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Ancient architects built for the living and the dead

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Religion, Rivers, Royalty on Saturday, 1 February 2014

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This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Building the Pyramids,  picture, image, illustration

Building the Pyramids by Neville Dear

All living creatures are home-lovers. Birds build nests; rabbits dig warrens; snakes find warm holes; hares curl up in the long grass. The crocodile sinks into the warm, smelly darkness of the river mud, and the horse stands under the shade and shelter of a tree. Home is where you find it. Home is where the heart is.

Men, with their characteristic one-upmanship over the rest of the animal kingdom go one better than all this – they create architecture.

Architecture began in Egypt. This bald statement covers our ignorance of everything that happened before that. It may be that our very primitive ancestors practised quite sophisticated forms of architecture but it is unlikely. Like the lower animals, their home-loving almost certainly had a practical basis on the need for warmth (or coolness) and shelter. The type of home was dictated by the job. Hunters and fishermen sheltered in caves, because they were ready-made. Tillers of the soil, staying close to their crops, made lean-to arrangements among the trees. Shepherds and other nomads devised a portable arrangement of stick and skins and called it a tent.

All that was mere home-making. With the coming of the Ancient Egyptians, home-making left off and architecture began.

With a little thought, it is not difficult to understand why the Ancient Egyptians were the first to make this tremendous stride nor, indeed, why they were so far superior, in so many ways, to everybody else who was around at that time.

European civilisation started in the Mediterranean, and of all the Mediterranean countries, Egypt is the only one with a back door to Arabia and the other lands beyond. The Egyptians became wealthy through trade.

The Nile is a very peculiar river. Every year, it floods and deposits a rich mud across the land. With the help of 365 sunny days a year, farming in Egypt is simply a matter of putting the seed in this rich mud and sitting back to watch it grow. You don’t need green fingers to be an Egyptian farmer!

Rich, then, and well-fed, the Ancient Egyptians, or at least the leaders among them, had the leisure to relax and think about other things than grubbing for a livelihood. And they thought about religion and architecture.

The religion of the Ancient Egyptians was a secret society into which only the best people were admitted – rather like an exclusive club. To perpetuate the mysteries of this secret society, a caste of priests was formed. The chief priest was the king, or pharaoh, whose power was limitless and unquestioned – like that of a god. So they called him a god.

With a god to give the orders, and a priestly caste to make sure they were carried out, and unlimited wealth, and slave-power, it is scarcely surprising that even the Egyptians’ early essays in architecture have never since been surpassed in scale, magnificence and sheer breathtaking magnitude.

Of the homes of these people, nothing remains. To the Ancient Egyptian, the dwelling house was strictly a temporary lodging to last a mere lifetime. It was built of brick, baked from the Nile mud; splendid, perhaps, depending on the owner’s purse, and richly decorated with paintings, sculpture and ceramics.

The dwelling house was temporary – but the tomb was for ever.

Death and the after-life were an obsession with the Ancient Egyptians, though they appear to have been a gay and life-loving people. The story of Egyptian architecture is the story of tombs to hold the dead, the temples to enshrine the mysteries of his death and after-life, and of monuments to the god-kings who had died and would live again.

You live again, said the Ancient Egyptians, in your old body, so they devised the mummy. And the mummy had to be kept intact, together with enough possessions to see it through the after-life, from robbers, so they built the pyramid.

Pharaoh Cheops built the biggest pyramid, in which his own mummy and the mummy of his queen were hidden. This is 482 feet high and covers a square plan of 13 acres. For comparison’s sake, St Peter’s, Rome, which was built about 5,000 years later, and is about the biggest thing of its kind around, takes up less than half that acreage.

The four sides of the pyramid follow the cardinal points of the compass (only, the Ancient Egyptians did not have a compass), and the blocks of stone, some of them measuring 20 feet by six feet, fit together so snugly that a cigarette paper could not be slipped between them. The cost in money, labour and life, to have built Cheops pyramid, is unimaginable. It was all wasted, inasmuch as it was built to protect the royal mummies, for robbers got inside and stole from them.

The Great Temple at Abu-Simbel (recently rescued from certain destruction by a miracle of 20th century technology) is Egyptian temple-building at its most breathtaking. The front of it is more or less square in shape and occupied by four seated statues which are 65 feet high. They are all of the same person, Pharaoh Rameses II, who caused the temple to be built to his own glory. This modest and self-effacing monarch directed that the temple should contain a vestibule, eight other chambers, a pillared hall and a sanctuary. And the whole job, inside and out, was carved from the solid rock of the mountain.

Like the pyramid, the obelisk was an Egyptian invention. In fact, it is an elongated pyramid with another tiny pyramid set on the top. They were used, in old Egypt, to set off the front of temples, and usually came in pairs. The so-called “Cleopatra’s Needle,” which was quarried in the single piece more than 1,400 years before that lady was born, now stands on London’s Thames Embankment, and its twin graces Central Park, New York.

We have come a long way, with the Ancient Egyptians, from the primitive concept of “a house is a home.” In one stride, we are now thinking of a building as something more than simply a shelter. It is no exaggeration to say that it was architecture that separated the men from the animals.

Some animals build pretty homes, even artistically satisfying homes (like the house martin and the honey bee); but these qualities are incidental to the basic intention of providing shelter.

Only man makes architecture. He does it because of something inside him that raises his spirit to the stars and makes him think like a god.

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