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Egyptian Architectural Art

The architecture of Egypt has this peculiarity over all other styles, that the more ancient the monument the more perfect is the art. All the remains with which we are acquainted exhibit Egyptian art in a state of decline. Monuments erected two thousand years before the Christian era are formed from the ruins of still more ancient and more perfect buildings. We are thus carried back to a period too remote from our time to enable us to discover any traces of its origin; and whilst we can trace in direct succession the Greek, the Roman, and the Byzantine architecture, with its offshoots, the Arabian, the Moresque, and the Gothic, from this great parent, we must believe the architecture of Egypt to be a pure original style, which arose with civilisation in Central Africa, passed through countless ages, to the culminating point of perfection and the state of decline in which we see it.

Inferior as this state doubtless is to the unknown perfection of Egyptian art, it is far beyond all that followed after; the Egyptians are inferior only to, themselves. In all other styles we can trace a rapid ascent from infancy, founded on some bygone style, to a culminating point of perfection, when the foreign influence was modified or discarded, to a period of slow, lingering decline, feeding on its own elements. In the Egyptian we have no traces of infancy or of any foreign influence; and we must, therefore, believe that they went for inspiration direct from nature. This view is strengthened when we come to consider more especially the ornament of Egypt; the types are few and natural types, the representation is but slightly removed from the type. The later we descend in art, the more and more do we find original types receded from; till, in much ornament, such as the Arabian and Moresque, it is difficult to discover the original type from which the ornament has been by successive mental efforts developed.

The lotus and papyrus, growing on the banks of their river, symbolising the food for the body and mind; the feathers of rare birds, which were carried before the king as emblems of sovereignty; the palm-branch, with the twisted cord made from its stems; these are the few types which form the basis of that immense variety of ornament with which the Egyptians decorated the temples of their gods, the palaces of their kings, the covering of their persons, their articles of luxury or of more modest daily use, from the wooden spoon which fed them to the boat which carried their similarly adorned embalmed bodies across the Nile to their last home in the valley of the dead.

Following these types as they did in a manner so nearly allied to their natural form, they could hardly fail to observe the same laws which the works of nature ever display; and we find, therefore, that Egyptian ornament, however conventionalised, is always true. We are never shocked by any misapplication or violation of a natural principle. On the other hand, they never, by a too servile imitation of the type, destroyed the consistency of the representation. A lotus carved in stone, forming a graceful termination to a column, or painted on the walls as an offering to their gods, was never such a one as might be plucked, but an architectural representation; in either case the best adapted for the purpose it had to fill, sufficiently resembling the type to call forth in the beholder the poetic idea which it was sought to supply, without shocking his feeling of consistency.

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