Pyramid and Mortuary Complex of Djoser

Saqqara was the principal necropolis for the ancient city of Memphis where, from Dynasty I onwards, the Egyptian elite built their tombs. The area is best known today as being the site of the first stone pyramid, built for a king of Dynasty III whose Horus name was Netjerikhet. The pyramid has been attributed to a King Djoser since the New Kingdom, but only the name Netjerikhet has been found on the monument.

The Step Pyramid and Jubilee Buildings

The pyramid structure rises above the plateau in a series of six stepped ‘mastabas’ and was surrounded by a complex of dummy buildings enclosed within a niched limestone wall over 10m high. Beyond the wall was a rectangular trench measuring 750m by 40m and although it is now filled by sand, it can be clearly seen on aerial photographs. The high limestone walls of the enclosure were decorated with niches and false doors which were carved into the wall after it was built – quite an enormous task! Some archaeologists believe that the enclosure wall may have represented the earthly residence of the King and so the term ‘palace façade’ became used for this type of decoration. It is thought that the design imitates the wooden framework covered by woven reed mats which would have been used in earlier structures although it has also been suggested that the motif may originate in Mesopotamia. The wall has been reconstructed on the southern rampart and near the entrance and this is the best place to examine the construction.

Temple facade and entrance colonnade
The single entrance to the enclosure is the southernmost doorway on the eastern side of the wall (the only one of the 15 doorways which is not a false door) and leads to the entrance colonnade. 20 pairs of engaged columns, resembling bundles of reeds or palm ribs line the corridor. Between the columns are 24 small chambers, thought perhaps to represent the nomes of Upper and Lower Egypt, which may once have contained statues of the King or deities. The roof of the entrance colonnade was constructed to represent whole tree trunks. This is one of the places where the challenging experiment of copying natural materials in stone is most evident. The columns were not yet trusted to support the roof without being attached to the side walls and the small size of the stone blocks used in the construction reflects the fact that previous structures were built from mudbricks. At the end of the entrance hall two false stone doorleaves rest against the side walls of a transverse vestibule which has been reconstructed. Several statue fragments were found in the entrance colonnade but the most important was a statue base (now in Cairo Museum) inscribed with the Horus name and titles of Netjerikhet and also with the name of a High Priest of Heliopolis and royal architect, Imhotep.

Imhotep, who may have been a son of Djoser, is credited with the invention of building in dressed stone and the design and construction of the Step Pyramid complex. He was deified as a god of wisdom in the Ptolemaic Period and worshipped as Asklepios, god of medicine, by the Greeks. Netjerikhet’s name is directly linked to his predecessor Khasekhemy because mud sealings bearing his name were found in 1996 in Khasekhemy’s Abydos tomb.

Djed frieze in Temple 'T' 
Immediately to the north of the entrance colonnade, on the eastern side of a large open courtyard, is a series of reconstructed buildings thought to have been connected with the King’s heb-sed, or jubilee festival. A rectangular building known as Temple ‘T’ is suggested to have been a model of the King’s palace and contains an entrance colonnade, antechamber and three inner courts leading to a square chamber decorated with a frieze of ‘djed’ symbols. This structure leads into the southern end of the ‘Jubilee Court’, which is lined with dummy buildings representing Upper Egypt (on the eastern side) and Lower Egypt (on the western side). These buildings are purely symbolic structures. There were originally 12 chapels on the east with curved vaulted roofs representing the shape of Lower Egyptian shrines each having a statue niche which would have contained statues of the King. The 13 western chapels are modelled on the shrines of Upper Egypt with three fluted half-columns and simulated doorleaves at the entrances, topped by an arched vaulted roof. The two chapels at the south had a staircase leading to a statue niche, while the other western buildings had more simple façades and may have been robing rooms or other buildings connected with the sed festival. A model fence imitating wooden palings separated the shrines. All of the structures represent, in stone, the earlier building materials of wood and reed mats and it is thought that the columns would have been painted red to simulate wood. At the southern end of the Jubilee Court there is a large elevated dais which would have held the thrones of Upper and Lower Egypt where the King may have been symbolically crowned during the ceremonies.
North of the Jubilee Court there are two mysterious buildings commonly called the ‘House of the North’ and the ‘House of the South’ and it is thought that these structures were originally partially buried, which would have given them a funerary significance. They each stand in their own courtyards and are currently believed to represent the archaic shrines of Nekhbet (from Hierakonpolis in the south) and Wadjet (from Buto in the north), although there have been many other theories suggesting their significance. The two buildings are again constructed with stone fashioned to represent organic materials. In the House of the South there is a continuous ‘khekher’ frieze over the entrance and the walls inside contain many New Kingdom graffiti, written in ink by ancient visitors, naming Djoser as the owner of the complex. The House of the North contains a shaft, 20m deep, with an underground gallery which led Lepsius to believe that the two buildings were pyramids when he first investigated them.

Mortuary Temple

Djoser’s mortuary temple lies against the northern wall of the pyramid, unlike later pyramids which usually had the mortuary temples on the eastern side. This was the cult centre of the King but now is badly ruined and only the entrance wall is preserved. It is difficult to see the ground-plan of the temple, which seems to differ considerably from other pyramid mortuary temples. The original entrance shaft into the Step Pyramid can still be seen in the floor of the mortuary temple where it emerged to run through the structure above the ground. In excavations of the temple, clay sealings were found bearing the name of a King Sanakht, previously thought to have been a predecessor of Djoser, and these may provide evidence that he actually ruled after Djoser’s time.

On the north-eastern corner of the pyramid is a court which contains a small structure known as a ‘serdab’. Inside this tiny sealed chamber, which is tilted upwards at an angle of 30 degrees, a life-sized painted statue of the King, sat on his throne and gazed out through a peep-hole towards the northern stars and the land of Osiris. Today the original statue can be seen in Cairo Museum but you can peep into the serdab and see a replica statue of Djoser, disconcertingly staring back you. The statue would have represented the King’s ‘ka’ emerging from his burial chamber in the pyramid.

Statues of Djoser at Saqqara

The Step Pyramid itself was thought to have been built in several stages, beginning with an initial square mastaba and that its plan was changed several times during construction. Scholars now doubt this theory and suggest that the whole structure was planned as a pyramid from the outset. Earlier mastaba tombs were always rectangular. Recent excavations at Abydos have shown that earlier enclosures contained a ‘mound’ of sand covered with mudbricks (possibly symbolising the ‘mound of creation’) and perhaps acting as a prototype for Djoser’s structure. It would seem from recent study that the Step Pyramid was first constructed as a square mastaba which was enlarged and expanded in six stages, eventually becoming a 4-step mastaba and then a 6-step structure which was no longer square, but had become a rectangle oriented east-west. The limestone blocks were laid in courses which were inclined towards the centre of the pyramid.

Below ground the Step Pyramid contains a maze of more than 5.5km of shafts, tunnels and chambers. A large central shaft to the burial chamber descends to a depth of 28m, while above ground the pyramid’s six steps rise to a height of 60m. Inside the burial chamber, the pink granite blocks may have replaced original blocks of limestone or ‘alabaster’ – a theory based on Lauer’s discovery of numerous fragments of limestone nearby. Some limestone blocks carved with stars were found to have been re-used with their decoration hidden and it is thought that Djoser’s burial chamber may have contained the first example of a star ceiling. Little was found inside the granite burial vault – only a few small fragments of bone wrapped in linen in Old Kingdom style, including a left foot and part of an arm. These have now been radiocarbon dated and prove to be from a burial much later than Djoser’s reign. In a passage north-west of the burial chamber a wooden box was found inscribed with Netjerikhet’s name.

Pyramid entrance and reconstructed wall (Imhotep Museum)

Many galleries and magazines surround the central burial vault. In one of the galleries on the eastern side, three false doors were carved from limestone and the walls were decorated with exquisite tiny blue faience tiles inter-spaced with rows and motifs of limestone to represent wall-hangings of natural reed matting. A reconstruction of one of the panels is now displayed in the Cairo Museum. Reliefs of the King wearing the red crown and the white crown, and running or walking, probably depict the heb-sed rituals. Other walls were also found to be decorated with blue tiles, although some of the chambers were left unfinished. It is suggested that the decoration of these chambers was inspired by the King’s private apartments in his palace at Memphis.

Another series of galleries extended westwards from 11 shafts on the eastern side of the pyramid. These were thought to be for the burial of the King’s wives and children. One of the galleries was found to contain an empty alabaster sarcophagus as well as a wooden coffin belonging to a small boy and Netjerikhet’s name was found on a seal-impression in one of the shafts. In other shafts vast quantities of stone vessels were found (around forty thousand in total) in a wide variety of shapes and materials and many bearing inscriptions of Djoser’s ancestors. The reason for these ‘heirlooms’ being in Djoser’s tomb is still unexplained today and is the source of much debate among archaeologists.

In front of the southern face of the Step Pyramid is a large open courtyard measuring 180m by 100m. In the centre of the court are two curious buildings whose low walls are shaped like the letter ‘B’ and are thought perhaps to have been associated with the heb-sed ceremonies. A limestone block was also found here bearing a text of Prince Khaemwaset (son of Rameses II) who was known to have restored many of the Old Kingdom monuments in his role of High Priest of Memphis.

'B'-shaped heb-sed structure and the South Tomb

The court is bounded on the southern side by the south wall of the enclosure. At the south-west corner is an enigmatic building known as the ‘South Tomb’, which appears to be a miniature replica of the subterranean chambers of the Step Pyramid. The South Tomb contains similar decoration to the pyramid – including the same blue faience tiles and false doors, but better preserved than in the pyramid galleries. Its purpose is unclear, the burial chamber is too small to have ever contained a sarcophagus. Many theories have been put forward by archaeologists as to its use, but the ‘tomb’ will perhaps always remain a mystery.

The Step Pyramid is now considered unsafe for visitors. On its southern side is a gallery leading to the central burial shaft, which was cut by robbers during the Late Period. This was re-used for later burials and is now the only safe entrance into the pyramid, but is not normally open. Visitors may occasionally be admitted to the South Tomb by special arrangement.

Djoser’s complex was first investigated by Napoleon’s expedition but the entrance tunnel and underground galleries were not found until the early part of the 19th century. Many archaeologists have excavated at the Step Pyramid since that time, most notably Cecil Firth and Jean-Philippe Lauer who began a systematic investigation in the 1920s which lasted throughout the 20th century. For Jean-Philippe Lauer, who died in 2001 at the age of 96, Saqqara became a life-long commitment and he returned year after year with the French Archaeological Mission to excavate and study the complex. It is primarily to Monsieur Lauer that the Egyptological world owes its knowledge of the history and architecture of the site.

~ by Su on February 18, 2009.