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Old Kingdom Architecture

Old Kingdom Architecture

Author: Ian McConnell

Understand some basic elements of funerary architecture of the Old Kingdom

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. Today's lesson is about Old Kingdom architecture from ancient Egypt.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things we're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain some basic elements of funerary architecture using Djoser's funerary complex at Saqqara as an example, explain the evolution of the tomb from mastabas to pyramids, and explain the form and function of the Great Pyramids at Giza.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is mastaba, which is a type of Egyptian tomb, rectangular, brick or stone, flat roof with sloping sides, built over a tomb and connected by a shaf. I'll show an example of that in a little bit.

Serdab is used during the Old Kingdom, a cellar and a chamber and a tomb for the ka statue of a deceased person. I'll also show an example of that. And Acropolis, a large cemetery or burial ground, literally a city of the dead. Big idea for today is that pyramids and funerary complexes are important examples of Egyptian architecture from the Old Kingdom.

And of course, a side note. This lesson has required artwork, which will be listed in purple.

So let's take a look at our timeline for today. The Old Kingdom, which we'll be looking at, begins in 2575 BC-- there we go-- and ends in 2150 BC. And again, zero AD, which I had marked there, was a reference point as well as the Roman Republic's founding in 509 BC, just for comparison.

Quick geography lesson, taking a look at Giza and Saqqara today. Here's modern-day Egypt in Northeast Africa. Zooming in, we can see the Egyptian empire at its greatest expanse. Zooming in again, we can see the Nile River, at least the northern part.

And near that fork in the northern part of the river, before it kind of spreads out into the Nile delta, is the Necropolis of Giza. And about 30 miles south is the Necropolis of Saqqara, which we're going to start with first.

And before we move ahead, I'd like to take a moment to implant some better visuals in your head about what the mastaba and serdab look like. Here's the mastaba. It's a stone or brick structure, flat-roofed, slanting sides. The burial chamber is underneath.

Now the serdab is-- here it is-- actually a room in which the ka statue resides. Now, it's inside the tomb. And there are openings to let the ka statue-- which in this case is my little purple guy, so that the ka's not completely enclosed and that ritualistic communication can still occur through that hole or holes.

Now, if you've ever seen the mummy movies, this next name may sound familiar to you, because Imhotep was the principal villain in those movies. But believe it or not, that is not a factual representation of Imhotep. I'll let that sink in for a moment.

He was a true historical figure, however, and was a man of many hats. He took on the role of high priest, physician, architect, artist, and royal administrator, to name a few. And he was also one few examples of a regular person, or a non-Pharoah, to achieve divine status after his death, which is an example of what's referred to as apotheosis.

The reason it's so important is that he was the right-hand man of the pharaoh Djoser, the pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, as well as his chief architect. And it was Imhotep who designed the funerary complex at Saqqara. In fact, Imhotep is the first officially noted architect in history and designed the first known example of monumental architecture in Egypt, the aforementioned funerary complex at Saqqara.

Now the step pyramid itself appears to have been an intentional improvement on an earlier mastaba-only design. Step pyramids in ancient Egypt, while similar in appearance to Mesopotamian ziggurats, had a very different purpose. They were tombs and actually take on the form of a series of smaller and smaller mastabas stacked on top of one another, sort of like a stairway to heaven.

Now, another interesting architectural element is Imhotep's use of engaged columns, which are columns that partially reside in the wall, and his use of fluting, which are vertical channels that run the length of the column. These are design elements that pop up later in ancient Greek and ancient Roman architecture.

The first picture that you're going to see here is a picture of the actual step pyramid tomb. Something to keep in mind when you look at pictures of ancient ruins, they used to look a lot different and a lot better. But it seems like a silly thing to point out, but sometimes it's easy to forget that we're looking at the dilapidated remains of what used to be quite a spectacular sight.

The next image is of the entrance to the complex. And you can see the remains of the enclosing wall on either side, which will make more sense to you when you see the diagram in just a moment.

Here's another view of the step pyramid, complete with an authentic camel to add in a bit of local flavor.

And here's the view again of the entrance colonnade of the complex. And here you can get a better view, sort of a better view of the engaged columns I was referring to. If you look at the one on the left, the first one on the left, you can kind of see how it's embedded in the wall.

Now this is a simplified aerial diagram of the actual complex at Saqqara. And please keep in mind that this is not drawn to scale, but rather a general layout of some of the most important buildings in the complex. We'll begin with the entrance to the complex, which is located there, the south tomb, festival complex, mortuary temple where the body would have been prepared, and the step pyramid, where it would have been entombed.

Now the most recognizable funerary monuments in Egypt, probably the world, are undoubtedly the pyramids at Giza in my opinion. If you remember from the geography lesson, Giza is roughly 30 miles north of Saqqara, just outside the modern-day city of Cairo. And when I say just outside, I'm being very literal. The picture on the right is one of the monuments, namely the Great Pyramid because it's the biggest, of the Pharaoh Khufu of the Fourth Dynasty. The other two pyramids are for the pharaohs Menkaure and Khafre.

Now we care because they are monumental feats of engineering. This alone could be an entire lesson. But suffice to say the mathematical calculations are amazingly precise as the stones would have had to have been tapered gradually to meet exactly at the very top. They are true geometric pyramids, with a square base and four slanting triangles.

The reason for this particular shape is that the slanting sides may represent the rays of the sun emanating from a single source, the sun, at the top. The pharaohs were thought to climb the rays of the sun to join the sun god Ra, their principal deity. And they are laid out east to west to follow the path of the sun as it travels east to west, which may be symbolic of a human lifespan, such as birth to death. There has been speculation that they also correspond to the stars making up the constellation of Orion's Belt. But this isn't widely accepted, to my knowledge.

Now, the interior of the pyramids was rather sparse. There wasn't a lot of interior space, as large as they were. There were typically several access tunnels, with a few small rooms called chambers, small compared to the total space, I guess, which housed the mummified remains and the relics.

Now, they would have been originally literally treasure troves of artifacts. But due to the looting by thieves over time, that's not the case anymore. The best archaeological artifacts tend to come from tombs that were hidden or buried, which makes sense, such as the largely untouched tomb of King Tutankhamun or King Tut, which we'll discuss in another lesson.

Now, this is an aerial diagram of the complex. You can see how the pyramids are positioned relative to each other. The center pyramid in complex of the pharoah Khafre is the best preserved and also features one of the most recognizable images in the world, which is that of the Great Sphinx.

Here's another image of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which is the largest of the three. And one more view of the remains of the pyramids at Giza. The pyramid of Menkaure is in the front. It's the smallest one.

Now, evolution of the Egyptian funerary tomb. To help tie things together, we'll take a moment and look at this evolution. We'll begin with the mastaba. And if you take mastabas and stack them on one another, you get a step pyramid, which is like several mastabas of decreasing size, at least in the shape, stacked on one another. And finally, the true pyramid, which is like a refined version of the step pyramid, with smooth, sloping sides, symbolizing the rays of the sun god Ra.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain some basic elements of funerary architecture using Djoser's funerary complex at Saqqara as an example, explain the evolution of the tomb from mastabas to Pyramids, and explain the form and function of the Great Pyramids at Giza? Once again, the big idea for today, pyramids and funerary complexes are important elements or examples of Egyptian architecture from the Old Kingdom.

There you go. Thank you for joining me. See you next time.

Terms to Know

A type of Egyptian tomb, rectangular, brick or stone, flat roofed with sloping sides built over a tomb and connected by a shaft.


A large cemetery or burial ground, literally city of the dead.


Used during the Old Kingdom, a cellar and a chamber in a tomb for the ka statue of a deceased person.