The Trench and Perimeter Wall, the South Courtyard and South Tomb of the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex At Saqqara in Egypt

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt

Part II: The Trench and Perimeter Wall,

the South Courtyard, And South Tomb

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>>Pyramid Index / Saqqara

The Great Trench

The Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt was not only bounded by a monumental perimeter wall of limestone, but was also completely surrounded by an enormous trench measuring some 750 meters long by 40 meters wide. This trench, which was originally carved out of the underlying rock, is now covered up with sand and rubble, but it remains clearly visible in aerial photographs and in photogrammetric maps of Saqqara. The trench, which is actually the largest structure of its kind at Saqqara, resembles the hieroglyphic sign for h, "ground plan for a house.", forming a rectangle that is oriented north-south.

A nice overall view of the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex including the pyramid and entrance of the enclosure wall

The southern segment is shorter, but in some parts it is doubled into two trenches with offset openings, making access to the true perimeter wall of the Djoser complex more difficult. Therefore, a single entrance to the whole complex from the south was probably created near the southeast corner.

The entrance colonnade in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex

The southern section of the trench was investigated by Selim Hassan, Zaki Saad and Ahmad Musa, all Egyptian archaeologists. Their study of the structure reveals that the walls of the trench were originally decorated with niches. Another Egyptian archaeologists, Nabil Swelim, thinks that the ancient Egyptians believed that these niches were the place where the spirits of the courtiers and magnates came out of the trench in order to serve the pharaoh after their deaths. However, this view is obviously based on the secondary tombs near the early royal burials in Abydos, in which, according to some Egyptologists, ritually killed servants were buried after the ruler's death. Nothing like this has been found at Saqqara, at least in the neighborhood of the Djoser complex. The builders of the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser may have been influenced by a water canal that surrounded the royal palace in Memphis. Though we believe that the trenches were intended to make entry into the complex more difficult, it should also be noted that an enormous volume of underlying stone had to be cut away during the digging of the trenches, and this material has never been found. Miroslav Verner, well known for his work at Saqqara, suggests that the material could have been used in the construction of the Step Pyramid itself, and speculates that the protective and religious functions of the Great Trench might only be secondary to a quarry operation. However, this seems somewhat odd, considering the effort made to cut niches into its sides.

The Perimeter Wall

Plan of the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex

The Perimeter Wall of the Djoser's complex is one of its best known features. It stood 10.5 meters high and was 1,645 meters long, covering an area of about 15 ha. The longer sides of the wall faced the East and the West. It was composed of a thick inner core of roughly laid masonry, encased entirely on the outside and partially on the inside with fine limestone. The outer surface of the wall, modeled on woven mats, is decorated with niches and fifteen doorways, not quite equally distributed, around the complex. However, fourteen of the doors are false, while only one on the east facade near the southeast corner is a true entrance. There are also bastions protruding from the wall every four meters, with the exception of those that contain the doorways, which are larger. The latter include five bastions on the east wall, three on the north wall, four on the west wall and

three on the south wall.

The Perimeter Wall of the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex at the entrance to the complex

Some Egyptologists believe that the decorative motif imitates a wooden-framed structure covered with mats, while others see in it a Mesopotamian influence. In ancient Egypt, niches often marked the places where sacrifices were brought to the spirit of the deceased. In reality, the alternating projections and recesses in the wall are different than those of the enclosure walls of the 2nd Dynasty at Abydos, but this arrangement can be found in the 1st Dynasty mastabas located somewhat to the North of the Step Pyramid complex. Hence, the design is sometimes thought to have originated in the Memphite region. Lauer believed that the perimeter wall was modeled on the earthly royal residence, the White Walls, and in fact the decoration has been frequently referred to as a palace facade. However, this view is somewhat contradicted by the large number of doors.

Hermann Kees thought that the fifteen doors were connected with the sed festival and referred to half the lunar month as the period for the ceremonies.

Another View of the Perimeter Wall of the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex near the entrance to the complex

This motif is found on other monuments, probably directly inspired by Djoser's complex. For example, it can be found on the perimeter wall of Senusret III's pyramid complex in Dashshur and on the sides of his sarcophagus. Symbolically, the number fourteen could also, for example, represent the fourteen kas of the sun god, Re. The dead body of Osiris was also cut into fourteen pieces by his evil brother Seth. However, what these doorways represent remains a mystery. Others think that the enclosure wall is a model of a Lower Egyptian palace of mud brick from the Archaic Period, and in fact, the stone blocks of this impressive wall are the same size as the mud bricks of the Archaic Period.

The Entrance Colonnade

The entrance colonnade in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex

The single entry to Djoser's complex and the adjoining parts of the perimeter wall took some ten years, between 1946 and 1956, to reconstruct. A thorough investigation of the columned hall has shown that it was not built all at once, but in stages. It is characterized by some structural peculiarities. For example, its longer axis is not exactly oriented east-west, but is angled slightly to the southwest, and its outer walls are slightly inclined. The entry colonnade was apparently built along the old, "oblique" building that had at some time in the past stood in the southeast corner of the complex. This older building in fact owes its name to the fact that, in contrast to the other buildings in the complex, it was not aligned precisely with the four cardinal points.

The entrance colonnade in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex as seen from the South Court

Wolfgang Helck thought that the entrance colonnade was, as he termed it, a statue palace, in which the ruler's statue was originally housed. Erected during the king's lifetime, it represented the deceased pharaoh in the guise of the Great White, a kind of baboon. The task of erecting the statue and conducting the resurrection ritual was given to the ruler's heir, who was therefore supposed to play the role of the future king. Helck based his view at least in part on fragments of stone statues that were unearthed by Firth. The torso of a statue of a king, and the base of Djoser's statue now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, together with lions' heads and two busts of captive enemies of Egypt were found in the entrance hall. On the statues, alongside religious symbols, were the remains of an inscription that, besides Djoser's Horus name and his titles, also provided the name of Imhotep, which has led some Egyptologists to believe that this high priest of the temple of the sun in Heliopolis, leading royal architect and builder of this step pyramid, was also Djoser's son. However, this raises several questions. Imhotep appears to have outlived Djoser, but never became king, so if he was a son, he was apparently not Djoser's heir.

The entrance colonnade in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex with its modern Roof

On the other hand, Hans Goedicke thought that the structural arrangement of the hall reflects a symbolic conception of the court of judgment. The side chambers between the columns would be reserved for two enneads as judges, presiding over the ruler. Today, the entrance section consists of a corridor with a limestone ceiling made to look as though it were made from whole tree trunks, a decorative motif that occurs throughout the complex. After these doors, is the passage into the interior of the complex, which consists of a long hall with twenty pairs (40 total) of limestone columns.The corridor is divided into two unequal parts between the twelfth and the thirteenth pair of columns. Today, the roof of the colonnade has been added by the restorers, and is somewhat higher than the original, allowing more light to enter this part of the building. At its termination, within a very large portal, stands a stone imitation of two open doors. Reaching a height of almost six meters, the columns in the colonnade were composed of drum shaped segments. However, they were not freestanding, but were rather connected with the side walls by masonry projections. At this early date, the architects obviously did not yet trust columns as sole supports, for the most part. The form of the columns is modeled on a bundle of plant stems. Lauer thought that a bundle of reeds might have been used in early times to support a light roof. However, Herbert Ricke, who was a respected German expert on ancient Egyptian architecture, thought that the columns imitated the ribs of palm fronds, which were used in early building projects to protect the fragile and exposed ends of walls made of mudbricks. He also thought that the columns were originally painted green.

The entrance colonnade in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex as seen from the South Court

Between the columns, on both sides, were twenty-four small chambers, which some Egyptologists believe represented chapels for each of the nomes (provinces) of Upper and Lower Egypt. However, there were no remains found in these chambers of decorations or sculptures that might have depicted the main gods or other motifs associated with the ancient Egyptian nomes. At the west end of this colonnade stood the so-called transverse vestibule, a chamber somewhat wider than the corridor, which was decorated with four similar attached columns about one meter shorter than those in the colonnade. The columns here have a diameter of one meter at the base of the shaft. Just below the abacus, they measure about.7 meters in diameter. These columns, after thousands of years, still show traces of red paint, perhaps to imitate the color of wood. Like those in the colonnade, they had no real supportive function.

The South Courtyard

The entry corridor ends with its columned vestibule into a large, open courtyard to the south of the Step Pyramid and north of the south wing of the perimeter wall. It measures some 180 meters by 100 meters. The walls around this court were dressed in fine limestone, parts of which still remain visible today. The recessed panels on this wall are similar to those on the outside of the enclosure wall, but on the inside of the complex, there are no protruding bastions.

The Great Southern Courtyard in the Djoser Step Pyramid Complex

This courtyard originally contained only a few buildings. In its northeast corner stood a small temple with three niches and a low limestone altar, which was attached to the south side of the Step Pyramid. This altar was accessed by a small ramp, in front of which a bull's head was found in a cavity lined with limestone.

About in the middle of the courtyard, there were two low, limestone buildings. They had a ground plan that resembled the capital letter, B. While their purpose is still hotly debated, because of their form, which reminds us of the half moon shaped objects on Narmer's stone mace, they have been associated with the king's symbolic royal stride around his palace during the sed festival.

Among the interesting archaeological discoveries made in the south courtyard was that of a limestone block with the remains of Khaemuase's restoration text. Khaemuase was a son of Ramesses II and the high priest of the temple of Ptah in Memphis. He is also known for his interest in the monuments of his royal ancestors in the Memphis necropolis. On many of these monuments, inscriptions evidence that the prince ordered damaged monuments to be repaired. In fact, his own monument erected near the Step Pyramid complex, which a Japanese expedition discovered only a few years ago, sits on a rocky rise west of the Serapeum at Saqqara.

The South Tomb

A chamber with bluish green faience within the South Tomb of the Djoser Complex at Saqqara

Another of the most well known, yet enigmatic structures in the whole Djoser complex is a low building in the southwest corner of the south courtyard. It is situated against the enclosure wall and immediately facing the entrance hall. This is the so-called South Tomb.

The south tomb has its own cult chapel, built to the north of the superstructure. Its exterior has niches over which a frieze of cobras protect the facility. It is topped by small drums, suggesting rolled reed mats. An entrance leads from the north into a small room. Lauer thought that a statue of the king once stood here, but Ricke believes that this was where the royal crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt were kept.

The substructure of the south tomb is entered through an ascending, tunnel corridor with a staircase. About halfway down this passage, a magazine measuring 18 by 1.6 meters was found to contain some large jars, that may have contained food offerings. On top of these, a wooden stretcher, a box and posts forming a baldachin had been left. About thirty meters into this corridor, at about the point where, if we projected the line of the Step Pyramid's north-south axis the corridor would cross it, an inclined shaft opens measuring about seven by seven meters. At the bottom of this shaft some 28 meters deep is a burial chamber of pink granite measuring 1.6 by 1.6 meters with a height of 1.3 meters. This chamber, though smaller, is almost an exact copy of the tomb under the Step Pyramid.

A chamber with bluish green faience within the South Tomb of the Djoser Complex at Saqqara

Also as in the Step Pyramid, there was even a maneuvering chamber. In fact, the descending corridor with the staircase continues west and leads to a gallery that imitates the subterranean blue chambers under the Step Pyramid, and here as well, were bluish green faience tiles and three false doors made of limestone. On these doors, the king was represented only walking while wearing the White Crown, but twice in a relaxed pose, wearing the Red Crown. Actually, the decorations in the subterranean levels of the south tomb, which are less complex than those beneath the Step Pyramid, are more perfect, less damaged and more detailed than that of the underground chambers of the Step Pyramid, which supports the idea that it was completed earlier, with more time to perfect its decorations. Many scholars have thought that this is Djoser's real tomb. Yet, on religious grounds, it is difficult to understand why the king would have gone to the trouble of building a large pyramid and then not have had himself buried beneath it.

A chamber with bluish green faience within the South Tomb of the Djoser Complex at Saqqara

The function of the south tomb remains obscure. Certainly, in many ways, the substructure replicates that of the tomb under the step Pyramid, but there are also some significant differences. For example, in the tomb beneath the Step Pyramid, the floor plan is oriented along a north-south axis, and so is the access corridor leading to it. However, in the south tomb, the same elements are oriented along an east-west axis. During the Old Kingdom, only the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur had a west entry. The north-south orientation of the main tomb can be explained by the influence of the then dominant astral religion, according to which the king's spirit was supposed to become one of the northern circumpolar stars. However, the east-west orientation, in contrast, would be an expression of the solar religion that was only now establishing itself during Djoser's time.

James Quibell, the British Egyptologist, suggested that after Djoser's birth, his royal placenta was ritually buried in the south tomb. However, there is no written or archaeological evidence to support this view. Furthermore, the death rate among children, even royal children, was high, and who would become king was always a matter of which children survived.

Firth initially believed that the south tomb functioned as a symbolic tomb in the context of the sed festival, but ultimately he decided that it was a provisional tomb, prepared in the event that the death of the ruler occurred unexpectedly during the construction of his royal burial complex. The celebrated British pyramid scholar, Eiddon Edwards, who was inspired by Firth, though that the bas-reliefs on the structure proved that Djoser intended to use the south tomb for his burial. In this regard, one might also consider the tomb from the standpoint of one who was not originally the heir to the Egyptian throne. There were a number of kings who only became heirs to the throne after the death of an older sibling. Many of them began, or built tombs that were later expanded or abandoned for more glorious complexes after becoming king.However, many scholars believe that the tomb chamber is actually too small to have ever held a sarcophagus.

Lauer, the primary excavator of the complex, thought that the south tomb was a symbolic substitute for interment in the royal cemetery at Abydos.

According to Ricke, the south tomb was a characteristic Lower Egyptian tomb type from Buto, in contrast to the Upper Egyptian Step Pyramid. He saw in the south tomb a place where the ka, or spirit of the king was laid to rest. Altenmuller's analysis of texts on the royal burial ritual lent further support to Ricke's view. Gustave Jequier, a Swiss Egyptologist, also thought of the south tomb as a place for the symbolic burial of the king's ka, but was also the first to seek a connection between it and the small cult pyramids found in later pyramid complexes.

Barring additional finds that might clear up matters somewhat, many scholars now seem to believe that the best solution is a combination of Jequier's view and Lauer's. It seems that the south tomb may have been the burial place of the king's ka and at the same time, a symbolic substitute for the ruler's tomb in southern Egypt.It is generally thought today that the south tomb is the forerunner of the cult pyramid of later complexes.

The discovery of the south tomb is somewhat interesting. Firth and Lauer discovered it together, but because Lauer was slimmer than Firth, it was he who first forced himself through the small opening in the maneuvering chamber and into the underground part of the tomb. Several seconds later, he called out in great excitement to Firth, who was waiting at the opening, "Stelae! There are stelae in here!". During the coming days, there was grueling work and great excitement at the discoveries made. Lauer recounts one interesting tidbit.

It seems that the bluish green faience tiles had fallen from the walls and were covered with dust. One day, he and Firth's wife, Winifred, decided to gather them up and clean them. They took them into the little house used by Firth, and Lauer left to do other work. However, he had only gone a few steps when he heard a loud hissing sound. Terrified, he hurried back to Mrs. Firth, who explained that she had decided to soak the tiles in pails of water. When the faience, which had been drying out for thousands of years, came into contact with the water, a powerful reaction resulted.

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See Also:






Reference Number

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids, The

Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 825 2

Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments)

Verner, Miroslav


Grove Press

ISBN 0-8021-1703-1

Pyramids and Sphinx, The (Egypt Under the Pharaohs)

Steward, Desmond



ISBN 0-88225-271-2

Pyramids of Ancient Egypt, The

Hawass, Zahi A.


Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The

ISBN 0-911239-21-9

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011