Anubis, the god of mummification. The third and highest terrace supported a temple for Amun and for Hatshepsut. This temple was the focus of Amun’s annual trip from Karnak to Deir el Bahri to celebrate the Festival of the Valley. During the Festival of the Valley, Amun, his wife Mut, and their son Khonsu visited the deceased kings of Egypt and his incarnation living in Deir el Bahri called Amun Holy of Holies. The images of the gods were ferried across the river in a special barque and then carried from the west bank of the river to the temple. After the reign of Hatshepsut, the statues spent the night in the temple of the reigning king. The procession returned to Karnak the next day. On this occasion many Egyptian families also visited their family tomb, often having a meal there.

Medinet Habu and the Festival of Amunemopet

Ramesses III built the large temple at Medinet Habu that stands on the site today for himself as Amun-United-with-Eternity. Earlier in the time of Thutmose III, there was a temple of the “True Mound of the West” on this site. The mound refers to the place where the god first created the world. By linking the mound to the west, the intention is to affirm that this first creation would continue in the west, the land of the dead. The god Amunemopet, meaning “Amun who is in the Opet” (i.e. the Luxor temple), traveled weekly from the Luxor temple to Medinet Habu to visit the mound temple. This is the final link between the temples of the east and west bank. The statue of the god traveled by barque across the river, then either by a canal or on a road to the Medinet Habu temple. This feast also called for distributions of food and drink to the population.

The Processional Perimeter of the Estate of Amun

The processional routes from Karnak to Luxor, from Karnak to Deir el Bahri with detours to the temples associated with various kings’ cults, and from Luxor to Medinet Habu form a rectangle on the map that delineates the Estate of Amun. The festivals and their processions tie together the major monuments of Thebes and allow for a unitary overview of the sacred places. The individual buildings, however, also functioned as independent units. They each owned and administered land that ultimately provided the upkeep for each building. There seems to be no administrative or economic connection between the different religious units of the Estate of Amun. This fact points to a certain decentralization in the New Kingdom in administration which is not apparent in other periods of Egyptian history.

Egyptian Construction Technology

Quarrying and Transporting Stone

The ancient Egyptians are widely recognized as great engineers, but are also thought to be extremely conservative. There is a real contradiction in these two views. Part of the Egyptians’ greatness included the ability to improvise solutions to technical problems. Innovations allowed the Egyptians to develop new quarrying tools and to increase the weight of stones they hauled over time. Large numbers of people had to be involved in quarrying and transporting stone, which was a dangerous endeavor. The description of a quarrying expedition in the inscription of Amenemhet from the reign of Mentuhotep III emphasizes this reality in that the leader counts among his major accomplishments the fact that the entire crew returned safely to Egypt. This success is associated with miracles, but clearly the Egyptians’ careful study of the technical side of quarrying should receive much of the credit. For example, the Egyptians developed methods for quarrying both hard and soft stones.

Chisels and Axes

There was a development in tools during the roughly 2,300 years from the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) to the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 B.C.E.) as is evident in the different marks the chisels or axes left in different time periods. In the earlier period—the Old and Middle Kingdom—the marks are irregular lines that all curve in one direction. Rosemarie Klemm, a German geologist who extensively studied ancient Egyptian quarries, suggested that these lines are compatible with the soft copper chisels discovered by archaeologists in Egypt, but Dieter Arnold, the German archaeologist, posited that these lines were more likely the marks of stone axes or picks. Early in the New Kingdom the lines left by tools in quarries are longer than those lines made during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. These New Kingdom lines also alternate in direction in a type of herringbone pattern, unlike the earlier lines which all curve in the same direction. R. Klemm suggested these patterns match the harder bronze chisels which had already been in use in Egypt for other purposes since the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.). Arnold again refuted Klemm’s chisel theory and attributed the marks to stone picks or axes. In Ramesside times and later (1292-1075 B.C.E.), the lines left by the tools changed yet again, this time as closely set together lines, longer than the marks made in previous times but again all curving in the same direction. These lines suggested to Arnold the use of a pick-like instrument made of stone since the only bronze chisel in use during this time period was shaped like a bar. Marks that match the bar chisel are commonly found in rock-cut tombs; apparently the builders used the tool to cut a tunnel that they formed into a tomb, rather than to cut blocks for building. Arnold’s suggestion would mean that only the tunneling tool is currently known from archaeological examples. The stone axe or pick that Arnold suggested as a quarrying tool has not yet been recognized in the archaeological record.

Transporting Building Materials

The Egyptians transported stone through both human and animal power. A basic understanding of physics and balance allowed Egyptian workmen to lift and lower heavy loads using, in different periods, pulleys, wedges, ramps, and construction roads. The use of the shaduf in the Ramesside Period to raise water demonstrates that the Egyptians understood the basic physics of lifting heavy weights. Measuring from the beginning of Egyptian history through the New Kingdom, engineers moved increasingly larger stone loads through innovation. Many Egyptian relief sculptures depict men carrying sand, gravel, mud, bricks, timber, and even small stones over long distances from their source near the river to construction sites. Men carried bricks or single small blocks of stone on their shoulders or in slings attached to poles. In the tomb of Rekhmire (reign of Thutmose III, 1479-1425 B.C.E.) drawings depict workmen hauling three bricks on each side in carrying slings. Groups of men also carried bricks and stones in handbarrows with handles on four sides. The oldest known handbarrow dates to Dynasty 3 (2675-2625 B.C.E.). Donkeys still haul building materials in Egypt in the early twenty-first century, carrying up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) for short distances.

Heavy Loads

The Egyptians moved extremely heavy weights beginning as early as the reign of Khufu (2585-2560 B.C.E.) in the Old Kingdom. Some of the heaviest blocks moved by the Egyptians include stones from the Great Pyramid weighing up to sixty tons and spanning as much as eight meters (26 feet) in width. By the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.) the Egyptians regularly moved colossal statues weighing up to 1,000 tons. In almost every period of Egyptian history, there is ample evidence that engineers devised methods of moving massive stones long distances. The gradual increase in the weight of construction-use stones from Khufu’s time to Ramesses II’s time suggests that Egyptian engineers continued to improve their methods for moving stone. Thus in the Middle Kingdom the engineers of Senwosret I (1919-1875 B.C.E.) and Amenemhet III (1818-1772 B.C.E.) devised methods of moving blocks twice as large as Khufu’s Great Pyramid blocks. The kings of the early Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1400 B.C.E.) moved blocks three times heavier than the blocks moved in the Middle Kingdom. Amenhotep III’s (1390-1352 B.C.E.) engineers doubled the weight of construction-use blocks yet again over the earlier Eighteenth Dynasty, only to be topped by Ramesses II’s engineers, who moved blocks thirty percent larger than those moved at the end of Dynasty Eighteen. Ramesses II’s reign seems to mark the end of these gains. Yet kings of the Late Period such as Psamtik II (595-589 B.C.E.) and Amasis (570-526 B.C.E.) moved large-scale monuments weighing as much as 580 tons. The Roman historian Pliny (23-79 C.E.) provided the best description of the transporting of an ancient Egyptian obelisk. According to Pliny, workmen dug a canal from the river to the resting spot of the obelisk, actually tunneling under the obelisk, allowing the ends of it to rest on either bank of the canal. Two vessels traveled up the canal loaded with blocks of stone double the weight of the obelisk, causing the boats to submerge slightly. They then stopped under the obelisk and removed the stones from the boats. Free from the weight of the stones, the boats rose in the water until the obelisk balanced between them. Though long-distance hauling of heavy loads was primarily by boat, transportation from the quarry to the boat and from the boat to the building site forced the Egyptians to develop methods for overland hauling of heavy loads. A relief sculpture in the tomb of Djeheutyhotep dating to Dynasty Twelve (1938-1759 B.C.E.) at Bersheh in Middle Egypt depicts the Egyptians using rollers on skid poles and sledges as tools to enable very large numbers of men to pull the block or statue by ropes fastened around the stone. Liquid poured on the sand or on a construction road made the surface more slippery and allowed the sledge to move more easily.

Rollers on Skid Poles

Egyptian rollers were made from sycamore, a locally grown tree. The archaeological examples that have been excavated are short, with rounded ends and approximately ten centimeters (3.9 inches) wide. The rollers work best on skid poles—a track made of parallel beams. The skid poles keep the rollers moving in the right direction. Such skid poles have been found at the entrances to pyramid corridors where builders used them to roll the closing block into position. For very heavy loads such as obelisks, whole tree trunks were used as rollers.


Sledges are known both from archaeological examples and from relief sculptures that show sledges transporting heavy stone columns and more frequently, funerary goods such as shrines and coffins. Of the examples of sledges found in archaeological contexts, the largest was found near the pyramid of Senwosret III at Dahshur. It is 4.2 meters long and 0.9 meters wide (13.7 by 2.95 feet). The runners are twelve by twenty centimeters (4.7 by 7.8 inches). Four cross beams connect the runners using tongue and groove construction to join them. In tongue and groove construction, all the beams have slotted holes where ropes were attached. A smaller sledge from the time of Senwosret I (1919-1875 B.C.E.), found at Lisht, measures 1.73 by 0.78 meters (5.6 by 2.5 feet). It only has two cross beams but also additional round poles mounted in front of one cross beam and behind the other cross beam. These poles were probably used to attach ropes. The relief representations of sledges show them transporting stone statues, coffins, canopic boxes, and shrines used in tombs. The scene from the causeway of Unas shows sledges transporting granite columns and architraves. These columns are known to be six meters (19.6 feet) long. Thus it seems likely that they were transported on sledges at least seven meters (22.9 feet) long. The most famous transport scene depicts a colossal alabaster statue of Djeheutyhotep on a sledge hauled by 172 men. The men are depicted in four different registers (divisions of the scene by a series of parallel lines), suggesting that they were divided into four columns of workers. Arnold estimated that the statue was seven meters (22.9 feet) high and weighed 58 tons. Another scene from the reign of Ahmose shows three bulls hauling a block that weighed about five tons on a sledge. Finally a scene depicting the transport of Hatshepsut’s 320-ton obelisk found at her temple in Deir el Bahri shows a sledge that must have been 31 meters (101.7 feet) long, probably constructed from whole tree trunks. A sledge could not carry a heavy load over a soft surface such as sand, so the Egyptians prepared paths with limestone chip surfaces, possibly covered with mud. Many representations of sledges show a man pouring water on the road surface in front of the sledge. Henri Chevrier, the French archaeologist, conducted experiments on using an Egyptian sledge in modern times and showed that six men easily moved a 4.8-ton stone over a wet mud surface.


Ropes were essential for almost all construction operations, particularly for hauling stone blocks. Egyptian ropes were made of dom palmfibers, reed, flax grass, sparto grass, halfa grass, or papyrus. The largest archaeological examples of ropes were 20.3 centimeters in circumference and 6.35 centimeters in diameter (7.9 by 2.5 inches). Literary evidence suggests that ropes of 525 to 735 meters (1,722 to 2,411 feet) were manufactured in special cases to move especially heavy loads.