The beginnings of architecture in Egypt date from the centuries before the 3000 B.C., which we have called the prehistoric period. Their style may have been influenced by contemporary brick buildings in Mesopotamia, though one can imagine only the most tenuous physical link between countries at that time so separated. Certainly the brick superstructures of early mastaba tombs are otherwise difficult to explain.
A more tangible aspect of Egyptian environment was the presence in the Nile valley of much building stone. In the desert escarpment, approximately from modern Cairo to Luxor, there is an abundant supply of limestone. Sandstone is found in the extreme south and elsewhere granite, alabaster, basalt and porphyry. Palm-trunks were the only form of timber available, and at an early stage these were discarded as roofing material for any but the least pretentious buildings. But the limestone slabs which took their place and which continued to be used almost until the end of the Middle Kingdom, could span no more than eight or nine feet; so long, narrow chambers could only be avoided by multiplying the number of free-standing supports, and a form of architecture resulted which is sometimes described as ‘columnar and trabeate’. Climatic conditions also had their effect. Perpetual sunshine and cloudless winter skies made it less important to admit light than to exclude heat.
The appropriate study would be the pyramid complex of King Zoser. The interior walls consist of ashlar masonry in even courses, and engaged columns are used, sometimes on short wing-walls, to lessen the span of the limestone beams above. Ornamental elements are charmingly adapted from vegetable forms; ceilings often imitate palm-trunks and capitals papyrus motifs, some with pendant leaves.
The complex of buildings laid out around Zoser’s tomb at Sakkara is the first major example of monumental design and planning. The mastaba tombs of that time were rectangular platforms with sloping sides, built over the tomb shaft to enclose a ritual chamber and other appointments.