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Ancient Egyptian Architects

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

How would you feel to be the first person to design a pyramid? Who developed such an idea and who was its architect? In this lesson, let's look at the work and projects of ancient Egyptian architects.

Egyptian Cultural Beliefs & Impact on Architecture

Before we discuss architects, let's review two important beliefs central to ancient Egyptian culture, because the architecture reflects them: the first, that life on earth was only a step toward eternal afterlife, and the second, that the Egyptian Pharaohs were divine and equivalent to the gods. Because of these beliefs, a lot of Egyptian architecture involved tomb complexes and religious temples like those at Karnak. Egyptians created structures like mastabas, flat-roofed tomb structures with sloping sides usually made out of mud brick, and pyramids, structures with a triangular shape and three sides that met at a point at the top. As the leaders of the country, the Pharaohs commissioned many buildings. Of course, they also commanded the money, materials and manpower needed to complete projects.

Large structures like pyramids required sophisticated engineering and took many years to build. Architects had to design and plan the structures and then supervise the large workforces of skilled craftsmen and laborers who built them. We don't know much about these early architects, because details of their lives and careers have been lost to time. But fragmentary information about them provides a window into some of the earliest monumental buildings in the world.

Imhotep, the World's First Known Architect

Imhotep lived around 2700 BC. He was the chief architect for the Pharaoh Djoser and is the first architect in recorded history we know by name. When Imhotep was growing up, most buildings were made of sun-baked brick or stone. But when he became an architect, he came up with a new idea. He designed Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara to be made out of cut stone, a more durable weight-bearing material which allowed the structure to be built much higher. It began as a mastaba-shaped structure, but grew to have six stepped layers and reach a height of 200 feet. It was the largest building of its time and the first known monumental building in the world.

Step Pyramid at Saqqara
Step Pyramid at Saqqara

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara includes a large stairway leading upward. It would have allowed the Pharaoh in the afterlife to climb up (symbolically, at least) toward the sun god Ra, who, in Egyptian mythology, had climbed down from the sky to create humans.

Because this type of structure was new, Imhotep must also have invented tools and equipment to enable its construction. He also wrote about architecture and his writings greatly influenced later generations of Egyptian architects. Imhotep was also an engineer and inventor, and designed and developed an irrigation system to bring water from the Nile to Memphis (where the government was located at the time). Later Egyptians so revered Imhotep that they considered him divine.

Other Ancient Egyptian Architects

Hemiunu, born into a royal family around 2570 BC, was an architect, engineer and mathematician who designed and oversaw the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza as a tomb for the Pharaoh Khufu. We don't know much about how he worked, but his structure is one of the most famous in history. What we see today is the core of the structure -- originally it was covered with highly polished white limestone that has fallen off over time.

Great Pyramid of Giza
Great Pyramid of Giza

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