Ancient Egyptian Arts and Architecture "Old Kingdom"


A basic transformation occurred in Egyptian art after Upper and Lower Egypt 
had been unified into one state during the first two dynasties. This and the 
stabilization of political and social conditions that emerged from this 
consolidation are fully reflected in Old Kingdom art. In Nubia near the end 
of the Pre-dynastic Period and during the Old Kingdom, the so-called Group A 
culture developed, and among its modest products were already Egyptian 
objects,  from the first dynasty this country had been the scene of 
Pharaonic armed expeditions.


          Battlefield palette                                                                                                           Palette of Narmer

On Pre-dynastic Palettes, such as the "Battlefield palette" (British Museum, 
London), the composition is chaotic, unlike 
that of the Old kingdom "Palette of Narmer"
(the presumed first ruler in the 
1st dynasty). The theme on the palettes of both periods is warfare. The Narmer 
palette (Egyptian Museum, Cairo), however, depicts the wars conducted to 
uphold the unity of the kingdom. The country was already governed by a 
single ruler, and all that transpired was dependent on his will. The whole 
ideological structure was reshaped to glorify the pharaoh's power and to 
reinforce the universal conviction that a permanent order had been 
established. This order could be maintained only by defining each 
individual's place in the hierarchical society and his duty toward the 
state. In order for art to play an active role as an instrument of 
propaganda in the ideology of the united old kingdom, it was essential to make 
the art clear and comprehensible to every one. The Narmer palette manifests 
these esthetic principles, which, at a later date were to be directed to 
the masses by means of murals on the walls of tombs and temples. On King 
Narmer's palette the individual scenes are set out in orderly bands. These 
scenes were to be read in the same sequence as individual hieroglyphic 
inscriptions were read. The presenting of the main figures in a scene in a 
larger size than the less important ones is a primitive device but 
nevertheless a very effective one. Similarly, it might seem naive to present 
the bound and slain foes frontally one on top of the other but the intent of 
the artist is quite clear and unambiguous. At that time only such a 
presentation of reality was comprehensible. Therefore, objects were to be 
rendered not as the artists perceived them but as they really were. In the 
transposition of a three-dimensional space onto a flat surface they employed 
a "projective" perspective. The Egyptians had arrived at a simplified set of 
conventions in this sphere also.
During the Old Kingdom, between the 3rd dynasty and the 6th dynasty, Egyptian 
art reached the peak of its development in every sphere of the arts. The 
period brought the elaboration of the specific rules and canons concerning 
construction and composition that were to endure as long as Egyptian art.


The pyramids.

Imhotep, the chancellor and court architect under Djoser, the second ruler 
of the 3rd dynasty, was the man who contributed most to the development of 
Egyptian monumental architecture . The group of stone funerary 
constructions near the so-called step pyramid (destined to be the tomb of 
Djoser) were built by him. Imhotep was able to re-create brilliantly in 
stone the characteristic features of brick-and-reed construction. The 
corridor leading from the sanctuary entrance is lined with projecting pillars 
ending in half columns, which are in fact a translation into stone of the 
reed bundles used as supports in dried-brick constructions.

The utilization of stone, a new structural and decorative material , was 
further exploited in monumental constructions by succeeding generations of 
architects, working under the 4th-dynasty rulers. These architects created 
the three pyramids at Giza. the most classic forms of this type of 
construction. An undeviating line of development continues from Imhotep's 
conception to the presumably unfinished pyramid of Snefru, the first pharaoh 
of the 4th dynasty, and then to the Great Pyramid of khufu (cheops), which 
later the Greeks regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The 
pyramid of Khufu was 146.59 meters (481 feet) high, with each side 
approximately 230.35 meters (755.5 feet) long. The pyramid covers 54,000 
square meters (581,000 square feet, or about 13 acres). Khufu's successors 
Khafre (Chephren) and menkaure built huge pyramids nearby ,though not as 
large as that of Khufu.

The pyramid is the most important of the several edifices that together form 
a single architectural complex around the burial place of the ruler. The 
sequence and placement of the individual architectural elements are closely 
associated with the funerary ritual. In addition to a connected mortuary 
temple, in the vicinity of each pyramid there was a large cemetery 
containing mastabas in which the nobles were buried. In this world of the 
dead, as in the world of the living, the highest position was held by the 
ruler and the pyramid can be regarded as a monument glorifying and deifying 
the king.

The sphinx.

On the first section of the ramp leading from the lower Khafre temple at 
Giza to the upper temple, there was a limestone rock slightly resembling a 
reclining lion. This was all that was left of the old quarry from which the 
material used in the building of the Great Pyramid was taken. This rock was 
the genesis of the great Sphinx. Instead of being cut away, the rock was 
transformed into the shape of an animal 57 meters (187 feet) long and 20 
meters (65 1/2 feet) wide. The "lion's" head was given the features of the 
reigning ruler, Khafre, and was covered by a nemes, the traditional 
headdress of the pharaoh.

The temples.

In the monumental architecture of the Old Kingdom their were two types of 
temples. The ones built near the pyramids were funerary temples dedicated to 
the worship of the dead pharaoh. The most interesting of these is the 
so-called lower Khafre temple, built of huge red-granite blocks and paved 
with big slabs of Egyptian alabaster. This architecture has been aptly 
described as the "austere stone style." There were also temples dedicated to 
the various gods. Of  theas, the most representative are the so-called solar 
temples, associated with the Heliopolitan cult of the sun-god, Re. The 
predominating feature of the solar temple of Neuserre (six king of the 5th 
dynasty) at Abu Sir is the great obelisk, constructed of carefully fitted 
stone blocks, which served as a symbol of the ancient pyramidal stone 
(benben) of Heliopolis. Subsequent obelisks assumed a more slender form.
A mastaba that served as a burial for a noble had three parts: * the 
underground funerary chamber, *the perpendicular shaft that connected it 
vertically with the surface, and *the rectangular superstructure (
of dried 
brick or stone) erected aboveground. This superstructure had a trapezoidal 
cross section that to Arabs was reminiscent of a bench, hence its Arabic 
name: mastaba. The building aboveground had two elements. One was a false 
door carved into the wall through which the soul of the dead person could 
freely enter and leave the tomb. Above this door there was a stone slab, the 
stela, with inscriptions containing ritual formulas and a relief 
representation of the deceased. Sometimes the deceased is shown with his 
wife and children making offerings to him. After the funeral, the shaft 
leading down to the burial chamber was blocked with stones. The mastaba, 
depending on the means of the owner, could include additional elements, such 
as a chamber called serdab, in which the stela or occasionally a portrait of 
the deceased was placed. Funerary chapels were added to some mastabas.
The monumental architecture of the old kingdom created several types of 
columns and architectural decorations that became traditional in Egyptian 
art * half columns of the papyrus type, *granite columns with palm capitals, 
*cornices reminiscent of rolled-up matting, friezes of bundles of flowering 
reeds (hekeron), and waterspouts to drain water from parapets, roofs, and 
terraces. In stone architectural constructions, corbelled vaults were used 
while in mud-brick structures leaning or flowing vaults were constructed, as 
well as small-scale true vaults, arches, and even domes.

Thanks to the tradition of furnishing tombs, many examples of Old Kingdom art 
objects in the form of furniture and crafts have been preserved. The 
magnificent reconstructed armchair found at Giza in the tomb of Queen 
Hetepheres , the mother of khufu, is an example. This chair of carved ebony, 
has exquisitely shaped armrests; it is ornamented with openwork lotus 
flowers and is supported on legs terminating in animal paws. Such wooden 
objects as beds, armchairs, and taborets, or low stools were often 
beautifully overlaid with gold. The headrests, of alabaster, stone or wood, 
sometimes ornamented in gold, silver, or electrum (a natural alloy of silver 
and gold), represent the most characteristic examples of Egyptian furniture.

Egyptian personal adornments and jewelry ranged from modest copper bracelets 
and rings or bead necklaces to the most exquisite examples of the jeweler's 
art for the wealthy, such as diadems, armlets, bangles, and necklaces of 
gold or silver set with colored stones. A typical necklace of the period was 
the usekh, composed of many strands with attached pendants that extended 
from the neck down to the chest. These valuable objects were not only 
intended as ornaments; they were also offerings to the gods-or used as 
liturgical objects. The 6th-dynasty head of the sky-god Horus discovered at 
Hierakonpolis is made of copper and wood, while the eyes are inlaid with 
obsidian and the whole head covered with hammered gold.

The most significant achievement in the art of representation in old kingdom 
Egypt was the working out of an indigenous set of rules regarding the 
depicting of a human figure. The creation of these rules, which are known as 
the canon of Egyptian sculpture, was a lengthy process. Here two methods of 
representing a human figure should be distinguished. The first method, as in 
freestanding sculpture, is to render the figure in three dimensions, 
corresponding to nature; the second involves transposition of 
three-dimensional space onto a flat surface, as in painting and relief 
In the Prehistoric and the Pre-dynastic periods, Egyptian artists worked 
according to the principle (universal in so-called primitive art) of 
rendering the human figure as fully as possible. The result was that the 
torso was more or less triangular, both arms were visible, and the legs and 
the head were presented in profile. Although Egyptian artists retained this 
method of representation, to which people had been accustomed for thousands 
of years, they endeavored to create a set of proportions that would 
introduce greater realism and would correspond to the average human figure.
The canon of representation.
A standing figure was traced onto a papyrus sheet or a stone slab on which 
there were 18 rows of squares. (An additional row, not included in the 
prescribed 18, was reserved for the hair above the forehead.) From the hair 
to the base of the neck were two rows; from the neck to knee, ten rows; from 
knees to soles of feet, six rows. For a seated figure only 14 rows were 
utilized. This set of proportions persisted throughout Egyptian art, 
although from the 26th (Saite) dynasty the number of squares was increased 
to 21 1/4 to make figures more elegantly slender.
This canon was exact and accurate and left no possible doubt regarding the 
proper placement of even the most minute detail in the human figure. On a 
flat surface the head was presented in profile but the eye frontally. Again, 
the shoulders and chest are rendered frontally but the lower torso seems 
twisted, with the navel on the edge of the silhouette. In a woman's figure, 
the breast is in profile. The feet are also in profile.
These principles were used to create working models, the first of which may 
have been elaborated in the artistic workshops of the capital, Memphis, and 
were then distributed and copied in all the provincial centers of government 
and were faithfully adhered to by all practitioners, wherever temoles or 
tombs for nobles were to be decorated with paintings or reliefs.
Thanks to the canon governing the method in which the human bodywas to be 
rendered, Egyptian art was able to maintain its distinctive, indigenous style 
and its very high standard of artistic workmanship for 3,000 years. There 
are certainly deviations from the canon in the rendering of standing and 
seated figures during the Old or New Kingdom periods, in particular during 
the reign, revolutionary in many ways, of Akhenaton in the 18th dynasty and 
again during the Ptolemaic time, but these are minor deviations, and in no 
period do they constitute a threat to the fundamental conceptions of 
Egyptian art. Even the most effective achievements or advantageous standards 
after a time reveal drawbacks, however. For this reason some artists decided 
to introduce variations in composition or in the disposition of scenes. Some 
artists of the New Kingdom Period and after were bold enough to represent 
the human figure from the back.

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