Views of Ancient Egypt

By Downs, Linda; Brenner, Carla | School Arts, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Views of Ancient Egypt


Downs, Linda, Brenner, Carla, School Arts


Egypt has one of the world's longest and best preserved material histories. A tradition of art and architecture was maintained in ancient Egypt for 3,000 years. The Egyptians developed distinctive ways to represent their world. They emphasized the profile view of people and animals and showed sequences of events by painting them in bands, one above another, meant to be viewed in, order. Their best known funerary architecture was made in the form of monumental pyramids. Their writing, believed to have been developed from pictographs, evolved into hieroglyphs which can be read both as symbols and syllables.

Ancient Egyptian Culture

Life in ancient Egypt clustered along the Nile River, which runs south to north into the Mediterranean Sea. Each year the Nile overflows its banks, bringing rich silt to fertilize farmers' fields.

The annual flooding of the Nile, the daily rhythm of the sun, and the relative isolation of Egypt (it is situated between two desert areas) lent a stability and continuity to life and religious beliefs.

One way in which the modern world knows about ancient Egypt is through the preservation of its elaborate burials and architectural ruins. The climate is so dry in Egypt that even the most fragile materials such as wood and cloth have been preserved. The Egyptians believed that by painting or sculpting images of everyday life in a tomb, the deceased would receive them again in their second life. Thus, in the most elaborate tombs, every aspect of a person's life was reproduced to provide him or her with a prosperous second life. By studying tombs, archaeologists understand how ancient Egyptians lived and what they believed.

The Lithographs

Under the direction of General Napoleon Bonaparte, the French army occupied Egypt in 1798-1799 and deployed teams of scientists to study and record every aspect of the country. In three years, thousands of drawings were made on the spot in Egypt and were transferred to France where they were copied as lithographs (prints made by drawing with a grease crayon on a stone slab, inking the stone so the ink adheres to the grease, and then pressing paper on the slab through a press to print out the image). The lithographs were published in a four-volume book in 1809. Several editions were published and circulated throughout France and Europe. The lithographs shown here are all taken from the 1821 edition of Description of Egypt.

You can see both the ancient and the contemporary buildings of Egypt in these lithographs. The artists did not try to isolate the old from the new, but represented each view just as it appeared to them.

Our Fascination with Egypt

Other ancient cultures viewed Egypt as a mysterious and exotic land. European fascination with Egypt grew in the first century BC.

A revival of interest in Egypt occurred in the late eighteenth century when drawings circulated widely throughout Europe upon Napoleon's return to France. He also brought back all kinds of sculpture that he put on public view at the Louvre (temporarily renamed Musee Napoleon).

A veritable Egyptomania began to influence art, fashion, interior design, literature, and the theater, culminating in the 1871 creation of the opera Aida by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

In recent times exhibitions of Egyptian art, such as the 1978 King Tutankhamen exhibition, have drawn millions of viewers.

Ancient Egyptian Architecture

Three distinctive architectural elements were developed in ancient Egypt--the pyramid, the propylaeum or pylon, and the obelisk. Pyramid-like structures first appeared in the ancient Near East in the form of stepped buildings called ziggurats. Smooth-sided pyramids that first appeared in the Old Kingdom about 2600 BC were the first major tombs to be built by the pharaohs. But these tomb chambers were soon vandalized. Later pharaohs then hid their tombs in natural rocks or underground in what are called mastaba tombs. …

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