Ancient Egyptian Art & Architecture's Relationship to Their Cosmology & Rulers

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  • 0:08 Art & Architecture in Egypt
  • 0:50 Egyptian Cosmology & Art
  • 2:50 The Pharaoh & Art
  • 4:28 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 Egyptian cosmology and discover the links between their religion, pharaoh, art, and architecture. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Art and Architecture in Ancient Egypt

Art has a purpose. Sometimes we forget that because we are constantly surrounded by cheap, quickly produced images on a daily basis. However, for most of human history, art took lots of time and effort to develop, so it was always made with a purpose. Often, this purpose was tied to the mythology or religion of a culture. Ancient Egypt was no exception. Their art was closely tied to their religion and held a special place in their cosmology. Through art, rituals, and the power of the pharaoh, ancient Egyptians worked daily to keep the world from falling out of balance.

Egyptian Cosmology and Art

To the ancient Egyptians, the universe is sustained by an eternal natural order called Ma'at. Ma'at is what maintained order in the universe, but it was constantly being attacked by forces of disorder, so all of society was focused on maintaining it.

This meant that the gods had to be maintained. Without the gods to protect the cosmos, Ma'at would be destroyed. Not surprisingly then, the focus of Egyptian religion was maintaining the gods through offerings, rituals, and devout worship. These rituals were meant to propagate natural cycles of time, reflected in the daily journey of the sun and the annual flooding of the Nile, to fight off the forces of disorder.

So, that's Egyptian cosmology. It required all of society to maintain Ma'at, which means that art and architecture were fundamentally tied to religion. The gods frequently appear in Egyptian paintings and carvings to remind people of their power, but the biggest influence of Egyptian cosmology is in their architecture. The Egyptians were prolific builders, and a great number of their constructions were temples to the gods. At these locations, the gods were worshiped and the rituals performed to keep them in power. As such important places, temples were built to be sturdy and grandiose, growing continually in size and decorations.

Since the rituals were used to maintain natural cycles, it is no surprise that many of them align with astronomical events, meaning natural cycles in the sky. The solstice and equinox both seem to have had a major influence on building, and several temples have features that line up with the sun on these days. Additionally, many temples or tombs seem to reflect patterns of the stars. The famous Pyramids of Giza are oriented almost perfectly on north-south and east-west lines, leading many to assume that they were positioned in relation to the movement of certain stars.

The Pharaoh and Art

Within this cosmology, the pharaohs of Egypt held a special position. Pharaohs were semi-divine, being mortal humans but also connected to the gods through the right to rule. Additionally, the pharaoh would become a god after dying. This made the pharaoh something of an intermediary between regular people and the gods. Part of his role as intermediary was to build temples to the gods. In fact, certain moments in selecting the location and proportions of the measurements of a temple may have been considered a divine action, which only the pharaoh could perform.

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