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Building in ancient Egypt: Planning, ceremonies, building materials, tools, the builders, Bibliography. -
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Workers' settlement at Deir el-Medina
Workers' settlement at Deir el-Medina
(Excerpt from a photograph on the Interoz site [8])


Building in ancient Egypt

    Most of the ancient Egyptian buildings have disappeared leaving no trace. Built of sun baked bricks made of Nile mud and straw, houses, palaces and city walls crumbled when they stopped being looked after. Stone structures like temples and tombs fared better, but even they fell victim to the ravages of time, the greed of men, to earthquakes and subsidence. One shouldn't be surprised by what has disappeared but by how much is left.


    The planning of Egyptian architects and stone-masons was meticulous. It included ground-plans, sections and contours drawn on surfaces covered with grid lines. Petrie who investigated the Great Pyramids wrote
168. From several indications it seems that the masons planned the casing, and some at least of the core masonry also, course by course on the ground. For on all the casing, and on the core on which the casing fitted, there are lines drawn on the horizontal surfaces, showing where each stone was to be placed on those below it. If the stones were merely trimmed to fit each other as the building went on, there would be no need to have so carefully marked the place of each block in this particular way; and it shows that they were probably planned and fitted together on the ground below. Another indication of very careful and elaborate planning on the ground is in the topmost space over the King's Chamber; there the roofing-beams were numbered, and marked for the north or south sides; and though it might be thought that it could be of no consequence in what order they were placed, yet all their details were evidently schemed before they were delivered to the builders' hands. This care in arranging all the work agrees strikingly with the great employment of unskilled labourers during two or three months at a time, as they would then raise all the stones which the masons had worked and stored ready for use since the preceding season.

W.M.Flinders Petrie, The pyramids and temples of Gizeh

Plan for capitals, Source: 'Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad', rororo 1969     The drawings on the left were found by the French at the quarries of Gebel Abu Feida in 1789. These pillar capitals, destined for a temple at Denderah being built by Cleopatra, were sketched with red ochre on the rock face in half the natural size.
    The ground-plan of the tomb of Ramses IV is extant. It was drawn on papyrus at a 28:1 scale.
    When a Ptolemaic temple at Qalabasha in Nubia was moved block by block from 1961 to 1963 and rebuilt elsewhere, the ground-plan of the building was discovered. The architect had again used grid lines and the laying of the blocks was accurate to 7 mm according to K.G.Siegler who checked it out. The foundations were laid down straight with the help of strings, then they scratched the ground-plan into the surface of these foundations according to the grid lines. A list of the required blocks with their measurements were sent to the quarry where they were trimmed with great precision.

    The administrators had to plan too. While they interfered little in the way residential districts of towns grew, they were responsible for the erection of public buildings, among them temples built of stone. Expeditions to the quarries were complicated enterprises.

I begged the majesty of my lord (to have) brought to (me) a sarcophagus of white stone from Tura His majesty caused the seal-bearer of the god to cross over together with a company of sailors under his command in order to bring to (me) this sarcophagus from Tura it arrived with him in a great barge of the court together with its lid, a false door lintel, two doorjambs and a libation stone. On no occasion had the like been done for any servant (before).

From the autobiography of Weni the Elder
Translated by Mark Vigus, accessed at

    Hundreds, at times thousands, of workers, soldiers and scribes had to be fed and housed in inhospitable areas, the quarried rock moved to the Nile and barges built just before the beginning of the inundation. Timing was crucial. The rocks had to be loaded onto barges and shipped downriver. This generally had to happen during inundation, as moving heavy loads on boats was much easier than dragging them on sledges and one could go farther by boat when the Nile was covering large tracts of land.
I travelled north with them to the pyramid "Mernere-appears-splendor" in 6 barges,3 tow-boats of 8 ribs in a single expedition on no occasion had Ibhat and Yebu been done in a single expedition under the time of any king. Everything that his majesty commanded, happened, entirely as his majesty commanded.
His majesty sent me to Hatnub in order to bring a great altar of Hatnub alabaster. I brought down this altar for him in 17 days after it was hewn at Hatnub. I caused it to travel downstream in this barge. (I) had built for it a barge of acacia wood of 60 cubits in its length, 30 cubits in its width assembled in 17 days in the 3rd month of summer, when there was no water upon the sandbanks. (it was) moored at the pyramid Mernere-appears-in-splendor, in safety.

From the autobiography of Weni the Elder
Translated by Mark Vigus, accessed at

    Often canals were dug specially, as this proved to be the cheapest and most expeditious way to get the rock slabs to the Nile, and even Egyptian pharaohs had to be careful about their spending.
His majesty sent (me) in order to dig 5 canals in Upper Egypt and in order to build 3 barges and 4 tow-boats of acacia wood of Wawat the rulers of the Medja hills Irtjet, Wawat, Yam, Medja were cutting the wood for them. (I) did it entirely in one year, floated and loaded with very large granite (blocks) for the pyramid 'Mernere-appears-in-splendor'. Indeed, I made a saving for the Palace with all these 5 canals.

From the autobiography of Weni the Elder
Translated by Mark Vigus

    The construction itself took place during the dry season in some places as flooding occasionally occurred. All these constraints had to be taken into account.


Senmut, Hatshepsut's architect and child minder, is holding a measuring cord; Source: Jon Bodsworth     Building has always been a major undertaking for man and the beginning of construction has often been an occasion for asking the gods for their good-will, and the end for thanking them. Not much is known about celebrations held by ordinary Egyptians building their houses [11], but foundation and inauguration ceremonies of temples have often been recorded [12].

Senmut, Hatshepsut's architect and child minder, is holding a measuring cord
Source: Jon Bodsworth

My majesty ordered that the foundation ceremony (lit. the line extension) should be prepared [at the approach of] the day of the Feast of the New Moon, to extend the measuring-line upon this monument. In the year 24, second month of the second season, the last day (of the month), on the day of the tenth feast of Amon in ........... the god rested [on] his great throne. After this, I proceeded [after] (my) father, Amon; the god proceeded at his going to celebrate this his beautiful feast. The majesty of this god marveled ..........; this god [assum]ed the station [for] the extension of the [measuring-line]. He set his majesty before him at this monument ........... [the majesty] of this god proceeded; the beautiful feast was celebrated [for] my lord. Then I went to do the extending of the measuring-line upon which ............. before him. He led [... ... ...] the first feast of extending the line. Behold, the majesty of this revered god desired to do the extending of the line himself .........
From the Great Karnak Building Inscription (Year 24 of the reign of Thutmose III)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 608
    An inscription in the Horus temple at Edfu refers to the importance of stars in finding the right alignment for a temple:
I have grasped the stake along with the handle of the mallet, I take the measuring cord in the company of Seshat. I consider the progressive movement of the stars. My eye is fixed upon the Bull's Thigh constellation. I count off time, scrutinize the clock, and establish the corners of thy temple.
E. C. Krupp, Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations, Courier Dover, 2003, p.26
Foundation deposit from Deir el Bahri     Other ceremonies performed on temple sites included the purification of the ground and the interment of the foundation deposit [13]. This was often a collection of bones, tools broken on purpose, amulets, pottery and the like. Petrie described the deposit he found at Kahun:

Foundation deposit from Deir el Bahri

In the middle of the temple area a hole 31 inches square was excavated in the rock about four feet deep, to contain the foundation deposits. Into this the four sets of objects were thrown, without any arrangement or order. Each set of models consisted of a small chisel, long chisel, wide chisel, long knife , large pointed knife, small pointed knife, and hatchet, all of bronze ; a pair of corn rubbers of brown sandstone; and two strings of carnelian beads, averaging about a foot in length. Two or three pieces of green carbonate of copper ore, and a piece of galena were also thrown in. Over these a quantity of pottery vessels was placed ...... And some baskets, and straw or fibre, accompanied the deposit.
W.M.Flinders Petrie Kahun, Gurob and Hawara
    The completion of a temple was marked by ritual purification of the site, dedication ceremonies and sacrifices [6].

Brick wall in a tomb, laid in cross or English bond
Valley of the Kings
Excerpt. Source: V.Easy

Building materials


Brick making using a wooden mould     The absence of rain, the scarcity of wood and an abundance of sunshine made adobe the preferred building material. Loamy Nile mud mixed with straw resulted in surprisingly strong bricks. A sunbaked mud brick without straw had a strength of less than 6 kp/cm², the addition of straw resulted in a brick three times as strong (about 20 kp/cm²). As long as groundwater did not dissolve their foundations and floods did not reach them, well tended mud brick walls could stand for generations.
    In every location during a building project brick moulds of equal size were used, which were between about 45 to 30 cm in length and 20 to 15 cm in width. The brick size was thus standardized, e.g. 30 by 15 by 7.5 cm during the Middle Kingdom. At Karnak the bricks measured 40 by 20 by 15, at the Late Period Naukratis they were about the same size. These dimensions suggest they were generally laid in cross bond (English bond). But other bonding patterns such as running bond, Flemish bond, and stack bond were apparently also used at times.[15]
    A modern mud brick maker can produce between 1000 and 2000 bricks a day. One may assume that ancient workers were about as efficient. Five days' work should therefore have sufficed to make about 5000 bricks needed for a worker's one storey house of 60 to 80 m² with 40 cm thick walls.
    Few ancient mud bricks survived, but those that did can sometimes be dated because they were frequently stamped with the cartouche of the reigning monarch [3].
  Brick mould, Drawing by W.M.Flinders Petrie     Not surprisingly, given the scarcity of fuel, the Egyptians rarely used burned bricks [4]. But one of the earliest tombs to be opened at Nebesheh was built of red baked bricks, dated to Egypt's Nineteenth Dynasty:
"This tomb was of Pa-mer-kau, according to the two limestone ushabti found in it; and from a statue in the temple, representing Merenptah, son of Pa-mer-kau, and bearing the cartouche of Ramessu II., it may be dated to the nineteenth dynasty."
W.M.Flinders Petrie, Tanis, Part II, Nebesheh (Am) and Defenneh (Tahpanhes)


Workers' houses, Excerpt from photograph by M.Audrain, 'The Glory of Egypt'     Only in the rare cases of stone being more readily available than river mud would people live in stone buildings. The workers building distant necropoles or quarrying rock might be housed like this (see Deir el Medine). Otherwise even pharaohs lived in brick palaces and rock was reserved for the dead and the gods.
    Most stone used was limestone which is relatively soft when freshly quarried and can easily be shaped, a very important consideration when chisels were made of copper or bronze and the hardest tools available were diorite hammerstones. During the New Kingdom the first iron came into use, but iron implements became widespread only centuries later.
    Granite, one of the hardest rocks, was used on occasion, at times on a large scale. The great pyramids were originally covered with it and obelisks, weighing hundreds of tons, carved from it.


    The ancient Egyptians did not know the hard setting lime plaster invented by the Greeks, but used instead a mixture of gypsum and quartz with small amounts of lime [5] when working with stone. This was not as disastrous in the dry climate of Egypt as it would have been under wetter conditions.
    The mortar used for mudbricks was basically the same material as that from which the bricks themselves were made, but generally no organic matter was added. It was mixed shortly before being used and was only applied between the horizontal layers, and not to stick the bricks together along their vertical joints.[15]


    Little wood was available and therefore it was used sparingly. Doors and shutters were made of it and upper storey floors. The longest beams that could be cut from local wood were only three to four metres long. If the ceiling was wider than that, it had to be supported with wooden pillars. The only native trees easily available and with stems straight and long enough to be used for this purpose were palm trees, whose wood is not very strong. On top of wooden beams planks were laid and covered with a thin layer of earth. (See 'The townhouse of Djehutinefer', a multi-storeyed building where pillars supported upper-storey floors and each other).
    When a building was abandoned, all wooden and stone parts such as doors, lintels etc. were removed to be reused somewhere else.


Tools: Buckets,hoes,set-squares etc
Abd el Qurna, New Kingdom
Source of the drawing: C.R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien Vol. V
    The foremen used measuring rods, strings, plumb-lines and set-squares. The water-level was unknown, though its principle was understood (see Foundations).
    Workmen had buckets and baskets to carry the mud, hoes for mixing it with straw or chaff and standard sized wooden moulds. Wheelbarrows were unknown and the dried bricks had to be carried, for which a yoke was often used.
Builders floats     Builders smoothed walls with floats of various sizes. There were big floats for the rough first coat of plaster. They had a bevelled end for working in corners. The facing coat was laid on with smaller and smoother floats [7].
    Masons had their own set of tools made of stone, wood and metal.

The builders

    There was little glory in the work of a bricklayer. Scribes generally had few good words to say about it. It was backbreaking drudgery: hauling the wet mud from some river bank, mixing it with straw using hoes with diminutive handles [10], pouring it into the mould - bending over, and finally, after the sun had dried the bricks, carrying them on the back to the building site and laying them.
I shall also describe to you the bricklayer. His kidneys are painful. When he must be outside in the wind, he lays bricks without a garment. His belt is a cord for his back, a string for his buttocks. His strength has vanished through fatigue and stiffness, kneading all his excrement. He eats bread with his fingers, although he washes himself but once a day.
    The vizier Rekhmire, one of the most powerful Egyptians of his time, was appreciative of the skill of the builders, even if he had doubts about their diligence:
    The layer of brick who brings the field, the very numerous [...]; building with ready fingers, skilled in his duty, causing vigilance among the [conquered], who hear the sayings of this official (i.e. Rekhmire's) skilful in bui[lding] of works, giving regulations to their chiefs.
    The taskmaster, he says to the builders: "The rod is in my hand; do not be idle."
Inscription in the tomb of Rekhmire, 18th dynasty vizier
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 758

    Egyptian workforces were generally organized into two gangs of labourers, a "left" and a "right" gang, each having its own hierarchy of supervisors, scribes, and foremen. Even when performing similar duties, such as constructing the square brick enclosure at El Hibeh, they acted mostly independently of each other. Mud brick enclodure at el Hibeh

According to their composition the mud bricks were made at two different locations and laid separately in two well defined areas, strongly suggesting two separate work gangs.
Source: Emery, Morgenstein, 2007

    Labourers working on great projects like the building of a pyramid stayed together for years and developed an ésprit de corps. They gave their crews names which they wrote on blocks of stone, immortalizing them. From Giza the teams of the "Pure Ones of Horus Medjedu", "Horus Medjedu is the One who Purifies the Two Lands", the "Companions of Horus Medjedu", the "White Crown of Khnumkhufu is pure", and the "Pure Ones of Khufu" participated in the erection of Khufu's pyramid, while Menkaure had crews like the "Companions of Menkaure" and the disreputably sounding "Drunks of Menkaure" serving him [14].


Picture sources:
[  ] Excerpt of Senmut holding a measuring cord: Jon Bodsworth
[  ] Excerpt of the workers' houses: M.Audrain, The Glory of Egypt
[11] The possibly Ptolemaic Instruction of Ankhsheshonq  hints at celebrations
The builders build houses, the musicians inaugurate them.
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.177
[12] The Stretching of the Cord and the Opening of the Lake date back to the first dynasty at least. The Palermo stone records
Stretching of the Cord (for) the House (called) "Thrones-of-the-Gods" (by) the priest of (the goddess) Seshat
Opening of the Lake of the House (called) "Thrones-of-the-Gods"
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt Part One, §§ 109f
Seshat was the goddess of the art of writing. She was also Lady of the Builders.
Amenhotep III recorded a lake inauguration on a scarab:
..... His majesty ordered the creation of a lake for the great wife of the king, Tiy, may she live, in her town of Djarukha, its length being 3700 cubits, its width 600 cubits.
His majesty celebrated the feast of the opening of the lakes in the third month of Akhet, day 16, when his majesty was rowed on it in the barque 'Aten gleams'.
[14] Strudwick 2005, p.155
[15] Emery, Virginia L., 2011, "Mud-Brick Architecture." In Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. accessed at on 28th February 2011


Bibliography for this and related pages

  • Pierre Anus, "Un domaine thébain d'époque 'amarnienne'. Sur quelques blocs de remploi trouvés à Karnak", BIFAO 69 (1971), pp.69-88
  • Dieter Arnold: Building in Egypt; Pharaonic Stone Masonry, New York and Oxford, 1991
  • Roger S. Bagnall, Bruce W. Frier: The Demography of Roman Egypt, Cambridge University Press, 1994
  • Katheryn A. Bard, Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Routledge 1999
  • Charles Bonnet, Dominique Valbelle: "Le village de Deir el-Medineh: Reprise de l'étude archéologique", BIFAO 75 (1975), pp.429-446
  • Charles Bonnet, Dominique Valbelle: 1976, "Le village de Deir el-Medineh: Reprise de l'étude archéologique" (suite), BIFAO 76 (1976), pp. 317-342
  • Ludwig Borchardt: "Metallbelag an Steinbauten" in Allerhand Kleinigkeiten, Leipzig 1933
  • Ludwig Borchardt: Ägyptische Tempel mit Umgang, Kairo 1938
  • Michael Brass: The nature of urbanism in Ancient Egypt, Essay for Degree: MA in Archaeology, University College London 2003
  • James Henry Breasted: Ancient Records of Egypt, 1906, reprinted by Histories and Mysteries of Man LTD. London, 1988
  • J. Brewer Douglas, Emily Teeter: Egypt and the Egyptians, Cambridge University Press, 1999
  • Lionel Casson: Ancient Egypt, Time-Life Books 1975
  • Andreas Effland, "Sprechende Wasserspeier und die Regenwasser Ableitung im Alten Ägypten" in Fachliche Berichte 2/00, Hamburger Wasserwerke, 2000
  • Virginia L. Emery, Maury Morgenstein, "Portable EDXRF analysis of a mud brick necropolis enclosure: evidence of work organization, El Hibeh, Middle Egypt", in Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 34, Issue 1, January 2007
  • I. E. S. Edwards: The Pyramids of Egypt, Penguin 1955
  • Alan H. Gardiner: Egyptian Hieratic Papyri, Series I: Literary Texts of the New Kingdom, Part I, J. C.Hinrichs'sche Buchhandlung, Leipzig, 1911
  • Zahi Hawass: "The Discovery of the Pyramidion of the Satellite Pyramid of Khufu" in Van Siclen Varia Aegyptiaca, Vol.X, 1995, pp.105-124
  • T. G. H. James: Pharaos Volk, Artemis Verlag Zürich und München 1988
  • Gustave Lefebvre: Le Tombeau de Petosiris, Le Caire: L'institut Français d'archéologie orientale, 1924. 3 volumes
  • Barry J. Kemp: "The Colossi from the Early Shrine at Coptos in Egypt", Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:2 (2000), 211-42
  • C. R. Lepsius: Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, 1897
  • M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, 1975
  • A. Lucas, J. R. Harris: Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries 1962, reprinted by Histories and Mysteries of Man LTD. London, 1989
  • Manfred Lurker: Lexikon der Götter und Symbole der alten Ägypter, Scherz 1998
  • Gaston Maspero: L'Archéologie Egyptienne, ed. A.Quantin, Paris, 1887
  • A. G. McDowell: , Village Life in Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, 1999
  • Janine Monnet-Saleh: "Forteresses, ou villes-protégées thinites?", BIFAO 67 (1969), pp.173-187
  • Pierre Montet: Haiey yom-yom bemitzrayim (La vie quotidienne en Egypte), Am Hassefer Publishers Ltd. Tel Aviv 1963
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie: Naukratis, London, 1886
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie: Kahun, Gurob, and Hawara, London, 1890
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie: Illahun, Kahun and Gurob, London, 1891
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie: The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, 1883
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie: A History of Egypt, 3 parts, reprinted by Histories and Mysteries of Man LTD. London, 1991
  • David Roberts: Egypt, Nubia, The Near East and The Holy Land, London, 1842-49.
  • Samivel: The Glory of Egypt, 1955
  • Jeffrey Spencer: The subsidiary temple of Nekhtnebef at Tell el-Balamun, BMSAES, Issue 4 (December 2004) Pages 21-38
  • Nigel C. Strudwick, Texts from the Pyramid Age, Brill 2005
  • N.F. Wheeler: "Harvard-Boston expedition in the Sudan, 1930-1931", Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Vol. XXIX, No. 174
  • Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad, rororo Taschenbuch Ausgabe 1969
  • Les merveilles du Louvre, Hachette
  • Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1964, No.328

-Architectural elements
-Building in stone
-Town planning
-Hotep-Senusret (Kahun), a planned town
-House and garden
-The town house of Djehutinefer
-Housing in a workers village
-Walls and ramparts
-Plan of the tomb of Ramses IV

-Index of Topics
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Rock properties and their importance to carving and lapidary working of rocks and minerals by the ancient Egyptians[1] Rock properties and their importance to carving and lapidary working of rocks and minerals by the ancient Egyptians
Wooden mallet[2] Wooden mallet used in all types of craft activities, New Kingdom (British Museum)
Mud brick[3] Mud brick stamped with the cartouche of Ramses II
-[4] Were Burnt Bricks Used In Ancient Egypt In The Time of Moses? (Just ignore the religious polemics, the page is based on Petrie, Maspero et al.)
Dating the pyramids[5] Dating the pyramids
The Foundation Ceremony[6] The Foundation Ceremony for Ancient Egyptian Religious Buildings by Alan Winston
Plasterer's float[7] Plasterer's float (Petrie Museum)
Deir el Medina[8] Deir el Medina with photograph
Wooden hoe[10] Wooden hoe (Petrie Museum)
temple d'Hathor[13] Les scènes gravées à l'extérieur du temple d'Hathor by Alain Guilleux, containing photos of the foundation ceremony reliefs
Photo of Deir el MedinaPhoto of Deir el Medina
Tool replicasTool replicas
History of Egyptian architectureHistory of Egyptian architecture
l'architecture egyptienneLe projet dans l'architecture égyptienne par Pietro Testa (in French)


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