The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt - The Primary Pyramid Structure

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt

Part III: The Primary Pyramid Structure

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>>Pyramid Index / Saqqara

An overall view of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt

The Great Step Pyramid of Djoser, which dominates his complex at Saqqara near Cairo in Egypt, has been thoroughly studied in recent decades. Unfortunately, its examination has created just about as many questions as answers. These investigations have shown that its construction plan was changed several times, and that the pyramid's current form is the result of a long process of development that included both experimentation and improvised elements. This pyramid is considered to be the evolutionary basis of all later pyramids in Egypt. Initially, the structure took the form of a mastaba (stage M1), which was gradually enlarged, first equally on all four sides (stage M2), and then only on the east side (stage M3). During this latter stage, the mastaba already had a step shape. However, the step-shaped mastaba was finally rebuilt in two stages, first as a four-step pyramid (stage P1) and finally as a six-step pyramid (stage P2). Note, however, that in its final state it no longer had a square base, but a rectangular

Cut-away drawing of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

one, oriented east-west. Also note that some scholars disagree on the construction stages of the pyramid. In building the pyramid, the masonry was laid not vertically but in courses inclined toward the middle of the pyramid, thus significantly increasing its structural stability. The basic material used was limestone blocks. What led the builders to transform the structure from a mastaba into a pyramid is still a matter of debate. Lauer, who was the main excavator of the site, suggested that Djoser's intentions were to make the royal tomb visible from the Nile Delta. He also thought that in its initial stage (M1), the mastaba did not belong to Djoser at all, but to his predecessor, Sanakht, though there is no solid evidence for this theory. In fact, many Egyptologists now believe that Sanakht was a successor to Djoser. Hartwig Altenmuller believed that the changes took place due to religious or ritual motivations. The shape certainly came to be a religious symbol in latter years. Czech astronomer Ladislav Krivsky believes that the builders of Djoser's tomb were inspired by the form of the rising and

Diagram of the substructure and the building stages of Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara

setting sun. In fact, from time to time and under specific conditions, an optical illusion is produced that gives the sun's disk the form of a step pyramid as it rises in the morning or sets in the evening. Of course, in these early years one of the principal gods to receive the worship of the Egyptians was Re, the sun god. It was Lauer who first noted that the original mastaba (stage M1) was actually square. Hence, the question arises as to whether the original stage of Djoser's tomb was actually intended to be a mastaba. Rainer Stadelmann suggested that, from the outset, the tomb was planned as a square-based pyramid. New research conducted by an American expedition in the "great enclosures" in Abydos has demonstrated that, in the middle of the grounds, which were surrounded by a perimeter wall, a small mound of sand was covered with mudbricks. This symbolized the site of creation to the Egyptians, the resurrection and eternal life. Drawing on this symbolism, the original phase of the construction of the step Pyramid probably represented a stylized primeval mound, which for the first time, was directly connected in this form architecturally with the royal tomb.

Diagram of the substructure of Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara

The original entrance for the Step Pyramid's substructure (upon completion) was a tunnel running along the north-south axis during the first stage (M1). It ran from the floor of the mortuary temple's western court north of the pyramid. At the beginning of this tunnel was a staircase, and at its end there was a diagonal shaft measuring some 7 meters (23 feet) square. The

upper part

The plug above the burial chamber

of this shaft originally sank through the whole superstructure from the roof terrace. Originally, a descending corridor was built joining the shaft from the north, which was probably used to remove waste from the shaft's construction. However, it was covered over during the expansion of the pyramid in stage P1. The tomb chamber was located on the floor of the shaft, at a depth of about twenty-eight meters, in the so-called granite chamber. Over the burial chamber's ceiling was a room that Lauer called the maneuvering chamber, because it was there that the pharaoh's mummy was prepared for interment. The mummy was then moved down through a round opening in the floor which was afterward closed with a granite block weighing about three tons. Soon after it was built, the burial chamber, made of pink granite blocks, may have undergone a complete transformation. In Lauer's opinion, the chamber was originally built only of limestone blocks and had a ceiling decorated with

stars. (Note that Mark Lehner, in his "The Complete

Ground Plan of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

Pyramids, claims that Lauer thought the original burial vault had alabaster walls and a pavement of diorite or schist.) During the reconstruction, the limestone blocks with the stars were removed, fragments of which were discovered in the surrounding area. However, Stadelmann disagrees with Lauer because a ceiling built of these small, limestone blocks measuring only about .52 meters long would not have been structurally sound and would have soon collapsed. In his view, the limestone blocks with the stars were used to close up the door and the opening in the floor of the so-called maneuvering chamber. In its final form, the burial chamber consisted of four courses of well-dressed granite blocks and measured some 1.6 by 2.9 meters in size. Its only opening was a cylindrical aperture towards the north end. Once the royal remains were laid to rest, the hole was blocked with a granite plug weighing 3.5 tons, with four grooves to guide the ropes used to lower it. Afterwards, the descending corridor was filled. Within the burial chamber, only minor bone fragments were found, and it is not clear whether they actually came from Djoser's mummy. In fact, recent radiocarbon dating shows them to be many centuries younger than Djoser. However, northwest of the burial chamber, in a small

Vew of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt - Photo by Diaa Kialil

corridor that thieves later destroyed down to its stone floor, a wooden chest was discovered bearing Djoser's Horus name, Netjerikhet. A complicated system of rooms and corridors surround the burial chamber, making up a genuine labyrinth, which Lauer investigated during the 1930s, though not in every detail. In fact, it is very difficult to ascertain what was a part of the original, unfinished construction project, and what was the work of later thieves. In immediate proximity to all four sides of the burial chamber are four galleries, which are connected with each other by corridors. Some of these subterranean areas were never completed. Zahi Hawass, now chairman of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), estimated that the total length of the corridors beneath the pyramid measure some 5635 meters in total length. A stairway from the descending corridor took a series of turns and corridors, ending in an eastern chamber. Here, rows of blue faience tiles with raised bands of limestone simulated a reed-mat structure. Blue evokes the watery association of ancient Egypt's netherworld. The decoration was organized into six panels. Three on the north side were topped by an arch

Vew of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt, a crumbling corner

supported by simulated djed pillars. One contained a real doorway. Significantly, considering the lack of decoration of later pyramids, in this east gallery three southern panels framed false doors made of limestone, on which the ruler is twice depicted walking, wearing a red or white crown, and once standing, wearing the white crown. This last image is accompanied by the royal names and the emblems of the gods Anubis and Horus of Behdet. This chamber was never finished. The builders left the east wall roughly hacked from the rock, and the decorators seem to have finished in a hurry. All four walls of two further chambers were covered with the blue tile inlay and the doorways were framed with Djoser's name. Collectively, these rooms are sometimes referred to as the "blue chambers". Many Egyptologists believe that the furnishing and decoration of these underground rooms were inspired by the real royal palace in Memphis. The bas-reliefs on the false doors are believed to refer to the ceremonies of the sed-festival, or an earlier version of that tradition. During the second stage of construction (M2), eleven shafts approximately thirty meters deep were dug along the east facade of the tomb, which communicated with interconnected galleries to the west. These were probably intended for the wives and children of the king. In fact, the gallery that ran out of the fifth shaft (numbered from north to south) was found to contain an empty alabaster sarcophagus, and at the end of the shaft, a smaller wooden coffin with the body of a boy who died between the age of eight and ten years of age. Next to it lay two vessels decorated with gold leaf and carnelian coral. Other fragments of alabaster sarcophagi were discovered in the first and second shafts, while in the third a seal imprint bearing the name of

Sample of the vessels found in the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

Netjerikhet was discovered. The third gallery widened into a room, cased with fine limestone where the hip-bone of a girl of about 18 years of age was found. Yet, perhaps the greatest surprise for archaeologists was waiting in the other shafts, particularly in the sixth and seventh, where they discovered some forty thousand stone vessels of varied forms and materials. Many of them were made of alabaster, diorite, limestone and slate. Some were polished, faceted or fluted, while others bore inscriptions, engraved or painted in colors, with both royal and non-royal names. These included the names of 1st and 2nd Dynasty rulers, including Nar(mer), Djer, Den, Adjib, Semerkhet, Kaa, Hetepsekhemwy, Ninetjer, Sekhemib and Khasekhemwy. Of course, such a find immediately lunched a debate among scholars. Lauer believed that the vessels were originally from the furnishings of royal tombs of the Early Dynastic period which were destroyed by the penultimate ruler, Peribsen, of the 2nd Dynasty. Afterwards, Djoser gave them a reverent final resting place in the substructure of his pyramid. Helck believed that the vessels came from the temple storehouses and, though he provided no

Sample of the vessels found in the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

reason why Djoser would have piled them up in his tomb complex. Stadelmann thinks that Djoser had the damaged tombs of the Early Dynastic Period Kings near his own tomb restored, and the broken vessels dumped in his substructure for safe keeping. Finally, Donald Redford thinks that in making preparations for the construction of his own tomb, Djoser must have had to remove a whole series of previous tombs built by his predecessors. Hence, he kept their furnishings, the vessels, and reverently had them buried in his own tomb in order to show his respect for the past. Of course, if Djoser were to have destroyed a whole series of his predecessor's tombs, the act in itself would have not shown much reverence, and there is no evidence of such tombs from the Old Kingdom being destroyed. Many questions regarding these vessels remain. For example, if these vessels originated as funerary equipment in older tombs, why rebury only the vessels and not the other funerary good. Furthermore, why would the find include items belonging to rulers who were not even buried at Saqqara. At any rate, these items were deposited during the second stage of construction (M2), and the shafts were sealed by the construction carried out in the third stage (M3). In its final form, the Step Pyramid of Djoser rose to a height of about 62.5 meters with a ground plan measuring 121 by 109 meters, with an outer casing of fine Tura limestone. Back Home Next See Also:






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