The step pyramid precint of King Djoser

The funerary complex of King Djoser at Saqqara, with its Step Pyramid, is the most extraordinary architectural complex of the Old Kingdom (fig. 5). Its architect was Imhotep, deified after the New Kingdom by the people of Memphis, who ascribed medical skills to him. The Greeks in turn saw in him their healing god Asclepius. In the third century B.C.E. the Egyptian historian Manetho repeated the traditional belief that Imhotep had invented the art of building in stone during Djoser’s reign. In 1926, in a dump south of the entrance colonnade at the complex, the Antiquities Service found a statue base and fragments of a statue of King Djoser on which is engraved, next to the king’s Horus name, that of Imhotep with the following titles: “Seal Bearer of the king of Lower Egypt, first after the king of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Grand Palace, hereditary noble, high priest of Heliopolis, Imhotep, builder and sculptor. …” The dedication allows this godlike man to step out of legend and assume his place in history.

The last royal monument of the Second Dynasty had been erected at Abydos, near the necropolis known as the Umm el-Qaab. Long considered the tomb of the Horus-Seth Khasekhemui, it consists of a significant aboveground mud-brick structure measuring about 70 meters long (north to south) and 13.4 meters wide (east to west) and containing one principal room, which has walls faced with fine limestone, the first stone lining known in Egypt. Nothing, however, marks this as the burial chamber, which in this period was always below ground and sealed by one or more stone blocks. Despite its great number of rooms—nearly fifty, some of which were perhaps subsidiary tombs—this structure cannot be interpreted as a royal tomb. At most it may be a cenotaph, like the neighboring and far smaller monument of the Seth Peribsen, one of Khasekhemui’s predecessors.

We do not know whether Djoser was the direct successor of Khasekhemui or whether the Horus Zanakht reigned between them (Zanakht seems to have been Djoser’s brother, since they were both apparently sons of Queen Neith-hotep). Even if Zanakht was king, however, his reign must have been very short.

The superb site of Saqqara overlooked the ancient capital of Memphis and its palm groves as well as the pleasant valley to the south and the beginnings of the Delta to the north. Here Imhotep erected numerous markers and stelae with the names of the king and his two daughters, delineating a rectangular site of 544 by 277 meters, about forty times larger than that of the famous mud-brick structure at Naqada. Imhotep may have been trying to replicate the traditional Naqada Palace Facade recessed paneling with the immense bas-tioned enclosure of this site. In terms of scale, however, the architecture of the White Walls of Menes (as Memphis was first called) was a more likely model. Imhotep brilliantly translated architecture employing mud-brick panels into stone, using fine white limestone from the quarries at Tura, on the east bank of the Nile. Like an indestructible counterpart of mud bricks, the stone was shaped into blocks and arranged in regular rows that were 26 to 40 centimeters high. Fourteen dummy gates were placed at different intervals all along the exterior. The only real entrance to the precinct was through a fifteenth gate, whose open double-leaf door was imitated in stone. The location of the gates seems to indicate that the enclosure wall was a replica of one in which the position of each gate was determined by its function.

Near the center of the vast rectangular site was found a shaft more than 7 meters square and 28 meters deep. At its bottom a burial chamber was built of limestone blocks (its ceiling, decorated with large five-pointed stars, was later disassembled and replaced with one of Aswan granite). A cylindrical opening, cut in the ceiling at the north, must have allowed the introduction of the mummy. This hole was sealed after the funeral by an enormous granite plug 2 meters thick and 1 meter in diameter, weighing about 3.5 tons. A descent, cut initially as a trench and later as a tunnel, gave access to the shaft and the tomb.1 The tomb had various subterranean galleries (fig. 6), which were filled with funerary furnishings, especially vessels of alabaster and hard stone. A subterranean suite of rooms decorated in blue faience tiles (cat. no. 1) was reserved for the king’s ka. One of its rooms, the east wall of which duplicates the wattle-and-daub facade of the Ka Palace, replete with doors and windows, has three magnificent reliefs of the king set in imitation doorways between the tiles. In the adjoining room, panels of faience tiles (Egyptian Museum, Cairo) crowned with an arch of djed pillars represent lofts.

Over the burial shaft, Imhotep first built a flat core 63 meters square and about 8 meters high (some 2 meters lower than the enclosure wall). This core, made of rubble cemented with clay mortar, had a revetment of carefully hewn white limestone covered, doubtless as a precautionary measure, by a second revetment, 3 meters thick. A series of shafts 3 2 meters deep were dug along the east face of the building, each terminating in a long horizontal gallery about 30 meters in length and running from east to west (fig. 6). These shafts and galleries were meant to be used as tombs and as repositories for the funerary furnishings of various members of the royal family: princesses, royal children who had died young, and probably the queen as well. To accommodate them, the mastaba was expanded eastward, becoming, contrary to custom, slightly longer from east to west than from north to south.

This modified mastaba remained entirely hidden behind the enclosure wall; only the latter was visible to the inhabitants of Memphis, on the desert crest to the west of the city. Imhotep then conceived the innovative idea of a step monument, a gigantic stairway to the sky that would help the king’s soul ascend after death to sojourn among the gods, with the “Imperishable [polar] Stars” and with Re (the sun), whose chief priest he had been at Heliopolis. The edifice first had four steps, which completely encompassed the three stages of the original mastaba (fig. 7). Its imposing vertical mass, visible at a great distance, became the new focal point of the funerary complex, at once breaking and emphasizing the regularity of the enclosure wall. A final modification, which increased the number of steps to six, made the structure even more dominant by raising its height to nearly 60 meters.

The construction of the Step Pyramid allows us to glimpse the transition from the royal tombs of Saqqara— large mud-brick rectangular cores with broad faces oriented north-south and ornamented with recessed paneling—to the true pyramid in cut stone.

Another equally important innovation of Imhotep was the incorporation of ritual buildings within the funerary monument. Adjacent to the north side of the pyramid (at the head of the descending passage) he erected a cult temple, with its own access (colonnaded entry and various courts). To the east he constructed a group of dummy buildings, intended as a symbolic representation of the realm in which the king’s ka would evolve after death. For that reason the complex contained a Heb Sed temple and two additional buildings, which we call the South House and the North House. After Djoser, from the reign of Snefru onward, the environment necessary for the deceased king to live in the otherworld was achieved more economically by means of painted relief representations on the funerary temple walls.

The Entrance to the Enclosure

A single passageway only 1 meter wide leads into this immense enclosure (fig. 8), reflecting the fact that the complex was a private domain, reserved for the king’s ka and the rites performed within. The entrance is an imposing gateway in the east face of the enclosure wall, 24 meters from the southeast corner; nearly 10.5 meters high, it was destroyed in antiquity but has been reconstructed on the basis of its surviving blocks. A corridor about 5 meters long leads from the entrance to a small court with walls carved in imitation of the gate’s two huge door leaves, shown open. Since this single entryway could not be closed, it must have been under constant guard.

A second passage, a little wider than the first, leads from the court and ends at a second open door, with a single imitation door leaf. This opens into a magnificent colonnade, a long narrow hall bordered on either side by two rows of twenty engaged limestone columns. The style of these columns is unique in Egyptian art. Still bearing traces of red paint, they look like petrified wood columns, themselves imitations of the bundled reed stalks or palm ribs that must have been quite common in domestic buildings. In Imhotep’s initial plan the entrance corridor was open to the sky, with columns about 5 meters high. When it was later roofed, the column height had to be increased to about 6.6 meters to allow the gallery to be illuminated by clerestory windows.

The colonnade ends at a wide rectangular hall with four linked pairs of columns, originally nearly 5 meters high, supporting the roof. The passage leading out of this hall contains a remarkable imitation of a partly open door: even the ends of its reinforcing battens are rendered in stone.

The Great Southern Court

The entrance opens onto a huge court, bordered on the north by the pyramid and on the south by the bulk of the enclosure wall. Projecting from the latter is the wall of Djoser’s cenotaph, ornamented with a frieze of cobras. At the north end of the courtyard are the bases of two small D-shaped structures and about 45 meters to the south the remains of a second pair. In the coronation ritual and the Heb Sed (thirty-year jubilee), the king ran a circuit between these two groups while holding the insignia of his power. Such a scene is represented on stelae in the pyramid itself and on the walls of the Southern Tomb (fig. 9). Within the funerary enclosure these structures would have been at the service of the king’s ka, as were the majority of structures that Imhotep rendered for eternity in stone.

Near the pyramid is an almost square altar with a short approach ramp. In front of this is a hollow in which a bull’s head with lyre-shaped horns had been buried.

The King’s Pavilion (Temple T)

From the paneled east wall of the Great Southern Court a passage leads to a small rectangular court with a building at its north end. Known as Temple T, this structure is dominated by three elegant fluted columns, engaged like those of the entrance colonnade. The building very likely represents the pavilion in which the king waited before the rites of the Heb Sed, which took place in the larger court to its east. Its central niche, surmounted by a lintel decorated with openwork djed pillars, undoubtedly held a statue of the king.

The Heb Sed Court

Djoser’s Heb Sed was not celebrated in the funerary enclosure during his lifetime. By representing the monumental setting required by the festival, the structures in the Heb Sed Court allowed the king’s ka to confirm its functions and royal powers periodically in the afterlife and so preserve them for all time. The jubilee evoked in this manner remains purely symbolic. In the same way, the quarter-circle wall at the southeast end of the King’s Pavilion was intended to attract and direct the cortege of spirits that would solemnly escort the king’s ka from the pavilion into the Heb Sed Court.

The focus of the court is the platform at its southern end. There, two stairways led to a double dais facing east (toward the capital), which would have sheltered statues of Djoser enthroned as king of Upper and Lower Egypt during the Heb Sed. The court is lined on either side with chapels. Those on the west side were of two kinds. The first, of which there were at least three examples (one at either end of the row and one in the middle), had corner torus moldings and a flat roof with a slight overhang—the transposition into stone of wickerwork structures with reinforced corners. The second type, of which there were probably ten, rested on a foundation about 2 meters high and supported an arched cornice. Its facade was embellished with three thin fluted columns, re-creations in stone of the trunks of tall coniferous trees. Their capitals, unique in Egyptian art, are formed of two elongated fluted leaves, which lie along the shaft and frame a small cubic abacus. The abacus may represent the end of a rafter, while the two fluted leaves may signify a clump of tied plant matter, used in rustic constructions to reinforce the junction of the rafter and the post; the banded cornice resembles reeds bent inward to increase the strength of primitive roofs. A cylindrical hole through the abacus was meant to hold the ensign of the god to whom the chapel was dedicated. Each of the southernmost two chapels of this type had a large niche in the south end of the facade, reached by a stairway with shallow, sloping steps.

Each chapel was fronted by a baffle wall and had only one small room—a sanctuary with a vaulted niche; otherwise the structure was entirely solid. Simulated wood barriers were carved in high relief on the walls separating the access corridors from each of the fluted-column chapels, and doors with hinges and pivots, likewise simulated in stone, marked the entrances to these corridors and the chapels.

On the east side of the court were twelve chapels of a third type, with an arched roof like that of the second type but narrower and without columns. Beyond this row of chapels, to the south, three caryatid statues of King Djoser, which were found lying on the ground, have been re-erected against the enclosure wall (their original position is unknown). Two of them are unfinished, roughed out at different stages of completion; the third, though more finished, is only partly preserved.

In a small room of the last eastern chapel are the feet of four otherwise-vanished statues, representing two adults and two children. These feet probably belonged to statues of Djoser, as king of Upper and Lower Egypt, and two very young royal princesses.

The South House and North House

A narrow passage at the north end of the Heb Sed Court leads to the east side of the pyramid and two long courts running parallel to it. These were originally separated by a north-south wall; an imitation open door allowed movement between the two. The eastern court is bordered on the north by a structure called the South House (fig. 10), which appears to have been some 12 meters high, with a banded cornice like those of the chapels in the Heb Sed Court. Its facade is decorated with four engaged fluted columns with sharp ridges, recalling a Greek Doric column, and two banded pilasters at the ends.

Curiously off-center, the entrance to the building leads via a narrow passage, which makes two ninety-degree turns, to a small cruciform sanctuary with three niches, for offerings or statuettes. On the west and north walls of the corridor are two beautiful hieratic graffiti left by visitors during the New Kingdom in admiration of the beauty of Djoser’s monument, which at this time was already fifteen to sixteen hundred years old. It is in these graffiti that the name “Djoser” first appears at Saqqara; during his reign the king was always designated by his Horus name, Netjeri-khet.

From the northeast corner of the pyramid a corridor led eastward to a small court, north of the South House, that had a second building, called the North House, at its northern end. The facade of this structure was decorated with four fluted columns similar to those of the South House. An off-center doorway opened onto a curving corridor that led to a small sanctuary—with five niches instead of three as in the South House.

In the east wall of the court in front of the North House there were three narrow engaged columns with triangular shafts representing the papyrus, the emblem of northern Egypt (fig. 1). The remains of a small column with a cylindrical shaft were found against the corresponding wall in the court of the South House, no doubt representing the liliform plant symbolic of southern Egypt. Together, the South House and North House probably represent structures in which the king’s ka received the homage of his subjects after his enthronement in the Heb Sed as king of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The Serdab

At the north side of the pyramid is the serdab, a small, sealed room that backs against the casing. It contained a singular statue of Djoser that is now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (JE 49158). On the north face of the serdab are two cylindrical holes through which one can now see a plaster cast of the original statue. Like the slits found in important tombs, these allowed the statue to communicate with the outside and, in this case, to see the long lines of offering bearers entering the temple. In front of the serdab, at the right and left, are two open door leaves carved in stone.

The Funerary Temple

The actual funerary temple abuts the pyramid’s north face west of the serdab. A dummy open door with a single leaf led, by way of a curving passage, to two symmetrical interior courts, where fluted columns formed part of the facades. The western court gives access to subterranean areas of the pyramid, a huge maze of deep galleries on two levels.

The Cenotaph of the Great Southern Court

In the southwest corner of the Great Southern Court is Djoser’s second tomb, or cenotaph. It is marked by a prominent oblong superstructure measuring 84 by 12 meters and having a transverse arched roof. It had a revetment of fine limestone, several courses of which remain on the south side.

At the top of the cenotaph is a fine frieze of uraei evoking Wadjet, goddess of Buto and protectress of Lower Egypt. Immediately to the left of the cobra-frieze wall is the cenotaph’s deep shaft; this has the same dimensions as the one in the pyramid (7 by 28 meters), but its granite burial crypt is smaller and square (1.6 meters on a side) instead of oblong. The bottom of the shaft communicated on the east with a suite of rooms for the ka, which included, as under the pyramid, rooms decorated with blue faience tiles and three false-door stelae showing Djoser in relief with his titulary and Horus name in a serekb.

Stairs in the enclosure wall left of the cobra-frieze wall lead to an upper terrace. There, several meters to the west, is a stairway cut into the wall’s thickness and situated parallel to the enclosure wall, between two finely built retaining walls dating to the Third Dynasty; this stairway rejoins the large shaft by means of a tunnel to the east.

Why was there a second tomb for the same king in the same complex? Could this be a symbolic tomb connected with a ritual of the king’s imaginary death in the course of the Heb Sed? Or was it meant to evoke the tombs, or rather the cenotaphs, that the two previous royal dynasties had erected at Abydos, where the necropolis of the canine god Khenti-amentiu had been the site of interment for the Predynastic kings of Upper Egypt? Djoser, for whom no monument has been found at Abydos, would thus have broken with tradition, having only a symbolic representation of the tomb-cenotaph of Upper Egypt at the southern edge of his vast funerary enclosure, the location perhaps of his canopic jars.

With its references to the funerary architecture of his predecessors and its innovative step mastaba and stone masonry, Djoser’s monument at Saqqara represents both the culmination of the funerary architecture of the First and Second Dynasties and the beginning of Egypt’s glorious Age of the Pyramids.

Jean-Philippe Lauer


1. See Lauer 1938, pp. 551-65.