The Step Pyramid of Djoser: History and Major Facts
Egypt’s oldest known stone pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser to this day remains one of the most spectacular archaeological structures in the world. Built about 4,700 years ago, the Step Pyramid of Djoser is generally regarded by archaeologists as the first pyramid the ancient Egyptians built. Although it may not be as spectacular as the pyramids in the Giza complex, this 203-foot ancient structure surely packs a punch in terms of the sheer ingenuity that went into its construction.
Aside from being the oldest-known pyramid in Egypt, what else makes the Step Pyramid of Djoser so important and enchanting? Furthermore, why and how was the pyramid built in the first place? Whose idea was it to build the Step Pyramid of Djoser? Finally, what are the major myths surrounding the Djoser’s Pyramid?
Purpose of the Step Pyramid
The fascinating thing about the Step Pyramid in Egypt is that it served as a blueprint for the development of other pyramids in the region.
Archaeologists estimate that the pyramid was built about 4,700 years ago – the 27th century BC – during Pharaoh Djoser’s reign. Djoser was a powerful Egyptian king who reigned during the 3rd dynasty (c. 2650-c.2575 BC) of ancient Egypt.
The pyramid was purposefully sited at an imposing location in Saqqara; the structure was also made to tower over everything in the city of Memphis.
The rationale behind the Step Pyramid was for it to serve as the burial structure of Djoser. It was an improvement in burial structures ancient Egyptians were familiar with at the time. Prior to the step pyramid, kings and other royal members were buried in chambers called mastaba – a flat rectangular structure composed primarily of dried clay brick with sloping sides.
In the case of the Step Pyramid, the goal was to stack several mastaba tombs on top of one another in order to create a majestic look never seen before. The ancient Egyptians of that era believed that the grander the burial structure the easier it is for the deceased pharaoh to make his/her way into the afterlife, where he would be reincarnated as the god Osiris.
Who Built the Step Pyramid?
Wanting to stand tall and above his predecessors, Egypt’s ruler Djoser tasked his royal vizier and most-trusted adviser Imhotep to build him a structure fit for a god on earth.
It is unclear exactly whose idea it was, but many archaeologists reason that the vizier and renowned Egyptian architect Imhotep was the one who came up with the design of the first Egyptian pyramid.
Owing to his vast knowledge in several disciplines, including architecture, medicine, and arts, Imhotep was one of the most influential members of the royal court of Djoser. In addition to the pyramid complex at Saqqara, Imhotep is believed to have designed and constructed a number of structures throughout the city of Memphis.
How important was Imhotep in the construction of the Step Pyramid?
Perhaps owing to the magnificent nature of the Step Pyramid, Imhotep was elevated to a god after his death. Later Egyptian dynasties believed that he was directly touched by the creator-god Ptah himself. Some even believed that Imhotep was the son of Ptah; hence his worship by subsequent ancient Egyptian generations.
To show his appreciation to his very hardworking and trusted vizier Imhotep, Djoser decided to immortalize Imhotep’s name on the complex. It is thought that Djoser was so pleased with the magnificent complex and the pyramid itself that he instructed the builders to sculpt Imhotep’s name on the monument. It was very rare for pharaohs to share the glory of their burial place with another individual.
Why was Djoser’s Pyramid built at Saqqara?
Imhotep and the various architects that worked on the project purposely chose Saqqara (Ṣaqqārah) because the site overlooked the capital city Memphis.
In the ancient times, it was absolutely important that a dead pharaoh be buried in a structure that sets him/her apart from any human being on earth. As a result, strict mummification and burial protocols were followed at all times. Failure to do so meant that the pharaoh would not make his/her way into the afterlife to take his/her rightful throne in the afterlife. Were such event to occur, the entire universe could be plunged into chaos (Apep).
Note: Djoser’s pyramid can be found in the necropolis of Saqqara, which is about 30 kilometers south of the Egyptian capital Cairo. It was sited on the west bank of the Nile River.
Dimensions and structure of the Pyramid of Djoser
To signify how important and revered a pharaoh Djoser was, the builders constructed the pyramid at the center of the complex. This was to symbolize the unique position Djoser held in the world. So how was the pyramid built?
Construction of the pyramid is believed to have gone through several stages over several years. It also took a significant number of workers to erect the pyramid.
The builders first started by building a square mastaba tomb. Subsequently, they built five more mastaba tombs on top of the ground mastaba. These mastabas rose in diminishing order as they approached the top. This feature symbolized the king’s ascent to the heavens (i.e. sky) where he would take up his throne as the lord of the afterlife.
How tall is the Step Pyramid of Djoser?
From the base to the top, the height of the pyramid stands at around 203 feet. It has been estimated that at least 11.5 million cubic feet of stone and clay went into the structure. As at the time of its completion, the structure was undoubtedly the tallest man-made structure in the world.
The Pyramid Complex
The complex of the pyramid itself is surrounded by a 30-foot limestone wall with 13 fake doorways. Within the complex are a number of structures such as shrines, courtyards, temples and tombs for other royal members.
To the north of the pyramid stands a temple. Around that temple is the statue of Djoser which in turn is surrounded by a stone structure called “serdab” (a cellar). The builders erected the great court south of the pyramid. In that court were magnificent altars and a number of well-designed stones.
All in all, the complex spans about 40 acres. To ward off intruders and tomb raiders, a trench of about 2,460 feet was placed around the 30-foot wall of the complex.
Other very glaringly obvious things are the complex chapels in the southeast and the north of the pyramid. The chapels were put up as a place where Djoser could perform rituals supposedly in the afterlife.
To the southeast of the complex stood a court built for Heb-Sed jubilee festival – a festival conducted to celebrate the pharaoh’s 30th year reign on the throne. And because the Egyptians believed that pharaoh’s reign continued into the afterlife, preparations had to be made to meet Djoser’s needs in the afterlife.
Burial chamber in the Pyramid of Djoser
Before getting to the Djoser’s burial chamber, one has to go through a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. The chamber is found at the center about 90-foot beneath the base of the pyramid. The builders opted for a granite burial chamber.
The underground tunnels are littered with about 40,000 stone vessels in varying shapes and designs. Many of those vessels have the names of past pharaohs and royal members sculpted on them. For example, there were vessels with the names of pharaohs such as Djer, Narmer, Semerkhet and Heterpsekhemwy. Many of those vessels were placed in the burial chamber in order to honor those pharaohs.
Importance of the Step Pyramid
The Step Pyramid of Djoser inspired an era of pyramid construction, including the famous Great Pyramids at Giza. That era came to be known as the Old Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. Also referred to as the “Age of the Pyramids”, the Old Kingdom spanned from the 27th century BC to the 22nd century BC.
The Pyramid of Djoser thus allows us to increase our understanding of pyramid construction and evolution over the millennia. It was a significant milestone in humanity’s experimentation with stone architecture on a large scale. It marks the point where the race of men ventured into revolutionary techniques in stone architecture.
To marvel at ancient structures like the Giza Pyramids is to marvel at the Step Pyramid of Giza – a structure which set the standard for all other future monumental buildings to follow.
Other Interesting Facts about the Step Pyramid
Here are 12 other interesting facts about Djoser Pyramid:
- The Step Pyramid of Djoser holds the record of being the world’s first large-scale stone monument.
- Beneath the pyramid lies a labyrinth of tunnels that total about 3.5 miles (5.5 kilometers) long.
- Pharaoh Djoser was actually called Netjerykhet. Owing to how far back in time the pharaoh reigned, not much is known about Djoser, his reign and his personality. What is known, however, is that Djoser regarded as the son of Khasekhemwy, the last ruler of the Second Dynasty of Egypt. His mother is believed to be queen Nimaathap. Djoser most likely had many wives; however, the most famous wife of his was most likely queen Hetphernepti. Some experts claim that Hetphernepti was also his half-sister. Mind you, marrying within the royal family was not uncommon back then.
- With his base in Memphis, Djoser most likely ruled Egypt for about two decades. Some historians claim that he ruled for a much longer period than twenty years, considering how immense his burial pyramid is.
- During the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BC), Egyptians believed that Pharaoh Djoser once saved the Egyptians from a harsh famine by renovating the temple of Khnum. It was believed that Khnum (the god of the Nile River) was pleased by Djoser’s efforts and rewarded the people of Egypt with a bountiful harvest, thereby ending the famine.
- Pharaoh Djoser was buried in the burial chamber of the Step Pyramid along with his eleven daughters.
- The life-sized statue of Djoser, located to the north of the pyramid, was intended to serve as host of the ba – one of the nine parts of the soul. Egyptians believed that the ba, which was shaped like a bird, needed a material object, distinct only to the deceased individual, so that it could fly into the object during its earthly visits. This was very important because it allowed the soul to properly live a worthwhile life of bliss in the afterlife.
- To the north of the pyramid stands a temple. Around that temple is the statue of Djoser which in turn is surrounded by a stone structure called “serdab” (a cellar). The builders erected the great court south of the pyramid. In that court were magnificent altars and a number of well-designed stones.
- Within the complex are temples with the Djed pillars which symbolize stability. The djed pillar is one of the most important symbols of the creator god Ptah. The ancient Egyptians believed that every pharaoh needed high doses of stability in order to properly rule and keep the forces of chaos out of the land.
- In spite of the extremely complex tunnels and labyrinth used in the burial chamber of Djoser, grave robbers were still able to make away with majority of the items stored in there. Djoser’s mummified remains were even stolen.
- In a bid to prevent the tunnels within the pyramid from collapsing, authorities embarked on a massive conservation exercise. The conservation was done with assistance from a host of international engineering companies. After fourteen years of a $6.6 million-dollar restoration work, the 4,700-year-old structure was reopened in March, 2020.
- The Djoser Pyramid, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracts several thousands of visitors each year.