Scant tree growth prevented the extensive use of wood as a building material, but because fine clay was deposited by the floodwaters of the Nile, the ceramic arts developed early. Both sun-dried and kiln-dried bricks were used extensively. Fine sandstone, limestone, and granite were available for obelisks, sculpture, and decorative uses.
A massive, static, and serene architecture emerged from primitive structures of clay and reeds. The incised and flatly modeled surface adornment of the granite buildings was apparently derived from mud wall ornamentation, and the slope given to the masonry walls suggests a method employed originally to obtain stability in the mud walls. The Egyptians developed post-and-lintel construction—the type exclusively used in their monumental buildings—even though the use of the arch was developed during the dynasty of Snefru (2780–2689 B.C.). Walls were immensely thick. Columns were confined to the halls and inner courts. Roofs, invariably flat, suited to the lack of rain, were of huge stone blocks supported by the external walls and the closely spaced columns.
The massive sloping exterior walls, containing only a few small openings, as well as the columns and piers that they concealed, were covered with hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant colors. Many motifs of Egyptian ornament are symbolic, such as the scarab, or sacred beetle, the solar disk, and the vulture. Hieroglyphics were decoration as well as records of historic events. Egyptian sculptors possessed the highest capacity for integrating ornamentation and the essential forms of their buildings. From natural objects, such as palm leaves, the papyrus plant, and the buds and flowers of the lotus, they developed conventionalized motifs.
All dwelling houses, built of timber or of sun-baked bricks, have disappeared; only temples and tombs, constructed in durable materials, have survived. The belief in existence beyond death resulted in sepulchral architecture of utmost impressiveness and permanence. Even during periods of foreign rule Egyptian architecture clung to its native characteristics, adopting almost no elements from other cultures.