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In this lesson, you will explore the religious and funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians and discover how their architecture was influenced by these beliefs.

Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

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Mummies

Think of everything you know about ancient Egyptian burial practices. Now, remove anything that came from Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong; I love mummy movies as much as anyone else, but it’s not the most accurate representation of the Egyptian religion. The ancient Egyptians had a complex system of religious beliefs that were fundamentally important to their culture and their artistic production.

Funerary Beliefs and Practices

The Egyptian religion was polytheistic, meaning they worshiped multiple deities, including pharaohs who elevated themselves as gods. In this religion, each person was considered to have various physical and spiritual traits, including the body, shadow, soul, life force, and name.

After death, these spiritual traits were free to roam, but they needed a physical place to rest. The result of this was mummification, the preservation of a body after death. The spirit needed the body as its home, otherwise it would be eternally lost.

With this belief, Egyptian culture developed an elaborate set of burial customs to ensure the immortality of the spirit. To mummify a body, the internal organs were removed, the body was salted and wrapped in linen, magical amulets were placed within the wrappings to protect the spirit, and then the body was placed inside a decorated coffin called a sarcophagus.This entire process took around 70 days. As you can imagine, this got pretty expensive as well. Most Egyptian people could not afford this and buried their dead in special pits in the desert, where the heat and dry air would naturally mummify their bodies. The wealthy, however, could afford the best mummification, done by priests who were trained to give the spirit the best protection in the afterlife.

Their sarcophagi were decorated in jewels and gold and designed to look like the person inside, to give the spirit the best chance of finding it.

Temples and Tombs

The most powerful of the ancient Egyptians were the pharaohs, the kings. Since they were recognized as gods after their deaths, and since they had the money to ensure the best treatment of their remains, the tombs of the pharaohs were incredible. The Egyptians wanted the spirit to be comfortable in death, so items were buried with the body. For a pharaoh, this meant their tombs contained all the things they used in life, from furniture to weapons to stashes of treasure.

With all of these items, pharaohs needed a large tomb. They also needed a tomb that was well-enough protected to prevent grave robbers from breaking in and stealing the wealth of the king. Thus, the pharaohs began to build massive tombs.

The most famous of these are the Pyramids of Giza, a series of funerary pyramids built to hold the remains of the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. For over 3,000 years, the tallest of these pyramids was the largest man-made structure in the world at 481 feet tall.Building became a substantial part of the funerary practices of the kings, and some of the greatest architectural innovations of Egypt were connected to royal burials. Besides great tombs like the pyramids, pharaohs also built massive complexes of temples. These temples, usually built near the tombs, were the places where the pharaoh could be worshiped as a god after death. This is where prayers and ceremonies were conducted, offerings were made, and rituals performed. Temples were covered in artistic carvings and paintings depicting the life and death of the pharaoh.

These temples could be so large that a small town was built nearby to provide for and maintain the temple.Architecturally, these temples generally included obelisks, massive stone pillars, multiple chambers for various rituals, great stone walls, and large statues of the pharaoh. The interiors were generally filled with columns and sometimes featured gardens. We call a building on this scale monumental architecture, and the Egyptians were some of the first to really master this large-scale architecture.

Lesson Summary

To the ancient Egyptians, one of the most important focuses of life was death. The ancient Egyptians practiced a polytheistic religion, meaning they had multiple deities. Their religion also maintained a major focus on an afterlife, and there was a belief that each person had a physical body as well as spiritual dimensions, and that the spirit could survive after the body died.

However, for the spirit to survive, it needed a place to live. So, the Egyptians mummified, or preserved, the bodies of the dead. The poor let the dry, hot air of the desert naturally mummify their relatives. The kings, however, could afford the most advanced mummification, a 70-day process that involved careful preparation of the body with magical spells and amulets that protected the spirit.

To protect their bodies, as well as the many goods they were buried with, the kings had massive tombs built for themselves, such as the Pyramids of Giza. Next to their tombs, the pharaohs built temples, religious centers where the pharaoh could be worshiped as a god after their death. The tombs protected the body, and the temple preserved their status as a god. Thus, these buildings were pretty important. A lot of time and money went into these buildings, and some of the greatest architectural innovations of the Egyptians were found inside these temples, much more than just mummies.

Learning Outcomes

After you have reviewed this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain the ancient Egyptians’ religious beliefs and how religion influenced Egyptian funerary practices
  • Discuss the mummification process and its purpose
  • Describe the structures of the Egyptian pyramids and temples
  • Recall what kind of items were included in Egyptian burials

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