Architecture and Mathematics in Ancient Egypt

Dorothee Jane Blum, reviewer

Architecture and Mathematics in Ancient Egypt, by Corinna Rossi, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2004,   xxii + 280 pp. 102 illustrations, 9 tables, $100.00.  ISBN 0-521-82954-2, cloth.


Dr. Rossi is an Egyptologist and her book is written entirely from this point of view.  It is the product of intense and thorough research.  The book is divided into three parts.  Part I is devoted to her challenge to the theories set forth by various European scholars, who, over the centuries, have tried to explain ancient Egyptian architecture by imposing upon it mathematical concepts that were developed much later, such as pi, the golden ratio, and the Fibonacci numbers.  Part II is devoted to presenting an understanding of ancient Egyptian architecture within the context of what is currently known about the culture itself.  Part III is devoted to the technical details of the designs of the pyramids.  Overall the book is an easy but dry read.  A very nice feature of the book is that each part begins with an introduction providing an overview of Dr. Rossi’s assertions and ends with a conclusion providing a synthesis of the evidence presented to support them.

As far as mathematics in ancient Egypt is concerned, Dr. Rossi refers to several mathematical papyri, including the Rhind Papyrus.  She briefly discusses unit fractions and the doubling and halving methods used to perform multiplication and division.  She also elaborates on the ancient Egyptian use of ropes for surveying.  In attempting to find mathematical patterns within the design of the pyramids, she insists upon using the measurements of the era: cubits, palms, and fingers.  Unencumbered by modern units of measurement, she is free to use the ancient Egyptian measurement known as the seked to calculate and find patterns among the slopes of all the pyramids in her study.

One of the most valuable contributions made by this book to the study of the history of mathematics is Dr. Rossi’s unwavering allegiance to the precept that the mathematics used by the ancient Egyptians in their architecture must be viewed from within the ancient Egyptian culture.  This book would be a valuable resource for student interdisciplinary projects at either the secondary school or college level.  However, the price of the book may limit its purchase to school libraries.


Dorothee Jane Blum,  Associate Professor of Mathematics,  Millersville University of Pennsylvania