Step Pyramid of Djoser, also known as the Pyramid of Saqqara, was erected for the burial of Pharaoh Djoser by his vizier Imhotep. Built during the 27th century BC in the necropolis of Saqqara, northeast of the city of Memphis, it is the central building of a large mortuary complex in a large courtyard surrounded by structures and ceremonial decorative elements.
It is considered to be the first pyramid to be erected in Egypt, consisting of six mastabas (of decreasing dimensions, from bottom to top) built one on top of the other. It is noted that the original design underwent revisions and adaptations as the construction evolved. Originally, the pyramid reached 62 m, with a base measuring 109 m x 125 m, and was clad in polished white limestone. The step pyramid (or proto-pyramid) is regarded as the oldest monumental stone construction in the world, although the nearby site of Gisr el-mudir perhaps predates the Djoser complex.
Overview of The Step Pyramid of Djoser
The Pyramid of Djoser complex has several structures crucial to its function in life and the afterlife. The pyramid was not simply a tomb in ancient Egypt. Its purpose was to facilitate the king’s afterlife so that he could be eternally reborn. The symbolism of the shape of the step pyramid, which did not survive the 3rd Dynasty, is unknown, but it has been suggested that it may be a monumental symbol of the crown, especially the royal mortuary cult, from the seven small steps of the pyramids (not tombs) were built in the provinces. Another well-accepted theory is that it facilitated the king’s ascension to join the eternal North Star.
The main stage of the excavation of the Pyramid was done by Jean-Phillipe Lauer, a French architect who reconstructed essential parts of the complex. The complex covers 15 hectares and is about 2.5 times larger than the city of Hieracompolis of the Ancient Empire. Several features of the complex differ from the pyramids of the Ancient Empire. The pyramid temple is situated on the north side of the pyramid, while in later pyramids it is on the east side. Also, the Djoser complex is built on a north-south axis, while later complexes use an east-west axis. In addition, the Djoser complex has a canted enclosure wall, while later pyramids have two enclosure walls, with the outside smooth and the inside sometimes canted.
The enclosure wall
A 10.5m high wall surrounds the Step Pyramid of Djoser complex. The design of the wall is reminiscent of the appearance of 1st Dynasty tombs, with the paneled construction known as the palace façade, which mimics bound bundles of reeds. The overall structure mimics mud bricks. The wall is interrupted by 14 doors, yet only one entrance, at the south corner of the east facade, is functional to life. This arrangement is reminiscent of Dynastic funerary enclosures at Abydos, where the entrance was on the east side. The remaining doors are known as false doors, and were intended for the king’s use in his afterlife. They functioned as portals through which the king’s ka could pass between life and the afterlife. The functional door at the southeast end of the complex leads to a narrow passage that connects to the covered colonnade.
The great trench
Outside the enclosure wall of the Step Pyramid of Djoser complex is completely surrounded by a trench dug into the underlying rock. The trench measures 750 m long and 40 m wide and is a rectangle on a north-south axis. The walls of the trench were originally decorated with niches and their function seems to have been to make entry into the complex more difficult.
Covered entrance colonnade
The covered colonnade leads from the enclosure wall to the south of the complex. A passageway with a limestone ceiling built to look like it was made of whole tree trunks led to a massive stone imitation of two open doorways. Beyond this doorway is a hall with 20 pairs of limestone columns composed of drum-shaped segments built to look like beams of plant stems and reaching a height of 6.6 m. The columns are not freestanding but were fixed to the wall by masonry projections. Between the columns on either side of the hall were made small chambers, which some Egyptologists propose may have been for each of the provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt. At the end of the colonnade is a transverse hypostyle hall with eight columns connected in pairs by limestone blocks. This leads to the southern court.
The Southern Court
The South Court is a large court between the South Tomb and the pyramid. Inside the court are curved stones thought to be territorial markers associated with the Heb-sed festival, an important ritual done by Egyptian kings (usually after 30 years on the throne) to renew their powers. These would have allowed Djoser to claim control over all of Egypt, while his presence in Djoser’s burial complex would allow him to continue to benefit from the ritual in the afterlife. At the southern end of the court is a platform approached by steps. It is believed that this was a platform for the royal throne. This fits with the theory proposed by Barry Kemp and is generally accepted by many, who suggest that the pyramid complex symbolizes the royal palace and allows the king to eternally perform the rituals associated with kingship. Just south of the South Court was the South’s tomb.
The Southern tomb
The Southern tomb has been compared to that of the satellite pyramids of later dynasties, and it has been proposed that it served to house ka in the afterlife. Another proposal is that he may have kept the canopic jar with the king’s organs, but this does not follow later trends where the canopic jar is found in the same place as the body. These proposals stem from the fact that the granite vault is too small to have facilitated a royal burial.
The substructure of the South Tomb is entered through a corridor, with a staircase that descends about 30 meters before opening into the granite burial chamber. The staircase then continues west and leads to a gallery that mimics the blue chambers below the step pyramid.
Current evidence suggests that the southern tomb was completed before the pyramid. The symbolic king’s palace, decorated in blue faience, is much more complete than that of the pyramid. Three chambers of this facility are decorated in blue faience imitating the reed of the facade, just like the pyramid. A fourth is decorated with three finely decorated reliefs, one depicting the king performing the Heb-sed. It is important to note that the Egyptian builders chose to employ their most skilled craftsmen and depict their best art in the darkest, most inaccessible place in the complex. This highlights the fact that this impressive skill was not done for the benefit of life, but was done to ensure that the king had all the tools necessary for a successful life after death.
Beneath the step pyramid of Djoser is a labyrinth of tunnel chambers and galleries totaling about 6 km in length and connecting to a central shaft 7 meters square and 28 meters deep. These sites provide space for the burial of the king, the burial of family members, and the storage of goods and offerings. The entrance to the 28 m shaft was built on the north side of the pyramid, a trend that will continue throughout the Ancient Empire. The sides of the underground passages are of limestone inlaid with blue faience tile to replicate reed matting. This “facade palace” has walls that are further adorned by decorated panels in bas-relief that show the king participating in Heb-sed. Together, these chambers constitute the funerary apartment that mimicked the palace and would serve as the place of residence of the ka of the royal family. On the east side of the pyramid 11 shafts, 32 m deep were constructed and attached to the horizontal tunnels for the royal harem (The existence of this “harem” is debated). These were incorporated into the pre-existing infrastructure when it expanded to the east. In the storerooms, 40,000 stone vessels have been found, many of which predate Djoser. These would have served Djoser’s visceral needs in his afterlife. An extensive network of underground galleries was located to the north, west, and south of the central burial chamber and horizontal gross compartments were carved out.
The burial chamber
In the burial chamber, a well-lined four-course granite vault was built. It had an opening, which was sealed with a 3.5-ton block after burial. Nobody was recovered since the tomb was completely robbed. Lauer believes that an alabaster burial chamber existed before the granite chamber. He found interesting evidence of limestone blocks with five-pointed stars in low relief, which were probably on the ceiling, indicating the first occurrence of what would become a tradition. The king sought to associate himself with the eternal stars of the North that never set thus ensuring his rebirth for eternity.
The Northern Temple and the Serdab Court
The Temple of the North was on the north side of the pyramid looking at the North stars, which the king wanted to unite with eternity. This structure served as a place in which the daily rituals and offerings to the dead could be held, and was the center of the king’s worship. To the east of the temple is the serdab, which is a small, enclosed structure that housed the Ka statue. The king’s ka inhabited the ka statue in order to benefit from daily ceremonies, such as the opening of his mouth, a ceremony that allowed him to breathe and eat, and the burning of incense. He witnessed these ceremonies through two small eye openings cut into the north wall of the serdab. This temple appears on the north side of the pyramid during the Third Dynasty, as the king wished to go north to become one of the eternal stars in the northern sky, which never set. In the Fourth Dynasty, when there is a religious shift there is an emphasis on rebirth and eternity achieved through the sun, the temple is moved to the east side of the temple where the sun rises so that through the king’s association he can be reborn each day.
The Heb-sed court
The Heb-sed courtyard is rectangular and parallel to the South Court. It was designed to provide a space in which the king could perform the Heb-sed ritual in his afterlife. Flanking the east and west sides of the court are the remains of two groups of chapels, many of which are sham buildings, of three different architectural styles. At the north and south ends are three chapels without columns. The remaining chapels on the west side are decorated with fluted columns and leaf-shaped capitals. Each of the chapels has a sanctuary accessed by a roofless passage with walls depicting false doors and latches. Some of these buildings have niches for statues. Egyptologists believe that these buildings were related to the important double coronation of the king during the Heb-sed.