Lecture Notes & Student Works:

History and Built Environment I

Lecture Notes –Egypt and Harappan Civilizations -


            Although comparable with Mesopotamia, in that both countries contained great rivers flowing through immensely fertile valleys and plains which offered parallel opportunities to early humans, the evolution of urban settlements in Egypt took place along markedly different lines.

            Leonard Wooley stated: “nothing could be more unlike the mosaic of city states that divided between them the valleys of Euphrates and Tigris, than the unified kingdom of Egypt.” Egypt, in effect the Nile Valley and Delta, was a unified state from about 3100 B.C.

            Although in some respects a later civilization than the Mesopotamian, nevertheless it is clear that only a comparably advanced society could have organized and carried through immensely demanding early third millennium monumental construction programme.- of which the Great Pyramid of Kheops of Gizeh, dated from 2600 B.C., is arguably the greatest wonder of all times. Archeological evidence confirms that the Egyptian cities of thisperiod included Memphis (the first capital) known to have been founded around 3100 B.C.

Absence of identifiable early urban remains:

There are few urban archaeological remains dating to the period before 2000 B.C. while after that the remains of cities are more extensive; yet we do not possess any fully reconstructed plans of Egyptian cities.


1.      Relative internal peace at the time-obviated need to build strong walls for defense as in Mesopotamia. This, in turn, allowed more 'urban mobility'.

2.      Few large cities developed because of the practice of changing the site of each capital with the ascendancy of a new pharaoh (fer’o)

3.      Egypt was essentially an agricultural society based on numerous, small communities of peasants.

4.      All resources of building industry i.e. all durable materials, were devoted to temple and tomb construction while dwellings and palaces, the urban form, were built of mud-bricks (houses transient and impermanent).


So, city building under the Pharaoh was generally a quick one-stage process. This is illustrated by the still only partially excavated ancient Egyptian city El Amarna, was occupied for the space of only forty years.  

A. Chronology of Egyptian Civilization

  1. Pre Dynastic and Archaic (pre 2660 B.C.)
  2. Old Kingdom (2660-2180 B.C.) à Khefren, Kheops
  3. Middle Kingdom (2080-1640 B.C.)
  4. New Kingdom (1570-1075 B.C.) à Amenhotep III, Tutankhamen, Ramesses II
  5. Late Dynastic Period (1070-332 B.C.)

B. Summary of Main Characteristics of Egyptian Cities

  1. Houses and Palaces almost exclusively orientated toward the North (some deviation occurs owing to changes in direction of Nile).
  2. Most Temples faced East.
  3. Outline plans of Egyptian cities varied from rectangle to square (except El Amarna). Oldest settlements were oval or round:
  4. Dimensions of city plans were always related to intentional proportion 1:1 1:2 1:2.5 1:3 2:3 3:5
  5. Water played an important role in the city image. The importance of water and the Nile were represented formally and spatially in Egyptian cities e.g. in holy lakes, canals, the banks of the Nile.

C. Political Structure

Ruling Class: Pharaoh (Firavun), Dynasties

We commonly refer to the kings of Ancient Egypt as "Pharaohs". This was in fact the word used by the Greeks and the Hebrews to denote the rulers of the Nile-country. This word is derived from the Egyptian  "the Great House", a word originally used to denote the palace or the court. 

D. Class Distinction

Ancient Egyptian society was basically divided into four classes:

  • The upper class included the government officials, nobles, and priests.
  • The middle class included the scribes, skilled craftsmen, tradespeople, teachers, artists, and soldiers.
  • The peasants, mostly farmers, laborers, and servants made up the lower class, which was the largest class.
  • The slaves made up the bottom class. Egypt really had few slaves. They were mostly foreign captives from Nubia to the south (Sudan) or Asia to the northeast.

E. Religion

Four "cosmologies," or theories about creation are involved, each developing over different periods in ancient Egypt. Common to all cosmogonies of creation is the temple. Each theory places its temple on the hill rising up from Nu (a primordial, stagnant ocean). The first step-pyramids are no doubt symbolic of this mound.

Amon-Re         : King of the gods.

Horus              : The earliest royal god was the shape of a falcon, the ruler of the day

Osiris               : The symbol of eternal life

Seth                 : God of the desert

In later times, around the third dynasty, the kings became "transformed into" gods. This was a crucial part of the governing of the people. Concerning religious matters, directly under the king were the priests. Their duty was to take care of the images of the gods. They also prepared the statues, or images, for the religious festivals.

F. Tombs Temples and Pyramids

The ancient Egyptians built their tombs on the west side of the Nile River and their temples on the east. This practice corresponded to the rise and setting of the sun which represented the cycle of life itself. The east signified rebirth and the west signified death. With the tombs on the west or left bank, the spirits of the dead would be ready to journey into the cycle of life. The Egyptians believed strongly in the afterlife and made complete preparation for this journey.

G. Cities

KAHUN (Hetep-Senusret)

The plan of Kahun is one of the most remarkable of antiquity.

1900 B.C.

built by Pharaoh Senwosret II (12th Dynasty) to house workers engaged in construction of his tomb: the pyramid of el-Lahun


·        Kahun's plan is dictated by the climate and its effect on living habits, the social order of the time and religious beliefs.

·        gridiron pattern, planned design

·        small walled settlement of less than 14 ha, occupied for 21 years only

·        10,000 inhabitants, at density of about 714 persons/ha

·        clearly divided into eastern and western sections

·        houses of varying size for different social classes (no gardens)

·        was a small town + market + workers quarters but also served the king and his followers when on visit.


Northern section of Kahun


Built by Amenophis IV (1375-1358 B.C.) at end of 18th Dynasty also known as AKHENATEN, son of Thebes' great pharaoh Amenophis III. Unable to institute religious reforms the young pharaoh left Thebes and founded a new royal capital some miles north on the eastern bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt. (between Cairo and Luxor) The move was due to the influence of his wife Nefertiti.


  • Amenophis IV was a reformer who tried to loosen Egypt's ties with tradition and superstition; advocated monotheism and equal rights for women.
  • Time of peace, prosperity and unprecedented flowering of the arts.
  • City was occupied for 15 years only (1369 to 1354) Amarna then abandoned and never occupied again. Tutankhamun, the succeeding pharaoh, returned to Thebes.



1.   It was in the form of a narrow strip running along-side the east bank of the Nile, 4 km long and 1.4 km wide.

2.  quite different to any previous Egyptian plan:

·            no regularity or pattern of any kind

·            no deliberate, controlled planning

·            no zoning

3.  characterized by naturalness. Layout is flowing, organic; it may have been a protest against the geometric, orderly and firmly delineated plans of the times.

4.  street system followed topography i.e. nature closely - indicative of the naturalism of the period

5.  city is formed of several independent parts:

·        South City : contained homes of leading officials and courtiers, a few humbler homes and an industrial centre.

·        North Suburb: few good houses, middle class business area, location of merchants, traders; may have included port.

·        North City: official quarters (rather than homes)

·        Central section: carefully and deliberately planned as a unit, contained principal palaces, ministries, and temples, immense buildings with courtyards adorned with statues and colonnaded porticos constitute the official palace precincts.


  • main road (Royal Road) runs between Palace and Temple precinct
  • no defined blocks or insulae (adacýk) /no standardized plot sizes
  • streets are unmade; there is no drainage; sanitation is poor
  • rubbish dumped in pits and heaps beyond limits of built-up area; later, pits were filled and disinfected and new houses built on top.


  • The wealthiest citizens probably selected their own house sites and built along the main streets while the poorer people built in vacant spaces behind and the very poorest squeezed in between without order.
  • Luxurious comfort was the keynote of the dwellings of the rich: set in large gardens on outskirts of town, or in limited space of central built-up area (usually several storeys high, max. 3)
  • Small houses for slaves or craftsmen/merchants, usually 3 to 4 rooms grouped around courtyard

Central Section or Quarter with Royal Road, Temple and Palace precinct, Amarna 

Plan of Amarna



This era is known as the INDUS or HARAPPAN culture (name of site where its remains first discovered) and lasted around 1750 B.C.

The original inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent were traditionally described as godless, lawless barbarians of hostile speech who lived in fortified cities and owned herds of cattle. This urban culture flourished around 2250 B.C. It may have begun between 2600 and 2500 when invaders from the north conquered the local inhabitants of Indus Valley and built a number of highly organized cities and fortified citadels. 

In Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro it was discovered a civilization of high standard of art and crafts, possessing a well-developed system of pictographic writing, religion and administrative ability.

            The Harappan Civilization belongs to the Bronze Age - its principal sites yielded bronze and copper objects (as well as stone implements) but no iron-made ones. The Indus Valley culture came to a sudden end around 1800/1500 B.C. (as yet unexplained). It was replaced by a predominantly agricultural and non-urban culture (introduction of cow to India).

A. Geography

The Indus Valley resembled Mesopotamia and Egypt:

  • alluvial plain watered by Indus River
  • region enjoyed heavier rainfall than at present; vegetation was plentiful
  • total area of civilization more extensive than those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. 

B. Economy

  • based on fertile valleys of major rivers: easy means of transportation and communication.
  • agriculture was central to culture: farmers depended on annual rain and floods for irrigation
  • cities did profitable trade locally as well as with foreign lands.

C. Cities

            Harappan cities are considered to be the earliest known planned towns in history. All the Harappan cities must have been laid out according to same  “system of town planning”, a conclusion reinforced by similarities in the layout of their lower cities on a rectilinear basis of main east-west routes directed to the citadels, and north-south cross routes.

I. MOHENJO-DARO (Mound of the Dead)

  • 140 miles north-east of Karachi, in Pakistan.


  • rectangular shape (gridiron) facing cardinal points.
  • city well-planned with about 9 meter wide main streets:

2 running East –West and  3 running North - South

  • divided into 12 major districts; these in turn were served by a more irregular network of smaller access streets 2-3 meter wide.  
  • upper part in the WEST, including the Citadel, probably fortified, Great Bath, Pillared Hall and the College of priests.  

Houses and Drains:

  • architecture of period is plain and utilitarian (no imposing temples as in Mesopotamia or royal tombs of Egypt)
  • aim was comfort rather than luxury
  • dwelling houses of well-to-do people consisted of:

-          courtyard with access through a side alley instead of main street

-          a watchman's room

-          living room of different sizes including kitchen

-          a well

-          paved bathroom

  • most average courtyard houses excavated contain 9 - 18 rooms, typical site areas vary between 70 - 150 m2
  • The city's drainage constitutes certainly the most elaborate ancient system known or as yet discovered. Houses had bricklined drains which opened into the streets as well (it appears) as chutes for the disposal of rubbish which had also been provided through the walls and which opened into rectangular bins outside (regularly cleared). Street drains were covered with burnt bricks or stone slabs (for inspection and reducing smell) smaller street drains would join main drains in larger streets forming a city-wide network connected to the Indus river by gravity.

Mohenjo-Daro Residential Quarter, B = Great Bath


II. HARAPPA (400 miles north-east of Karachi)

Similar in all respects to Mohenjo-Daro but less residential in character and more military in function.