Djoser’s Step Pyramid: The Gem of Saqqara

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Old Kingdom, Lower Egypt, Pyramids, Saqqara, Temples, Tombs

djo-tabThe complex of Djoser at Saqqara is more than just the first pyramid and template for all pyramid complexes that would follow. 

Djoser’s complex is a highly integrated machine, an eternal representation of institutions, religions, and architecture culled from all corners of Egypt and incorporated into a stone microcosm intended to project the king’s world into the afterlife.

Pharaoh Djoser


Pharaoh Djoser

Pharaoh Djoser (Photo by Keith Payne)

The pharaoh commonly referred to as Djoser was actually known by the name Netjerikhet (“Body of the Gods”) in his own time and was not known as Djoser until the New Kingdom Period.  He was the first king of the Third Dynasty and ruled from about 2667 to 2648 BC, around 20 years, although some Egyptologists argue his rule was closer to 30 years. 

Inscriptions on several jars dated to his rule indicate that he was the son of Pharaoh Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty.  Some Egyptologists have attested that Djoser was the second king of the Third Dynasty, with his (possible) brother Sanakhte being the first.  However, most now believe that Sanakhte’s rule followed that of Djoser.  Some of the tales in the Westcar Papyrus place Djoser before Sanakhte, and seals at the entrance of Khasekhemwy’s tomb point to Djoser as his successor

Djoser’s policies were driven by an aspiration to gain control of economically important regions and then stabilize them under a centralized government.  He annexed the Sinai, for example, securing the valuable copper and turquoise mines located there.  His rule was a stable one, with no significant expansion of borders and no particular foreign threats.  It is thus no coincidence that Egypt experienced a growth of building projects in both scope and scale under Djoser’s reign.

King Djoser moved the royal court to Memphis, which would remain the political and cultural capitol of Egypt until the center of power shifted to Alexandria under the Ptolemies of the Thirty-Second Dynasty.  His decision to eschew burial at Abydos in favor of Saqqara, previously a cemetery for lesser nobles and high court officials, would also become the norm for Egyptian rulers.

Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara

Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara (Photo by Keith Payne)

Both Djoser and his vizier, Imhotep, would become historical heroes, particularly during the New Kingdom Period, with each having their own cult.  This revived fame, however, seems to have had more to do with their architectural innovation than any political or military achievements.  Their use of stone as a building material made them, quite literally, rock stars.

Egypt in Microcosm

Vizier Imhotep (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Vizier Imhotep (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The complex of Djoser at Saqqara was designed by his vizier and chief architect (and some say brother) Imhotep.  Imhotep, whose name means “the one who comes in, with peace,” was a Renaissance man by anyone’s standard.  Poet, priest, and politician, not to mention architect and physician, he was elevated to godhood and worshipped for more than two millennia, including a cult in Greece where he was deified as Asclepius. 

To say that the Step Pyramid Imhotep designed was the first pyramid constructed in Egypt (which it was), and that the complex he designed around it would become the prototype for pyramid complexes of the future (which it did), is an understatement.  What Imhotep built was nothing less than a symbolic representation of all Egypt, from which Djoser would continue his role as sovereign in the afterlife.  Everything that was Egypt, from culture to religion to politics, would be recreated within its enclosure wall. 

The Step Pyramid of Djoser from the Southern Tomb

The Step Pyramid of Djoser from the Southern Tomb (Photo by Keith Payne)

For all his innovation, Imhotep could hardly be called trendy.  The catalyst of some of the most significant architectural conventions in human history, he seems to have had much less interest in change than preservation.  He meticulously reproduced not only the architectural styles that were traditional for his time, but mimicked the very building materials that were used, all in stone. 

djo04 - Map of the Step Pyramid Complex

Prior to Imhotep, mastabas and other structures were constructed with sun-baked mudbrick, wood, and other organic materials.  But in Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex, stone was cut to the same size and dimensions as mudbrick.  Stone pillars were designed to look as if they were fashioned of bundled stems and tree trunks. Stone beams were made to resemble wooden logs.  Stone walls were carved to have the appearance of reed mat coverings.  Stone surfaces were painted to resemble mudbrick and plant materials.

Many of the structures within Djoser’s complex were built for purely symbolic purposes.  Architectural styles and materials of different regions were rendered in facsimile, with their gods and institutions duly represented.  Even the buildings themselves were figurative in construction, having detailed facades and the occasional shallow entrance, but were otherwise of solid construction.

Artificial doors built to convey passage between this life and the afterlife, buildings whose interiors exist only in the spirit world, a false tomb that mirrors the subterranean construction of the Step Pyramid—all of these were elements in a Hollywood-style set designed to represent in stone on the mortal plane structures that would have their true existence in the afterlife.  Many of the buildings were purposely buried in order to reinforce their association with the afterlife.

The Enclosure Wall

As pyramid complexes would be in the future, Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex was entirely surrounded by an enclosure wall.  The wall originally was nearly 35 feet high and just over a mile long.  The complex was further cloistered by a trench that ran along the wall’s outer perimeter, and from which much of the building materials of the complex were likely quarried.

The enclosure wall and entrance to the colonnade

The enclosure wall and entrance to the colonnade (Photo by Keith Payne)

The enclosure wall was constructed of a rough-hewn core faced with limestone cut to resemble mudbrick and reed matting.  The paneled appearance of the wall is thought to be evocative of the palace walls.  Every 12-14 feet uniform bastions protrude, and at irregular intervals there are fourteen barbicans, thirteen with false doors and one with the actual entrance to the complex in the southern end of the eastern wall.

The Entrance and Colonnade

The entrance to the complex is rendered to appear to be a large open wooden door, but is actually of solid and immovable construction.  It opens into what is considered to be the first hypostyle hall in the world.  The limestone ceiling is crafted to look as if made of logs.  The 40 columns within, constructed of segmented masonry carved to resemble bundled reeds or logs, serve no actual supportive function. 

Segmented attached columns in the colonnade

Segmented attached columns in the colonnade (Photo by Keith Payne)

Thirty-two of these columns are attached by masonry to the corridor walls, creating 24 niches in which statues may have once stood, and which are considered to be symbolic of the 24 provinces (nomes) of Djoser’s Egypt.  After the twelfth pair, the columns are situated closer together to create the illusion that the hall is longer than it actually is.  The last four pairs of columns are free-standing and lead to the Southern Court.  The exit is also meant to resemble a large open wooden door.

The Southern Court

Across the Great Southern Court to the Heb Sed Court and colonnade

Across the Great Southern Court to the Heb Sed Court and colonnade (Photo by Keith Payne)

The colonnade opens into the southeast corner of the Southern Court, an area bounded by the pyramid to the north and the Southern Tomb in the south.  There are the remains of two low-walled B-shaped structures, aligned with their straight sides facing inward.  Thought to represent Upper and Lower Egypt, it is thought that the king would have raced back and forth between the structures during the Heb Sed Festival.

The Heb Sed Court

Located to the East of the Southern Court and north of the colonnade, the rectangular Heb Sed Court is where the majority of the Heb Sed ritual would have been played out.  The Heb Sed Ritual was a symbolic show of vehm and vigor wherein the king would race back and forth between representations of Upper and Lower Egypt, probably the B-shaped structures in the Southern Court, to demonstrate his strength and vitality. It would be followed by great feasts and celebrations.

The Heb Sed Court (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Heb Sed Court (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Heb Sed Court is thought to be the site of a ritual procession involved with the festival.  There is a symbolic representation of the king’s palace, complete with thrones of Upper and Lower Egypt, and false buildings and chapels lining both sides of the court from end to end.  The buildings were little more than solid structures with detailed facades constructed in the styles of their constituent regions.

The Heb Sed was traditionally celebrated after the king had spent thirty years in office, although there were exceptions, but it is generally thought that Djoser never had an opportunity to make use of the Heb Sed Court due to the length of his reign.

The Southern Tomb and Chapel

As you enter the Southern Court you are facing a chapel wall with a protective frieze of cobras.  The chapel wall extends from the southern enclosure wall and forms the eastern wall of a mastaba known as the southern tomb.  Although it is called a tomb, it is too small for a sarcophagus, and like much of the rest of the complex, appears to have served a symbolic function.

Looking up at the cobra frieze of the Southern Tomb

Looking up at the cobra frieze of the Southern Tomb (Photo by Keith Payne)

The shaft within the mastaba leads 92 feet down to a subterranean complex that serves as a small scale model of the tunnels under Djoser’s pyramid.  The complex contains rooms for storage and offerings, along with other areas that mimic the passages under the pyramid itself, although there are differences as well. 

The complex beneath the pyramid is oriented along a north south axis, while the south tomb has an east west axis.  The adornments and reliefs within the South Tomb are of higher detail and quality than those beneath the Step Pyramid, leading to speculation that it was completed earlier and at more leisure than the pyramid.  It is believed that the South Tomb may have been one of the resting places of the king’s Ka, and may be the forerunner of the small scale cult pyramids that would become standard to pyramid complexes that follow.

The House of the North and the House of the South

North of the Heb Sed Court are two large shrines, each with its own courtyard, called the House of the North and the House of the South.  Again we find representation of Upper and Lower Egypt, not only in the style of architecture, but in the actual buildings they recreate.  And again, the structures are purely symbolic and almost entirely solid.

 The House of the South has the appearance of a mudbrick structure with four faux columns.  It appears to be a representation of the Shrine of Nekhbet in the southern city of Hierakonpolis, and in its courtyard is a faux column with a lotus capital, the symbol of Upper (southern) Egypt.

The House of the South

The House of the South (Photo by Keith Payne)

The House of the North is likewise rendered to appear as if constructed of mudbrick, with four engaged columns.  The House of the North has been compared to the Shrine of Wadjet located in the northern delta city of Buto.  There are three faux columns in its courtyard topped with papyrus capitals, the symbol of Lower (northern) Egypt.

The Mortuary Temple

One of the few buildings in the complex that was fully functional rather than symbolic, Djoser’s mortuary temple would have been the center of his cult after his death.  This is where priests, penitents, and family members would come to make offerings and perform rituals to honor the king in his afterlife. 

The mortuary temple is another aspect of Djoser’s complex that would become a standard element in pyramid complexes of the future, although future mortuary temples would be located to the east of the pyramid, whereas Djoser’s is located to the north.

Although a functioning building, the mortuary is still replete with symbolic representations of traditional architecture and building materials.  The building would have had an traditional appearance, along with stone doors that don’t actually close, pillars that don’t actually support anything, and blocks cut to approximate the appearance of mudbricks. 

The "original" entrance to the Step Pyramid from the Mortuary Temple

The "original" entrance to the Step Pyramid from the Mortuary Temple (Photo by Keith Payne)

The original entrance to the pyramid is located within the mortuary temple, although calling it original may be a misnomer.  When the first stage of the step pyramid (which was actually a mastaba at this point) was expanded, the original mortuary temple and entrance were moved further north and the Northern Court area was extended to maintain symmetry.  But original not, the temple entrance to the pyramid is no longer functional—like many other pyramids, access today is gained through an entrance dug out long ago by plunderers.

The Serdab

The serdab is a small sealed structure that once held the statue of King Djoser that became the earthly vessel of his Ka after his death.  The original statue, which is the earliest example of life-sized human statuary recovered from Egypt so far, is in the Cairo Museum.  The statue that sits in the serdab now is a replica.

Looking into the serdab at King Djoser (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Looking into the serdab at King Djoser (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Located on the northeastern corner of the pyramid, to the east of the mortuary temple, the serdab is another place where offerings for King Djoser would have been made.  Although the serdab is closed all around, there are two holes through which the king’s Ka statue would have been able to see the northern constellations to guide him in the afterlife. 

The location of the serdab is in alignment with a section in the Step Pyramid’s subterranean complex that was symbolic of Djoser’s personal chambers in his earthly palace.  Again, the form, location, and symbolism of the serdab make it a part of a vast finely tuned machine whose purpose was to extend the material world into the afterlife, and vice versa.

The Step Pyramid

Djoser’s Step Pyramid was originally about 197 feet tall, and like the rest of the structures in the complex, is made of stone brick cut to approximate the size and scale of mudbrick.  Built of a rough-cut core surrounded by dressed limestone with a layer of filler in between, the step-shape is thought to be representative of King Djoser’s ascension to the afterlife. 

Looking across the Southern Court to the Step Pyramid

Looking across the Southern Court to the Step Pyramid (Photo by Keith Payne)

Long considered the earliest large-scale stone construction, this honor actually may go to the “Great Enclosure” (Arabic: Gisr el-Mudir) west of the Pyramid of Sekhemkhet, which predates the Step Pyramid. 

Imhotep’s idea for the design of Djoser’s pyramid may not have come quite out of the blue.  Mastaba 3038, constructed some 200 years earlier during the reign of King Anedjib, was situated on a mud-brick step mound which looks remarkably like the beginnings of a step pyramid, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Mastaba 3038--The inspiration for the Step Pyramid?

Mastaba 3038--The inspiration for the Step Pyramid?

There has been much debate regarding whether the design started as a regular mastaba and was expanded into a pyramid as an afterthought, or whether it was intended to have a pyramidal shape from the beginning.  Most Egyptologists now accept that the plan all along was to construct a step pyramid of some sort, as the original understructure was square and mastabas are typically rectangular, but the design clearly underwent several stages and revisions.

djo15 - The first three phases of constructionThe first stage was a square mastaba with a core of locally quarried stone, faced with dressed limestone and surrounded by its own enclosure wall.  The mastaba was then extended about 13 feet in all directions by a slightly lower addition, resulting in a square mastaba with a single low step.  It was again resurfaced with limestone.  A third extension was added, this time to the east side alone, resulting in a rectangular mastaba with two steps on the eastern side.

djo16 - Pyramid 1 and Pyramid 2The entire structure was again encased within a single square level, to which three more square layers were added, growing smaller as they rose.  The result was Pyramid 1, a square four-tiered step pyramid.  In the final stage, these first four layers were again extended, this time into rectangular layers oriented east to west, and two more layers were added to the top resulting in Pyramid 2, a six-tiered step pyramid, which was then cased in dressed limestone.

Djoser's Step Pyramid--the first pyramid in Egypt

Djoser's Step Pyramid--the first pyramid in Egypt (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Subterranean Network of the Step Pyramid

Although it lies completely out of sight, Djoser’s burial chamber and associated tunnels and galleries are at least as impressive as any other part of the complex at Saqqara.  Djoser was buried in a red granite sarcophagus at the bottom of a 92-foot shaft under the pyramid.  His mummy was not found, and what few remains have been recovered from the burial chamber date to a later period.

There is evidence that the burial chamber may have originally been lined with limestone and alabaster and may have had a ceiling painted with the sort starry canopy seen in later pyramids in the Saqqara region, but was later stripped and relined with granite.  Fragments of what may have been the original limestone, and a section of the starry ceiling, have been recovered nearby.

Miles of tunnels under Djoser's pyramid (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Miles of tunnels under Djoser's pyramid (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Branching off from the burial chamber is a maze of more than three miles of tunnels, shafts, storerooms, and tombs.  Many of the walls are sided with faience-covered limestone or blue tiling.  There are scenes of the king performing the Heb Sed festival and wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. 

Parts of the subterranean halls and galleries seem to be symbolic of the king’s living chambers in the palace, while others are thought to have been burial chambers for Djoser’s immediate family.  Some of his worldly possessions were recovered in these passages, including what appear to be “antiques” belonging to Djoser’s ancestors. 

There have been human remains recovered from Djoser’s underworld, and at least one mummy was, oddly enough, older than Djoser by several generations.  It is possible that, along with family heirlooms, Djoser may have had some of his ancestor relocated to his pyramid complex.  Another explanation is that the builders accidentally tunneled into older pre-existing tombs.

The Step Pyramid Complex Today

Djoser’s pyramid complex remains one of the primary heritage sites in Egypt, and the main reason why visitors come to Saqqara.  In 2008 the Supreme Council of Antiquities began a sweeping conservation project to address the environmental issues that threaten Djoser’s complex.  Some of the problems are natural attrition inherent to a structure that has stood for 5,000 years.  Others are man-made and more recent. 

Efforts continue to reconstruct collapsed sections of Djoser's Pyramid

Efforts continue to reconstruct collapsed sections of Djoser's Pyramid (Photo by Keith Payne)

Beneath the pyramid the problem is water buildup.  Water tables have been rising all over Egypt since the building of the Aswan Dam, which occurred in several phases beginning in the early 20th century.  The Step Pyramid is not alone in this respect.  Rising water is a ubiquitous problem all along the Nile River as the environmental effects of the dam threaten Egyptian communities and heritage sites alike.

On the external surface, wind erosion and the occasional torrential rain have taken a gradual toll.  Large sections of brick have fallen away over the centuries leaving weak spots.  Archaeologists are making their way through the rubble around the base of the pyramid identifying blocks that are then used to repair the structure.

The conservation work has also proven that much remains to be discovered at Djoser’s complex.  A deep shaft tunneling beneath the pyramid and later tombs dug into the surface of the pyramid itself are just two of these recent discoveries.  Even more is likely to be revealed as efforts continue in the subterranean portion of the Step Pyramid.

Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex remains a testament to the rule of a king who was able to provide enough social stability and economic prosperity to conceive and carryout such a project.  It is likewise proof of the genius of Imhotep, certainly one of the most brilliant human beings ever to live.  This giant stone device may or may not have succeeded in projecting Djoser’s reign into the afterlife, but it has undeniably preserved his legacy across time and into our lives.

The future on the horizon--Dashur Pyramids from Djoser's Complex

The future on the horizon--Dashur Pyramids from Djoser's Complex (Photo by Keith Payne)

Further Reading



The Ancient Egypt Site




Discovering Ancient Egypt

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara



Egyptian Monuments

Pyramid and Mortuary Complex of Djoser



LookLex Egypt

Zoser’s Step Pyramid



Talking Pyramids

Pyramid of Djoser



Tour Egypt

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt



 Zahi Hawass’ Blog

Saving the Step Pyramid



Photographs “Imhotep-Louvre.jpg” by Wiki user Hu Totya, “Saqqara – Pyramid of Djoser complex – Heb-sed Court – view 1.jpg” by Wiki user Daniel Mayer, “Saqqarah Djeser 10.jpg” by Wiki user Sebi, and “Djoser-tombe-sud-firth.jpg” by Cecil M. Firth are provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons  and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of those files under the conditions that you appropriately attribute them, and that you distribute them only under a license identical to this one. Official license 

ALL OTHER photographs and text are copyright 2009, all rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 21st, 2009 at 5:22 am and is filed under Old Kingdom, Lower Egypt, Pyramids, Saqqara, Temples, Tombs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 comments so far


Hello there! How are you?
I found your page on Google Search and I got quite fascinated. Congrats on the site, I’m a fan of egyptian culture, actually I have a blog and I post about Engineering, Architecture, History and Science, but I’m brazilian so I write it all in portuguese.

Good job on the site
Thank you

January 4th, 2011 at 2:41 am

Hi Rofstadter!

Thank you so much for your kind words, and I am very glad you are enjoying Em Hotep! Please feel free to jump in and add your own thoughts or observations to any article.

Please forgive me for removing the link to your blog in your comment, and allow me to explain. I am very cautious about the sites I link to, and while it looks like your blog is off to an excellent start, I would prefer to have a better idea of how your site develops before I link to it.

You may note that I link to a number of foreign language sites and blogs, all of them carefully vetted, and it would please me very much to add you as well after you have a little more content.

Please keep me informed, and after you have a few more articles/posts up that are relevant to Egyptology, please do remind me to take a look at your site again. This is by no means an act of snobbery, by the way! But as you can probably tell, I put a lot of work into Em Hotep and I have to protect my “brand.”

Best wishes, and Happy New Year!

January 4th, 2011 at 7:26 am

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