Style on the Nile
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
Egypt is in the news these days. But I want to travel back in time, long ago, to this historic land. Over 3500 years ago, Ancient Egypt was entering its most prosperous, peaceful, and creatively prolific period.
It had led an isolated existence for a very long time with deserts to the east and west, mountains to the south, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. But, its Nile River had served many purposes. Its northerly flow provided a means of transportation, its fertility provided food, and its clay provided recorded history depicted on pottery.
Although wood was scarce in Egypt – indigenous palm, acacia, and papyrus were too soft to construct buildings – the Nile enabled the shipping of ebony from Nubia (Ethiopia) as well as basalt, granite, limestone and sandstone. Perhaps an even greater Nubian resource was their gold mines which enabled Egypt to become a wealthy and powerful force, and additionally, produce fine art and architecture during their Golden Ages.
The Nile’s plentiful mud was kiln-dried and made into building bricks. But because most of the brick has been destroyed over time with the forces of nature, floods, and earth-shifting, our understanding of Egyptian architecture comes from its longstanding stone structures – mostly pyramids, temples and tombs.
The Egyptians developed and widely used post and lintel construction whereby a horizontal wood or stone beam is set atop two vertical wood or stone columns. Their architecture was based upon perpendicular and inclined planes. Because there was no structural assistance other than the strength and balance of the structure itself, square and the plumb-line tools were crucial.
From this method of construction, balanced, symmetrical, and serene architecture emerged. These characteristics would later be embraced and by the Greeks who would design and build one of the most classical and perfectly proportioned edifices to this day – the Parthenon.
The Egyptians also contributed the design of the obelisk that we commonly recognize in our Washington Monument.
Even during periods of foreign rule, Egyptian architecture clung to its native characteristics. Columns were covered with hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant colors of blue, red, and gold. Ornamental motifs such as the ankh, cobra, falcon, scarab, the sacred beetle, and the solar disk were symbolic and represented a strong belief in the afterlife.
Because of this belief and their ritual of sending their kings to the hereafter completely equipped as in life, furniture was built to last an eternity. They used mortise and tenon and double-bracket construction, and on high-profile pieces, they’d gild with gold.
Paints were made from natural minerals and brushes from fibrous wood with frayed ends. Walls were covered with mud and lime plasters, painted, and then protected by a thin layer of varnish-type substance. Ceramic glazed with these same minerals was used to make beads, pendants, and jewelry. A vivid blue glaze made from calcium copper silicate was very popular.
Metals and semi-precious stone were also used as decoration and embellishment. While gold was plentiful, silver was more rare. Turquoise, carnelian, lapis lazuli, alabaster, and ivory were widely incorporated in jewelry, headdress, and furniture.
The dress of the day was also based in Egyptian-style architecture. Vertical, symmetrical and with no-fuss lines. Imagine this fashion statement: a simple sheath robe made of natural, undyed linen, adorned solely with necklaces and bracelets of gold, turquoise, and beads. Hair simply slicked back and eyes lined with kohl. That’s it. Classic, style on the Nile.
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