Art of Ancient Egypt: Predynastic (4210 BCE–2680 BCE) and Old Kingdom (2680 BCE–2258 BCE) periods – Part III

Exterior view of a mastaba at the necropolis of Giza.

Death was an obsession during the Old Kingdom. The whole art of this period revolves around this theme. On the sand platform that stretches along the right bank of the Nile near Memphis, the ancient Egyptians built one of the largest necropolises in the capital of Lower Egypt. These tombs are the mastabas, a name that comes from the Arabic word for a bench (“couch”) of mud because they have, in effect, the shape of a couch. The exploration of the mastabas of the Memphis necropolis has provided the primary documents for the study of the early dynasties. The mastaba tomb was a type of chamber only accessible by a unique door that was supposed to be inhabited by the “spectrum” of the deceased which was reproduced on the wall by paintings or sculptures in relief. In addition to this first chamber, the mastaba had a second underground chamber whose access was concealed in the walls; this second chamber could be accessed by walking down through a well and was the resting place of the mummy. All the people of the city were buried in the necropolis of Memphis: the poor were buried in the sand where thousands of overlapping mummies could be found, the great citizens were buried in mastabas, and the Pharaohs were buried in their colossal pyramid tombs. In the burial chambers of the mastabas it is common to find the walls covered with very low reliefs of prodigious fineness when describing human bodies. These polychromed reliefs represented scenes of the deceased’s life.

Diagram showing the inner structure of a mastaba.
Interior of the Mereruka’s mastaba in Saqqara. Mereruka was a vizier of Teti, Pharaoh of the V Dynasty, and is represented in the painted statue placed inside the niche.
Polychrome relief inside a mastaba in the necropolis of Saqqara representing the deceased. The deceased is seated at a table of offerings with the right hand extended to nine servings of what seems to be soft bread. The bovine legs adorning his chair are in archaic style (ca. V or VI Dynasties).
The six pyramids of the Giza necropolis. From Left to right the pyramids of Mycerinus, Kephren and Keops.

The pyramids are found only in the geographic area of ​​Lower Egypt in the vicinity of the ancient capital. When the court moved to Thebes some pyramids were still built, but the system of digging graves in the rock was soon adopted. Consequently, the pyramids are merely the typical royal tombs of the Old Kingdom, and they always have the same inclination or slope. In the necropolis of Giza near ancient Memphis, there are several Pharaonic tombs but only three of them are famous: those of the pharaohs the Greeks later called with their Hellenized names Keops, Kephren and Mycerinus (their real Egyptian names were Khufu, Khafra and Men-Kau-Ra respectively). The largest of the three pyramids of Giza -the Keops (Khufu) pyramid- covers an area of ​​48,000 square meters and rises to 146 meters in height. The joints are so precise that there is no way of introducing the blade of a knife between two of these huge blocks of granite. It is believed that the outer faces of the pyramids were covered with bands of different colors with a terminal golden capstone* as seen in the tops of obelisks* in monuments of later times. It is also believed that the pyramids of Giza were first covered with a layer of limestone that was smooth and shiny. The inside blocks (which are now exposed) were made of granite. The 2 large pyramids, Keops and Kephren, where completely covered in shiny white limestone. The top half of the smallest of the three pyramids, Mycerinus, was covered in white limestone, while the bottom half of the pyramid was covered in pink limestone. The capstones of the pyramids were made of a combination of gold and silver called electrum.

View of the pyramid of Keops, the highest of all, in the necropolis of Giza.
View of the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid of Giza or Pyramid of Keops.

The corridors leading to the burial chamber in the pyramids have a perfect finish and sometimes exhibit a dome shape, but both the burial chambers and corridors leading to them and the mortuary temples at the foot of the pyramids have smooth walls without moldings, ornaments, and paintings as befits the tomb of the adopted son-incarnation of Ra. Not even hieroglyphic inscriptions are found in the pyramids of the IV Dynasty. The height and inclination of the pyramids reveals knowledge of the mysterious problem of the relationship between the square and the circle. This problem, which obsessed the ancient cultures, can only be resolved by knowing the number π (3.1416), which expresses the relationship between the ratio of the circumference and its length. The Egyptians knew it since the height of the pyramids is exactly the radius of a circle whose circumference is equal to the perimeter of its base. This gives the uniform inclination of all pyramids’ faces of 51 degrees 51 minutes. But how did the Egyptians manage to transport and lift so many thousand tons of stone? Apparently, by the most primitive and difficult procedure: hundreds or perhaps thousands of men pulled either monumental blocks of granite or colossal statues which were placed on a sled. Therefore there was no secret, just relentless effort of an entire group of people.

The two tomb types of the first dynasties, mastabas and pyramids, have the same burial chamber hidden inside the monument. The burial chamber is also inside the Pyramids nestled in the rock beneath the monument and its access has been hidden as well as possible. What was believed to be an essential difference between these two tomb types was that mastabas had a superior room, the home for the spectrum, where the soul of the deceased lived and who was represented in paintings and sculptures. The development of this same idea has also been recognized in the pyramids. Today for Egyptologists, the so called Sphinx temple is nothing but an appendage of the pharaoh’s tomb as part of his accessible outdoor tomb just like the upper chamber of the mastabas. All pyramids have this second essential element in their construction: in addition to the tumulus with its crypt which constitutes the pyramid, there is a second tomb or house for the “spectrum” located at the base of all the pyramids where the statues of the pharaoh were kept. A third element has been recognized in the pyramids -given the religious character of the pharaohs- and this is the temple for the popular worship of the sovereign, deified after his death.

In conclusion, today the theory of the pyramids proposes, for the monumental system of a pharaoh’s tomb of the first dynasties, these three essential elements (see left picture): 1. The mound for the sarcophagus or pyramid itself with its burial chamber and proper slope for ascension to Ra, 2. The outdoor tomb or house for the “spectrum” where the pharaoh was reproduced in sculptures (a type of construction also found in the mastabas), and 3. Temple for the worship of the deified monarch which used to be located a little further from and joined to the pyramid by a monumental avenue which Greeks called dromos (4).

The Sphinx of Giza (20 m high), with the Pyramid of Keops in the background. It possibly dates from the reign of Kephren.

The colossal figure of the Sphinx, with human head and lion’s body, is 70 meters long and 20 meters high and stands next to the Giza pyramids. To carve it, Egyptian artisans took advantage of a mound of limestone from the plain and later completed it with large blocks. The real significance of this figure has long been an enigma. At first it was thought that it would be dedicated to Harmakhis, or the Rising sun, because its head is facing east. Today it is believed to represent the pharaoh Kephren whose monumental avenue (leading to his pyramid) is right next to the Sphinx. The monster was sculpted circa 2,800 BCE and has a faraway sight staring at the horizon where the sun rises, which has led to the modern romantic view of seeing in this giant sculpture the mystery of the great questions still to be answered. The headdress that the Sphinx wears is the klaft* which was always present in the royal statues of the pharaohs. After pharaoh Zoser of the III Dynasty, kings usually were depicted wearing the klaft (or Nemes) headdress, a false beard, and an ornate kilt. The klaft, is then the striped headcloth worn by pharaohs.


Capstone: (from the Latin capa). In architecture refers to a stone fixed on top of a built structure.



Klaft: Alson known as Nemes, is the striped headcloth worn by pharaohs in ancient Egypt. It covered the whole crown and back of the head and nape of the neck (sometimes also extending a little way down the back) and had lappets, two large flaps which hung down behind the ears and in front of both shoulders. The Klaft was not a crown in itself, but still symbolized the pharaoh’s power.


Obelisk: (from Ancient Greek: obeliskos a diminutive of obelos, meaning “spit, nail, pointed pillar”). A a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top. These were originally called tekhenu by their builders, the Ancient Egyptians. The Greeks who saw them used the Greek term ‘obeliskos’ to describe them, and this word passed into Latin and ultimately English. Ancient obelisks are monolithic; that is, they consist of a single stone. Most modern obelisks are made of several stones.