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A survey of the mud-brick
buildings of Qena
Mud brick was the main building material used by Egyptians from antiquity until modern times.
Maria Correas-Amador reports on her survey of mud-brick buildings in Qena, funded by an
EES Centenary Award.
At the end of 2009, the Egypt Exploration Society
generously granted me a Centenary Award towards a
survey of mud-brick buildings in Qena in Upper Egypt.
The motivation for this project was the belief that further
research was needed concerning technical aspects of
mud-brick buildings, ancient and modern, together with
investigation of the social and cultural aspects of life in
and around the buildings.
One of the main characteristics of vernacular architecture,
regardless of its building materials, is the continuity
of building methods throughout time, as well as the
permanence of certain structural or design features
that may remain unchanged for centuries or even
millennia. Research suggests that this is the case for
Egyptian vernacular mud-brick architecture, which
now survives mainly in rural areas but which has been
rapidly disappearing for the past decades, as red-brick and
The inner wall of the old Shenhur mosque, showing the decorative brickwork
concrete have become the principal building materials
following a ban in 1984 on using Nile silt to make bricks.
The implications for the study of ancient Egyptian mudbrick buildings are significant since the recording of their
modern equivalents can help us to understand the often
fragmentary remains that are found in the archaeological
record. It is worth noting, however, that exposed mud
brick is particularly vulnerable to erosion and weathering
and that the ancient structures (and modern ones when
not regularly repaired) are rapidly deteriorating. It is thus
important to record mud-brick buildings of all dates
before they fall into ruin.
The Qena governorate was chosen for the survey since
it has a wide range of relatively well-preserved modern
mud-brick buildings. In addition, the area is home to
many archaeological sites, some of which include remains
of mud-brick buildings, and a number of these were
selected for comparative surveys; namely sections of the
enclosure wall and sanatorium of the temple of Hathor
at Dendera, the ancient sites of Koptos and Naqada, the
Roman fort in Hu and the remains of an old mosque in
Shenhur, located next to the temple of Isis. This mosque
is at least 100 years old, according to local sources, with a
modern mosque built in front of it and a minaret behind,
sandwiching a wall of the old mosque. On the side of the
wall that faces the more modern minaret, stretchers had
been used at intervals to create a decorative effect.
While the aim of the survey of ancient sites was to
The remaining wall of the old mosque at Shenhur
Small pieces of straw ready to be mixed with mud
An area of mud brick production. The bricks at the back are ready for use
record the brickwork – brick dimensions, composition
and colour, characteristics of mortar and render, type of
bonding, etc. - the survey of modern houses also included
observation of sociocultural aspects associated with mudbrick buildings.
The survey of modern mud-brick houses confirmed
that a particular brick size and building mixture is used
consistently throughout the region. The composition of
the bricks is mainly mud (collected from surrounding
soil or dredged from canals) with straw temper mixed
with water pumped up from the subsoil. Once this has
been mixed to a uniform consistency, the brick-maker
fills a wooden mould with a handle, similar to those
depicted in ancient Egyptian sources. He then smooths
the surface and removes the mould, repeating the process
many times. The lines of bricks are then covered with
straw and left to dry for several days in the sun, and the
brick-maker stands them up on edge, once they are solid
enough, to speed the drying process. Some of the bricks
can then be fired on request, normally for use in areas
that would be more susceptible to damage, while the rest
are sold as mud bricks. The dimensions of the mud bricks
currently being produced in the Qena area are 26cm x
13cm x 8cm, but other brick makers identified the ideal
brick size as being 24cm x 12cm x 9cm.
When comparing modern and ancient mud-brick
buildings, the inclusion of straw in bricks as temper for
the mixture is a common denominator. Both the ancient
and modern bricks in buildings surveyed in Qena lacked
pebble inclusions; a feature that is found elsewhere
in ancient buildings, for example at the North Palace
at Amarna. The brick mortar at Qena, however, did
sometimes contain pebbles as well as small pottery sherds.
The making, composition and sizes of bricks in Qena
appears to have changed little since ancient times.
As regards the appearance of the finished bricks, colours
can vary for several reasons. Although bricks used for
the construction of any one house are normally of the
same colour, two modern houses within the same village
may have been built with slightly differently coloured
bricks, possibly as the result of different provenances for
the mud used and/or factors such as proximity to water
resources. Ancient brickwork, however, can appear to
have differently coloured bricks within the same wall
but this apparent variation is often a result of the erosion
and weathering of the most exposed brickwork. Colour
differences can also be the result of repairs and additions
carried out throughout time.
In terms of layout and design, the survey of modern
mud-brick houses showed that the flexibility of mud as
a material allowed for an organic development of houses,
resulting in a great degree of variation in layout, both
Brickwork of the enclosure wall of the temple of Dendera
A mud-brick staircase with a below-stairs cupboard in a house at Dendera
The badly-damaged wall of a modern mud-brick building in Qift
within any one village and between different villages.
This seems worth considering when interpreting domestic
architecture in the archaeological record.
Modern houses are usually two storeys high with the
main door opening straight on to the street, although
better-off houses often have a front courtyard with trees.
The first few brick courses at the bases of the walls are
sometimes built in red brick and rendered with cement
to protect the walls from damage caused by rising subsoil
water, weather and animals. The bonding is normally
one or two courses of stretchers alternating with a course
of headers, usually with bricks on end at intervals. The
brick courses are levelled with mud mortar which is
sometimes repaired with, or replaced by, cement, and the
wall faces can be rendered with a mud or cement plaster
or left unrendered, especially in the case of walls other
than the front façade. Stairs to the upper floor can be
straight or dog-legged and are normally solid but several
examples of suspended stairs were also found. In these,
the steps were made of mud bricks which were placed
on top of reed matting in turn laid over tree trunks, in
a construction method attested in an ancient house at
Amarna. Like that ancient house, these stairs featured a
cupboard underneath. In an exceptional house (belonging
to the mayor of Dendera) the stairs had wooden treads as
well as a wooden balustrade. A feature found in the wall
of several staircases was an alcove, reportedly to place
an oil lamp to be used for going upstairs at night. Other
alcoves or niches, serving as cupboards, are also found in
other walls of the houses.
Finally, there is a series of non-technical factors
affecting design that needs to be taken into account in
the interpretation of ancient mud-brick buildings, such
as financial considerations, social status and cultural
aspects. However, it is worth noting that, in modern
buldings, practical considerations appear in many instances
to prevail over cultural requirements. For example, a
room can reportedly be used for a different activity
if the usual room fitted for that purpose is subject to
adverse conditions, such as being exposed to the sun in
the summer.
This initial survey has shown that mud brick has been
regarded as a sturdy, reliable building material throughout
history because it is flexible enough to be adapted to
the building requirements of the people, which reflect
their social and cultural needs. It is hoped that further
comparative work – especially in other areas of Egypt
– will help to determine whether the mud-brick buildings
in Qena of different periods have more in common with
each other than they do with buildings of the same periods
located in other areas.
q Maria Correas-Amador is a PhD research student at the University
of Durham. She is grateful to the Egypt Exploration Society for
funding her survey and would like to thank Ayman Wahby, Ayman
Hendy (SCA inspector in Qena) and the people of the Qena region
– in particular at Dendera – for their kind help and assistance during
this project. Photographs by the writer.
An alcove in a mud-brick wall to house an oil lamp, for use on the stairs in
the dark, in a modern house at Hu