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Ancient Egyptian town planning: Location, city quarters, residential areas, temple districts, palaces
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Town planning


    The reasons for the foundation of a new settlement could be varied: security, often combined with economics, as in the case of the southern fortress towns (Buhen); cultic and administrative needs (Kahun); political motives seem to have led Akhenaten to found Akhetaten. The main consideration where to build was generally proximity to a waterway and height above the floodplains. Adobe buildings are very vulnerable when brought in prolonged contact with water, be it seeping groundwater or the rising Nile. But even stone edifices are in danger of collapsing, above all when their foundations are as flimsy as those the Egyptians built.
    Elevations, as long as they were inhabited, kept above the slowly rising plains, where the river deposited its silt. When old houses crumbled, new ones were built on top of the debris. This has been going on until recent times, when the yearly inundations were stopped by the Aswan dam. The continuity of settlement during the millennia is one of the reasons for the scarcity of data about ancient villages and cities, as excavation is virtually impossible.
    Herodotus noticed the elevated position of Egyptian cities and explained it as follows The Middle Kingdom fortified town of Buhen
Whenever any man of the Egyptians committed any transgression, he (the Kushite king Shabaka) would never put him to death, but he gave sentence upon each man according to the greatness of the wrong-doing, appointing them to work at throwing up an embankment before that city from whence each man came of those who committed wrong. Thus the cities were made higher still than before; for they were embanked first by those who dug the channels in the reign of Sesostris, and then secondly in the reign of the Ethiopian, and thus they were made very high: and while other cities in Egypt also stood high, I think in the town at Bubastis especially the earth was piled up.
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg

The Middle Kingdom frontier town of Buhen.
Drawing by Helena Jaeschke

    By their very nature military settlements are more organized than civilian towns which have grown organically from villages. Buhen, a walled frontier town in Lower Nubia was built during the joint reign of Amenemhet I and his son Senusret I. It was probably erected at the site of an existing trading post and its purpose was to house the troops who controlled the traffic from Nubia into Egypt. The ramparts surrounding it may have been built before the fortress at the centre was constructed. The planned town covered an area of 6.3 ha, including the fort and was surrounded on three sides by a 712 metre long, 4 metre thick brick wall with thirty-two round bastions. Only a single gate opening towards the western desert has been found. The eastern side by the Nile was not fortified. It may have held 1500 to 2000 inhabitants. The town was expanded under Senusret III and further fortified. [3]

City quarters

Hieroglyph for city     Generally there was little town planning, and what little there was looked a bit like the hieroglyph for "city" with houses arranged rather haphazardly around the crossing of two major roads. But in a number of cases attempts at planning seem to have been made, above all in walled cities.

The quarters of Hotep-senusret     The town serving the pyramid temple complex Hotepsenusret (Ha-Usertesen-hotep as Petrie called it near modern Kahun or more correctly Lahun) in the Fayum was founded by Senusret II and remained inhabited for about a century. The outlay of the city itself was rectangular with an orthogonal street grid, covering an area of 350 by 400 metres. It was surrounded by a brick wall and divided into two parts by another wall. Generally different social classes did not live in separate city quarters. But here there was a rich residential area, where a handful of palatial 60 room residences were fifty times as big as the dwellings in the poorer half of the city.
    This part had also a wide street leading to the palace. The streets all over the city were laid out in approximately straight lines. The alleys leading to the workers' dwellings ended in culs-de-sac. The main street was nine metres wide, as opposed to the alleys and streets in the residential districts which were sometimes as narrow as 1½ metres. The streets had shallow stone channels running down the middle for drainage.
    Despite the love Egyptians had for gardens, there was no space left for them inside the walls at Hotepsenusret. The whole area was covered with streets and one-storeyed mud-brick buildings.
Akhetaten     In this Hotepsenusret was very different from Akhenaten's specially created capital Akhetaten - or at least some parts of it. There the planners included public open spaces where trees were planted and inhabitants often had their own private garden plots.
    Actually, within the boundaries of Akhetaten there was mostly empty space. The planners had given the new capital very generous dimensions; but it was abandoned after only a few of the main government edifices had been erected. These formed the town centre, while the residential areas were north-east and south-west of them.
Workers' settlement at el Amarna  
    Akhenaten's workmen on the other hand had to live in crowded flats of 60 m², or 100 m² if there was a second floor, which were not very different from those of Senusret's workmen at Kahun or the Ramesside artisans of Deir el Medine. The parallel streets were about two metres wide, and practically the whole space inside the walls was occupied by houses.
    It is interesting to note that the workers' settlement was walled in, while the city as a whole was not. Some of the more affluents parts of the city were possibly not surrounded by any wall, though most were: the temples, the palace and the royal residences, the barracks, the offices of the administration, etc.


Residential areas

    The Egyptians rarely planned much further than keeping a few spaces free for the important roads of access, setting temple districts apart and erecting an adobe wall around it all. Even 'planned' cities like much of Akhetaten were at times a jumble of houses, alleys and courtyards in what looks like a case of build-as-build-can;[4] and where originally there had been a street grid the rebuilding of the houses changed the regular layout over the centuries.
    But plot owners were not free to do as they liked. They had to take into account their neighbours' rights and wishes and reach an understanding with them.
I make an undertaking that when I build my house, which is the western (border) of your house and which lies in the northern district of Thebes, in The House of the Cow and the borders of which are as follows: in the south the courtyard of Padineferhotep's house, in the north the house of Mrs. Tadineferhotep, between them the King's Road, in the east your house, touched in the south and north by walls of my house and serving as a retaining wall as long as I shall not lay any beams on top of it. In the west the house of Pabimut and the house of Djedhor... that is two houses with the King's Road lying between them. The various plots around Tahebs proposed house
I shall build my house from my southern wall to my northern wall to your wall, and I shall not insert any wood (beams) into your wall, apart from the wood of the building which had stood there previously. And I shall use it as a retaining wall as long as I do not insert any wood into it.
I shall lay my beams from south to north, covering the ground floor. If I want to build on top of it I shall build my walls mentioned above up to the wall of your house which will serve as a retaining wall. I shall leave the light-shaft opposite your two windows at a distance of one mud brick of the mud bricks which have been laid in the front of your house opposite your windows.
I shall build north and south of them (the windows) up to your wall and cover them with a roof from south to north....
If I do not act according to what has been said above, then I shall pay you 5 pieces of silver, that is 25 stater .... If you hinder my building, then I will act according to what has been said above without leaving a light-shaft - without punishment.

Contract between Taheb, daughter of Padineferhotep, and Pamerakh, son of Djehutiirdis
290 BCE
Translation from 'Pharaos Volk' by T.G.H.James

    Even if they liked living on ground level, Egyptian city dwellers had at times little choice about adding further storeys. Land suitable for building had to be above the floodlevel of the Nile and still reasonably close to the river, and this was relatively rare. Many Egyptians either preferred or were forced to live in these crowded conditions. At Akhetaten where there was no lack of suitable land, some private homes were still built in the same warren-like fashion.

Temple districts

    Temple districts on the other hand were better planned. The outlay of individual temples was basically symmetrical. Walls surrounded them. At Hotep-senusret the brick wall on three sides of the temple was 12 metres thick and lined with limestone.
    Avenues leading through the city to the temple district were wide, suitable for processions. During recent excavations near the great pyramids a paved street five metres wide was discovered. Pavement of streets was rare, generally restricted to the temple complexes themselves.
    Originally most temples were surrounded by an empty space, but over time houses were built right up to the outer temple walls. These houses decayed and were rebuilt many times over the millennia, with the result that the ground level of the residential area rose and the temples which, being built of stone, were not periodically rebuilt, seemingly sank into the ground.
    The temenos [2] wall, the temple enclosure, could also have strategic value. At el-Kab the temple was built at the centre of the town, and its ramparts could furnish a last shelter for the garrison in case the town itself were taken by an enemy. At other places (Ombos, Edfu etc) the whole population lived inside the temple enclosure.
    Bigger towns like Memphis or Thebes had a number of temples which at first were separate, but were interconnected by sphinx avenues from the 18th dynasty onwards.


    Royal palaces housed apart from the pharaoh's main family, his secondary wives, concubines, and their offspring, also a small army of servants. The whole compound was enclosed and separate from the rest of the capital, albeit close to suppliers of services, temples and the seat of the administration.
The Great Palace at Akhetaten and its surroundings
    Unlike the temples which were, at least from the outside, mainly symmetrical, Egyptian palaces were at times a conglomeration of functional units not hidden behind a unifying façade, even when they were built by just one pharaoh and were not the result of successive builders adding onto an initial building. Akhenaten's palace at Akhetaten was of this kind, the residence of the royal family was separated from the main palace by the main avenue, but connected to it by a bridge. Ay's palace on the other hand - if we are to believe a wall painting in a tomb - was strictly symmetrical, and looked as much like a castle as like a palace.
[2] Temenos (Greek) court accessible to the public.
[3] Eric P. Uphill, Egyptian Towns and Cities, Shire Publications LTD 2001, pp.35f.
Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: anatomy of a civilization, Routledge, 2006, pp.222f.
[4] Andrés Diego Espinel, Ciudades y urbanismo en el Egipto antiguo in Studia historica, Historia antigua 20, 2002, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, p.37

- -Building
-Map of Hotep-Senusret, by W.M.Flinders Petrie
-Walls and ramparts

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November 2004