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The history of Egyptian architecture

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Part 1

     ---excerpted from Travels in the History of Architecture


Ever since Herodotus, Egypt has represented a set of mysteries to be solved. No matter where one starts – the animal-headed gods, the picture writing, the burial customs – immediately one runs up against irreducible strangeness. Now, after thousands of Egyptian texts have been deciphered and read, tombs and temples of all sizes and types uncovered and explored, industrial installations and trade routes analysed, construction methods and building histories pieced together, the civilization still carries a deep residue of strangeness.


These are the people who deify beetles, crocodiles, snakes and baboons. Who embalm and bury in elaborate graves cats, bulls and falcons. Who create whole substitute worlds, whole architectures devoted to the idea of resurrection, including actual vehicles, furniture, clothes, jewellery and cosmetics, and imitation food, servants and buildings – all one needs for a happy and successful earthly life – and then secrete them underground, as if to admit that the entire conception is essentially divorced from reality. Or perhaps just to protect it from the depredations of tomb robbers.


For these are also a people who reliably rifle tombs. Not just the impoverished and alienated or those with nothing to lose: the pharaohs themselves usurp, re-label and reoccupy their predecessors’ memorial temples, tombs and sarcophagi. Most openly of all, they turn statues of previous kings into portraits of themselves. Tomb robbery has occasionally been put in context by explaining that it blossoms in times of social disruption and economic collapse. But it is now believed that sarcophagi were often robbed before burial, thus accounting for tombs otherwise undisturbed where the caskets are found empty. So the habit seems more widespread than a desperate response in times of crisis.


Herodotus says they are the most religious people in the world, who invented the calendar to keep track of their unceasing obligations and hundreds of festivals, so frequent they became a kind of spatial structure. But many things do not fit with the picture of a sclerotically rigid society hemmed in by ritual and obsessed with death. It is true that most of the evidence for revising this view is found in tombs. Walls are painted with lively everyday activity – tending animals, making beer, hunting from boats in the marsh. Delicate stools, chairs and tent-like canopies are piled up. So we get the idea of alert attention to landscape and non-human life, and sensuous appreciation of richly furnished interiors. We only find all this life buried in tombs because anything left more exposed – most of what there was – has disappeared. Yet the suspicion persists that the innocent scenes have an ulterior purpose, if not an occult significance. Such depictions and mementos are not mainly reminiscence but also projection. They are so many allegories of resurrection that focus on activities that suggest renewal, like miraculous growth from Nile mud, archetypally dead-looking yet bursting with life. Even the footstools are coded with emblems of rebirth, winged sun disks and celestial barques.


It is sometimes assumed that the ancient Egyptians expected to ride in boats like those they buried near Khufu’s tomb. But there is a powerful symbolism that complicates the question. The celestial journey of the gods, the course of the sun across the sky and the corresponding passage of the moon through darkness are all undertaken in boats. For the most solemn religious rituals the god mounts a ceremonial boat, which is then carried by priests across dry land to another temple that becomes his temporary home. Along the way he stops at crucial moments in barque shrines, stages in the journey marked by buildings. As other narratives are composed of events, this one is made up of stylized locations and prescribed movements.


So, outside the temple of Amun at Karnak there is a Turning Shrine that depicts a change of direction in the journey, turning away from the river whose course had been followed first along a parallel dry route, a conceptual river – and towards the temple, a progress marked by going in through one door and emerging from another nearby at right angles to it. Once inside the main temple, the procession stops again. The language that uses a building to signify a moment does not fall silent just because it has entered a building. It simply inserts a tiny building into the larger one.

 Such processions are features of more than one religion. Apparently the local Muslim saint at Luxor still rides out every year in a barque procession. Favoured images in Catholic Sicily are taken through the town along prescribed courses, and the great moments in the Hindu year take place not in temples but between them, when chariots covered in carved gods like travelling wooden temples are pulled through the streets. But the ancient Egyptian version of such a pilgrimage sounds more literal-minded.


Carrying the god, as if he could possibly need our help to move about, and carrying him in a miniaturized form on a miniaturized boat rather than reminding us of his frailty, simply locates the drama firmly in the realm of representations. Egyptian symbols are taken more directly from daily life than we are used to, but they are fully symbols nonetheless. The barques in shallow pits beside the pyramid are fit for use and have every part one would need for an actual journey, but they were probably never used.


In a long sequence in the Book of the Dead the soul of the dead person is asked to name the parts of a boat, giving not their everyday but their spiritual or symbol-world names. This is the final stage in a mental ordeal in which the soul tries to organize its transport in the afterlife by asking countless questions to which he receives evasive answers. Now he is put on the spot and miraculously he knows these far-fetched names that would be utterly hopeless to guess at:


Tell me my name’, says the mooring-post.

Lady of the Two Lands in the shrine’ is your name.

Tell me my name’, says the mallet.

Shank of Apis’ is your name.

Tell me my name’, says the bow-warp . . .

It is a world of secret knowledge animated through and through, as if the inventor of every human device, even such taken-for-granted ones as the floor and sides of a boat, still inhabits and guards them and watches to see if you are a fit user. This disarticulated analysis is based on a visionary notion of construction as bringing dead wood to life; the boat-building is viewed as a body.