Classic Court

Old Kingdom: Mastaba Tombs

Centuries before Egypt’s kings built the great pyramids as their houses of eternity, tombs were built of mud-brick. These are called mastabas, from the Arabic word meaning “bench,” because of the rectangular shape of the above-ground structure.

 

The simplest mastabas consist of three main parts:

  • an aboveground structure (A)
  • a chapel (B)
  • a hidden room (serdab) to hold one or more statues of the tomb owner and family members (C)
  • an underground burial chamber (D) at the bottom of a shaft (E)

At one side of the chapel—usually on the west where the sun sets—is a “false door” through which the spirit (ka) of the deceased could travel and receive offerings from visitors. Personal items and ritual objects were placed with the mummy in the burial chamber.

During the age of the pyramids, mastabas developed into more elaborate stone tombs with multiple rooms (both above and below ground), courtyards, and extensive carved and painted decoration. It is important to note that these tombs were built only for the wealthy; the majority of Egyptians were buried more simply in communal cemeteries.