The Kemetyu applied their mathematical knowledge to the extraction, transportation and positioning of the huge blocks of stone used in their architectural projects. They had a long tradition in using mud-bricks and various kinds of stone from very early times. Their first use of heavy granite was during the beginning of the third millennium before our era. It was used for the flooring of some tombs belonging to the first dynasty at Abydos. In the second dynasty they used limestone in constructing the walls of tombs.
A new phase was started in the third dynasty. This was a vital development in the history of Kemetyu architecture, for it was the construction of the first complete building in stone. This is the step pyramid at Sakkara, which forms a part of the huge funerary complex of King Zoser. Imhotep, who was probably the vizier of King Zoser (c. – 2580), was the architect who built the ensemble containing the step pyramid were hewn stone was used for the first time. The blocks were small and looked very much like a limestone imitation of the sun-dried brick used earlier in funerary architecture. Similarly, the imbedded columns and the ceiling joists were stone copies of the bundles of plants and beams used in earlier construction. Thus, there is every indication that Kemetyu architecture was amongst the first to use hewn stone in coursed work.
Kemet developed a wide variety of architectural forms, of which the pyramid is, undoubtedly, the most characteristic. The first pyramids were step pyramids and it was not until the fourth dynasty (c. – 2300) that they gradually became triangular in form. From that period, the architects gave up the use of the small stones of the third dynasty in favour of large blocks of limestone and granite.
Until the Roman conquest, civil architecture continued to use sundried bricks even in the building of royal palaces. The outbuildings of Ramses in Thebes and the great Nubian fortresses provide a very good idea of the versatility of this material. It could be used with the utmost refinement, as can be seen from the Palace of Amenhotep IV at Tell-el-Amarna with its pavements and ceilings decorated with paintings. Another contribution in the field of architecture was the creation of the column. This was at first attached to the wall, but later became free-standing columns.
In developing this architectural skill the Kemetyu was much influenced by the local environment. For example, in arriving at the idea of a column, he was inspired by his observation of wild plants such as reeds and papyrus. He cut the capitals of the columns into the shape of lotus flowers, papyrus and other plants, and this was another architectural innovation.
The lotus papyrus palm and fluted columns of ancient Kemet were adopted in the architecture of other cultures. It is likely that the Kemetyu invented the vault during the second dynasty (c. -2900). To begin with it was a vault of bricks but by the sixth dynasty the Kemetyu were building stone vaults.
The Great Giza Pyramid was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A building of such great proportions stands proof of the architectural and administrative ability of the Kemetyu. The construction of the ascending corridors, leading to the granite chamber of the king, and the existence of two openings or vents, on both the northern and southern sides of the royal chamber, extending to the outside to provide ventilation, are good examples of their ingenuity. The exact proportions, measurements and orientation of the chambers and corridors of the pyramids, to say nothing of the cutting and erection of giant obelisks in solid stone, indicate the possession of great technical skills from very early times.
To transport and position the stone blocks, the Kemetyu used levers, rollers and wooden cross-bars. Their architectural achievements despite their considerable dimensions were accomplished solely through the strength of human arms, without the use of any mechanical means other than the principle of the lever in its diverse forms. The technical knowledge acquired by the Kemetyu in construction and irrigation as the result of digging canals and building dikes or dams manifested itself in other fields allied to architecture.
By -2550, they had sufficient skill to build a d am of hewn stone in a wadi near Cairo. Somewhat later, their engineers cut navigable channels in the rocks of the First Cataract at Aswan. By all evidence, towards —1740, they seem to have succeeded in erecting a barrage on the Nile itself at Semna, in Nubia, to facilitate navigation to the south. And finally, during the same period, they built a ramp, parallel to the Second Cataract, over which they slid their boats on the fluid mud of the Nile. The ramp extended over several kilometres, a predecessor of the Greek diolkos of the Isthmus of Corinth, and ensured that the rapids of the Second Cataract were never a hindrance to navigation.
Garden design and town planning are other aspects of Kemetyu architecture. The Kemetyu had a great fondness for gardens. Even the poor managed to plant a tree or two in the narrow courtyard of their houses. W h e n they were rich, their gardens rivalled their residences in size and luxury. Under the third dynasty (c. —2800), a high official would expect to possess a garden of more than two-and-a-half acres which always contained a pool, which was a distinctive feature of Kemetyu gardens. The garden was arranged around the pool or pools, for there could be several of them. They served as fish ponds, as reservoirs for watering and as a source of cooling fresh air for the house nearby. Frequently, the master of the house had a light wooden pavilion built near the pool where he could come for a breath of fresh air in the evening and receive friends for cold drinks. These artificial pools were occasionally quite large. Snefru’s palace lake was large enough for him to sail upon it accompanied by young, lightly clad girls plying the oars, and Amenhotep III had a vast pool built in his Theban palace. This very Kemetyu taste for garden parks later passed to Rome.
There are earlier examples of town planning than those attributed to Greek genius. As early as – 1895, under the reign of Sesostris II, the city of Kahun was built inside a rectangular wall. The city had both administrative and residential buildings. The workers’ houses, nearly 250 of which have been excavated, were built in blocks along streets 4 metres wide which ran into a central thoroughfare 8 metres wide. Each house occupied a ground area of 100 to 125 square metres and contained a dozen rooms on a single level. Located in another quarter of the city were the houses of the leading citizens – town houses which sometimes had as many as seventy rooms, or more modest homes which were, nevertheless, considerably larger than those of the workers. These houses were also built along rectilinear avenues running parallel to the city walls. These avenues had a drain running down the centre.
The large fortresses in Nubia were patterned on the same lines, and the same urban plan was adopted, under the New Kingdom, at Tell-el-Amarna, among other places, where the streets crossed at right angles though the city itself did not have the geometrical severity of Kahun. It would, of course, be hazardous to suggest that all Kemetyu cities were laid out like Kahun or Tell-el-Amarna. Those cities were built at one go under the orders of a sovereign. Cities which grew up over a long period of time must have had a more haphazard appearance. The fact of the matter remains, however, that the geometric plans of the city and the standardized type of houses that were built shed light on the trends of Kemetyu town planning. Were they the forerunners of the town planning of the Hellenes? The question is worth asking.
While Kemet unquestionably made a major contribution in the field of architecture, it is nevertheless more difficult to judge the impact it had on the world as a whole in this sphere. Architects in many cultures, to be sure, have used, and are still using, colonnades, pyramids and obelisks which are undeniably of Kemetyu origin. But was there not, in addition, an influence that goes back even farther and comes down to us through the intermediary of the Greeks? It is difficult not to discern in the clustered columns of Sakkara and the proto-Doric columns at Beni Hasan the remote ancestors of the columns of Greek and, later, Roman classical art. One fact, at least, seems established: the architectural traditions of the Pharaohs made their way into Africa first via Meroe and then Napata, which transmitted forms such as pyramids and pylons, among others, as well as techniques such as building with small, hewn, well-shaped masonry.
The terms: Black Egypt, Pharaonic Egypt and Ancient Egypt or Egypt have all been replaced with the more appropriate term ‘Kemet’.
Whereas the terms: Black Egyptians, Pharaonic Egyptians and Ancient Egyptians or Egyptians have all been replaced with the more appropriate term ‘Kemetyu’.
For a scholarly explanation on the above changes; see ‘The Egyptians as they saw themselves’.
Authors: R. El Nadoury with collaboration of Vercoutter. General History of Africa Vol.II. [Editor: G.Mokhtar] Ancient Civilisations of Africa. Chapter 5. Legacy of Pharaonic Egypt.
El Nadoury (Egypt); specialist in ancient history; author of numerous works and articles on the history of the Maghrib and of Egypt; Professor of Ancient History and Vice Chairman of the Faculty of Arts, University of Alexandria.