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Essay: Funerary structures in ancient Egyptian culture

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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In ancient Egyptian culture the size, orientation, and access all play a huge role in designing huge monumental funerary structures.  The old kingdom of Egypt (2700-2100) has spectacular architecture and funerary arraignments. Most of them were pyramids that were incomparable to other funerary’s all over the world. Pyramids are beautiful dwellings that housed pharaohs, Queens, and spirits believed to live in the afterlife with the sun god.

The Egyptians main end goal in the burial process was that they would find eternal happiness once they passed on. However, their burial and ritual involving death and mourning was dramatic.  According to Herodotus  (484-425/413 BCE),: “As regards mourning and funerals, when a distinguished man dies, all the women of the household plaster their heads and faces with mud, then, leaving the body indoors, perambulate the town with the dead man’s relatives, their dresses fastened with a girdle, and beat their bared breasts. The men too, for their part, follow the same procedure, wearing a girdle and beating themselves like the women. The ceremony over, they take the body to be mummified.” (Nardo,110).

The first example of this burial process was the Saqqara, also known as the first step pyramid. This pyramid was built for King Djoser (2691-2625 BCE) by the famous architect and genius Imhotep. It started off as a mastaba tomb but then eventually evolved into a 197-foot-high pyramid. It was constructed using 11.6 million cubic feet of stone and clay. There are tunnels underneath that form a labyrinth 3.5 miles long.  It contained a vast complex of functional, as well as dummy buildings, including pavilions of the North and South, large tumuli and terraces, finely carved facades, ribbed and fluted columns, stairways, platforms, shrines chapels and life-size statues. There was even a replica of the pyramid substructure, called the South Tomb. In book “The Complete Pyramids” by Mark Lehner, he says that:  “The half-submerging of the dummy buildings must have signified the chthonic, underworld aspect of existence after death. And the full envelopment of the mastaba conforms to the pastern of early Egyptian monuments that successive stages conceal earlier ones. Tomb building appears to have been part of a larger ceremonial style, an act of consolidation and renewal that necessitated burying finely crafted structures. The Egyptian penchant for simulation receives one of its greatest expressions here. The stone enclosure wall imitates one of mudbrick; the ceiling stones of the entrance passage, the Sed chapels and the Pavilions of the North and South imitate wooden log beams, traces of paint indicate that many facades and pillars in fine limestone were painted red to imitate wood” this excerpt from the book simply states that Imhotep simply built the dummy burial sites then built/covered it up with the step pyramid. He confirmed that the building was very spiritual for the ancient Egyptians. It is said that helped them get closer with the king and his ultimate end goal of happiness In the afterlife.

Afterlife was the most important thing to the ancient Egyptian gods. They needed to make sure that what they built was going to with stand the test of time because it was going to house a king. Materiality along with design was a huge part of how they could achieve eternal happiness. The pyramid of Djoser was the first pyramid ever built out of stone. “a simple but effective construction method was used. The masonry was laid not vertically but in courses inclined toward the middle of the pyramid, thus significantly increasing its structural stability. The basic material used was limestone blocks, whose form resembled that of large bricks of clay” – Miroslav Verner.

The main part of designing a pyramid is to make sure that it will be accessible after the death of the king. Archaeologists argued that the functional elements in the complex were the entrance at the southeast corner of the enclosure, the pyramid which served as a tomb for Djoser, and the Northern temple used for the funeral service. The American archeologist Mark Lehner suggested that it is more likely that Djoser’s funeral procession entered the building over the still-existing ramp at the northeast corner than through the functional entranceway at the southeast. None of the passageways that lead from the southeast entrance to the northern temple are wider than one meter, so a funeral procession through the complex would be very difficult. The functional entrance way to Djoser’s complex is located at the southeast corner of the enclosure wall.

Imhotep and Djoser chose a pyramid shape because the shape represented a staircase to the northern stars. These stars represented the god Osiris because they never disappear as do stars in other parts of the heavens. This means that they are eternal just like the god Osiris. “The Egyptian Step Pyramid was an integral part of a setting that brings heaven to earth and joins the secular and spiritual” (Fagan 1998:370).

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