Ancient Egyptian Art & Architecture: History, Politics & Culture

Ancient Egyptian Art & Architecture: History, Politics & Culture
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  • 0:01 Egyptians and Art
  • 1:08 History of Egyptian Art
  • 3:11 Politics & Culture in Art
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the rich traditions of ancient Egyptian art and architecture and discover what these can tell us about Egyptian life, politics, and culture.

Egyptians and Art

Paintings of cats on a wall

Imagine if you could only know somebody by their artwork. Think about it: you walk into somebody's home, and the sort of artwork they own is all you'll ever know about them. We don't need to go into what you were doing sneaking around somebody's home, but I'm willing to bet you could actually tell a lot about them. See all those paintings of cats? I bet they like cats. There are some very large paintings, which means these people are probably pretty rich. There are sculptures of the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, and the Parthenon, so they may enjoy traveling.

For a long time, art is really all that researchers had to understand the culture of ancient Egypt, one of the oldest civilizations in the world that thrived from the fourth millennium to fourth century BCE. The ancient Egyptians were prolific artists, leaving behind painted reliefs on the walls of palaces and tombs, monumental statues, painted papyrus, jewelry, decorated coffins, and massive works of architecture. And although we'll never be able to meet the ancient Egyptians, there's still much we can tell about their lives, politics, and culture through their art.

History of Egyptian Art

Art has existed in Egypt for about as long as it has anywhere else in the world, with prehistoric carvings and artifacts dating back thousands and thousands of years. Egyptian civilization first began to really develop under the Early Dynastic period of roughly 3000-2680 BCE, when the first kings rose to power. But ancient Egyptian civilization really begins with the advent of the Old Kingdom, which lasted from 2680-2259 BCE. This is where Egyptian art really first appeared as the Pharaoh Djoser expanded Egypt into a major civilization.

The Old Kingdom is a time when many of what we think of as traditional Egyptian styles appeared. The pharaohs began building large tombs for themselves in the shapes of pyramids in the Old Kingdom, starting with the smaller step pyramids of Djoser and leading to the Great Pyramids of Giza. Old Kingdom artists carved reliefs into temples, palaces, and tombs using a mixture of hieroglyphs and images, recording scenes of history, mythology, and even poetry.

Following the Old Kingdom was the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from 2258-1786 BCE. In this period, architects refined the designs of temples and pyramids, but overall, most art remained roughly the same. Artistic styles of carving and painting also remained consistent into the New Kingdom of 1550-1070 BCE. However, in this era, the pharaohs stopped building massive pyramids, possibly because they had become too expensive, and started building massive tombs hidden underground.

They compensated by making the temples even larger, adding massive stone entryways. Throughout the three different kingdoms, Egyptian art remained pretty consistent, but after that, Egypt was invaded and conquered by other nations, first Persia and then the Macedonian Greeks. Each of these introduced new cultural influences, leading to a decline in traditional artistic styles.

Politics and Culture in Art

So, what can we tell about the Egyptians from their art? For one, Egyptian artistic styles, particularly in sculpture and painting, remained highly consistent for over a millennium. This much consistency indicates a level of cultural and political stability that was strong enough to withstand occasional moments of upheaval.

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