Masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art and architecture

Take this tour to discover examples of Egyptian art and architecture. From 2551 BCE to 196 BCE Egypt produced remarkable and beautiful structures and artefacts that are still admired today.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture.

The Pyramids of Sakkarah from the North East (1857) by Francis FrithHarvard Art Museums

Mortuary Complex of King Djoser, 2630-2611 B.C.E.

Before the Great Pyramids at Giza, the Egyptian King Djoser, who ruled 4600 years ago, built the step pyramid at Saqqara.

It was part of a mortuary (burial) complex and included a causeway (elevated road) and 33 foot tall stone walls.

The walls align to the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west) and had numerous gateways, but only one of them (this one on the left) allowed access to the complex, the rest were false doors.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser, 2630-2611 B.C.E.

Each step is a “mastaba.” Earlier kings were buried in a single mastaba but here, six are stacked (five tiers remain).

Bronze seated statuette of the architect Imhotep (-600/-600)British Museum

It is no small achievement to build a structure this size in stone, and credit goes to the architect, Imhotep.

The bottom tier is more than 25 feet or 7.6 metres high. Djoser was buried in a granite chamber 90 feet below. In ancient Egypt, the word tomb meant “house for eternity.” Rituals were performed for the dead king in a temple nearby.

Entering the Mortuary Complex of King Djoser

We’ve walked through the one functioning entrance and we’re standing in a very narrow passageway that leads into the Mortuary Complex of King Djoser.

The enormous scale of the columns makes us feel like we are entering another world even today, imagine how overwhelming this place must have been 4600 years ago.

This passageway is narrow. On either side, huge columns attach to walls that once supported a stone ceiling.

These are among the earliest monumental stone columns in history. The vertical lines on the shaft resemble a bundle of reeds and are called fluting.

The Great Pyramids of Giza, c. 2551-2472

The three primary pyramids at Giza (the third largest city in Egypt) were built on a plateau by three generations of rulers (pharaohs): Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.

Each was part of a royal mortuary (burial) complex with a temple at the base of the pyramid, and a stone causeway (roadway) that led to another temple near the Nile river. Scholars debate how the pyramids were built, but a workforce of thousands was clearly required.

The Sphinx and the Pyramids (c. 1870) by Adolphe BraunThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Great Sphinx, an enormous lion carved with the head of the pharaoh Khafre (now eroded) guarded the causeway to his pyramid.

The lion was a royal symbol and was associated with the sun. The sphinx was used throughout ancient Egyptian history.

Pyramids of Khufu, c. 2551-2528 and Khafre, c. 2520-2494.

The largest of the three pyramids, built by pharaoh Khufu, is on the left and the next largest pyramid, built by his son Khafre, is on the right.

The geometry is precise. The sides of Khufu’s pyramid only differ in length by 4.4 cm. More than 2 million blocks of stone form this pyramid—some weighing more than 50 tons. Originally, there was a smooth outer surface with a capstone at the top that may have been finished in gold.

Pyramid of Khufu

Inside are several chambers and passageways. The Grand Gallery leads to the King’s chamber, which is constructed entirely from red granite.

Pyramid of Khafre

The top of the pyramid still has some of the original outer casing at the top. This was originally white and would have entirely covered all three pyramids. The mortuary temple at the base contained more than 52 statues of the king.

Tomb Chapel of Nebamun, c. 1350 B.C.E. (British Museum)

Ancient Egyptian culture was remarkably stable over thousands of years. The British Museum has wall painting from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun that date more than a thousand years after the Pyramids at Giza.

Surveying the fields for Nebamun, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (-1350/-1350)British Museum

Nebamun must have been quite successful, since most Egyptians could not have afforded a tomb-chapel. These beautiful paintings depicted an idealized vision of life in ancient Egypt—showing us not only how Nebamun wanted to be remembered, but also what he wanted for his after-life.

Nebamun viewing his herds, a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (-1350/-1350)British Museum

Nebamun is shown here in profile, but with shoulders and his eye seen from the front.

Nebamun’s geese, a fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (-1350/-1350)British Museum

Nebamun’s geese, from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun

He inspects geese and cattle. Hieroglyphs (writing) tell us he is the “scribe who counts the grain of the divine offering.”

Nebamun’s cattle, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (-1350/-1350)British Museum

Nebamun’s cattle, from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun

The scenes are divided into registers (horizontal bands). Although the animals are all in profile, there’s a remarkable sense of movement and energy. These were painted directly on the wall of the tomb chapel.

These are items found the the homes of wealthy ancient Egyptians. The chairs, storage vessels, and other items give us a sense of how a scribe like Nebamun may have lived.

The Rosetta Stone, 196 B.C.E. (The British Museum)

The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous objects in The British Museum in London. The Rosetta Stone made the translation of hieroglyphics possible.

The Rosetta Stone (-196/-196)British Museum

Hieroglyphics (a form of Egyptian writing) look like pictographs (images that represent a word or phrase), but in fact hieroglyphics are phonetic—that is, they represent sounds, just like modern alphabets.

Being able to translate hieroglyphics allowed scholars to make huge strides in understanding ancient Egyptian culture; hieroglyphics often appear on ancient Egyptian sculpture and painting.

The Rosetta Stone (-196/-196)British Museum

The Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers in 1799. It is a fragment but contains a decree written three different ways, in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek. By 1822, the code was cracked and scholars could read hieroglyphics.

Statue of Ramesses II, 1250 B.C.E.

This is a fragment of enormous granite sculpture of Pharaoh Ramesses II for his temple at Thebes.

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'British Museum

A nemes headdress covers his head and shoulders. This is one of many sculptures of Ramesses that depict the king as a god.

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