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Pyramid of Djoser

Saqqara, designed by Imhotep

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Unique Stone Architecture

The Step Pyramid of Djoser was the proto-type for all proper Ancient Egyptian pyramids of the Old Kingdom, and was the earliest colossal stone building in Egypt.

Its construction marked a revolutionary departure from earlier flat-roofed mastaba tombs and became the evolutionary basis for all later pyramids in Egypt.

By opting for a pyramidal design and making full use of the country's supply of limestone rock, Djoser's master-builders steered Ancient Egyptian architecture away from the ziggurat-style adopted by Sumerian culture and towards a unique monumental style of Ancient Egyptian art, that would become one of the wonders of the known world.

Djoser's chief architect was Imhotep, who was also the pharaoh's chancellor and high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis. He was one of a tiny handful of non-royal Egyptians who were deified after their deaths.

The completion of Djoser's tomb kicked off an evolutionary phase of pyramid-building that would culminate in the polished, smooth-faced pyramids of the 4th Dynasty.

The Djoser project was a reflection of Egyptian political stability at the beginning of the Bronze Age culture of the Old Kingdom.

When was Djoser's Pyramid Built?

Djoser's pyramid was constructed during the Third Dynasty, from approximately 2667 to 2648 BC.

It was followed by several less successful structures, including Sneferu's Meidum Pyramid and Bent Pyramid (both completed by 2589), before builders mastered the architectural challenges posed by large smooth-sided pyramid tombs.

There then followed a series of stable smooth pyramids, including:

Who was Djoser's Pyramid Built For?

As the name indicates it was the tomb of Pharaoh Djoser (Djeser or Zoser), also known as Netjerikhet.

Djoser (r.2686–2648 BC) was the second pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, succeeding Pharaoh Khasekhemwy.

However, please note that the name 'Djoser' was given to this pharaoh by visitors to the site one thousand years after it was built. The only name actually found on its walls, is that of Netjerykhet.

Location

Djoser's step pyramid is located on the west bank of the Nile at Saqqara, some 30 kilometres southwest of present-day Cairo.

It was the first royal pyramid to be built in the Memphite Necropolis, which includes the pyramid fields of Giza, Abusir and Dahshur, as well as Saqqara.

Height and Weight

Djoser's Step Pyramid rises from the ground in six steps, or tiers, attaining a height of roughly 60 metres (195 ft).

Originally, it measured 62.5 m (203 ft) in height, but erosion and the loss of its casing stones, has shortened it by about 2.5 metres.

Its base measures 109 metres × 121 metres (358 ft × 397 ft), and it has an approximate volume of 330,000 cubic metres. Its weight would have been roughly 750,000 tonnes.

When originally completed it was encased in polished white limestone and must have presented an extraordinary sight as it rose from the Saqqara Plateau, gleaming in the sunlight.

It would have been by far the largest example of megalithic architecture ever encountered by those who saw it.

Construction

The construction of Djoser's Step Pyramid represents a significant shift in ancient Egyptian tomb building.

Before Djoser's reign, pharaohs were buried in mastaba tombs, which were rectangular structures with flat tops.

Now, Djoser's architect, Imhotep, proposed a radical design change. He decided to create a much taller structure, created by stacking mastabas on top of one another to create a stepped pyramid.

In addition, for the first time, limestone would be used instead of mudbrick.

This new approach - in reality, a dramatic leap into the unknown - marked the dawn of true pyramid construction.

Prior to Djoser's complex, most large buildings were made from mudbrick, using the same mastaba designs that were used by ziggurat builders in Mesopotamian culture and Babylonian culture.

However, it's important to realize that Djoser's pyramid also started out as yet another mastaba, complete with a flat roof.

What's more, several mastabas with two or even three tiers, had already appeared in neighbouring Abusir during the second half of the First Dynasty.

According to French archaeologist Jean-Philippe Lauer (1902-2001), the principal excavator of Djoser's site, Imhotep's construction plan was changed several times.

Initially, the structure resembled a mastaba. This was slowly enlarged - first equally on all four sides, and then on the eastern side only.

But unlike the earlier multi-step mastabas at Abusir, Imhotep's edifice was not built in traditional horizontal tiers.

Instead, he began to add new tiers, that inclined inwards. In other words, the masonry was not laid vertically but in layers that leaned toward the middle of the pyramid, thus significantly improving its structural stability.

Imhotep completed the project in two phases: to begin with, he created a four-step pyramid, then finally enlarged it to a six-step pyramid, with a square (not a rectangular) base.

What exactly prompted Imhotep and his colleagues to transform the mastaba into a stepped pyramid is not clear.

Lauer believed that Djoser wanted to make the structure visible from Memphis, or even Heliopolis in the Nile Delta.

That Djoser succeeded in his aim of gaining attention, is clear from 19th Dynasty inscriptions, found in Saqqara, in which Egyptians are already describing its builder as the 'opener of stone' - that is, as the inventor of stone architecture.

Underground Architecture

Underneath Djoser's Pyramid, Imhotep created an incredible tangle of over 400 chambers, and storerooms, linked by six kilometres of shafts, tunnels, and galleries.

The limestone walls of many underground passages are decorated with blue faience tile, and were further embellished with panels of low reliefs, depicting the king participating in the Heb-sed festivals.

The underground rooms included Djoser's burial chamber, additional burial chambers for royal family members, plus spaces for storing offerings and supplies for the pharaoh's afterlife.

Archaeologists found over 40,000 stone vessels whose contents were intended to serve Djoser's material needs in the future.

A central burial shaft measuring 7 metres square and 28 metres in depth led to Djoser's burial chamber, a granite vault where his sarcophagus was placed. After the burial, the chamber was sealed with a 3.5 ton block of granite.

The chamber was surrounded by a network of serdabs, which originally housed statues of Djoser. The statues served as eternal containers for his ka, or life force.

Pyramid Complex

The Step Pyramid served as Djoser's royal burial monument upon his death.

It was part of a huge 15-hectare pyramid complex - including a mortuary temple, Sed festival hall, serdab chamber, numerous chapels, ceremonial suites, and step-tombs - all of which was linked to a valley temple (near the Nile), by a 700-metre causeway.

See also: Ancient Egyptian Temples (3000-30 BC).

The entrance to the complex was via a wide corridor flanked by a hypostyle colonnade of 40 fluted columns of limestone decorated with megalithic art, each nearly 6 metres (20 ft) tall.

The complex is surrounded by a 10-metre high wall stretching for over 1.6 kilometres (1 mile).

The wall was made from a thick core of masonry encased with super-white Tura limestone on the outside, and (partially) on the inside.

Excavation

For all the above, we are indebted to archaeology, in particular to the efforts of archaeologists and egyptologists who examined the site. The most active investigators included:

Other Famous Pyramids

Other famous pyramids not mentioned above, include:

NEXT: See: Ancient Art: from 3,400 BC.

References

(1) Hawass, Zahi A. Pyramids of Ancient Egypt. (1990) Carnegie Museum of Natural History. ISBN 0-911239-21-9
(2) Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids (2008) Thames and Hudson, Ltd. ISBN-13 : 978-0500285473.
(3) Siliotti, Alberto. Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids (2003) American University in Cairo Press. ISBN-13: 978-0760707630.
(4) Verner, Miroslav (2001). The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-1703-8.

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