Egyptian Revival Architecture: Characteristics & Features

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There were many revival styles of the 19th century, each of which relied on a different base aesthetic. In this lesson, we'll explore the Egyptian Revival and learn what it represented.

Egyptian Revival

The ancient civilizations of the world built many wonders and created timeless art. It's no wonder that people often look to the past for inspiration, but how far back should you look? Throughout the 19th century, architects and artists alike looked to various eras of the past in a series of revival movements. Like any other style, various civilizations of the past came in and out of vogue across the century. Some people looked to medieval Europe for inspiration. Some went farther back than that, looking to the ancient Greeks and Romans. But for some, even that wasn't far enough. One of the farthest-reaching revival movements of the 19th century looked to the beginnings of civilization and turned it into a style known as the Egyptian Revival.

History

Ancient Egypt is pretty fascinating, but how did it become an architectural revival movement? In 1798, the French conqueror Napoleon launched a series of campaigns into Egypt. He hired scores of researchers to catalog the discoveries his armies made, which included things from pyramids to temples to the famous Rosetta stone. Volumes of these findings were published between 1809 and 1830, igniting a major spark of interest in all things Egyptian in Europe. Architects had their new source for inspiration.

The Egyptian Revival movement became very popular in Europe and the United States between roughly the 1820s and 1840s. Have you ever wondered why there's a giant obelisk in the middle of America's capital city? The Washington Monument, designed in the 1830s, was based on the Egyptian obelisks Napoleon had brought back to Europe as trophies of his imperial conquests.

The Washington Monument is modeled on an Egyptian obelisk
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An interest in ancient Egypt popped up again in the 1870s, when many European nations were expanding their empires and coming into contact with foreign aesthetics. Egyptian styles emerged in this era as something that felt exotic and exciting, yet somewhat familiar. The final wave of Egyptian Revivalism came in the 1920s as part of the Art Deco movement, following the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb.

Characteristics

Egyptian Revival architecture employs the aesthetics of ancient Egypt, but it's always important to remember that revival movements are not about copying. Ancient Egyptian structures were made of solid stone and did not have much in the way of modern comforts. So, while Egyptian Revival buildings sought to use Egyptian styles, this was purely a matter of aesthetics and had little impact on the functional layout of the structure.

That being said, we can look at Egyptian Revival architecture in two ways. First is through entire structures. Egyptian Revival structures sought to capture the monumental feel of Egyptian pyramids and temples above all else. One great example is the Egyptian Building of the Virginian Commonwealth University, designed in 1845 by Thomas S. Stewart. This 5-story building is modeled after an Egyptian temple, complete with massive post-and-lintel entryway and towering columns. The façade of this building is thick and solid, with no windows or openings. This is an important part of the Egyptian Revival aesthetic. Throughout the entire building windows are sparse and small. For good measure, the building is covered in painted stucco to capture the look of Egyptian limestone.

The Egyptian Building
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