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Example of a mastaba

A mastaba (/ˈmæstəbə/,[1] /ˈmɑːstɑːbɑː/ or /mɑːˈstɑːbɑː/) 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, constructed out of mud-bricks (from the Nile River) or stone. Mastabas marked the burial sites of many eminent Egyptians during Egypt's Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom. During 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 afterlife was a main focus of Egyptian civilization and ruled every aspect of the society. This is reflected in their architecture and most prominently by the enormous amounts of time, money, and manpower involved in the building of their tombs.[2] Ancient Egyptians believed the soul could live only if the body was preserved from corruption and depredation as well as fed.[3]

Starting from the Predynastic Era and into the later dynasties, the ancient Egyptians developed increasingly complex and effective methods for preserving and protecting the bodies of the dead. The Ancient Egyptians initially began by burying their dead in pit graves dug out from the sand. The body of the deceased was buried inside the pit on a mat, usually along with some items believed to help them in the afterlife. The first tomb structure that the Egyptians built was the mastaba. Mastabas provided better protection from scavenging animals and grave robbers. However, the human remains were not in contact with the dry desert sand, so natural mummification could not take place. Use of the more secure mastabas required Ancient Egyptians to devise a system of artificial mummification.[4] Until at least the Old Period or First Intermediate Period, only high officials and royalty would be buried in these mastabas.[5]


Structure of a mastaba

The word 'mastaba' comes from the Arabic word for a bench of mud,[6] and when seen from a distance a mastaba does resemble a bench. Historians speculate that the Egyptians may have borrowed architectural ideas from Mesopotamia since at the time they were both building similar structures.[7]

The above-ground structure of a mastaba is rectangular in shape with inward-sloping sides and a flat roof. The exterior building materials were initially bricks made of sun dried mud, which was readily available from the Nile River. Even after more durable materials like stone came into use, all but the most important monumental structures were built from the easily available mud bricks.[8] Mastabas were often about four times as long as they were wide, and many rose to at least 30 feet in height. The mastaba was built with a north-south orientation, which the Ancient Egyptians believed was essential for access to the afterlife. This above-ground structure had space for a small offering chapel equipped with a false door. 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.

Inside the mastaba, a deep chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone and bricks. The burial chambers were cut deep, until they passed the bedrock, and were lined with wood.[9] A second hidden chamber called a "serdab" (سرداب), from the Persian word for "cellar",[10] was used to store anything that may have been considered essential for the comfort of the deceased in the afterlife, such as beer, cereal, grain, clothes, and precious items.[11] 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 that would allow the ba to leave and return to the body (represented by the statue); Ancient Egyptians believed the ba had to return to its body or it would die. 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".[12]

Architectural evolution[edit]

Map of the Giza Plateau, showing the mastabas constructed within the complex

The earliest known mastabas are at the great cemetery at Saqqara. As burial structures, mastabas are an improvement on the pit graves and grave mound of the pre-dynastic period. The earliest mastabas, believed to be from the first dynasty at Tarkhan, 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.

Traditional mastabas were short oblong structures with two offering areas, and open air chapels.[13] These early mastabas from the First Dynasty were crude brickwork utilizing the Egyptian way of bonding, which was introduced around the accession of Menes or earlier. The brick lining and wooden-roofed substructures made the grave a more durable structure. The exterior of many mastabas were nearly straight and vertical, only a five degree angle.[13]

A superstructure of Zer,[clarification needed] the improved mastaba adds 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.[clarification needed]

The layered mastaba lead to step form pyramids like the Step-Pyramid of Djoser.[13] The Step Pyramid was built by Pharaoh Djoser, initially as a traditional mastaba. By the end of his 19 years as Pharaoh, it grew into a six stepped layered mastaba. It is known as Egypt’s first pyramid and the largest of its time. Its architect, Imhotep, figured out a way to structure the stones into the great layered steps. This pyramid was surrounded by a 30 foot wall that also enclosed courtyards, temples, and chapels covering close to 40 acres. Pharaoh Djoser’s burial chambers are underground, hidden in a maze of tunnels.[14]

The first king of the Fourth Dynasty, Pharaoh Snefru, built his tomb with influence from the Step Pyramid of Djoser. This pyramid, Meidum Pyramid, was different than previous pyramids built because it included an above-ground burial chamber. This raised the burial chamber to be closer to the sun god Ra. Another notable part of this pyramid was the interior structure of arch-like walls within its burial chambers, which could have been accessed through a sloping shaft. However, the Meidum Pyramid didn't have proper friction holding it down, and it collapsed.[15]

Pharaoh Snefru relocated to Dashur and attempted to build his second tomb. This one had two chambers with separate entrances. As the structure of the pyramid was being built, a miscalculation or other lack of stability lead the upper half to change its angle. It was thereafter known as the 'Bent Pyramid'. This structure is considered to be the first attempt at the classic pyramid shape familiar today. Due to the structural problems, Pharaoh Snefru both ordered 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. Though Pharaoh Snefru built three pyramids, no one knows where he is truly buried. Generally it believed he may have been buried in the third. The Red Pyramid is known to be the first 'True' pyramid to have been built. The Red Pyramid sets the pattern for future pyramids.[16]


  1. ^ "Mastaba: definition". Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 23 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Hamlin, Talbot (1954). Architecture through the Ages. New York: Putnam. p. 30. 
  3. ^ Badawy, Alexander (1966). Architecture in Ancient Egypt and the Near East. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 46. 
  4. ^ Ancient Egypt and the Near East. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1966. p. 7. 
  5. ^ BBC. "mastabas". BBC. Retrieved 29 May 2013. 
  6. ^ Gardiner, A. (1964). Egypt of the Pharahos. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 57 n7. 
  7. ^ Gascone, Bamber. "History of architecture". History of the world. Retrieved 29 May 2013. 
  8. ^ R., C. L. (1913). "A Model of the Mastaba-Tomb of Userkaf-Ankh". Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (6): 125–130. JSTOR 3252928. 
  9. ^ BBC. "Mastabas". bbc. Retrieved 29 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Bard, K. A. (1999). Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415185890. 
  11. ^ Lewis, Ralph. "Burial practices, and Mummies". Rosicrucian Museum. Retrieved 29 May 2013. 
  12. ^ Arnold, Dorothea (1999). When the Pyramids were Built: Egyptian Art of the Old Kingdom. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 12. ISBN 0870999087. 
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