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The Columns of Ancient Egypt


~Monroe Edgar~

 

When we think of Egyptian temples, one of the principle architectural elements that comes to mind is the column. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a temple such as Karnak without thinking of its columned halls, and what many visitors will take away with them is visions of pylons, obelisks, statues and columns. Column shafts were often decorated with colorful depictions in painted, carved relief, and remain some of the most interesting architectural elements in Egyptian structures.

Most people who have any familiarity with ancient Egypt will immediately recognize the form of Lotus and Papyrus style columns, but actually no less the about 30 different column forms have been isolated from temples of the various periods. Most of the time, the columns shafts were copies in stone of supports made from plants, resembling either a trunk or a bundle of stems of smaller diameter. Also the shape of the capital, the top of the column, also had a plant theme, and at the transition of the capital to the shaft, five bands might be found representing the lashing which held together the bundle of stems of which the earliest columns were made. Above the capital a low abacus usually connected the column to the architraves placed above it. However, there are exceptions to all of this. At least prior to the Graeco-Roman Period, we also find columns with tent pole and the goddess Hathor and other god or goddess motifs.

Actually, the type of column was usually, but not always dictated by its placement within the temple, and therefore most temples actually employ more then one design. Most of the time, "Bud" style columns were used in the outer temple courts, particularly away from the central axis of the inner temple. "Open" style capitals were most often found in the temples central areas. However, as time passed, into the late antiquities period, there was considerably more variation in these themes. In the Graeco-Roman period, column styles became especially varied, and many Egyptian designs were exported to Greece and Roman, where they underwent further evolutionary changes.

In the very earliest of Egyptian history, columns were often made from one large monolithic block. However, in all later periods columns were usually built up in sectional blocks that were then first shaped and then smoothed from the top down. They were then normally painted, and afterwards, were difficult to tell that they were not cut from a single piece of stone.

Major Types of Columns and/or Capitals

Plant Style Columns

Fluted Column

This early form of column first appears in the Step Pyramid enclosure of Djoser, but the form died mostly died out by the New Kingdom. However, their use continued in Nubia. These columns resembled and represented bundled reeds or plant stems, but during later periods, sometimes took the form of a polygonal column shaft.

What is probably most interesting about fluted columns in Egypt is that they very probably represent the first columns made from stone in the world. While the fluted columns may have lost their popularity as an independent style many of the future columns incorporated design elements from them, in effect, simply incorporating a more complex capital.

Palmiform Columns

The Palmiform Columns were also one of the earliest styles of columns in Egypt temple architecture. Example of this type of column were found, for example, in the 5th Dynasty pyramid mortuary complex of Unas. However, after the 5th Dynasty, these types of columns are rare, but continued to occasionally be used. Mostly we find examples during later periods at the Taharga temple in Kawa in Upper Nubia, and in some temples dating to the Graeco-Roman Period. However, they may also be found in the Ramesseum. There, at the inner side of the court, are two rows of ten columns. The four middle columns in each row are Papyriform columns while the others are Palmiform. These columns obviously had a palm tree motif, but did not actually represent the tree itself, but rather eight palm fronds lashed to a pole.

Lotiform Columns

Lotiform columns were perhaps used in non-secular buildings then in the temples. However, this is not to say that they were not also sometimes employed in religious architecture. The simple, lotus bud form of the column is enjoyed widespread use in the Old and Middle Kingdom temples. Its use declined during the New Kingdom, but again found popularity during the Graeco-Roman Period. This column usually has ribbed shafts representing the the stems of the Lotus, and capitals in the form of a closed (bud) or open lotus flower.

Just as a side note, Lotus plants specifically are not present in the earlier times of Egyptian antiquity. What we so often refer to as "Lotus" was in fact a type of water lily.

Papyriform Columns

There are several variations in this type of column. Some have circular shafts representing a single plant, while others have ribbed shafts that represent a plants with multiple stems. The capitals could be closed (buds) or open in a wide, bell-shaped form. During the New Kingdom, the shafts of most papyriform columns taper upwards from bases decorated with triangular patterns representing stylized stem sheaths. The earliest examples we know of the circular shaft style columns can be found in Djoser's Step Pyramid enclosure at Saqqara. However, these are not free standing columns, but incorporated into other structures. Though the circular shaft form of the column seems to have been used throughout Egyptian history, they saw widespread use during the New Kingdom, along with both open and closed capital styles.

We first find the multi-stemmed form of this column employed during the 5th Dynasty, but it was also frequently used during the New Kingdom. 18th Dynasty columns are particularly fine, with considerable artistic detail. They became more stylized by the 19th Dynasty.

Coniform Columns

This column style apparently quickly died out after their use in Djoser's Step Pyramid enclosure wall. It has not been found in later temples. The style is characterized by a fluted shaft surmounted by a capital representing the branches of a conifer tree.

Tent Pole Columns

Though we probably know of other applications of this style from documentation, apparently the only surviving, known examples are found in the Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III at Karnak. It is possible that very early examples of the style were also constructed of brick. There is little doubt that this type of column made of stone was rare. The column is basically a representation in stone of the wooden "poles" used to support light structures such as tents, and sometimes shrines, kiosks or ships cabins.

Why this tent pole design was used is perhaps somewhat of a mystery, though they certainly reflect back on the earliest of Egypt's structures and their wood counterparts. It is sometimes believe that the specific columns in Tuthmosis III temple were modeled after actual wooden poles of his military tent.

Campaniform Columns

Considerable variety existed in this style of columns. They sometimes took the shape of a floral column or pillar. Some had circular, ribbed or square shafts (pillars). They all had some form of flower shaped capital. Two of the best known of these are located in the Hall of Annals of Tuthmosis III at Karnak. At this temple, the, the structures take the shape of a pillar. They including two style of column, with one representing the heraldic plant of Lower (northern) Egypt, the Papyrus, and the other type representing the symbolic plant of Upper (southern) Egypt, the Lotus. They are positioned symbolically on the northern and southern sides of the hall. Such placement was not unusual, and we see many examples of columns positioned in the north and south of courtyards with northern and southern motifs. This specific types of column is rare, but their more stylized forms appeared most frequently in the Graeco-Roman Period.

Composite Columns

These columns were common during the Graeco-Roman Period. Composite Columns were probably an evolutionary extension of the campaniform columns with capitals decorations including floral designs of any number of real, or even imagined plants. There variation could be endless, and they became so utterly stylized that the original floral motifs could hardly be recognized. In fact, this type of column continued to evolve in Greece and Rome, becoming very different then the Egyptian variety.

 

Non Plant Style Columns

While natural plant columns were the most common in Egypt, other column and pillar types could represent deities or their attributes. Examples of these include:

Hathoric Columns

This type of column never appeared prior to the Middle Kingdom, and was probably originated in that period. They are usually instantly recognizable by their capital in the shape of the cow headed goddess, Hathor. They often had a simple, round shaft. All considered, they were fairly common, and examples may be found in the temple of Nefertari at Abu Simbel and within the hypostyle hall of the Ptolemaic (Greek) temple at Dendera. The Dendera columns are probably the best known, where all twenty four columns have the head of this goddess on all four sides. We also know of several other temples with Hathor columns, including the temple of Nekhebet at el Kab. Sistrum columns are also associated with Hathor, but represent in the capitals and shafts the handles and rattles of the sistrum.

Osiride Pillars

All examples of this type of pillar are engaged, meaning that they are part of another architectural element. They appear to also have originated in the Middle Kingdom, and and take the form of a statue of the god Osiris on the pillar's front surface.