AskDefine | Define mastaba

Dictionary Definition

mastaba n : an ancient Egyptian mudbrick tomb with a rectangular base and sloping sides and flat roof; "the Egyptian pyramids developed from the mastaba" [syn: mastabah]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


From etyl ar مصطبة.


  • /'mæstəbə/, sometimes /mæst'a:bə/


  1. A wide stone bench built into the wall of a house, shop etc. in the Middle East.
    • 1855, Sir Richard Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah, Dover 1963, p. 68:
      A wooden shutter which closes down at night-time, and by day two palm-stick stools intensely dirty and full of fleas, occupying the place of the Mastabah or earthern bench, which accomodated purchasers, complete the furniture of my preceptor's establishment.
  2. A rectangular structure with a flat top and slightly sloping sides, built during Ancient Egyptian times above tombs that were situated on flat land. Mastabas were made of wood, mud bricks, stone, or a combination of these materials. Some are solid structures, while others can contain one or more rooms, sometimes decorated with paintings or inscriptions.
    The pyramids at Giza are flanked by large cemetaries containing hundreds of mastabas.

Extensive Definition

A mastaba was a flat-roofed, rectangular building with outward sloping sides that marked the burial site of many eminent Egyptians of Egypt's ancient period. Mastabas were constructed out of mud-bricks or stone.


The word Mastaba comes from the Arabic word for bench, because when seen from a distance it looks like a bench. Inside the mastaba, a deep chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone or bricks. The body would be placed in this deep, sealed chamber. Because the remains were not in contact with the dry desert sand, natural mummification of the remains could not take place. In order to preserve the remains, the ancient Egyptian priests had to devise a system of artificial mummification.
The mastaba structure was constructed directly over the underground shaft holding the remains of the deceased. The above ground structure was rectangular in shape, had sloping sides, and was about four times as long as it was wide. This above ground structure had space for a small offering chapel equipped with a false door to which priests and family members brought food and other offerings for the soul of the deceased.


The mastaba was the standard type of tomb in early Egypt (the predynastic and early dynastic periods) for both the pharaoh and the social elite. The ancient Egyptian city of Abydos was the location chosen for many of these early mastabas.
When a mastaba was built for the burial of the Third Dynasty king Djoser, the architect Imhotep enlarged the basic structure to be a square, then built a similar, but smaller, mastaba-like square on top of this, and added a fourth, fifth, and sixth square structure above that. The resulting building is the Step Pyramid, the first of the many pyramid tombs which succeeded it. Thus the mastaba is the first step towards the more famous Pyramids.
Even after pharaohs began to construct pyramids for their tombs, members of the nobility continued to be buried in mastaba tombs. This is especially evident on the Giza Plateau, where hundreds of mastaba tombs have been constructed alongside the pyramids.
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