During my visit to the Temple of Isis I was struck by the architectural sophistication and I thought I would delve deeper. Egyptian temple designs emphasized order, symmetry, monumentality, and combined geometric shapes with stylized organic motifs. Elements of temple design also alluded to the form of the earliest Egyptian buildings. It wasn’t until the New Kingdom that temples were built entirely of stone. Our knowledge of what preceded them or how the design came about is necessarily slim as their predecessors did not survive, since they were mostly constructed of mudbrick. It is probable that the layout was similar to earlier temples; there must have always been a special sacred area where the statue of the god resided. This was at a higher level than the rest of the area and the later design of slightly ascending floor level copies this. Since the early structures were mostly mudbrick, it is unlikely that the finer details which we will discuss here were present, hard to carve mudbrick. The influence of materials on architecture is worth notice. Where granite, which is worked with difficulty, is the material obtainable, architecture has invariably been severe and simple; where soft stone is obtainable, an abundance of ornamention makes its appearance. Where marble is abundant and good, refinement is to be met with, for no other building material exists in which very delicate mouldings or very slight or slender projections may be employed with the certainty that they will be effective.
The Primeval Mound
The ancient Egyptians had many creator Gods and associated legends. Thus the world, or more specifically Egypt, was created in diverse ways according to different parts of the country. The different creation myths have some elements in common. They all held that the world had arisen out of the lifeless waters of chaos, called Nu. They also included a primieval mound, called the benben, which was the first thing to emerge from the waters. The ancient Egyptians believed that the world began with the emergence of this Primeval Mound from the watery abyss. The obvious inspiration was the reappearance of the land after the annual flooding of the Nile and the way that life seemed to burst forth spontaneously from the fresh silt laid down by the river. The sanctuary represented the mound of creation and was higher than the rest of the temple. The columns of the Hypostyle Hall were carved in the shape of lotuses, lilies and papyrus plants, a reproduction of the marshes surrounding it. In the myth, the creator god lived in a simple reed hut on the mound and, although translated to stone, the sanctuary always retained that original form. The temple could also represent the world itself. The processional way could therefore stand for the path of the sun traveling across the sky, and the sanctuary for the Duat where it was believed to set and to be reborn at night. The space outside the building was thus equated with the waters of chaos that lay outside the world, while the temple represented the order of the cosmos and the place where that order was continually renewed.
Each year the god left the sanctuary, to travel through the streets of the city and visit the other gods. In this procession, he was carried in sacred boat on the shoulders of his priests, gliding through the sacred swamp to receive the adoration of his worshippers. As discussed, there was a rise in floor level towards the sanctuary from the outside while the ceiling got progressively lower. Approaching the god in the temple, you would move from the bright sun beating down on the open courtyard, through a rather dimly lit hall to the complete darkness of the dark, claustrophobic sanctuary, heightening the sense of mystery and awe. Access to the temple roof was needed both to maintain the temple, and for religious purposes. Here, we find drainage systems to handle rainwater runoff, which sometimes needed repairs, seen in the above figure. The outpour spouts of these systems were often decorative (unfortunately not in this example), and represent some of the earliest forms of gargoyles.
The defining characteristic of monumental architecture is typically its public nature, the fact that the structure or space was built by lots of people for lots of people to look at or share in the use of, whether the labor was coerced or consensual. The concept of monumentality embraces a variety of structures, in ancient Egypt mainly ceremonial centers, temples, and tomb constructions. Monumental structures can express power as well as mask it. The task of building such large and complex structures required a long-term commitment as well as the ability to control resources and coordinate substantial investments of labor. These undertakings cannot have failed to create a sense of group identity, or even of distinct identities; for instance between those who built and those who inhabited or used these structures. Such monuments embody not just the earth or stone from which they were built, but the people and experiences involved in their construction. They thus hold a special place in human memory, and in individual or group identity. In Egypt a large temple also owned sizable tracts of land and employed thousands of laymen to supply its needs. Temples were therefore key economic as well as religious centers. The priests who managed these powerful institutions wielded considerable influence, and despite their ostensible subordination to the king they may have posed significant challenges to his authority.
The Egyptians were perhaps the first people in history to realize that a plain wall is boring and definitely not monumental. One option is to paint the wall, or even decorate it with hieroglyphics, pictures of gods and/or the pharaoh or even better all of the above. The real answer is that the wall needs a frame to make it look finished, just as paintings have frames. Using light to paint a border makes everything look better and there are many options to choose from. Imagine the vertical surface of a wall lit by sunlight at an angle of about 45 degrees above the wall. Adding a small overhanging horizontal molding to the surface of the wall will introduce a dark horizontal shadow below the molding, which in consequence is called a fillet molding. Graded shadows are possible by using moldings in different shapes: the concave cavetto molding produces a horizontal shadow that is darker at the top and lighter at the bottom; an ovolo (convex) molding makes a shadow that is lighter at the top and darker at the bottom. Combinations of these elements at the top and bottom can make even the most boring wall look better and in fact if it is large enough, monumental. We still use the same molding principles today to frame paintings, doors, windows, and walls first pioneered by the ancient Egyptians almost four thousand years ago.
The cornice undoubtedly had its origin in the primitive eave projection: the Greek Doric and lonic cornices recall early wooden roof forms, and the Egyptian cavetto-and-fillet cornice is a derivation of the overhanging papyrus stalks that formed the eaves of primitive shelters. The cornice lost its structural significance early on and became a stylized decorative element. In the Greek and Roman eras it assumed firmly standardized forms in the classical orders that were retained, with variations, through the Renaissance and later periods. At their simplest, moldings and cornices are a means of applying light and dark shaded stripes to a structural objects without having to change the material or apply pigments. The contrast of dark and light areas gives definition to the door, window, wall or column.
By making the cornice larger and adding many elements together, New Kingdom architects were able to create quite spectacular and monumental cornices as seen above. This particular cavetto cornice was also called an Egyptian, gorge or gorge and roll cornice with extreme ornamentation consisting of winged globes and rearing uraei, with a torus beneath. The Uraeus is a symbol for the goddess Wadjet, who was one of the earliest Egyptian deities and who often was depicted as a rearing cobra. The center of her cult was in Per-Wadjet, later called Buto by the Greeks. She became the patroness of the Nile Delta and the protector of all of Lower Egypt. The pharaohs wore the Uraeus as a head ornament: either with the body of Wadjet atop the head, or as a crown encircling the head; this indicated Wadjet’s protection and reinforced the pharaoh’s claim over the land. This particular design was used on the canopic shrine in King Tut’s tomb.
Columns and Capitals
The same principles of shadow and light can be applied to the capitals of columns. In the figure above a Cavetto or convex molding is applied to the capital, called a Campaniform or inverted bell capital, resulting in exactly the same graduated shadow, this time on a column. Above the capital is an Abacus (block of stone) followed by the stone beam (architrave) creating the ceiling. An abacus (from Greek abax, slab) was often inserted between pillar and architrave and was at times decorated with a cartouche, as seen above. Architraves (from Latin trabs, beam) are the main beams resting across the tops of the columns. In ancient Egypt no attempts were made to cover pillared halls with arches. In the temple symbolism the architraves were part of the heavens. Above the beam we see the familiar fillet, cavetto and torus cornice.
Capitals mostly follow the forms of the lotus (emblem of Upper Egypt), the papyrus (emblem of Lower Egypt), and the palm. The precise definition of a given capital (lotus, papyrus or palm) seems to be up for scholarly debate or may depend on how they were painted. They each do seem to include one or several of the three basic forms. Other types include the Hathor-headed cornice, in which heads of Hathor adorn the four faces of a cubical mass surmounted by a model of a shrine. These types were richly embellished and varied by the Ptolemaic architects, who gave a clustered or quatrefoil plan to the bell-capital, or adorned its surface with palm leaves. They also introduced the “Volute Papyrus Capital” with little Ionic Scrolls mixed in with the papyrus. New Kingdom papyriform pillars with closed or open flower capitals were symbols for the sky crossed by the path of the sun. In the early morning the flowers are still closed but then open with the progress of the sun across the sky.
Known at least since the 3rd dynasty, true arches were rarely used in early Ancient Egypt. Only when the building material was mud bricks and building corbelled vaults was impractical, were true arches erected. Even Trajan’s Kiosk was built with Egyptian Capitals and Columns with square architrave beams rather than arches.
The Egyptian Revival, initiated by the exploration of Napoleon and his army in Egypt in the first few years of the nineteenth century, quickly became an obsession. Victorian Europe became entranced with the exotic and the eclectic in all its forms. Architecture and the decorative arts, as well as that of the fine arts, became infused with all aspects of cultural fancy, both past and present. That much of this exoticism was the creation of the Victorian mind and had little if anything to do with original cultures was not important. As the century progressed ancient Egypt was unravelled as a culture that seemed so much more complex, exotic and utterly alien to the relatively juvenile nations and populations of Europe. Large and small artefacts were shipped to Europe from Egypt during much of the nineteenth century. They occupied not only museum collections, but could also be seen as new monuments in parks and other public areas. Owen Jones in his The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856, obviously felt comfortable and confident enough to produce a chapter on Egyptian Ornament that contained nine full color plates on the subject. This puts the number of plates on a par with the Indian, Medieval and Renaissance chapters. The plates gave ample examples of the unique color and decoration perspective of ancient Egypt, and could be used by any student or designer to develop for a range of disciplines. As always, I hope you enjoyed, please leave a comment.
Cult vs Mortuary Temples: http://www.flatsinluxor.co.uk/egyptology-understanding-the-difference-between-cult-and-mortuary-temples/
Discovering Ancient Egypt: http://discoveringegypt.com
Columns of Ancient Egypt: http://m.touregypt.net/featurestories/columns.htm
Egyptian Columns: http://buffaloah.com/a/archsty/egypt/columns/col.html
Lotus in Ancient Egypt: https://sites.google.com/site/isislotusofalexandrialyceum/the-lotus-in-ancient-egypt
Egyptian Gods: http://www.nemo.nu/ibisportal/0egyptintro/1egypt/
Symbols and Definitions: http://www.egyptartsite.com/symlst.html
Ankh and Was: http://joanlansberry.com/setfind/ankh-and.html
Classic and Early Christian Architecture: http://www.digilibraries.com/html_ebooks/102326/29759/www.digilibraries.com@29759@firstname.lastname@example.org
Dino Marcantonio: marcantonioarchitects.com