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Last Part - Part 2 of 6 - Next Part


Part II
Step Pyramid of Saqqara - Pyramid Complex

The First 'Pyramid': Step Pyramid of Saqqara

By the beginning of the Third Dynasty (c. 2686 BC), Egypt was already unified -- the legendary King Menes of Dynasty I (c. 3050 - 2890 BC) wore the Red Crown and the White Crown representing respectively Lower and Upper Egypt. The civilization was all the more prosperous now, the government had a centralized control over the country, the towns were growing, regions were divided as 'nomes' -- administrative units with 'nomarchs' as governors. The chances of organized and costly construction were now higher. The best-known Pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty was Djoser (ruled c. 2630 - 2611 BC) -- also called Netjerykhet. His chief vizier was Imhotep (remember 'The Mummy'?! The name of this guy will keep on coming again and again when we're discussing about the achievements of the Old Kingdom). Imhotep -- having the title 'Royal Scribe' -- was, in one person, the chief priest, the royal physician, and, most importantly, in view of this article -- the royal architect.


The Construction Phases of the Step Pyramid of Djoser (ruled c. 2630 - 2611 BC) at Saqqara

Pharaoh Djoser, like his predecessors, ordered the building of a Grand Mastaba, the work of which should finish before his death. Imhotep was given the responsibility of the construction. The Trusty Vizier had something new on his mind. A site was selected at Saqqara, in the Deltaic Lower Egypt -- some miles south of the Giza plateau. Saqqara was the cemetery of Memphis, the Old Kingdom Capital of Egypt. Under Imhotep's supervision, the workers built a 400 feet by 350 feet gigantic mastaba. Instead of mud-bricks, the layers were now laid with big chunks of stone. But Imhotep did not stop just by building a giant flat platform. To give the future tomb of Djoser a greater look, he had 3 more smaller mastaba-like mounds built over the original base mastaba -- each mastaba getting smaller with its higher level. After the initial construction, each of the four mastabas were broadened at the sides, and above them were built 2 more mounds of stone. Probably you can now imagine how it looked -- a pyramid with steps instead of a plain surface. This was the first pyramid of the world. Although we cannot call it a true pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Saqqara definitely started the Pyramid Age of Ancient Egypt. The 204-feet high Step Pyramid of Djoser can still be seen at Saqqara. This was the first notable stone structure that man built. On a stone stele set nearby, Imhotep's name in hieroglyphics shines immortally as the builder of the first stone mausoleum of the world. Imhotep was later on worshipped as a god of wisdom in Egypt, and he definitely deserved the honour!


The Step Pyramid of Saqqara today - with parts of the Pyramid Complex seen in the foreground

Under the base of the Step Pyramid, it's a mysterious world full of mazes and labyrinths. The underground corridors and galleries that run under the Pyramid are over 300 meters long, summed up. There are more than 400 underground chambers and numerous blind alleys. These contained offerings and necessities of the Afterlife, but their main purpose was to confuse the tomb-robbers. The mummy of Pharaoh Djoser was buried in a sarcophagus in a 90-feet deep pit under the Pyramid. Djoser literally 'rested in peace' in the sarcophagus, unlike many of his antecedents. During excavations, a foot and parts of an arm of his mummy was discovered -- it did not escape the decays through time, but at least was not destroyed by tomb-robbers.


The Saqqara Pyramid had no cementing between the stone chunks. After the building was complete, its steps were dressed with shiny white lime-stones. On moonlit nights, the pyramid probably looked no less breath-taking than Taj Mahal in the moonlight.


There are several other places in Egypt where small step pyramids have been found, which contained no burials. The datable ones belong to the reign of Sneferu (4th dynasty: ruled c. 2575 - 2551 BC). The exact purpose of these pyramids is still not known.


Pyramid Complex


Three-Dimensional Reconstruction of the Step Pyramid

Each pyramid was not a stand-alone structure. It was only the principal part of a huge complex called the 'Pyramid Complex'. Within this complex, there would be one or several subsidiary or secondary pyramids, mortuary temples, temples to deities, a court-yard, etc. Generally the pyramids used to have only one entrance -- in most cases it would be sealed. The whole complex would be surrounded by a stone-wall. Most of the complexes had at least one secondary pyramid -- probably for the purpose of burying the queen. The Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus in Greek) at Giza has three subsidiary pyramids. Several smaller models of the principal pyramid was found around the Great Pyramid. The Sphinx is a part of the Complex of the Khafre (Chephren in Greek) Pyramid at Giza.


This picture is a reconstruction of the Khafre Pyramid Complex at Giza, excluding the Sphinx and the Sphinx Temple. The view is from the East. The Mortuary Temple is on the Eastern side of the Pyramid. The Funerary Temple is in the Nile river valley. A causeway connects the two temples.

A Mortuary Temple was constructed on the east side of the Pyramid, dedicated to the deceased Pharaoh. From that temple, again, a stone-roofed causeway parallel to the Nile led to another temple in the river valley, called a 'Valley Temple' or 'Funerary Temple'. The mortuary temple was used for the ritual mummification of the Pharaoh. After being mummified, his body was placed in a full-sized boat (perhaps used originally to bring his body to the mortuary temple by the Nile). The boat was then pulled up to the mortuary temple through the closed causeway symbolizing the passage of the Pharaoh on the Heavenly Boat through the Underworld to the god Osiris. Around the Principal Pyramid, these large reed-boats were put into pits -- called 'Boat Pits'.  Last rites before entombment and yearly memorials were held in the funerary temple. The mummy was then taken from the mortuary temple into the pyramid for entombment. The remnants of these other structures can still be seen around Djoser's Step Pyramid.


The complex at Saqqara also contained a court-yard. It is thought that during his reign, the Pharaoh would demonstrate his prowess to his subjects by fighting against ferocious animals in this court-yard during the 'Sed Festival'. The Djoser complex in fact demonstrates a miniature city constructed so that the Pharaoh could work in the afterlife, just as he did in the worldly life.



Statue of Imhotep from the Late Period
Collected from Digital Egypt for Universities



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