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Terminologies in Egyptian Architecture

Art appreciation is a way of analyzing artwork critically and understanding the society in which that art originated.

Terminologies in Egyptian Architecture

Terminologies in Egyptian Architecture

Below is a list of terms covered in this article:

  1. Mastaba
  2. Egyptian pyramid
  3. Stepped pyramid
  4. Obelisk
  5. Serdab
  6. Battered wall
  7. Pylon tower
  8. Propylon
  9. Covetto
  10. Syrink
  11. Uraeus
  12. Mammisi
  13. Osirian column
  14. Hathor-headed column
  15. Hypostyle hall
  16. Sphinx
  17. Egyptian hieroglyph
  18. Benben (pyramidion)
  19. Trabeation
  20. Stele
  21. Egyptian sun temple
  22. Sarcophagus
  23. False door
  24. Lapis lazuli

1. Mastaba

A mastaba, meaning "house for eternity" or "eternal house" in ancient Egyptian, is a flat-roofed, rectangular tomb with outward sloping sides that is constructed with mud-bricks (from the Nile River) or stone.

Mastabas marked the burial sites of many eminent Egyptians during Egypt's Early Dynastic period and into the beginning of the Old Kingdom period. During the Old Kingdom, kings began to be buried in pyramids instead of mastabas, although non-royal use of mastabas continued for more than a thousand years.


2. Egyptian Pyramid

The ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs for pharaohs and their queens. This practice began before the Old Kingdom period and continued until the end of the Middle Kingdom.

The earliest known Egyptian pyramids can be found at Saqqara, northwest of Memphis. The earliest among these is the Pyramid of Djoser (constructed 2630 B.C. – 2611 B.C.), which was built during the third dynasty. This pyramid and its surrounding complex were designed by the architect Imhotep and are generally considered the world's oldest monumental structures constructed of dressed masonry.

3. Stepped Pyramid

A step pyramid or stepped pyramid is an architectural structure that uses flat platforms or steps to achieve a shape similar to a geometric pyramid.

Step pyramids were built by several cultures throughout the world, such as the Aztecs and the Mayans. These pyramids are typically large and made of several layers of stone. There are no firmly established connections between the different civilizations that built these types of pyramids.

4. Obelisk

An obelisk is a tall, four-sided, narrow, and tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape, or pyramidion, at the top.

These were originally called "tekhenu" by the original Egyptian builders. The Greeks used the word 'obeliskos' to describe them, and this word passed into Latin and then English. Ancient obelisks were often monolithic (that is, built with a single stone), whereas most modern obelisks are made of several stones and can have interior spaces.


5. Serdab

A serdab, meaning "cold water," is a tomb structure that served as a chamber for the Ka statue of a deceased individual. Used during the Old Kingdom, the serdab was a sealed chamber with a small slit or hole to allow the soul of the deceased to move about freely. These holes also let in the scents of the offerings presented to the statue. The word serdab is also used for a type of undecorated chamber found in many pyramids.

Serdab became a loanword in Arabic for "cellar."

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6. Battered Wall

A batter is a receding slope of a wall, structure, or earthwork. A wall sloping in the opposite direction is said to overhang. The term is used for buildings and non-building structures to identify a wall that was intentionally built with an inward slope. A battered corner is an architectural feature using batters. A batter is sometimes used in foundations, retaining walls, dry stone walls, dams, lighthouses, and fortifications.

7. Pylon Tower

Pylon is the Greek term (Greek: πυλών) for a monumental gateway of an Egyptian temple. It consists of two tapering towers, each surmounted by a cornice and joined by a lower section that encloses the entrance between them. The entrance was generally about half the height of the towers. Contemporary paintings of pylons show them with long poles and flying banners.

In ancient Egyptian theology, the pylon mirrored the hieroglyph for horizon or akhet, which was a depiction of two hills "between which the sun rose and set."


8. Propylon

An outer monumental gateway standing before the main gateway of a temple.

9. Cavetto

A concave molding with a curve. Approximately a quarter circle.

10. Syrinx

A narrow channel cut in rock, especially in ancient Egyptian tombs. In ancient Egypt, these were a characteristic feature of Egyptian tombs during the New Empire.

11. Uraeus

A representation of a sacred serpent as an emblem of supreme power. This was worn on the headdresses of ancient Egyptian deities and sovereigns.

12. Mammisi

Mammisi (Mamisi) is a term used for a small chapel attached to a larger temple that is associated with the nativity of a god. The word is derived from Coptic. Its usage is attributed to Jean-François Champollion. The most important surviving examples are from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt.


13. Osirian Column

In ancient Egypt, an Osirian column was a type of column in which a standing figure of Osiris is placed before a square pier. It differs from the classical caryatid in that the pier, and not the figure, supports the entablature.

Other types of Egyptian columns include:

  • Fluted column
  • Palmiform column
  • Lotiform column
  • Papyriform column
  • Coniform column
  • Tent pole column
  • Campaniform column
  • Composite column
  • No plant style column
  • Hathoric column
  • Osiride Pillar

14. Hathor-Headed Column

Hathor is an ancient Egyptian goddess who personified the principles of joy, feminine love, and motherhood. She was one of the most important and popular deities throughout the history of Ancient Egypt. Hathor was worshiped by royalty and common people alike. She is depicted as "Mistress of the West," welcoming the dead into the next life. In other roles, she was a goddess of music, dance, foreign lands and fertility who helped women in childbirth. She was also the patron goddess of miners.


15. Hypostyle Hall

Hypostyle halls are interior spaces in which the roof rests on pillars or columns. The word hypostyle means “under pillars,” and the design allows for the construction of large spaces—such as in temples, palaces, or public buildings—without the need for arches. This architectural design was used extensively in ancient Egypt—the Temple of Amon at Karnak are good examples—and in Persia, where the ruins at Persepolis stand as outstanding examples of hypostyle construction.

The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak, located within the Karnak temple complex, in the Precinct of Amon-Re, is one of the most visited monuments of ancient Egypt. It was built around the 19th Egyptian Dynasty (c. 1290–1224 B.C.).[1] The design was initially instituted by Hatshepsut at the North-west chapel to Amun in the upper terrace of Deir el-Bahri. The name refers to hypostyle architectural pattern.

16. Sphinx

The sphinx (Greek: Σφίγξ [sfiŋks], Bœotian: Φίξ [pʰiks], Arabic: أبو الهول,) is a mythical creature with, as a minimum, the head of a human and the body of a lion or a winged monster of Thebes. It propounded a riddle about the three ages of man, killing those who failed to solve it, until Oedipus was successful, whereupon the Sphinx committed suicide.

Sphinxes are generally associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples. The oldest known sphinx was found near Gobekli Tepe at another site, Nevali Çori, or possibly 120 miles to the east at Kortik Tepe, Turkey, and was dated to 9,500 B.C.E.

The largest and most famous sphinx is the Great Sphinx of Giza, situated on the Giza Plateau adjacent to the Great Pyramids of Gizaon on the west bank of the Nile River, facing east. The sphinx is located southeast of the pyramids. Although the date of its construction is uncertain, the head of the Great Sphinx is now believed to be that of the pharaoh Khafra.

17. Egyptian Hieroglyph

A hieroglyph (Greek for "sacred writing") is a character of the ancient Egyptian writing system. Logographic scripts that are pictographic in a way reminiscent of ancient Egyptian characters are also sometimes called hieroglyphs. In Neoplatonism, especially during the Renaissance, a hieroglyph was an artistic representation of an esoteric idea, which Neoplatonists believed actual Egyptian hieroglyphs to be. The word hieroglyphics (τὰ ἱερογλυφικά [γράμματα]) may refer to a hieroglyphic script.

Egyptian hieroglyphs (Egyptian: mdw·w-nṯr, "god's words") were a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs on papyrus and wood for religious literature. Hieroglyphs are related to two other Egyptian scripts, hieratic and demotic.

The earliest hieroglyphs date back as far as 3,300 B.C.E., and continued to be used up until the end of the fourth century C.E., when non-Christian temples were closed and their monumental use was no longer necessary.

A section of the Papyrus of Ani showing cursive hieroglyphs.

A section of the Papyrus of Ani showing cursive hieroglyphs.

18. Benben or Pyramidion

Benben was the mound that arose from the primordial waters of Nu and upon which the creator god, Atum, settled in the religious story of the Heliopolitan form. Architecturally, the Benben stone (also known as a pyramidion) is the top stone of an Egyptian pyramid. It is also related to the obelisk.

Similar to the sacred Benben stone, a pyramidion (plural pyramidia) is the uppermost piece, or capstone, of an Egyptian pyramid or obelisk in archaeological parlance. In Egypt's Old Kingdom, pyramidia were generally made of diorite, granite, or fine limestone, materials which would have been covered in electrum "or gold leaf to reflect the rays of the sun," and during Egypt's Middle Kingdom they were often "inscribed with royal titles and religious symbols." During the Middle Kingdom and through the end of the pyramid-building era, they were built from granite.

Very few pyramidia have survived the test of time. Those that have are made of polished black granite and are inscribed with the name of the pyramid's owner. A total of four pyramidia – the world's largest collection – is housed in the main hall of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Among them are the pyramidia from the so-called Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III at Dahshur and the Pyramid of Khendjer at Saqqara.

19. Trabeation

In architecture, a trabeated system is system with a horizontal lintel, header, or architrave spanning over the void of a building, which is supported by two vertical columns, pillars, or posts at its ends.

A "fundamental principle" of ancient Greek architecture, builders continue to use this method to support the weight of a structure above the openings of windows and doors in a bearing wall. The principle architecture of ancient Egypt was developed mainly on post (columns) and lintel construction. This system of construction (columns and lintel) was known as trabeated construction, and was later mimicked by many countries around the world.

20. Stele

Stele or, in the plural form stelae, is a stone or wooden slab that is generally taller than it is wide which would have been erected for funerary or commemorative purposes. It is often inscribed, carved in relief or painted.


21. Egyptian Sun Temple

Egyptian sun temples were Egyptian temples that were first created by the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom at Abu Gorab and Abusir. The Fifth Dynasty was marked by an especially strong devotion to the sun cult, which was based at Heliopolis. The founder of this dynasty, Userkaf, started the fashion of attaching sun temples with his mortuary temple and pyramid complexes at Abusir. This practice was mimicked by most of his Fifth Dynasty successors, particularly Sahure and Nyuserre Ini.

Only the solar temples of Userkaf and Nyuserre survive today, but Nyuserre's temple contains a large catalogue of invaluable inscriptions and reliefs from this king's reign.

Egypt: The Sun Temples at Abu Ghurab

Egypt: The Sun Temples at Abu Ghurab

22. Sarcophagus

A sarcophagus (plural: sarcophagi or sarcophaguses) is a box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone and displayed above ground, though it may also be buried.

The word "sarcophagus" comes from the Greek σάρξ sarx meaning "flesh," and φαγεῖν phagein meaning "to eat." Thus, sarcophagus means "flesh-eating." The word lithos sarkophagos (λίθος σαρκοφάγος), meaning "flesh-eating stone," came to refer to a particular kind of limestone that was thought to decompose the flesh of corpses interred within it.


23. False Door

A false door is an artistic representation of a door. They can be carved into a wall or painted onto it. They are a common architectural element in the tombs of ancient Egypt and Pre-Nuragic Sardinia. Later, they occurred in Etruscan tombs. During the time of ancient Rome, they were used in both the interiors of houses and tombs.


24. Lapis Lazuli

Lapis lazuli came from the Mediterranean and was a favorite stone for amulets and ornaments, such as scarabs. Lapis jewelry has been found at excavations of the Predynastic Egyptian site Naqada (3300 – 3100 B.C.E.). At Karnak, the relief carvings of Thutmose III (1479 – 1429 B.C.E.) show fragments and barrel-shaped pieces of lapis lazuli being delivered to him as tribute. Powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra.


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  • University of Memphis' Great Hypostyle Hall Project
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  •, Ermann, Grapow, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache 1, 459.13-14
  • editors Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel (w/34 contributing Authors), Egypt, The World of the Pharaohs, Konemann, Germany: 1998. Amenemhat III, 1842–1797 BC

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CARL CRAWFORD on August 13, 2020:


What Art (author) on December 30, 2019:

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