The Mortuary Temple, Serdab, Northern Courtyard and the West Mounds of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, Egypt

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt

Part V: The Mortuary Temple, Serdab,

Northern Courtyard and the West Mounds

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>>Pyramid Index / Saqqara

Ground Plan of the northern part of the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara

The area north of the Pyramid proper at the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara appears to be the least investigated.

At the foot of the north wall of the Step Pyramid is situated the imposing mortuary temple of the ruler, where his cult was celebrated. It is from here that the lower chambers of the pyramid are accessed. It may not have always been in its current position. It may have been moved north as the pyramid of Djoser was expanded.

The temple's longer axis is oriented east- west. The main entrance of this building, which has a floor that is slightly elevated in comparison to the surrounding buildings, was in the southeastern section. The entrance doorway had a door of stone that was made to imitate an open wooden door, a feature that can be found in other places throughout the complex. The complex included two courtyards on the east and west that were accessed by a long corridor from the entrance. From the Western court, a staircase ran down towards the Pyramid's substructure. Three gangways in the South wall of each court gave access to a wide gallery, running from East to West. Short walls, supporting two columns, separating the gangways from each other. These columns, like the others in this complex, did not have a supporting function and are probably a rendering in stone of the columns used to support the roofs in wooden and mudbrick buildings. To the West of the two open courts, two more chambers can be discerned. Each chamber had a stone basin in its floor. Other elements probably symbolizing Upper and Lower Egypt. The inner, secluded part of the temple, which was adjacent to the pyramid, was entered through two double-columned porticos. Within, there were false doors so that the deceased could claim his offerings, and a cult statue of the king.

View of the Remains of the Mortuary Temple of the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara

It is interesting to note that, while this funerary temple is on the north side of the pyramid, later temples were located to the east.At this early point in time, the funerary cult was still focused on the northern stars, where the deceased king was believed to take his place.

View of the engaged columns the Mortuary Temple of the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara

It is difficult to reconstruct the layout and meaning of the individual parts of the temple because of the confusing complex of rooms, corridors and courtyards, which differ considerably from other similar structures built in the preceding and following eras. It is also possible that the temple was originally intended to be much larger, but for unknown reasons such as the ruler's premature death, was scaled back in size.

Ground Plan of the Mortuary Temple of the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara

Among the noteworthy archaeological discoveries made in the mortuary temple grounds are clay sealings belonging to a priest of the goddess Neith, which bear the name of King Sanakht.

Between the mortuary temple and the north pavilion is an extensive area known as the serdab courtyard, because of the small structure that stands near the entrance to the mortuary temple and against the northern wall of the pyramid. Here, the serdab, which is Arabic for cellar, consists of a small, enclosed chamber in which the north wall has a pair of round observation holes. The ancient Egyptians believed that through them, the statue of Djoser sitting on a throne could gaze out onto the forecourt and observe the rituals that were performed there. The serdab itself was dressed entirely in fine limestone and its front wall inclined by 16 degrees, the same inclination as the lowest step of the Pyramid. A small enclosure was erected in front of the serdab, with two entrances. As with the entrance to the mortuary temple, the main entrance, located in the North of the enclosure, is adorned with a door of stone that imitates an open wooden door.

A view of the  Serdab north of the Step Pyramid of Djoser

The life-size, partly damaged, limestone statue of Djoser that was once housed here is now in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo. This statue depicts Djoser wearing a close fitting mantle and a long, tripartite wig, together with the crown known as nemes. It very much radiates a feeling of great royal grandeur. Today, a replica statue occupies the serdab. There were a few other fragments, apparently of a statue that might have been similar to that found in the serdab, found in the mortuary temple grounds. Some Egyptologists have questioned whether perhaps a second serdab was located at the temple.

A view of the inside of the Serdab with the replacement statue of Djoser

There was also found in the serdab courtyard many fragments of so-called boundary stelae that resemble those of the south courtyard. They probably marked the initial boundary of the royal tomb and were removed when it was extended and reconstructed.

North of the mortuary temple and the serdab courtyard is the north courtyard, which covers almost a third of the entire Djoser complex. This area has not yet been carefully investigated. However, in the northern part of these grounds, symbolic storehouses were found with round openings in their roofs through which grain was poured. There was also a group of chapels that are reminiscent of the buildings in the sed festival courtyard. On the northern edge of the complex, along its north-south axis, from the inner wall of the northern wing of the enclosure wall, is a raised platform accessed by a stairway ramp. Above, on the platform, there is a depression measuring about eight meters square and a few centimeters deep. This enigmatic structure has led to an interesting and still unconcluded debate among Egyptologists.

The statue of Djoser originally discovered in the Serdab and now in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo

Stadelmann, based on a short cursive inscription that reads, seket re (decline of Re), on an ostracon found not far away, thought that this was the site of a sun temple. Altenmuller, on the other hand, believes that an obelisk originally stood in this spot which was symbolic of the revered stone fetish in Heliopolis known as the benben. This is not altogether opposed to Stadelmann's theory. He bases his theory on the fact that Imhotep, the builder of Djoser's Step Pyramid, was also the high priest at Heliopolis. However, it must be noted that no fragments have been recovered of any obelisk on the grounds of Djoser's complex. In fact, a subsequent analysis of the inscription that Stadelmann based his theory on revealed that it bore not the name of a sun temple, but that of a pavilion connected with the sed festival. Others have believed this to be a stage, or podium which would have held a canopy with two thrones for the ceremonies of Djoser.

Zahi Hawass, in "The Treasures of the Pyramids", seems to believe that the structure was only used for offering purposes, and was linked with the northern part of the enclosure. It should be noted that the structure is shaped like the hieroglyph for offering. He points out that it resembles the small projection of Mastaba IV at Abusir, which dates to the reign of Den. Today, it is sometimes referred to as the North Altar.

View of the North Altar in the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara

For now, the question of the raised platform remains unanswered, and will probably have to await more extensive investigations of these grounds. Undoubtedly, excavations in this area will produce some interesting and possibly unexpected findings. Already, soundings in the Northern Courtyard have revealed so-called stairway tombs that are older than the complex itself. Also, it is interesting that Mariette discovered, near the previously mentioned platform, the Lion Altar, which Borchardt dated to the 2nd Dynasty.

To the west of the pyramid lying all along the western perimeter wall are the west mounds. There are three of these, but the westernmost and largest of them is about 400 meters long, 25 meters wide and 5 meters high. In its northern segment, the remains of a brick structure were unearthed. Lauer, the principal excavator of the site, believes that it was the lodging of the mater builder of the complex. The easternmost and lowest mound is immediately adjacent to the Step Pyramid.

The Lion Altar  unearthed by Mariette near the North Altar

Once again, the investigation of the west mounds is not yet complete, but excavations here have shown that there are no chambers in their superstructures. Besides size, the mounds also differ from each other in appearance. Lauer thought the easternmost had a flat roof, whereas the middle one had a gentle arched roof. The slightly inclined side walls were decorated with niches, while five shafts and staircases provided access to the substructure, which is composed of long, partly destroyed corridors and projecting side chambers. In some sections, a large number of fragments of stone vessels were found, together with grains (barley and wheat) and dried fruit.

View of the West  Mounds

More investigation of these structures is needed. Lauer thought that Djoser's servants were buried here, while Stadelmann though that it was composed of older structures from the 2nd Dynasty incorporated into the complex. However, Stadelmann was almost certainly wrong. For one thing, the superstructure's masonry is probably made up of waste material from the Pyramid complex. Also, the west mounds lean on the Step Pyramid, suggesting that they were built at a later date.

Most Egyptologists currently seem to believe that this was a storage area more than anything else, which would explain the pottery fragments and grain found in the substructure.

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Reference Number

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Thames and Hudson, Ltd

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