Ancient Egyptian Art: Mastaba

The base of the pyramids

When we think to Egyptian architecture immediately we imagine the great pyramids and temples, but how did they get there??

Today we are going to find it out

Hi everyone!

Today we are making one step more in the Ancient Egyptian Art talking about architecture. When we think to Egyptian architecture immediately we imagine the great pyramids and temples, but how did they get there?? Well today I am going to reveal something really interesting about the oldest examples of Egyptian buildings that have been the foundations of the pyramids: the Mastabas.

The name Mastaba can help us to understand what they were used for. The meaning in Ancient Egyptian is “house of eternity” or “eternal house”. So they are tombs in the form of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with inward sloping sides.

After some posts talking about Egyptian Art I think you are not really surprised since we learned how much the afterlife was important in that culture.

By the way, if you have not already read the previous post, here the link where you can learn a lot more about the Book of the Dead and remember that at the end of every post you can find a quiz and a useful interactive image.

The origins

Ancient Egyptians believed the soul could live only if the body was preserved from corruption, depredation and being fed. That’s why it was really important to have tombs able to protect the body and they were filled with food and objects that could have been useful in the afterlife. Of course, the more the family was rich, the more objects they have and the mastabas were bigger.

Made of mud-bricks from soil along the Nile, mastabas provided a good protection from scavenging animals and grave robbers. But, since the remains were not in contact with the dry desert sand, natural mummification could not take place and it has been necessary to develop an artificial mummification.

Mastaba model from museum
Mastaba model

We can imagine that these tombs/buildings were not for everyone…just wealthy families and royals like the kings, were able to afford them. What it is surprising is that we do not talk often about mastabas, but they started to be built in the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100 BC) and, just in the Old Kingdom (c. 2649-2150 BC), kings began to be buried in pyramids while non-royal families continued to use them for over a thousand years!

Mastaba features

Mastabas were about four times as long as they were wide. Some of them rose to 10 meters (30 feet) in height, but usually they were 5-6 meters (15-18 feet) high. They were oriented North-South, which the Egyptians believed was essential for access to the afterlife. From outside they look really simple in fact mastaba in Arabic means “bench of mud” and the only visible decoration is a false door (or more: one for any deceased). The false-door was not a real entrance, but a threshold between the worlds of the living and the dead.

But what do the false-door hide??

Once again some surprises. The false-door hides a chamber called serdab (from the Persian word for “cellar”) used to store anything that may have been considered essential for the comfort of the deceased in the afterlife, such as beer, grain, clothes and precious items. This chamber is connected to another one where a statue of the dead was hidden for its protection. There are not real doors, but just small openings to allow the soul, ba for the Egyptians, to “move” in the cells.

And the dead body? Well the body is in the burial chamber cut deep into the bedrock with one only access: a vertical shaft that was filled after the burial to protect it forever.


What does this burial chamber and shaft remind you? The solution in the interactive image below.


A lot of mastabas were highly decorated with hieroglyphs and images and we are still learning a lot about them. But their importance is higher if we consider also the countless objects, both precious and of daily use, found inside them that help us to understand more this amazing culture!

The pyramids evolved from mastabas and in the next post I am going to talk about one of the most famous, so stay curious and let’s continue to explore Art!

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