About 3100 BC the country was united under one rule by strong chieftains from the south. The idea, however, that the country had two distinct parts-Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the north-was always remembered. This important event, or one of the stages leading to it, was commemorated on the carved stone Palette of King Narmer (circa 3100 BC, Egyptian Museum, Cairo), on which the king, wearing the crown of the south, is shown subjugating peoples of the north.
The kings of the early dynasties had tombs at Abydos and Saqqarah built in imitation of palaces or shrines. From these tombs have come large amounts of pottery, stonework, and ivory or bone carving that attest to a high level of development in Early Dynastic Egypt. The Egyptian language, written in hieroglyphics, or picture writing , was in its first stages of evolution.
In the 3rd Dynasty the architect Imhotep built for Zoser (reigned about 2737-2717 BC) a complex at Saqqarah, the burial ground near the capital of Memphis, that included a stepped pyramid of stone and a group of shrines and related buildings. Designed to protect the remains of the king, the great Step Pyramid is the oldest monumental architecture preserved; it also illustrates one of the phases toward the development of the true pyramid (see Pyramids).
The architecture of the Old Kingdom-the designation used by historians for the 3rd through the 6th dynasties-can be described as monumental in the sense that native limestone and granite were used for the construction of large-scale buildings and tombs. Of the temples built during this period little remains.
The pyramid complex at Giza where the kings of the 4th Dynasty were buried illustrates the ability of Egyptian architects to construct monuments that remain wonders of the world. The Great Pyramid of Khufu originally stood about 146 m (480 ft) high and contained about 2.3 million blocks with an average weight of 2.5 metric tons each. Many theories have been advanced to explain the purpose of pyramids; the answer is simple: They were built to preserve and protect the bodies of the kings for eternity. Each pyramid had a valley temple, a landing and staging area, and a pyramid temple or cult chapel where religious rites for the king's spirit were performed. Around the three major pyramids at Giza a necropolis (city of the dead) grew up, which contained mastaba (Arabic mastabah, "mud-brick bench") tombs, so called because of their resemblance to the sloped mud-brick benches in front of Egyptian houses. The mastabas were for the members of the royal family, high officials, courtiers, and functionaries. For the most part these tombs were constructed over shafts that led to a chamber containing the mummy and the offerings, but some tombs were cut into the limestone plateau and not constructed from blocks of stone.
From the tombs at Giza and Saqqarah it is clear that the houses they imitate were arranged on streets in well-planned towns and cities. Little is known for certain about the domestic architecture of the Old Kingdom, because houses and even palaces were built of unbaked mud brick and have not survived. The temples and tombs, built of stone and constructed for eternity, provide most of the available information on the customs and living conditions of the ancient Egyptians.
From the early figures of clay, bone, and ivory in the Predynastic period, Egyptian sculpture developed quickly. By the time of Zoser large statues of the rulers were made as resting places for their spirits. Egyptian sculpture is best described by the terms cubic and frontal. The block of stone was first made rectangular; the design of the figure was then drawn on the front and the two sides. The resulting statue was intended to be seen mainly from the front. Since it was meant to be a timeless image intended to convey the essence of the person depicted, there was no need for it to be composed in the round.
The Egyptian artist was not interestd in showing movement as this term is understood today. Standing figures are not posed as if they were walking but rather at rest. From the beginning of the dynastic period human anatomy was understood but given an ideal form. Images of the kings, in particular, were idealized and given great dignity. A seated stone figure (circa 2530 BC, Egyptian Museum) of Khafre, builder of the second largest pyramid at Giza, embodies all the qualities that make Egyptian royal sculpture memorable. The king sits on a throne decorated with an emblem of the united lands, with his hands on his knees, head erect, and eyes gazing into the distance. A falcon of the god Horus behind his head symbolizes that he is the "living Horus," one with the gods. All parts of the diorite statue are unified and balanced, creating a potent image of divine kingship.
A number of forms were developed for the depiction of private persons. In addition to seated and standing single figures, paired and group statues of the deceased with family members were made. Sculpture was of stone, of wood, and (rarely) of metal; paint was applied to the surface; the eyes were inlaid in other materials, such as rock crystal, to heighten the lifelike appearance. Only persons of importance could have such statues made; a type of sculpture does exist, however, depicting workmen and women engaged in food preparation and the crafts. These were made to be included in the tomb to serve the spirit in the next life.
Sculpture in relief served two important purposes: On the walls of temples it glorified the king; in the tombs it provided the spirit with the things it would need through eternity. The chambered superstructures of private tombs were usually decorated with scenes of the occupant enjoying and supervising those activities in which he took part in life. The method of representing the human figure in two dimensions, either carved in relief or painted, was again dictated by the desire to preserve the essence of what was shown. As a result, the typical depiction combines the head and lower body as seen from the side, with the eye and upper torso as seen from the front. The most understandable view of each part was used to create a complete image. This rule, or canon, was applied to the king and members of the nobility, but the representation of servants and field workers was not so rigidly enforced. It is clear that some complicated actions had to be conveyed with the use of other views of parts of the body, but the face was rarely shown from the front. Relief carving was usually painted to complete the lifelike effect, and many details were added only in paint; purely painted decoration, however, is seldom found in remains from the Old Kingdom.
An understanding of much of Egyptian life and customs can be derived from tomb reliefs. The varieties of food and their preparation, the methods of caring for flocks and herds, the trapping of wild animals, the building of boats, and the processes of the other crafts are all illustrated. Such activities were arranged on the wall in bands or registers that can be read as continuing narratives, not as happenings in actual time but as timeless occupations. The sculptors working in relief or in the round acted as teams, with different stages of the work assigned to different members of the group. The artist in ancient Egypt was content to follow the rules and was proud to be part of a highly regarded craft.
In pottery making the rich decoration of the Predynastic period was replaced by beautifully made undecorated wares, often with burnished surfaces, in a wide variety of useful shapes. Pottery in antiquity served all the purposes for which glass, china, metal, and plastic are used today; consequently it ranged from vessels for eating and drinking to large storage containers and brewer's vats. Jewelry was made of gold and semiprecious stones in forms incorporating animal and plant designs. Throughout the history of Egypt the decorative arts were highly dependent on such motifs. Few examples of actual furniture have been preserved, but the number of illustrations in tombs give much information about the design of chairs, beds, stools, and tables. Generally they were of simple design, incorporating plant forms and animal feet.
By the end of the 6th Dynasty central rule in Egypt had weakened; local rulers chose to have themselves buried in their own provinces rather than near the burial places of the king they served. From this dynasty comes the oldest surviving metal statue, an image in copper (circa 2300 BC, Egyptian Museum) of Pepi I (reigned about 2395-2360 BC). The First Intermediate period (7th through 10th dynasties) was a time of anarchy and unrest. A feeble attempt was made to carry on the artistic traditions of the Old Kingdom, but not until the strong rulers of Thebes in the south reunited the country did artistic activity return to a healthy state.
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