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Djoser's step pyramid: a marvel not to be missed out when visiting Saqqara

The Step Pyramid of Djoser: a Must-See Landmark in Saqqara

Saqqara, located in southern Cairo between Giza and Dahshur, is dotted with several fascinating monuments, including a number of tombs and a few crumbling pyramids, but the Djoser’s step pyramid is a must-see.


The 4,700-year-old step pyramid, built for the third dynasty pharaoh Djoser in the 27th century B.C., is the world’s oldest stone monument of its size. Djoser’s Pyramid, which was originally intended as a tomb, has fascinated tourists for centuries, as demonstrated by the graffiti on its walls.


In this blog post, you’ll get to know all about the Pyramid of Djoser—the world’s oldest still-standing stone building.

Let’s get started!


Djoser (also known as Netjerikhet, Tosorthos, and Sesorthos; c. 2670 BCE) was the first pharaoh of Egypt’s Third Dynasty. Little is known about Djoser’s childhood or family life. He succeeded his father, the last king of the Second Dynasty, Khasekhemwy, and his mother, Queen Nimaathap. Hetephernebti, his wife, was most likely his half-sister. Although it was customary for the pharaoh to have a queen and lesser wives, Djoser had no other wives other than Hetephernebti.



Reigning for over twenty years, Djoser is most known for his Step Pyramid, the first pyramid ever built in Egypt, but he also initiated a number of other construction projects; so many, in fact, that experts have estimated a reign of over thirty years to account for the number of tombs, temples, and monuments he ordered.

The famous Step Pyramid of Saqqara, which, like all of Egypt’s pyramids and monuments, was built by skilled Egyptian craftsmen and workers rather than slaves. Originally planned as a simple mastaba tomb, Imhotep’s Step Pyramid developed to become the highest monument of its day and a tourist attraction that drew visitors from all over the country. The Step Pyramid is an iconic landmark that Egypt has never attempted before. Previously, kings were buried in mastabas, rectangular tombs built over underground chambers that rose no higher than 20 feet (6 meters).



The Step Pyramid is a series of mastabas placed on top of each other, each level a little smaller than the one beneath, to create a pyramid shape. Earlier mastaba constructions were made of clay brick, but the Step Pyramid was made of limestone blocks with carved symbols of trees (holy to Egyptian gods) and reeds, presumably representing The Field of Reeds, the Egyptian afterlife. The pyramid was formed out of over 11.6 million cubic feet of limestone and clay (330,400 cubic meters). The tunnels underneath the pyramid form a 3.5-mile (5.5-kilometre) labyrinth.

Why Was the Saqarra Step Pyramid Built

Prior to Djoser’s reign (c. 2670 BCE), the first pharaoh of Egypt’s Third Dynasty, mastaba tombs were the standard style of burial: typically rectangular monuments made of dried clay brick that covered underground pathways where the corpse was entombed. By simply digging in from the top, thieves could easily reach the smaller mastaba tombs, where pharaohs were buried. For safety reasons, Imhotep (c. 2667 BCE), Djoser’s vizier, constructed a more magnificent tomb for his king by stacking mastabas on top of one another, gradually shrinking them to make the design known today as the Step Pyramid.



The Step Pyramid of Djoser would have made it very hard for a thief to dig his way into the burial chamber from the top. Unfortunately, despite the fact that this pyramid afforded enhanced security, it was ultimately broken into, and most of the burial items, including Djoser’s mummy, were looted. Apparently, not every mummy has been removed from the tomb. Recent investigations showed that three mummies from the late period (approximately 712–332 B.C.) were buried inside Djoser’s burial chamber. This suggests that during this era, people had not only broken into the king’s burial chamber but were also burying more mummies within it.

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The Step Pyramid Construction

Over the last century, the Step Pyramid has been thoroughly studied and analyzed, and it is now known that the construction process went through several multiple phases, including a few false attempts. Imhotep appears to have started with a basic mastaba tomb. He planned to go higher than the highest mastaba, which was 20 feet (6 meters). According to studies, the pyramid began as a square mastaba rather than the customary rectangular design, and was later modified to a rectangular shape. It is unknown why Imhotep opted to abandon the conventional rectangular mastaba design, although it is likely that Imhotep had a square-based pyramid in mind from the start.



Imhotep intended to carry on the tradition of early mastaba decoration with writings and carvings of reeds. His great, towering mastaba pyramid would contain the same subtle touches and powerful symbolism as the more modest tombs that had come before it, and even better, they would all be made of stone rather than dried mud.



When finished, the Step Pyramid was 204 feet (62 meters) tall, making it the highest structure of its day. The surrounding complex, which covered an area of 40 acres (16 hectares) and was enclosed by a wall 30 feet (10.5 meters) high, comprised a temple, courtyards, shrines, and residential rooms for the priests. The wall had 13 fake entrances carved into it, with just one actual entry cut in the south-east corner; the entire wall was then surrounded by a 2,460-foot-long (750-meter-wide) trench. The fake doors and trench were built within the compound to prevent unwelcome visitors. To explore the inner courtyard and temples, one would have required to be shown how to enter.


The Pyramid Complex

The pyramid and its surrounding complex were created to be visually stunning and to amaze visitors. Djoser was so pleased with his achievement that he violated the custom of just having his own name carved on a monument and also had Imhotep’s name carved. The Step Pyramid, House of the North, House of the South, Serdab, Heb Sed Court, South Tomb, Temple T, and Northern Mortuary Temple are all part of the complex. All of these, together with the surrounding wall, formed a complex the size of an ancient Egyptian metropolis. Actually, Djoser’s complex was really greater than Hierkanpolis at the time.


The House of the North and the House of the South had no purpose, but it has been suggested that they represented Upper and Lower Egypt. The Serdab (‘cellar’) is a stone box near the pyramid’s northern entrance where a life-sized sculpture of Djoser was discovered. This sculpture would have been extremely valuable to the king’s soul in the afterlife.



The soul was supposed to have nine aspects, one of which, the ba (the bird-shaped symbol commonly seen on tomb carvings), could fly from earth to heaven at will. However, it would have required a recognized landmark on Earth, which would have been the pyramid with the face of the king in front of it. Once the ba spotted its owner’s home from above, it could swoop down, enter, and return to the terrestrial world. The significance of Pharaoh’s names and pictures comes into play here because the soul must be able to remember its previous home (physical body) on earth in order to be at ease in the afterlife. The statue of Djoser, built in the complex, is the earliest known life-sized Egyptian sculpture still in existence and would have been built for this reason, as well as to remind tourists of the heritage of the great king.



The Heb Sed Court was associated with the Heb Sed Festival, during which the king established his right to reign. The celebration was performed in the 30th year of the king’s reign, and then every three years after that to re-enact his coronation and renew his authority. This courtyard, which contains the Houses of the North and South, also boasts thirteen tiny chapels. Three carved panels in the South Tomb represent Djoser executing the Heb Sed ceremony. This mastaba-shaped tomb is said to have been constructed to accommodate another statue of the pharaoh.



Temple T is one of the complex’s most interesting and mysterious monuments. The building’s front is basic with minimal decoration, but the interior is elegantly built with Djed pillars (indicating stability) throughout. Inside, there are beautiful carvings as well, including one of a half-opened door that appears to be a real gateway. The significance of this door sculpture is unknown, but it might have symbolized a symbolic doorway to the afterlife. The Northern Mortuary Temple, located nearby on the north side of the pyramid, was used to enter the pyramid’s underground corridors that went down to the burial chamber.



Regarding the Step Pyramid, to prevent robbers and secure the king’s body and burial goods, the real chamber of the tomb, where the king’s body was laid to rest, were dug beneath the foundation of the pyramid as a maze of tunnels with rooms off the hallways. Djoser’s burial chamber was made of granite, and getting there required navigating halls filled with thousands of stone containers engraved with the names of previous kings. The underground complex’s additional rooms were for ceremonial reasons.



The underground corridors are enormous, and the stone containers are one of the most fascinating findings within. Over 40,000 of these jars, in different forms and shapes, were discovered in two of the pyramid’s descending shafts (the 6th and 7th shafts). These vases are engraved with the names of Egyptian rulers from the First and Second Dynasties and are composed of various stones, including diorite, limestone, alabaster, siltstone, and slate. These vessels have the names of the kings Narmer, Djer, Den, Adjib, Semerkhet, Ka, Heterpsekhemwy, Ninetjer, Sekhemib, and Khasekhemwy, as well as non-royal names of minor figures in history.

The Bottom Line

Few monuments in human history are as significant as the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. Without exaggeration, his pyramid complex represents a watershed moment in the growth of monumental stone construction in Egypt and across the world.

The Step Pyramid was a groundbreaking architectural achievement, but it also served as the model for all subsequent great Egyptian pyramid builders.

Make sure to book an amazing vacation with Egyptatours to enjoy such an important landmark.


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