Ancient Egypt: architecture: temples, graves, houses

This is a Dutch video with English subtitles on the Taffeh temple.

Today, Dr Maarten Raven of the antiquities museum did a guided tour, this time on ancient Egyptian architecture.

In three categories: temples. Graves. And houses.

For temples, Dr Raven started with the biggest object of the museum: the Taffeh temple in the entrance hall.

In the 1960’s, the Egyptian government started building a dam south of Aswan in the Nile.

One of the consequences was that a large area in the south of Egypt would be flooded.

The region’s many ancient cultural treasures were threatened to be lost, but UNESCO set up a rescue plan, to which the Netherlands contributed.

By way of thanks, the Egyptian government of President Nasser gave the museum this authentic temple from the village of Taffeh.

It was built about 2000 years ago, by order of the Roman emperor Augustus. However, in traditional Egyptian, not in Roman, style.

Initially, it was devoted to the goddess Isis and later served as a Christian church.

Between 1960 and 1979, the temple has been stripped stone after stone, transported to The Netherlands and reconstructed in the museum’s entrance hall.

Dr Maarten Raven asked: what is typically Egyptian about the architecture of this temple?

First, the walls are not vertical like in most other countries.

They have a tendency to the inside.

This dates from the origins of Egyptian architecture, about 3000 years before the building of the Taffeh temple.

Then, buildings were built with mud bricks.

If you build a vertical wall with mud bricks, it deteriorates soon.

So, you’d better build with inwards tendency.

The Egyptians continued this even when, centuries later, about 2700 BC, they switched to building temples in stone.

So even the late Taffeh temple still has this inward tendency.

Being in southern Egypt, the temple is built in local sandstone.

In northern Egypt, when building in stone began, local limestone was used.

However, this material, like in northern Libyan Cyrenaica, turned out to be not as solid as southern sandstone.

So, later, mainly sandstone was used.

In pre- and early historic Egypt, apart from mud bricks, also reed was used for building.

This also showed its influence in stone buildings, in building elements on edges mimicking reed, even as late as the Taffeh temple.

Egyptian temples are usually symmetric.

The Taffeh temple was built that way as well, though later changes make it look asymmetric now.

Its ornaments include typically Egyptian sun disks and cobra (uraeus) snakes.

Also typically Egyptian in the Taffeh temple is that the columns are not outside, like in a Greek temple, but mainly inside.

Unlike capitals of columns of Greek temples, which look all alike, the six capitals of the Taffeh temple all look different, with variations on papyrus and “palmet” plant images.

There used to be paintings in the Taffeh temple, but they have disappeared.

Bigger Egyptian temples, with sometimes scores of rooms, while small Taffeh has only one, often had reliefs, unlike Taffeh.

There used to be a shrine for goddess Isis in the Taffeh temple, but it is gone.

An idea how it might have looked can be seen also in the museum entrance hall, at the chapel of Pharaoh Amasis.

It was dedicated probably to the god Osiris.

Its statue of the god probably was about 52 centimeter tall.

It was made from granite, occurring in Egypt only near Aswan.

Its roof had the form of a pyramid, probably an image for sun rays.

Then, from temples to graves.

Prehistoric Egyptians first buried their dead in just a hole in the ground.

Then they started building on top of it.

Gradually, buildings evolved looking like benches, called mastaba (Arabic for bench).

Especially the aristocracy, including the kings, had mastaba graves.

By building smaller mastabas on top of bigger ones, first Pharaoh Djoser had the stepped pyramid built at Saqqarah.

On Djoser’s architect Imhotep: here.

Djoser’s successors built the well-known pyramids of Gizeh.

The ancient Greeks counted them among the Seven Wonders of the World.

Today, they are the only one of those seven still standing.

They were probably built by peasants, not by slaves.

As in the Old Kingdom there were not many wars yet, so not many prisoners of war, who, together with convicts, were the slave population, working, eg, in quarries.

In ancient Greece, many people also became slaves by being unable to pay their debts.

According to Dr Raven, this did not happen in ancient Egypt.

There is an article on slavery in Egypt in Toutankhamon magazine, #27.

Pyramids in the Old Kingdom were only for kings.

Around them, mastabas for the kings’ high level officials, so they might serve the king also beyond the grave.

Often, the wife was buried along with the husband and children who had died young in such a grave.

However, children who died as adults had their own graves.

One such grave temple, part of a mastaba, with pictures of birds, fish, and other animals, is in the Leiden museum.

From about 700 year later, 14th century BC, the museum collection includes graves from Saqqara.

Including Osiris columns from Ptahmesgrave.

The museum played a big apart in excavating official Maya’s grave there.

Then, houses, built more often in ancient Egypt than graves, and certainly than temples.

But mostly, from small farm to big Pharaoh’s palace, built in mud bricks.

So, little to nothing left.

We know something about them from small models of houses in graves.

The museum has some of those from the Middle Kingdom (about 2000 BC).

We know something more about housing in Amarna, capital of king Akhenaten, as it was built in the desert.

The museum also has a model of a villa of the high level official Neferhotep in Thebe.

ANCIENT Egyptian temples were aligned so precisely with astronomical events that people could set their political, economic and religious calendars by them. So finds a study of 650 temples, some dating back to 3000 BC: here.

Grave of Amenhotep III: here.

Flint still used in Old Kingdom Egypt: here.

Prehistoric and predynastic Egypt: here.

15 thoughts on “Ancient Egypt: architecture: temples, graves, houses

  1. Egyptologists’ palm nearly extinct.

    Histories: Fruits of the tomb 03 June 2006 news service Stephanie Pain

    When Giuseppe Passalacqua went to Egypt in the 1820s his plan was to do a bit of horse-trading. He soon discovered a more lucrative line of work – excavating ancient tombs and selling off their contents. While Passalacqua found many priceless treasures, unlike most tomb-robbers he also made off with the more mundane. If something could be carried off, it was – right down to the dried-up offerings left to feed the ancients in the afterlife. Among these were some strange shrivelled fruits that have posed a series of puzzles ever since. They came from some sort of palm tree, but not one anyone recognised. Had the tree vanished along with the pharaohs?

    IN 1826 Giuseppe Passalacqua, an Italian horse-trader turned tomb-digger, left Egypt and headed for Paris. His plan was to show off his vast collection of Egyptian antiquities and tempt the French government into buying it for the Louvre. Passalacqua had excavated tombs at several sites in Egypt and had made important discoveries. He was the first to investigate an intact burial, complete with mummy, coffins and funeral offerings, all of which he added to his haul. But although the French were fascinated by all things Egyptian, they baulked at Passalacqua’s price. Disappointed, he took his collection to Berlin, where he sold it to Crown prince Frederick of Prussia for a knock-down price plus a job for life as director of the Berlin Museum.

    Passalacqua’s diligence in stripping tombs clean meant there was plenty in his collection for the serious scientist. For Carl Kunth, Berlin’s leading botanist of the day, the greatest treasure was the assortment of plant material preserved since the days of the pharaohs. Among the bits and pieces, Kunth was intrigued to find three sorts of palm fruit. He recognised dates and the fruits of the doum palm but he couldn’t identify the third. Although he had only dried and shrivelled fruits, Kunth knew they came from a tree that was new to science. He named it Areca passalacquae. Others simply called it the Egyptologists’ palm.

    Eleven years later, in 1837, German adventurer Prince Paul von Württemberg was exploring the desert of northern Sudan when he discovered a distinctive palm tree bearing masses of deep purple, plum-sized fruits. It was more than 20 years before botanists connected the prince’s tree with Passalacqua’s fruits. The Egyptologists’ palm is known today as Medemia argun, the argun palm.

    The palm remained tantalisingly elusive. Occasionally some doughty explorer would stumble across a few in the Nubian desert of north-east Sudan, one of Africa’s driest and most inhospitable places. Two who did, in May 1863, were John Speke and Augustus Grant, fresh from discovering the source of the Nile. Heading back north towards Egypt, they reached the point where the Nile makes a vast westward loop and, bored by what had become a “tame and monotonous” boat ride, they took a short cut across the desert. Their route led them to a desolate, craggy place not far from the modern border with Egypt, where they were astonished to see a line of unfamiliar palms. The purple fruit with its large seed and thin fleshy covering was inedible, Grant reported, but “the wood would answer for beams; and we saw our camel-men make shackles for their camels of its leaves, considering them softer for the feet”.

    By the end of the 19th century even the sporadic sightings from Sudan had begun to dry up. British colonial officials there warned that the grove found by Speke and Grant was in danger of being destroyed by the local people, who wove matting from the palm leaves. The last specimen sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in west London was in 1907. “Then there were no more,” says Bill Baker, head of palm research at Kew. “Botanists accepted that it had probably gone extinct.”

    One mystery had now given way to another: how had a tree so familiar to the ancient Egyptians vanished so completely? The ancient Egyptians seemed to value it highly. Archaeologists have found the fruits at sites dating from early pharaonic times, around 2500 BC, right up to the 7th century, and stretching all the way along the Nile from the far south of Egypt to the delta. Even King Tutankhamen went to the next world with a supply of argun fruits. The tree was cultivated in temples and gardens. It had its own hieroglyph, Mama-n-khanen, to distinguish it from other palms, and is mentioned in a few ancient texts. Enneni, a Theban official living around 1500 BC, left a record of trees in his “garden” that included 10 argun palms. There is even a painting of an argun palm in Enneni’s tomb in the Valley of the Nobles.

    “Even Tutankhamen went to the next world with some argun fruits”The argun palm, it turned out, had not quite vanished. In 1963, Swedish botanist Vivi Täckholm took a group of students from Cairo University to Dungul oasis, a remote spot in the Egyptian part of the Nubian desert. There they found a single argun palm bearing immense clusters of purplish fruits. A search for more trees revealed only seven small seedlings. The following year, a geologist visiting nearby Nakhila oasis reported a lone tree. For Egyptians, the discoveries had a special significance: a tree that had so long been part of their culture was alive and growing in Egypt. It wasn’t extinct – not quite.

    Today, the picture has improved slightly. In 1995, two palm-fanciers mounted an expedition to look for the trees Speke and Grant and other hardy travellers had seen in Sudan. They struck lucky. A local camel-drover knew the tree and where it grew. They found 14 mature trees and 15 seedlings. The following year, the camel-drover took them to a second site with hundreds of argun palms.

    These few places where the argun palm survives appear to be the last remnants of the savannah that once covered the Sahara. Around 10,000 years ago, the climate grew drier and the vegetation began to retreat until all that was left were small patches of the most drought-tolerant trees and a few grasses at spots where groundwater comes close to the surface. “In pharaonic times it was still much greener and there was less desert. The places where the palms are now are what’s left of the ancient vegetation,” says Haitham Ibrahim, an ecologist at South Valley University in Aswan. The argun palm probably originated in the region straddling what is now the border between Egypt and Sudan, but was imported and grown throughout Egypt. Why?

    Archaeologists think that the way the fruits were offered to the dead suggests they were part of the diet. Grant and Speke had declared the fruit inedible, but on the expedition to Dungul in 1963 student Loutfy Boulos, now one of Egypt’s most eminent botanists, tried them and described them as sweetish and perfectly acceptable, though perhaps not to modern taste. In Sudan desert people still make ropes, matting and baskets from the leaves, which are stronger and more flexible than those of date and doum palms. It’s a tradition that probably goes back millennia.

    So what are the prospects for Egypt’s legendary palm tree? In 1998, a team of Egyptian and German botanists visited Dungul to check on its solitary tree. It was dead. The trunk was still standing but the crown had been blown off. However, the seven original seedlings had matured and there were another 29 small seedlings. Last November, Ibrahim and Baker made the gruelling trip to Dungul to see what might be done to conserve Egypt’s last argun palms. “It’s not surprising it took so long to find the tree in Egypt,” says Baker. “You drive south from Aswan for 180 kilometres then turn off the road and drive into the desert for 50 kilometres. The stuff on the ground isn’t sand but like fine dust – one wheelspin and you’re stuck.”

    What’s at stake is not just a part of Egypt’s cultural heritage but its biodiversity. Dungul oasis has fewer than 10 species of flowering plant but that makes it a hotspot of diversity in this bleak landscape, says Baker. “In terms of life in the desert, it’s hugely important.” Some of Egypt’s most endangered animals, such as the extremely rare Nubian ibex and the slender-horned gazelle, may depend on it. “Dungul is a remarkably lively place. In the morning there are footprints everywhere,” says Baker. The loss of any of the plant species could be catastrophic.

    With climate change bringing even more extended dry periods, the tree’s future is hanging in the balance. “We’ve had a very dry 10 years. Four of the seedlings have died since the 1998 survey,” says Ibrahim. “If we lose a few more, what then?”

    From issue 2554 of New Scientist magazine, 03 June 2006, page 54


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