The Pyramid of Djoser (or Djeser and Zoser), or Step Pyramid, is an archaeological site in the Saqqara necropolis, Egypt, northwest of the ruins of Memphis. The 6-tier, the 4-sided structure is the earliest colossal stone building in Egypt. It was built in the 27th century BC during the Third Dynasty for the burial of Pharaoh Djoser. Its architect was Imhotep, chancellor of the pharaoh and high priest of the god Ra. The pyramid is the central feature of a vast mortuary complex in an enormous courtyard surrounded by ceremonial structures and decorations.
The pyramid went through several revisions and redevelopments of the original plan. The pyramid initially stood 62.5 m (205 ft) tall, with a base of 109 m × 121 m (358 ft × 397 ft) and was clad in polished white limestone. The step pyramid (or proto-pyramid) was considered the earliest large-scale cut stone construction made by man as of 1997. However, the nearby enclosure wall “Gisr el-Mudir” is suggested by some Egyptologists to predate the complex, and the South American pyramids at Caral are contemporary.
In March 2020, the pyramid was reopened for visitors after a 14-year restoration.
Location of the Pyramid of Djoser
The Djoser Pyramid is found in the Saqqara necropolis, situated in the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. This necropolis is among the world’s largest and most striking funerary complexes, set over more than 10km.
Djoser was the first or second king of the 3rd Dynasty (c. 2670–2650 BC) of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2125 BC). He reigned long enough to allow the glorious plan for his pyramid to be realised in his lifetime. He is believed to have ruled for 19 years, or if the 19 years were biennial taxation years, 38 years.
Djoser is best known for his innovative tomb, which dominates the Saqqara landscape. In this tomb, he is referred to by his Horus name Netjerikhet; Djoser is a name given by New Kingdom visitors thousands of years later. Djoser’s step pyramid is astounding in its departure from previous architecture. It sets several important precedents, perhaps the most important of which is its status as the first monumental structure made of stone.
The social implications of such a large and carefully sculpted stone structure are staggering. Building such a structure would be far more labour-intensive than previous monuments of mud-brick. Also, from this point on, kings of the Old Kingdom are buried in the North rather than at Abydos. This suggests that the state and the royal government had a new control level of material and human resources.
Although the plan of Djoser’s pyramid complex is different from later complexes, many elements persist. The step pyramid sets the stage for later pyramids of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Dynasties, including the great pyramids of Giza. Though the Dynastic Egyptians themselves did not credit him as such, most Egyptologists attribute Djoser’s vizier Imhotep with the design and construction of the complex.
Djoser’s Pyramid draws ideas from several precedents. The most relevant precedent is found at Saqqara mastaba 3038 (c. 2700 BC). The substructure lay in a 4 m (13 ft) bottomless rectangular pit and had mudbrick walls rising to 6 m (20 ft). Three sides were extended and built out to create eight shallow steps rising at an angle of 49°. This structure would have been an elongated step pyramid if the remaining side had not been left uncovered. In another parallel to Djoser’s complex, a niched enclosure wall was erected to complete this mastaba complex.
Djoser’s mortuary complex comprises the great trench, enclosure wall, collonaded entrance, ‘T’ temple, Sed festival complex, north and south pavilions, south tomb and court, western mounds, mortuary temple, and the crowning feature of it all, the step pyramid with its substructure. The complex was a landmark achievement for Egyptian architecture. It was the advent of the pyramidal form of the royal tomb and the first instance of the mass use of limestone in construction, replacing mud-brick, which had been the staple building material prior. This shift to limestone – a hard, dense material compared to mudbrick – presented novel challenges to the architects. Though they kept to an earlier tradition, copying architectonic elements and carving them into the stone. For example, the Egyptians hand-carved 1,680 9 m (30 ft; 17 cu) tall niches from the limestone wall. This element was built with wooden planks, ropes, and poles hung with reed mats in earlier projects. The same feature would be made in a modern context by laying out the blocks to form the recesses.
The crowning feature of the complex is the Step Pyramid which rises from the Saqqara plateau in six steps to a height between 60 m (200 ft; 110 cu) and 62.5 m (205 ft; 119.3 cu). This element was revised repeatedly in construction, going through a series of developmental phases that culminated in its step pyramidal form. Following Jean-Philippe Lauer’s excavations, these phases are traditionally labelled: M1, M2, M3, P1, P1′, and P2.
In the early stages (M1 to M3), the structure had the form of a mastaba before alterations (P1 to P2) were made to create its step pyramidal form. In the first stage (M1), the mastaba had a square plan of 63 m (207 ft; 120 cu) in length that rose to a height of 8.4 m (28 ft; 16 cu). This mastaba was built from a core of limestone blocks arranged in horizontal beds and bound with yellow or red clay. A 2.6 m (9 ft; 5 cu) thick casing of fine white Tura limestone was applied to the core arranged in the same horizontal manner. The outer blocks were inclined to ~82°, and the top of the mastaba likely had a slightly convex shape. A second casing of fine white limestone was applied, which increased the mastaba’s base length to 71.5 m (235 ft; 136 cu) square (M2). The casing was 4.2 m (14 ft; 8 cu) thick at the base and 3.4 m (11 ft; 6.5 cu) thick at the peak, which was 0.65 m (2 ft; 1 cu) lower than the initial mastaba height. The outer blocks of this second coat also had a steeper incline at ~76°. The mastaba was then extended 8.4 m (28 ft; 16 cu) east to cover a series of eleven shafts 33 m (108 ft; 63 cu) deep, ending in passages that led west to the burial chambers of members of Djoser’s family. This extension was built from locally sourced limestone rubble and caused by a 1.5 m (5 ft; 3 cu) thick limestone coating that formed an extension of M2. The mastaba had a new, rectangular ground plan 71.5 m (235 ft; 136 cu) by 79.5 m (261 ft; 152 cu). At this stage, the mastaba still peaked at 8.4 m (28 ft; 16 cu) in height, too short to be seen from outside the 10.5 m (34 ft; 20 cu) high enclosure wall.
Egyptologists are split on the motivations behind the conception of the pyramidal form that the mastaba was converted into it. Lauer believed that the alteration was made to have the tomb visible from Memphis. The fact of the mastaba’s square plan led Rainer Stadelmann, however, to suggest that it was never the intended final form and that it was planned to be a pyramid from the outset. The conversion (P1) encased the mastaba (M3), extending its length by 5.76 m (19 ft; 11 cu) on each axis, giving it a base length of 85.5 m (281 ft; 163 cu) by 77 m (253 ft; 147 cu). The alteration from mastaba to pyramid came with a shift in construction. The builders used larger and better quality, roughly dressed limestone blocks – but instead of horizontal beds, they built successive inclined accretion layers 2–3 m (6.6–9.8 ft) thick. These leaned on each other from opposite ends providing more excellent stability and preventing a collapse. The whole was then cased in fine white limestone with a layer of packing. This pyramid phase had four steps that rose to 42 m (138 ft; 80 cu). The decision was then made to expand the pyramid north and west from four to six steps (P1′) which were then finished with a final layer of limestone casing (P2) that gave the pyramid its final form. On completion, the step pyramid had a base length of 109 m (358 ft; 208 cu) by 121 m (397 ft; 231 cu) that rose to a height of 60–62.5 m (197–205 ft; 115–119 cu) and occupied a volume of 330,400 m3 (11,670,000 cu ft).
Much of the rock for the pyramid was likely quarried from the construction of the great trench. It is widely accepted that ramps would have been used to raise the heavy stone to construct the pyramid, and many plausible models have been suggested. For transport, apparatuses like rollers were used in which the heavy rock could be placed and then rolled.
Step Pyramid substructure
Under the step pyramid is a labyrinth of tunnelled chambers and galleries that total nearly 6 km in length and connect to a central shaft 7 m square and 28 m deep. These spaces provide room for the king’s burial, the burial of family members, and the storage of goods and offerings. The entrance to the 28 m shaft was built on the north side of the pyramid, a trend that would remain throughout the Old Kingdom. The sides of the underground passages are limestone inlaid with blue faience tile to replicate reed matting. These “palace façade” walls are further decorated by panels decorated in low relief that show the king participating in the Heb-sed. Together these chambers constitute the funerary apartment that mimicked the palace and would serve as the living place of the royal ka. On the east side of the pyramid, eleven shafts 32 m deep were constructed and annexed to horizontal tunnels for royal family members. These were incorporated into the pre-existing substructure as it expanded eastward. Over 40,000 stone vessels were found in the storerooms here, many of which predate Djoser. These would have served Djoser’s visceral needs in the afterlife. An extensive network of underground galleries was located to the north, west and south of the central burial chamber and crude horizontal magazines were carved into these.
The burial chamber was a vault constructed of four courses of well-dressed granite. It had one opening, sealed with a 3.5-ton block after the burial. Nobody was recovered as the tomb had been extensively robbed. Lauer believes that a burial chamber of alabaster existed before the one of granite. He found compelling evidence of limestone blocks with five-pointed stars in low relief that were likely on the ceiling, indicating the first occurrence of what would become a tradition. The king sought to associate himself with the eternal North Stars that never set to ensure his rebirth and eternity.
Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex included several structures pivotal to its function in life and the afterlife. A pyramid was not simply a grave in ancient Egypt. Its purpose was to facilitate a successful afterlife for the king so that he could be eternally reborn. The symbolism of the step pyramid form, which did not survive beyond the 3rd Dynasty, is unknown. Still, it has been suggested that it may be a monumental symbol of the crown, especially the royal mortuary cult, since seven small step pyramids (that were not tombs) were built in the provinces. Another well-accepted theory is that it facilitated the king’s ascension to join the eternal North Star.
The principal modern excavator of the Step Pyramid was Jean-Philippe Lauer, a French architect who reconstructed key portions of the complex. The complex covers 15 ha (37 acres) and is about 2.5 times as large as the Old Kingdom town of Hierakonpolis. Several features of the complex differ from those of later Old Kingdom pyramids. The pyramid temple is situated on the north side of the pyramid, whereas it is on the east side in later pyramids. Also, the Djoser complex is built on a north-south axis, whereas later complexes utilise an east-west axis. Furthermore, the Djoser complex has one niched enclosure wall, whereas later pyramids have two enclosure walls, with the outside one being smooth and the inside one sometimes niched.
Before the enclosure wall, Djoser’s pyramid complex is surrounded by a trench dug into the underlying rock. The trench is the largest structure in the Memphis necropolis at 750 m (2,460 ft; 1,430 cu) long and 40 m (130 ft; 76 cu) wide. It is rectangular and oriented on the north-south axis. The trench resembles a 𓉔 (hieroglyph h) which represents the floorplan of a house. It is decorated with niches suggested by Nabil Swelim to have hosted the spirits of the king’s court members, there to serve the king in his afterlife. In parts, the trench doubles into two with distinct entries. These make accessing the enclosure wall challenging, indicating its function as a safeguard. Miroslav Verner suspects that a single entrance was built at the southeast corner granting access to the area.
The complex is enclosed by a 10.5 m (34 ft) high wall stretching over 1.6 km (0.99 mi). This wall was built from a thick core of masonry encased with Tura limestone, wholly on the outside but partially on the inside. The external façade of the wall had a bastion at a regular interval of 4.1 m (13 ft) adorned with 1,680 hand-carved niches 9 m (30 ft) tall. Fourteen of these bastions were more significant than the rest. These hosted false double doors, while a fifteenth situated in the southeast corner of the east façade held the actual entrance. Two towers led to a passage past the collonaded entrance flanked the entrance.
The enclosure wall design recalls the appearance of First Dynasty tombs, such as those found directly north of the complex and at Abydos. Alan Spencer compares the design to the panelled construction of the palace façade, which imitates bound bundles of reeds. Jean-Philippe Lauer suggests that the wall was modelled after the ‘White Walls’ of Memphis, though Verner notes that the presence of so many doors renders this unlikely. Hermann Kees thought the fifteen doors related to the sed festival and indicated its duration as half a lunar month. The remaining doors are known as false doors and were meant for the king’s use in the afterlife. They functioned as portals through which the king’s ka could pass between life and the afterlife.
The entrance colonnade led from the enclosure wall to the south court of the complex. It comprises two distinct passageways oriented approximately east-west. The first is a narrow 1.05 m (3.4 ft) wide by 6 m (20 ft) long corridor cut into the enclosure wall. The ceiling blocks here were carved into the shape of tree trunks. This is followed by a wider corridor flanked by 40 limestone columns arranged in pairs that fronted projecting walls, which formed alcoves. The columns were each nearly 6 m (20 ft) tall and were fashioned to resemble bundled reeds that had between seventeen and nineteen ribs. They supported a limestone ceiling whose blocks were carved again into the form of palm tree trunks. Twenty-four alcoves suggested having held statues of the king or, perhaps, a double statue of the king and a nome deity because of their number. Such figures are present in the monuments of the Fourth Dynasty, but no trace of them has been uncovered at Djoser’s complex. The end walls of the alcoves had slits cut into them near the ceiling, thus allowing light to filter in. Near the beginning of the colonnade, at its eastern end, is a corridor which leads to the heb-sed court. Between the twelfth and thirteenth alcove is a ‘transverse vestibule’ with a passage flanked by eight 5 m (16 ft) tall columns and cross-walls leading to a sanctuary. Lauer believes this chamber contained a statue of Djoser on a pedestal that bore his name and Imhotep’s titles. The torso and base of this statue were found in the entrance colonnade. The west wall of the entrance colonnade has the form of an open door which leads into the south court.
The South Court is a large court between the South Tomb and the pyramid. Within the court are curved stones thought to be territorial markers associated with the Heb-sed festival, an important ritual completed by Egyptian kings (typically after 30 years on the throne) to renew their powers. These would have allowed Djoser to claim control over all of Egypt. In contrast, its presence in the funerary complex enables Djoser to continue benefiting from the afterlife ritual. At the southern end of the court was a platform approached by steps. It has been suggested that this was a platform for the double throne. This fits into the theory proposed by Barry Kemp and is generally accepted by many, which means the whole step pyramid complex symbolises the royal palace enclosure and allows the king to eternally perform the rituals associated with kingship. At the very south of the South Court lay the South Tomb.
The South Tomb has been likened to the satellite pyramids of later Dynasties and proposed to house the ka in the afterlife. Another proposal is that it may have held the canopic jar with the king’s organs, but this does not follow the latest trends where the canopic jar is found in the same place as the body. These proposals stem from the fact that the granite burial vault is much too small to have facilitated an actual burial.
The substructure of the South Tomb is entered through a tunnel-like corridor with a staircase that descends about 30 m before opening up into the pink granite burial chamber. The staircase leads to a gallery that imitates the blue chambers below the step pyramid.
Current evidence suggests that the South Tomb was finished before the pyramid. The symbolic king’s inner palace is more comprehensive than the pyramid, decorated in blue faience. Three chambers of this substructure are decorated in blue faience to imitate reed-mat facades, just like the pyramid. One room is decorated with three finely niche reliefs of the king, one depicting him running the Heb-sed. Egyptian builders chose to employ their most skilled artisans and represent their most delicate art in the complex’s darkest, most inaccessible place. This highlights that this impressive craftsmanship was not meant to benefit the living but was meant to ensure the king had all the tools necessary for a successful afterlife.
North temple and serdab court
The northern (funerary/mortuary) temple was on the north side of the pyramid and faced the north stars, which the king wished to join in eternity. This structure provided a place where the daily rituals and offerings to the dead could be performed and were the cult centre for the king. To the east of the temple is the serdab, a small enclosed structure that housed the ka statue. The king’s ka inhabited the ka statue to benefit from daily ceremonies like the opening of the mouth, a ceremony that allowed him to breathe and eat, and the burning of incense. He witnessed these ceremonies through two small eye holes cut in the north wall of the serdab. This temple appeared on the north side of the pyramid throughout the Third Dynasty, as the king wished to go north to become one of the eternal stars in the North Sky that never set. In the Fourth Dynasty, when there was a religious shift to emphasise rebirth and eternity achieved through the sun, the temple was moved to the east side of the pyramid, where the sun rises. Through association, the king may be reborn every day.
The Heb-sed court is rectangular and parallel to the South Courtyard. It was meant to provide a space where the king could perform the Heb-sed ritual in the afterlife. Flanking the east and west sides of the court are the remains of two groups of chapels, many of which are dummy buildings of three different architectural styles. There are three chapels at the north and south ends with flat roofs and no columns. The remaining chapels on the west side are decorated with fluted columns and capitals flanked by leaves. Each of the chapels has a sanctuary accessed by a roofless passage with walls that depict false doors and latches. Some of these buildings have niches for statues. Egyptologists believe that these buildings were related to the crucial double coronation of the king during the Heb-sed.