A mastaba (//, or //) or "pr-djt" (meaning "house for eternity" or "eternal house"), is a type of ancient Egyptian tomb in the form of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with outward sloping sides that marked the burial site of many eminent Egyptians of Egypt's ancient period. Mastabas were constructed out of mud-bricks (from the Nile River) or stone. In the Old Kingdom, kings began to be buried in pyramids instead of mastabas, although non-royal use of mastabas continued for more than a thousand years.
The greatest stimulus for the ancient Egyptians was their belief in an afterlife. The Egyptian belief of the afterlife was that the soul could live only if the body was preserved from corruption and depredation as well as fed. Therefore, the need for mummification techniques were developed and experimented. The afterlife was the main focus of Egyptian civilization and ruled every aspect of the society. It was reflected in their architecture and most prominently by the enormous amounts of time, money, and manpower involved in the building of their tombs.
Starting from the predynastic era and into the later dynasties, the ancient Egyptians strove to develop methods for preserving the bodies of the dead. The Ancient Egyptians initially began by burying their dead in pit graves, these graves were dug out from the sand and once excavated they would place a mat and then they would lay the deceased. In order to preserve the body, they soon began to adopt and devise new methods for burying their dead. The first tomb structure that the Egyptians built was the mastaba. However, only high officials and royalty would be buried in these mastabas. The mastabas were created in order to better preserve the body and to ensure that the person be able to reach the afterlife. With the mastabas the remains were not in contact with the dry desert sand, consequently natural mummification of the remains could not take place. In order to preserve the remains, the ancient Egyptian priests had to devise a system of artificial mummification.
The word Mastaba comes from the Arabic word for a bench of mud, likely because when seen from a distance it resembles a bench. It is also speculated that the Egyptians may have borrowed ideas from Mesopotamia since at the time they were both building similar structures.
The above-ground structure was rectangular in shape, it had sloping sides, a flat roof, was about four times as long as it was wide, and rose to at least 30 feet in height. The mastaba was built with a north-south orientation which was essential for Egyptians so that they may be able to access the afterlife. This above ground structure had space for a small offering chapel equipped with a false door to which priests and family members brought food and other offerings for the soul (ba) of the deceased. Because Egyptians believed that the soul had to be maintained in order to continue to exist in the afterlife. These openings "were not meant for viewing the statue but rather for allowing the fragrance of burning incense, and possibly the spells spoken in rituals, to reach the statue".
Inside the mastaba, a deep chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone or bricks. The exterior building materials were initially bricks made of sun dried mud which was readily available from the Nile River. Even as more durable materials of stone came into use, the cheaper and easily available mud bricks were used for all but the most important monumental structures. The burial chambers were cut deeper until they passed the bed rock and were lined with wood. A second hidden chamber called a "serdab" (سرداب), from the Persian word for "cellar". This chamber was used to store anything that may have been considered as an essential such as beer, cereal, grain, clothes and other precious items that would be needed in the afterlife. The Mastaba housed a statue of the deceased that was hidden within the masonry for its protection. High up the walls of the serdab were small openings because according to the ancient Egyptians the Ba could leave the body but it had to return to its body or it would die.
The earliest known mastabas are at the great cemetery at Saqqara. Mastabas are improved burial structures of tombs from the grave mound of the pre-dynastic period. And the earliest mastabas are believed to be from the first dynasty at Tarkhan, and were simply covered open pits. There were some differences between the pre-dynastic graves and graves from the first dynasty, but the only differences were with items that were enclosed within the tombs. Early mastabas were short oblong structures with two offering areas, and open air chapels.
These early mastabas from the First Dynasty, were crude brickwork with the use of the Egyptian way of bonding, which was introduced around the accession of Menes or earlier. This form was a better protection for the structure with it being brick-lined and they had wooden roofed substructures, which gave the grave a more durable structure. The exterior of the mastabas were nearly straight and vertical, only a five degree angle.
A superstructure of Zer, the improved mastaba is a structure of adding layers of brickwork around the base. Then the Zet Pyramid, a structure followed the form of Queen Neithhetep tomb, wife of Menes was built, but it sunk into the ground. The layered mastaba lead to the step form pyramid, the Step-Pyramid of Djoser.
The Step Pyramid was built by Pharaoh Djoser, who began to build it as a traditional mastaba. It was made from stone, which, by the end of his 19 years as Pharaoh, became a six stepped layered mastaba. It is known to be Egypt’s first pyramid and the largest of its time to have been built. Given credit to this structure was chief architect, Imhotep. Imhotep was an architect who figured a way to structure the stones into a great step layered structure. The Step Pyramid of Djoser is enclosed by a 30 foot wall that included courtyards, temples, and chapels covering close to 40 acres. Pharaoh Djoser’s burial chambers are underground, hidden in a maze of tunnels.
Then the first king of the Fourth Dynasty, Pharaoh Snefru, built his tomb, which was influenced by the Step Pyramid of Djoser. This pyramid, Meidum Pyramid, was different than any other previous pyramids built. It is known to be the first Egyptian pyramid with an above ground burial chamber. The structure of this pyramid represents the efforts to raise the chamber to be closer to the sun god Ra. Another part of this pyramid was the interior structure of arch-like walls within the burial chambers, which could have been accessed through a sloping shaft. Then in a sudden change, Pharaoh Snefru decided to move and abandoned the Meidum Pyramid for 15 years.
Pharaoh Snefru relocated to Dashur and attempted to build his second tomb. This had two chambers with separate entrances. As the structure of the pyramid was being built, a miscalculation or lack of stability lead the upper half to bend or change angle, thus getting the name of 'Bent Pyramid'. This structure is considered to be the first attempt at the classic shape of a pyramid we now know today. Due to the structure, Pharaoh Snefru ordered for a third pyramid and sent workers to finish his first pyramid Meidum. The third pyramid of Pharaoh Snefru, the North “Red” Pyramid, is a single tomb with two smaller chambers. Among all three pyramids built by Pharaoh Snefru, no one really knows where he is truly buried, but is generally believed he may have been buried in his third, North 'Red' Pyramid which is known to be the first 'True' pyramid to have been built. The Red Pyramid sets the pattern for future pyramids.
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