Mud bricks and mud-brick architecture are intimately connected with the history and archaeology of ancient Egypt; the term adobe comes from the Egyptian word ḏbt, which meant “brick.” Extensive use of mud brick in construction in the Nile Valley began toward the end of the Predynastic period (c.4000–3050 BCE). Wattle-and-daub construction (wickerwork plastered with mud) had been the principal method of building before this time, and remained an important building technique throughout later Egyptian history, particularly for temporary structures. While wattle-and-daub structures had a life of only a few years, some mud-brick structures from the first and second dynasties (c.3050–2687 BCE) are still well preserved.
Henri Frankfort (1941) noted that the elaborate paneled, or niched-brick, façades found in the mud-brick funerary monuments of the first and second dynasties had parallels in the temple architecture of the Protoliterate era in Mesopotamia and suggested a direct borrowing by the ancient Egyptians. While some Egyptologists have attempted to refute that, clearly, Frankfort's interpretation was correct. A long evolution of that type of construction is evident in Mesopotamia, while it appeared suddenly in Egypt at its most complex stage of development—and closest in form to that of Uruk/Jemdet Nasr temple architecture. The pattern of niched construction transplanted into Egypt is also known as palace-façade, from the assumption that the Early Dynastic period (c.3100–2686 BCE) monuments were copies of royal residences. Not until excavations at Hierakonpolis in the 1960s was a palace of that age found with such an elaborate casing. Palace-façade become an important insignia of royalty and was used as the serekh, which surrounded a royal name in inscriptions. The elaborate niching found on the early tombs was gradually devolved into simple forms. The last vestige of the early niched façade was the false door that became the focus of the tomb-chapel, from the beginning of the Old Kingdom onward.
While stone increasingly became the building material of choice in funerary monuments and temples for those who could afford it, mud brick remained the standard for residential structures. Mud bricks were cheap and readily available, they were made from mud from the Nile River with the addition of straw as a binder. They were made in rectangular wooden molds and could be turned out at a relatively rapid pace—an estimate of 750 per day for one man comes from ethnographic observation. Similar to construction in stone, workers were divided into gangs under the leadership of a foreman. A number of pharaonic accounts survive that detail construction organization, including the Papyrus Reisner I, which noted specifications for clay preparation, water transport, and output. The “Louvre Leather Roll” recorded the delivery of bricks by foremen and stated whether their daily quota of two thousand bricks had been met; it also recorded the transport of other building materials, including timbers and reeds. In the Bible, the Book of Exodus (1.11–14) recorded a similar situation, in which the Israelites made bricks under the oversight of harsh Egyptian taskmasters.
Workers in a brickfield were shown in the tomb of Rekhmire, where Egyptians, Syrians, and Nubians—under the watchful gaze of a truncheon-wielding supervisor—were all shown bearing jars of water, mixing clay and water, and making bricks with a mold. The finished bricks were shown being inventoried and transported to the construction site. Miniature brick molds have been found in foundation deposits, and they were shown in use by kings during foundation ceremonies.
Bricks were also made for special purposes. Bricks for vaults were deeply grooved by the workmen's fingers to provide “teeth” to hold mortar, and they contained additional straw to make them light. For specific state building projects, bricks could be stamped with a royal name. The use of baked brick was generally restricted to areas that would be in contact with water frequently, but it was not until the Roman period that they were used extensively in construction.
Brick sizes varied with time and use, ranging from a few centimeters square to large blocks of half a meter (16 inches) or more in length. Mortar used to join the brick courses was generally applied in round patties of the same or finer mud, usually without straw. A desert marl clay could also be used both for mortar and for bricks. The clay bricks could be combined with mud bricks and mortar, often in the same structure. The outer faces of bricks were sometimes painted; less often, they were plastered and whitewashed. Interiors could be plastered and were occasionally painted, but interior painting in domestic structures, excluding palaces, was rare in ancient Egypt. Gypsum plaster was occasionally used in dynastic times, but extensive use of lime plaster, both as mortar and for facing, did not exist in Egypt until the era of Roman rule.
There were a large number of bonding patterns used, which depended on the thickness of the wall: usually ½ brick, 1 brick, or 1½ bricks thick. Bricks laid at an angle could be used to level a course or as interior fill in a thick wall. Often, in very thick walls, only a veneer of bonded bricks was used on the wall face and the interior was filled with rubble or with headers laid one atop another. Large walls were often battered, with the base wider than the top, for added strength. Smaller edifices might be buttressed, and single walls might be built in sinusoidal fashion, for added stability.
Another type of mud-brick construction was the case-mate foundation. In this type of architecture, narrow rectangular cells of brickwork were filled with rubble and capped with a layer of brick, to form a raised area for an elevated second story or temple platform. This technique appeared in the late Second Intermediate Period, but it became increasingly more popular in the Late period, particularly in association with the large temples and palaces of Lower Egypt, such as the Palace of Apries at Memphis. In order to keep the massive walls of mud brick from slumping or cracking, various bonding methods were used and additional materials, such as timber and straw—either loose or in the form of matting—were incorporated into the walls.
In Nubia, the massive mud-brick fortifications incorporated layers of reeds and timbers in the wall for added cohesion. Open ventilator shafts ran perpendicular to the wall face, to allow for the even drying of walls. An innovation in construction occurred in the walls surrounding some temple complexes of the Late period, such as the enclosure wall at Karnak temple, the Kom es-Sultan at Abydos, and the walls of Elkab. All have bricks laid in the concave pattern called “pan bedding,” which helped to avoid the slumping and settling that would affect large masses of brickwork and localize collapse when it happened. Pan bedding has been suggested to represent the primeval waters of Nun, “out of which the earth was born.” The symbolism of shape is likely fortuitous; a functional purpose is a more likely origin.
Bricks were also used in ancient Egyptian roofing construction. Corbelled vaults were used in first and second dynasty tombs and in true domes during the Old Kingdom. Long chambers could be roofed by inclined vaults, which have held up well. The storehouses of the Ramesseum are a good example of their longevity. Flat roofs, usually with rafters supported by one or more rows of columns, might also be covered with mud brick, as in the palace at Malqata. Floors were occasionally paved with mud brick and were sometimes laid in a herringbone pattern, which was generally restricted to high-use areas, such as courtyards. On occasion, bricks were also used as foundations for column bases and for stone construction. Specially molded bricks for torus moldings, cavetto cornices, and columns have been found, but they are rare.
Bricks had been stamped with royal or official names, titles, and even, on rare occasions, the name of the structure. Model bricks—with royal names and titles, in faience or in metal—were included in foundation deposits. Inscribed “magic” bricks were part of tomb equipment from the New Kingdom onward. Such bricks were placed in the four cardinal points of the burial chamber, sometimes accompanied by amuletic figures and inscribed with spells from the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead); they were meant to ward off danger, which approached the deceased from every direction.
- Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor. Chicago, 1973. A review of ethnographic and experimental examples of mud-brick construction by one of modern Egypt's most famous architects.
- Frankfort, Henri. The Origin of Monumental Architecture in Egypt. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 58.4 (1941), 329–358. The classic study on niched-brick architecture.
- Kitchen, Kenneth. A. “From the Brickfields of Egypt.” Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976), 137–147. Literary sources regarding bricks and brick construction.
- Spencer, A. J. Brick Architecture in Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1979. The principal study of the use of mud brick.
- Spencer, A. J. “Mud Brick: Its Decay and Detection in Upper and Lower Egypt.” In The Unbroken Reed: Studies in the Culture and Heritage of Ancient Egypt in Honor of A. F. Shore, edited by C. Eyre, A. Leahy, and L. M. Leahy. Warminster, 1994. A discussion of the decay and excavation of mud-brick structures in Egypt.