Egyptian Art & Architecture

Essential Quesion

What are the major features of Egyptian art and architecture?

Egyptian art and Architecture

For more than 2,000 years, Egypt was one of the richest and most civilized lands in the ancient world. Much of what we know about this great civilization has been learned from its art and architecture. In particular, the ruins of tombs and temples have provided a valuable record of Egyptian life.

Kings and other wealthy persons had elaborate tombs built. Sculptures and wall paintings in the tombs were also created for use in the next life. The gods, too, needed proper care. Their temples were built as great palaces, with stables, orchards and farmlands, and staffs of attendants. Daily rituals and seasonal festivals were pictured on the temple walls. Rulers prided themselves on what they had done to improve the shrines of the gods.


Smaller, brightly painted limestone sculptures were also made for the tomb. They usually showed the owner as a youthful man. Minor members of the royal family and many nobles had statues made of red granite and other hard stones, but these were expensive. At all times throughout the Old Kingdom wood was used for statues. It, too, was brightly painted. The eyes were often inlaid, giving the statue a lifelike appearance. Most officials had several statues made for their tombs.

Wall Art

Wall carving, or relief sculpture—sculpture carved to stand out from a background—decorated the walls of the pyramid temples and tombs. Scenes from daily life—sports, crafts, hunts—were carved in rows. Egyptians painted figures in profile or sideways. The goal was to draw the person(s) as complete as possible so their soul could inhabit the paintings. Egyptian painting and some sculptures did not focus on making their art look realistic, but rather communicated a story or message.

Narmer Palette

A carved slate slab, or palette, made about 3000, shows Narmer, his raised arm holding a club, about to crush the head of his enemy. In the Narmer Palette, the human form is portrayed in a way that became standard in Egyptian art. The head and legs are shown from the side, while the eye and shoulders are shown from the front.

Great Sphinx at Giza

Many royal sculptures of hard stone were intended for the inside of a tomb of a king. But we can still see the remains of some public monuments. The outstanding example of these larger works is the Great Sphinx at Giza. A huge sculpture with a lion's body and a human head, the Sphinx was carved from the natural rock of the site. It is as high as a modern seven-story building


An obelisk is a four-sided pillar tapering to a miniature pyramid at the top. Usually an Egyptian obelisk was cut from one piece of stone, often covered with writings of the kings' triumphs.

Statute of Zoser

This life-size statue shows the sitting pharaoh staring straight ahead. For a long time, only such calm poses were popular in Egyptian sculpture.

Deir el-Bahri

The most beautiful of these is the temple of Deir el-Bahri. It was built about 1470 by the famous Queen Hatshepsut. A series of terraces was surrounded by colonnades and connected by ramps. This temple was built entirely of fine limestone. In contrast, the nearby temple of Ramses II was built (about 1250) entirely of sandstone--a coarse material that is easy to work with.

Medinet Habu

The latest, and best-preserved, of these temples, was constructed for Ramses III about 1180. Known as Medinet Habu, it is really a group of buildings and includes a palace, smaller temples, and houses for priests. It was surrounded by a great brick wall. The temple itself had two great courts that led to a dimly lit hall completely filled with columns. Behind the hall, which was called a hypostyle hall, was the sanctuary where the statue of the god was placed. This dark, innermost section of the temple was open only to the king and the priests.

Abu Simbel

The most spectacular building of the age is the famous temple of Abu Simbel, cut entirely from the rock. It was built by Ramses II about 1250. Four huge seated statues of the pharaoh, each nearly 70 feet (21 meters) high, were carved in front of the temple. (About A.D. 1850 a traveler described standing on the lip of one of the statues and not being able to reach the eyebrows!) The inside plan of the temple copied the design of the usual Egyptian temple, on a smaller scale.

Luxor Temple

The Luxor Temple is a large Ancient Egyptian temple complex located on the east bank of the Nile River in the city today known as Luxor (ancient Thebes) and was constructed approximately 1400 BCE. In Luxor, there are several great temples on the east and west banks. Four of the major mortuary temples visited by early travelers include the Temple of Seti I at Gurnah, the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, the Temple of Ramesses II, and the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. Unlike the other temples in Thebes, the Luxor temple is dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship; it may have been where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned.

Information adapted from "Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture" from The New Book of Knowledge®

Spotlight: The Pyramids

The Egyptians believed that burial sites, especially royal tombs, were very important. As a result, they built spectacular monuments in which to bury their rulers. The most spectacular of all were the pyramids, huge, stone tombs with four triangle-shaped sides that met at a point on top.

The Egyptians first built pyramids during the Old Kingdom. Some of the largest pyramids ever constructed were built during this time. Many of these huge pyramids are still standing. The largest is the Great Pyramid of Khufu near the town of Giza. It covers more than 13 acres at its base and stands 481 feet high. This single pyramid took thousands of workers and more than 2 million limestone blocks to build. Like all the pyramids, it is an amazing reminder of Egyptian engineering, the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.

Building the Pyramids

The earliest pyramids did not have the smooth sides we usually imagine when we think of pyramids. The Egyptians began building the smooth-sided pyramids we usually see around 2700 BC. The steps of these pyramids were filled and covered with limestone. The burial chamber was deep inside the pyramid. After the pharaoh's burial, workers sealed the passages to this room with large blocks.

These enormous projects required a huge labor force. As many as 100,000 workers may have been needed to build a single pyramid. The government kept records and paid the peasants for their work. Wages for working on construction projects, however, were paid in goods such as grain instead of money.

For years, scholars have debated how the Egyptians moved the massive stones used to build the pyramids. Some believe that during the Nile's flooding, builders floated the stones downstream directly to the construction site. Most historians believe that workers used brick ramps and strong sleds to drag the stones up the pyramid once they reached the site.

Significance of the Pyramids

Burial in a pyramid demonstrated a pharaoh's importance. The size and shape of the pyramid were symbolic. Pointing to the skies, the pyramid symbolized the pharaoh's journey to the afterlife. The Egyptians wanted the pyramids to be spectacular because they believed that the pharaoh, as their link to the gods, controlled everyone's afterlife. Making the pharaoh's spirit happy was a way of ensuring one's own happy afterlife. To ensure that pharaohs remained safe after their deaths, the Egyptians sometimes wrote magical spells and hymns on the pharaohs' tombs

Step Pyramid at Saqqara

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara was the first stone building in history and the first of the many pyramids to appear during the next 1,000 years. It was constructed from small blocks of limestone, a soft rock common to the region and about 200 feet tall. Imhotep was probably the architect of the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The Step Pyramid was designed as a tomb for Pharaoh Zoser and members of his family.

The Pyramids of Giza

The most important and famous pyramids are the three great pyramids at Giza, on the west bank of the Nile River. They were built between about 2660 and 2560 for the pharaohs Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus. The pyramids were meant to house the pharaohs' bodies and serve as reminders of their almighty power.

Building the great pyramid of Cheops (2551-28) was a tremendous feat. The pyramid is so large that it could contain comfortably the entire Capitol building of Washington, D.C. The pyramid is made of about 2,300,000 blocks of finely cut limestone. These stones have an average weight of 2 1/2 tons.

Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe ancient Egyptian paintings to someone who has never seen it?

  • How would you describe ancient Egyptian sculpture to someone who has never seen it?

  • How would you describe ancient Egyptian architecture to someone who has never seen it?

  • What was the purpose that most ancient Egyptian art was made for?

Activity 1: How would you describe the art of Ancient Egypt using vivid language?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities