False doors in ancient Egyptian tombs: who pass through them

This kind of door is referred to be false since it leads nowhere and it is impossible to go through it. True, but this is only true for the average, everyday individual still alive. Because, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, the false door fulfilled a vital role, and its existence in some rooms was absolutely required – or else there would be chaos. Some people could only pass through a door like this one.

Who and where began to make false doors

False doors in ancient Egyptian tombs: where they lead and who could pass through them
false door

False doors were a common architectural feature in ancient Egyptian tomb buildings, and they are still in use today. It is believed that they were first constructed in Mesopotamia around the fourth millennium BC. The tradition eventually traveled to Egypt, which may have been brought by the builders themselves.

For their dead, Mastaba, or mausoleum tombs, were erected by the Egyptians thousands of years before creating the first pyramids. They were truncated pyramids on the outside, and within, there were multiple rooms with underground burial chambers. The mummified and embalmed corpse were put beside one or more sculptures of the dead, who served as a memorial to him or her. Of course, this was only applicable to the affluent and noble deceased since it needed significant financial resources to outfit the burial chambers in compliance with all of the requirements. The earliest examples of false doors in Egyptian tombs date back to the 27th-26th centuries BC, during the reign of the Third Dynasty of the Ancient Kingdom.

Nothing in ancient Egyptian architecture happened by chance; nothing happened by design. According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, each architectural element was associated with a system of beliefs about the structure of the world, which included beliefs about the structure of the living world as well as beliefs about the structure of the mortal world, which, according to the ancient Egyptians, were in a close relationship.

Death did not become a defining event in human history; instead, the process of constructing tombs was governed by the desire to order the afterlife of those who had died. Faith in Ka, one of the multiple “souls” of the departed, played a significant role in all of these preparations, particularly in the early stages. Offerings, food, and drinks were put in the tomb for him and for Ka to enjoy.

False doors in ancient Egyptian tombs: where they lead and who could pass through them
false door

Sometimes the false door appeared as a rectangular picture on a flat wall, but more commonly, it was constructed in the shape of a niche, which looked exactly like a real entryway, except that it was firmly laid. One of this “passage” goals was to establish a link between the realm of the living and that of the dead. It was customary for a false door to be constructed on the western wall of the chamber room, through which offerings were to be placed.

In fact, the Western hemisphere was selected for such an arrangement of the interior not by chance; the ancient Egyptians widely connected this side of the earth with death and the afterlife since it was in the western hemisphere that they saw the Sun leaving in the evening.

The false door, like the walls of the room, was constructed of limestone, which was then painted red to give it its unique look. It was occasionally possible to set a statue in a niche that seemed to be moving down the passage by using cornices and lintels and the “jambs” of the door, which provided a sense of volume and depth. It was also common for Egyptians to construct a false door out of wood and hang it from the top of the entryway with a woven reed mat; this method was also used in their real doors.

False doors in ancient Egyptian tombs: where they lead and who could pass through them
Inscriptions on the door described the dead

A great deal of information about the dead was placed around the “door”: hieroglyphs describing his titles and life accomplishments; wishes were put there for people who were departing for another world, and curses were occasionally left there for those who had hurt the deceased. False doors were created for each of the dead in family tombs, with many doors for each of the deceased. This was done, for example, during the funerals of married couples who were buried together. Immediately in front of the false door, a “table” had been set up, with a plate for offerings, and it was necessary to bring presents for the Ka at this location.

This architectural feature initially appeared in Egypt more than four and a half thousand years ago and has since been a typical component of ancient tombs – first mastabas, then pyramids – due to its widespread use. The alternation of protrusions and recesses produced a unique appearance, a play of light on the surfaces of the stone; in later constructions, an ornament developed in the shape of plants or representations of the departed, which added to the overall impact of the structure.

Furthermore, a separate chamber in the tomb, known as a Serdab, was sometimes constructed for the “housing” of Ka, who would then move inside the statue of the dead. This area was often devoid of pathways since it was enclosed inside the tomb, but holes were placed there for Ka’s eyes, allowing him to see how the family of the dead offered sacrifices to him.

False doors in other cultures

False doors in ancient Egyptian tombs: where they lead and who could pass through them
The villas of Pompeii have images of false doors

This architectural style did not stay a unique characteristic of Egypt; it was adopted by other civilizations of antiquity and spread across the world. It was discovered that false doors were used in the tombs of the island of Sardinia, where the Ozieri culture left behind stone burial chambers carved into the rocks and where one could see the same “passages” to nowhere on the walls of the tombs. They were painted in ocher, the color of the Sun, much like the tomb’s walls and, incidentally, just like the dead person.

The Etruscans also practiced decorating burial chambers with false doors. The Etruscans approached the organization of the interior of these rooms in the same way as they did the design of a residential building. There are different versions regarding the purpose of the Etruscan false doors: these elements could, as in Ancient Egypt, designate a portal to another world, or they had a purely practical meaning: in the event of the expansion of the tomb in the future, the false door indicated to the builders a place where they could make a passage

The custom gained root in Rome, and at times the artists deviated from mythology, representing false doors only for their artistic value – not just in tombs but also in villas and other buildings. The use of such a technology made it feasible to achieve symmetry in the space since false doors were placed in parallel with the real doors. Furthermore, such recessed niches had the effect of visually expanding the area.

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