The Step Pyramid

Across the Great Court of the Pyramid Complex of Djoser stands the Step Pyramid, located at Saqqara close to modern day Cairo. Djoser, was the second king of the 3rd Dynasty (2667 - 2648 BC). This first pyramid is believed to have been created by one man, Imhotep. He has been called Doctor, Sage, Architect, Astronomer and High Priest. During an excavation in 1924-26, a pedestal of a statue of Djoser was found. This complex represents the first major work in stone.

Constructed by Imhotep, King Djoser’s chief architect, the Step Pyramid was the largest stone structure ever built. It is still the most noticeable feature of Saqqara. Imhotep’s brilliant use of stone, and his daring break with the tradition of building royal tombs as underground rooms with the occasional mud-brick mastaba, was the inspiration of Egypt’s future architectural achievements.

The pyramid began as a simple mastaba, but Imhotep added to it five times. With each level of stone he gained confidence in his use of the new medium and mastered the techniques required to move, place and secure the huge blocks. The first pyramid rose to over 62m, in six steps, before it was shealthed in fine limestone.

The origins of the mastaba lay in the heap of sand that was placed over prehistoric graves. By the time of the earliest pharaohs, these simple burial pits had evolved into suites of underground compartments and the mound had become a rectangular structure of mud-brick. The mastaba built by Imhotep for Djoser was enlarged on at least three occasions, covering a line of eleven shafts which had been sunk along the eastern side of the structure. These were sunk to a depth of 32 metres at which point equally long galleries were dug, leading under the mastaba.

The final extension of the mastaba created an oblong platform about 70 x 80 metres which was used as the base of a step pyramid which rose in four stages to a height of about 40 metres. But Imhotep was not finished yet. At some point the decision was made to enlarge this monument until it reached its final form, a step pyramid of 6 stages rising to a height of over 60 metres on base 125 x 110 metres. It was undoubtedly the largest structure in Egypt and probably the largest in the world at the time. It would have towered over the earlier royal tombs in the necropolis and dominated the western skyline when viewed from the capital at Memphis across the river.

The new building would have been an enormous undertaking. It has been estimated that a total of 850,000 tons of stone would have been needed-more than four times the material required for the first pyramid. The courses were not laid horizontally but rather in a series of buttresses, inclined inwards at an angle of 75?. This greatly increased the stability of the finished structure by reducing the amoun of lateral stress. The core of the structure was made out of small blocks of limestone quarried on the site, encased in fine, white Tura Limestone quarried across the river. The feat is made more astonishing by the fact that building in stone was an entirely new idea in Egypt and huge numbers of stone masons and quarrymen would have to be trained. In fact, the task would have been impossible without the earlier stages of construction to build up a skilled and experienced workforce along with the managers needed to organize things.

The successive changes to the structure also involved some remodelling of the substructure of the tomb. Originally, this consisted of a vertical shaft 7 x 7 metres which was sunk to a depth of 8.5 metres and a passage running away from it to the north, beyond the edge of the mastaba. At some point, presumably when the first pyramid was planned, the decision was taken to continue the main shaft to a depth of 28 metres. To gain access, the floor of the passageway was also quarried away to create a stairway, stopping at a point about 9 metres from the bottom of the shaft. It ran right up to the surface but, when the pyramid was enlarged, the entrance was covered. So in the end, a much smaller tunnel was dug, swinging around in a broad curve from the passage to a courtyard of the Mortuary Temple. The Burial Chamber was simply a box made out of slabs of pink granite to form a small oblong room about 3 x 1.7 metres and 1.7 metres high. A small hole was left in the ceiling to admit the body- but there was no room for a sarcophagus. After the funeral, the opening was sealed with a granite plug weighing over 3.5 tons. Although the plug was found in place when the tomb was opened in the 1930’s, the only human remains found within was a mummified foot which has been dated, from radiocarbon samples, to a period several centuries after Djoser’s death. Surrounding the Burial Chamber was a network of stairways, galleries and chambers which were decorated with panels of faience tiles in imitation of reed matting with scenes of the king performing various ritual acts.

The Step Pyramid dominates Djoser’s mortuary complex, which is 544m long and 277m wide and was once surrounded by a stone wall. Part of the enclosure wall survives, to a height of over 4.5m, and a section near the south-eastern corner has been restored using stones found in the desert, to its original 10m elevation. In the enclosure wall, the many false doors which were carved and painted to resemble real wood, hinges and sockets allowed the king’s ka, or attendant spirit, to come and go at will.

For the living, there is only one entrance, one the south-eastern corner, via a vestibule and along a colonnaded corridor into the broad hypostyle hall. The 40 pillars in the corridor are the original “bundle columns”, ribbed to resembles a bundle of palm or papyrus stems. The walls have been restored, but the protective ceiling is modern concrete. Four impressive bundle columns support the roof of the hypostyle hall and there’s a large, false, half-open ka door.

The hall leads into a Great South Court, a huge open area flanking the south side of the pyramid, with a rebuilt section of wall featuring a frieze of cobras. The cobra, or uraeus, was a symbol of Egyptian royality, a fire-spitting agent of destruction and protector of the king. A rearing cobra, its hood inflated, always formed part of the king’s headdress.