The South and North Pavilions, the Sed Festival Complex and the Temple "T" in the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser At Saqqara in Egypt

Egypt Feature Story

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt

Part IV: The South and North Pavilions,

The Sed Festival Complex and the Temple "T"

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>> Pyramid Index / Saqqara

The ruins of Temple

Temple "T" To the west of the Sed Festival Complex in the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara, and adjacent to the Great Southern Court is the so called "T" Temple, which owes its name to Lauer's working identification of it as "T", and not to its shape. Like other buildings in the Djoser complex, it too uses the old, Early Dynastic Period construction method for mudbrick architecture expressed in its stone block composition. The temple, which could also be entered from the south and the east, consisted of an entry colonnade, an antechamber, three inner courtyards and a square room. Here, the columns were functional, supporting entirely the heavy limestone slabs in the ceiling without additional reinforcement. On the north wall of the square room were niches framed by delicately carved, fluted pilasters and topped by a frieze with the hieroglyphic symbols for djed ("endure"). There may also have been statues of the king in this room within the niches.

Reconstruction of Temple

Except for a torus molding on the South face, this building's exterior was undecorated. On the East side of this building, there was a dummy stone door in half-open position.

Also, like many of the other structures in the complex, this building is also the subject of debate among Egyptologists and scholars. Ricke believed that it was a "royal pavilion" and like Firth, thought that it served as a symbolic resting place for the king and as a place for changing clothes during the ritual of the Sed Festival. Stadelmann saw it as a prototype of the later so-called temple palaces in the mortuary temples of the New Kingdom.

The Sed Festival Court

The unique curved wall in the pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara

Just to the north of Temple "T" and parallel to the great southern courtyard is the Sed Festival complex, with an overall area that is rectangular in form. The exact meaning of the word sed is not known, and in reality, not much is actually known about the celebration itself, which is generally seen as a ritual involving the king's accession to the throne and a ceremony of renewal intended to strengthen the ruler's power. This region of the Djoser complex is filled with symbolic buildings, having no real internal structure, to which a narrow passageway led, turning north right after the beginning of the entry colonnade. It can also be accessed from the South court, passing the Temple "T" and a carved wall, which is a unique feature in ancient Egyptian architecture. It should be noted that no inscriptions have been found to inform us of the purpose of this court, or even its name. Its modern day name, Sed Festival Court, is based on what it believed to have been this court's function.

Symbolic chapels on the west side of the Sed Festival Court at the pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara

An open courtyard makes up the core of the Sed Festival complex. Its east and west sides were each initially flanked by a row of chapels. Actually, there were three different types of chapels here, each preceded by a small court. A stone imitation of an open wooden door provided access to these courts.

The smooth facades of the twelve chapels on the east side were framed by half-round molding, and they were roofed with arched vaults. The chapels, built high and relatively narrow, each contained a niche in front which in turned held a statue. The model for this architectural element was the Lower Egyptian chapel type known as "per nu", which was originally built of mudbricks, wood, reeds and straw. There remains today three unfinished limestone Osirian statues of the king still standing on the east side of the courtyard. Two of these chapels have been reconstructed at the North side of the court.

The three styles of chapels in Djoser's Sed Festival Court

On the west side stood thirteen chapels with two styles of facades. One type is referred to as the "Hall of God" style (seh netjer), with a facade surrounded along the sides by half-round moldings. The roof of these chapels is flat, topped with an imitation in stone of palm-tree leaves sticking up and out of the building. This would become a template for many other Ancient Egyptian buildings.

The "Great House" type (per uer) represented the Upper Egyptian shrine, which originally consisted of a light, wood-frame structure over which matting was attached. The facade was adorned with a group of three fluted half-columns, which imitated the plant herculaneum giganteum, including its dried flower petals. These capitals were unique in the history of Egyptian architecture. Their cubic abacus is flanked by a depiction of two leaves and has a cylindrical hole used to hold a baton that bore divine or royal insignia. However, these attached columns, little more than highly raised reliefs, have no actual supporting function. A corniche, "supported" by two dummy pillars at the corners of the faade, followed the curve of the roof. The upper edge of the facade took the form of an arched vault. Just as on the east side, each chapel had a niche for a statue, which was accessible by a low ramp. Some chapels had imitation doors, which could be reached by narrow staircases. Only a couple of chapels on the West and East side of the court have been fully restored. The others have been reconstructed to a certain height, revealing their inner cores.


On the north end of the western row of chapels a group of four statues originally stood, of which only the pedestals survive. On the right are two larger pedestals, while on the left are two smaller ones. They are usually thought to represent Djoser, his possible mother, Nimaathap, and his wife and daughter, Hetephernebti and Inetkaus, respectively.

At the south end of the courtyard was an elevated platform on which the king's throne stood under a baldachin during the ceremonies. It was here that the ruler was symbolically crowned. It has two separate flights of stairs, one in the south and the other in the north, near the court's entrance.

A small building, aligned north-south, stood in the southwest part of the Sed Festival complex. We still do not know its function, so it is simply referred to as the Small Temple. It also contained small, fluted half-columns. A corridor, whose arched shape repeats that of the southwest corner, provided access to this building from the coronation platform. Almost certainly, here as well the architect was influenced by the construction methods of the Early Dynasty Period. The curve is modeled on either woven mats or mudbrick masonry.

Chapels on the East side of the Sed Festival Court of Djoser in his Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara, Egypt

Lauer believed that the subject of the Sed Festival later ceased to be expressed by this architecture, which was replaced instead by bas-reliefs in the mortuary temple and the sun temple. Arnold follows Ricke in seeing the complex as a prototype of a special room with images of the sed festival, which has been shown to have existed in the pyramid temples from the end of the 5th Dynasty on. This chamber has come to be called the antichambre carree (square antechamber). Stadelmann, based on Werner Kaiser's archaeological analysis of the construction of the complex, maintains that this room is not merely a structure symbolizing the sed festival, but is rather part of a more comprehensive scene of burial rituals. Seen from a functional point of view, the sed festival complex is close to the open statue courtyards of later pyramid temples from the 4th to the 6th Dynasties.

Reconstruction of Southern Pavilion in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara in Egypt (per Lauer)

The Pavilions of the North and South

East of the Mortuary temple is the North Pavilion, and just to the south of it is the South Pavilion. Neither of the pavilions are linked to the other. The southern building is thought to have been shaped like the predynastic shrine of the vulture goddess Nekhbet in Hierakonpolis, while the northern one is thought to represent the archaic shrine of Wadjet from Buto.

A number of theories exist as to the significance of these two elements in the overall complex of Djoser. Lepsius thought that they were actually pyramids, and numbered them 33 and 34 accordingly. Firth, on the other hand, saw in them the tombs of the princesses Hetephernebti and Inetkaus, while Ricke thought them to be symbolic royal administrative residences of upper and Lower Egypt.

Lauer, the main excavator of the site, had a similar view to Ricke, and it is his opinion that is currently most widely accepted by Egyptologists. He thought that the pavilions symbolized the northern and southern parts of a united Egypt. After the ceremonies connected with the king's symbolic ascent to the throne, his ka, or soul, was supposed to go there in order to receive his subordinates from Upper and Lower Egypt. As is the case with the chapels in the Sed Festival Court, the interior of both pavilions is mostly solid. However, here, there was some limited internal structure. Both buildings have an asymmetrically placed entrance near the center of their front face. After two right turns, a narrow passage leads to some niches in the walls, that were probably intended to house statues.

Remains of the Southern Pavilion in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara in Egypt

The ceilings of these passages were carved to resemble the wooden logs that would have served as roofs in wooden and mudbrick buildings, a feature that can be found throughout the complex.

Fluted columns in the courtyard of the Northern Pavilion in the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser

Recent research has also revealed that both pavilions were probably partially buried almost immediately after they had been built. This may perhaps have been intended to send these buildings into the Netherworld, where the king too would reside after his death.

Part of the southern complex consists of an extensive courtyard accessible from the Sed Festival complex, as well as from the courtyard along the pyramid's east side. An altar with a base in the form of a capital letter D, is situated in the southwest corner of the courtyard. The east and south sides of the courtyard were decorated with niches. In the northeast part of the courtyard is the opening for a shaft that descends some twenty-five meters deep. Firth unearthed a considerable volume of charred papyri in the courtyard, leading him to suggest that, in later times, the whole Saqqara necropolis was administered from this location.

Ground Plan of the Eastern Section of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt

The ruins of the south pavilion, located on the north side of the courtyard, are indeed impressive. This structure, discovered in 1924, has been completely restored, including the blocks found in the opposite courtyard. Lauer provided us with the identity and a reconstruction of this symbolic structure. It was constructed to simulate a the wood-frame and matting method in stone, with a slightly arched roof partially supported by four, engaged fluted half-columns. These columns were probably painted red, with black bases, and were supposed to represent cedar tree trunks. Above the entrance to the chapel ran a continuous frieze with hieroglyphic symbols for kheker ("decorate", "ornament"). Their model can be seen on the upper border, a colorful mat that in the Early Dynastic Period decorated building's facades. At both sides of the facade, a dummy pillar "supported" a corniche that followed the curve of the roofs. These pillars did not have a true supporting function but were a copy in stone of the wooden beams that were used to mark the corners in wooden buildings.

18th and 19th Dynasty graffiti in the Southern Pavilion in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara in Egypt

18th and 19th Dynasty graffiti in the Southern Pavilion in the
Djoser Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara in Egypt

Shaped like a letter L, the small chapel has at its end a sanctuary with a cruciform floor plan and three niches. Its wall are inscribed with visitors' graffiti from the 18th and 19th Dynasties, and include those of the treasury scribe Hednakht and the vizier's scribe, Panakht. These graffiti are actually of considerable historical importance, for they refer, for the first time, to Djoser as the owner of the complex and they also show that the structures were still in relatively good condition at that time.

Ruins of the Northern Pavilion in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara in Egypt

The ground plan of the north pavilion is similar in many respects to that of the south pavilion, though the courtyard is smaller, has no niches and there was no altar found in this area. There is, however, a shaft in its floor that descends for twenty meters before leading into an underground gallery. Notably, on the east wall of this courtyard stand three papyrus half-columns, which are the oldest known examples of their kind. Of course, the papyrus was the symbolic plant of Lower, or Northern Egypt. Neither the facade of the north pavilion or the little chapel in it differ much from their counterparts in the south pavilion.

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Reference Number

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Thames and Hudson, Ltd

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Last Updated: June 13th, 2011