Inverse Architecture


Studying art history for several years in college, I always marveled about the myriad of fascinating buildings shaped almost miraculously, since ancient times no less, using stone and other building materials into elegantly powerful edifices. Yet, nothing compared to actually visiting these architectural marvels and wondering how it was ever possible for ancient civilizations that had no power tools whatsoever to construct these enormous landmarks: the Temples of Upper Egypt, Greece, and Italy; the Pyramids in Giza, Teotihuacan, and elsewhere; the Colosseum, among others.

Nonetheless, what has literally taken my breath away was actually what I can only call “inverse architecture”! Well, it is not an actual scientific term, but it is what, to me, describes “rock-cut architecture”. It was only two years ago that I was awe-struck by the wonder that is the city of Petra timelessly carved in the mountainous desert of Jordan. Check the following video for a quick brief about Petra:

For a taste of how a visit to Petra feels, check out the following video:

Yet, it was actually 25 years ago that I had my first experience with such mesmerizing architecture when I visited the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt, where I wondered through several of the tombs brilliantly hidden inside the Valley’s rocks for millennia. The fact that these amazing structures were actually sculpted rather than constructed, incredibly so that they have withstood the sands of time, continues to beguile me.

Fearing for the safety of their rich burials, Egyptian Pharaohs of the New Kingdom (c. 1539–1075 bce) adopted a plan of concealing their tombs in a lonely valley in the western hills behind Dayr al-Bahrī. The plan of the tombs varied considerably across the ages, but consisted essentially of a descending corridor interrupted by deep shafts to baffle robbers and by pillared chambers or vestibules. At the farther end of the corridor is was the burial chamber, the earliest of which were cartouche-shaped. After burial, the upper corridors were meant to be filled with rubble and the entrance to the tomb hidden.

In earlier tombs, the corridors rotate 90° at least once; this layout was known as “Bent Axis”; after the Amarna Period, the layout gradually straightened, with an intermediate “Jogged Axis” leading to the generally “Straight Axis” of the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasty tombs. As the tombs’ axes straightened, the slopes also lessened; they almost disappeared in the late Twentieth Dynasty. Another feature that is common to most tombs is the “well”, which may have originated as an actual barrier intended to stop flood waters from filling the lower parts of the tomb.

The quality of the rock in the Valley is inconsistent, ranging from finely-grained to coarse stone, which could be structurally unsound. The occasional layer of shale also caused construction and conservation difficulties, as this rock expands in the presence of water, forcing apart the stone surrounding it. It is thought that some tombs were altered in shape and size depending on the types of rock the builders encountered. Builders, however, took advantage of available geological features; some tombs were quarried out of existing limestone clefts, others behind slopes of scree, or at the edge of rock spurs created by ancient flood channels.

Work on tombs carved in the Valley of the Kings was delegated to an architect and craftsmen who lived in the village of Deir el-Medina; the architect would supervise the work of the craftsmen, who were usually divided into two groups: right and left. The groups usually consisted of 30-60 workmen; at times, there were as many as 120 workmen. Workmen were usually specialized, including stone-cutters, plasterers, sculptors, draftsmen, and artists who decorated the surfaces; the work progressed almost like an assembly line.

First came the quarrymen who would dig the tomb into the mountain; behind them were the plasterers who would smooth the walls, using muna—a type of plaster made from clay, quartz, limestone, and crushed straw. Over that, they laid thin layers of clay and limestone whitened with a layer of diluted gypsum; draftsman would then execute the designs. They used red ochre to divide out the wall and ceiling surfaces into squares in order to accurately place the figures and text of the decorations; a chief draftsman would inspect the work and make corrections using black charcoal. Finally, the sculptors would step in and start carving the bas-relief that would finally be colored by painters using six basic colors, which were symbolic and had ritual meanings.

In this manner, even as the digging went on in the deepest sections of the tomb, the work near the entrance might practically be completed. Even though only rudimentary tools were available, an average tomb might be completed within a few months; larger, more complex tombs could, however, take six to ten years for completion.

The following is a recommended, comprehensive 50-minute documentary about the Valley of the Kings:


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