Pharaoh Djoser, Imhotep and the Step Pyramid at Saqqara

Step Pyramid Funerary Complex at Saqqara
Step Pyramid Funerary Complex at Saqqara | Source

Who Was Pharaoh Djoser?

Pharaoh Djoser, also known as Netjerikhet in ancient times, was probably the first pharaoh of Egypt’s third dynasty. Djoser is most famous for being the first ever pharaoh of Egypt to construct a pyramid to use as his tomb and that this pyramid, the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara, was perhaps the first ever large, monumental building to be constructed entirely from stone. Djoser was on the throne of Egypt between circa 2635 and 2610 BC. In contemporary inscriptions he is name appears as Netjerikhet meaning ‘the divine of body’. At this early stage of Egyptian history, during the Old Kingdom, a pharaoh’s name was written within a serekh, rather than a cartouche, and a serekh is believed be a representation of the royal palace.

Later inscriptions show that Djoser and Netjerikhet were one and the same person, and the earliest evidence that this is so comes from a long inscription carved into a rock on the island of Sehel at Aswan. There has been much discussion as to whether Djoser was the first pharaoh of the third dynasty rather than Nebka, and whether Nebka’s reign should actually be placed between that of Djoser and Huni. The burial seals discovered at the entrance of the tomb of the last king of the 2nd dynasty, Khasekhemwy, mention only Djoser’s name and not Nebka’s, and this supports the theory that it was Djoser who buried Khasekhemwy and therefore succeeded him as pharaoh.

Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara
Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara
Copy of the statue of Djoser at Saqqara
Copy of the statue of Djoser at Saqqara

Djoser's Reign

The estimated length of Djoser’s reign varies between 19 years and 30 years, but scholars now believe that a reign of around 29 years is the most likely. To be able to have such a substantial funerary monument built for himself, backs up the likelihood of the longer estimate of Djoser’s reign. Nobody is completely sure who Djoser’s parents were, as details of the makeup of the royal family at this time are still quite sketchy, but it is believed that his father was the pharaoh Khasekhemwy and that his mother was Khasekhemwy’s wife Queen Nimaethap.

The evidence for this is that Queen Nimaethap is mentioned on a jar sealing of Khasekhemwy as the ‘Mother of the King’s children’ and on another jar sealing of Djoser’s reign referring to her as ‘Mother of the King of the Two Lands’. One of Djoser’s queens has been identified as a lady called Hetephernebti on a series of boundary stelae that once stood in the enclosure of the Step Pyramid. Inscriptions also indicate that Djoser had a daughter called Inetkawes, but his relationship to his successor Sekhemkhet is not known. The date of Djoser’s death has not been discovered and a mummified left foot found in the Step Pyramid is possibly all that remains of his body.

Very little is known of Djoser’s reign as pharaoh, other than that because he was able to construct a large monument like the Step Pyramid it was likely to have been an economically prosperous and stable period of Egypt’s ancient history. It is known that Djoser sent several military expeditions to the Sinai, where he managed to subdue the local population. He also added to Egypt’s riches by mining for copper and turquoise in that region. It was also possibly during Djoser’s reign that the border of Egypt was extended as far south as the Nile’s First Cataract at Elephantine for the first time.


Exploration of the Step Pyramid

European investigation of the Step Pyramid started as early as the 17th century, but serious archaeological study of the pyramid complex was not started until the time of Napoleon’s military campaign in the early 19th century. In 1821 a Prussian general called Johann Heinrich Freiherr von Minutoli located an access tunnel to the Step Pyramid that led under the pyramid from the north. Later, in 1837, an Englishman called John Perring discovered a large network of underground galleries under the pyramid.

Following this discovery a Prussian expedition led by Lepsius dug at the site. However, the first truly scientific archaeological survey of the Step Pyramid Complex did not take place until the 1920’s when Cecil Firth, another Englishman, started working at Saqqara. He was soon joined by a young French architect named Jean-Philippe Lauer who became so enthralled with the excavation that he made the Step Pyramid his life’s work. Much of what we now know about the Step Pyramid Complex is due to Lauer’s dedication, although many have dug at Saqqara since and added their contributions to our knowledge.

Building in Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara
Building in Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara

Imhotep and Constructing the Step Pyramid

When it came to choosing where he would be buried, Djoser appears to have started an unfinished tomb at Abydos. However, this tomb was abandoned and he started work on the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Saqqara was the royal necropolis on the west bank of the Nile associated with the city of Memphis, indicating that Djoser had possibly completed the move to this more northerly capital.

The pharaohs of the first two dynasties had been buried in mastaba tombs that resembled a low platform sticking from the sand. Perhaps the first moves towards the construction of a Step Pyramid can be seen at Abusir, where there are a couple of small mastabas dating from the end of the 1st dynasty that appear to have been built with as many as three steps on top. Djoser’s famous Step Pyramid is in effect a series of mastabas placed one on top of each other. The Step Pyramid is probably the world’s first large monument built completely from stone, and as most of the major buildings in Egypt at that time would have been built of mudbrick this was an amazing leap forward.

The architect of the Step Pyramid was man called Imhotep, who was a priest, philosopher, doctor and high official at Djoser’s court. Imhotep is the first architect in history that we know by name and he was hailed as a genius by later generations. Imhotep’s fame continued to grow throughout Ancient Egypt’s history and he was actually deified during the New Kingdom. The Greeks later identified Imhotep with their god of medicine, Asclepius and many bronze statues of Imhotep were created during Egypt’s Late Period. Imhotep had a dazzling career and became both the High Priest of Heliopolis and the pharaoh’s Vizier.

He was adopted as a patron deity by Egyptian scribes and they would pour a couple of drops of water onto their palettes in his honour before they started to write. Imhotep’s own tomb has never been found, although it is believed still to be still buried under the sands of Saqqara. It is the dream of many Egyptologists to be the one who discovers the tomb of Imhotep, especially if the tomb is found to be intact and undisturbed by tomb robbers.

The Step Pyramid Funerary Complex

The Step Pyramid is the central construction of the huge funerary complex built for Djoser and the funerary complex was known as ‘kbhw-ntrw’ or ‘libation of the gods’ in ancient times. The Step Pyramid rises to a height of 197 feet, has six steps, and contains around 11,668,000 cubic feet of stone and clay. The whole of the Step Pyramid Complex is surrounded by a limestone wall that would have once stood about 34 feet high, and also by an enormous trench that was as much as 40 metres wide. This wall and the trench encompassed an area of around 37 acres that contained some structures that were purely functional and many, such as the Pavilions of the North and South, that we now know were never meant to be used.

These ‘dummy’ buildings were probably constructed to be used by the pharaoh’s ka, or spirit, in his afterlife. Within the enclosure there were many platforms, shrines, statues and chapels built and also the enigmatic pyramid substructure known as the South Tomb. The true purpose of the South Tomb is unknown and much debated but it may have been a burial place for the pharaoh’s ka, or spirit, or it might have been a symbolic substitute for the king’s burial place that would have been built in the south Egypt. Probably because working in stone was such a new skill for the Egyptians, they recreated many of the architectural features of the earlier dynastic period when the craftsmen would have been working in wood, mudbrick, reeds and matting.

Stages of Building the Step Pyramid

Lauer believed that there were six distinct phases in the construction of the Step Pyramid. Initially the Step Pyramid started off as a large mastaba and then the workers began building a core of roughly shaped stones encased in fine limestone with a layer of packing in between. The pyramid builders then began to build in accretions that leaned inwards and began to use larger blocks of limestone that had been finely hewn.

The satellite buildings were also constructed in stages and there is some evidence that a few of them were partially buried nearly immediately after they were completed, which may have been done to represent the underworld of life after death. Beneath the Step Pyramid Complex there are miles of tunnels, shafts, galleries and chambers. Many of these walls were once adorned with the blue faience tiles that were arranged to resemble reed mats. Also discovered during excavations at Saqqara during the season of 1924-25 was the painted limestone statue of Djoser that is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This statue is the oldest known life-sized Egyptian statue, and a plaster replica of the statue now stands on the site where the original was found.

Restoration Work on the Step Pyramid

The Step Pyramid is currently undergoing a massive restoration project under the auspices of Dr Zahi Hawass and the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The Step Pyramid has suffered from the rigours of the harsh desert climate and the incursions of man for nearly five thousand years, and now this Egyptian project is trying to preserve the original structure and materials of the pyramid. The erosion of the bottom surface of the pyramid has put it in great danger of collapsing and the work being carried out is essential to stabilise this great monument. Weaknesses in the structure were identified, along with places where the stones had fallen away, causing partial collapsing.

Where possible the original stones were dug up and cleaned for the restoration, each one being tagged with a unique identification number and entered in on a 3D simulation of the pyramid. So just like a giant puzzle, the Step Pyramid is being put back together and, hopefully, stabilised so that many future generations can marvel at this amazing construction – the first stone built building and pyramid in the world.

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Comments 26 comments

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks SOBIM


SOBIM 3 years ago

VERY GOOD


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad that my hub on Pharaoh Djoser and his Step Pyramid was a help in your school work, Ikmkl


lkmkl 5 years ago

helped me in a school assingment


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Well jesusistheonlyway, we do not really know a lot about the historical Imhotep, other than that he was a court official of Djoser, architect of the Step Pyramid, and was revered as a deity by the later generations of Ancient Egyptians. Personally I am not a big fan of dragging the Old Testament into Egyptology and trying to twist Egyptian history to suit and fit bible stories. Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a comment


jesusistheonlyway 5 years ago

Imhotep was Joseph of the Bible, just look at the similarities here:

the-red-thread.net/joseph-imhotep.html.webloc


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad that you think that the hub on pharaoh Djoser is cool and thanks for reading it kidsfowej


kldsfowe j 5 years ago

this is cool


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for reading the hub on Pharaoh Djoser and the Step Pyramid, Elendra. There are lots of pharaohs, but you may want to check out my two hubs on Sneferu and his children


elendra 5 years ago

this was great but do you have an article about the other two pharaohs? one of them is cheops


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for the detailed comment Brian. There is still much for the Egyptologists to learn about pyramids, and how they were built and why they were built. And hopefully many exciting new discoveries to be made in the sands of Egypt


Brian V. Hunt profile image

Brian V. Hunt 6 years ago

fen lander,

There are actually inscriptions in some pyramids. Unas' pyramid at Saqarra, for example, only yards from the Step Pyramid, has the earliest religious writing in the world: the pyramid texts.

As CMHypno points out, there is other evidence of burials within pyramids. In addition to Djoser's foot, there was a lot of funerary pieces recovered from the Step Pyramid.

Human remains are not the only evidence used by archaeologists to determine whether a tomb was used. So it would be inaccurate to state that there is no archaeological evidence of burials within pyramids.

As far as "advertising their greatness," remember that the pharaoh's burial and eventual resurrection was vital to the maintenance of ma'at, the universal order. His tomb was a kind of "resurrection machine," to quote Mark Lehner.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

There have been a lot of deabates as to whether or not the pharaohs were actually interred in their pyramids. In Djoser's case parts of a mummy were found in the Step Pyramid, and there have been burials or parts of burials discovered in later pyramids and queen's pyramids. The other question to ask is, if they weren't buried in their pyramids, where were they buried? No other tombs for these 3rd and 4th dynasty pharaohs have yet been found.


fen lander profile image

fen lander 6 years ago from Whitstable

Interesting stuff, though I have to ask... was anyone actually interred in the pyramid- or any pyramid? I know it sounds like a ridiculous question, but I'm sincere. Where is the real evidence for the pyramid being used as a mausoleum? There are no engravings or carvings within the pyramid's chambers, and one thing we do know about the Pharaohs is they LOVED to advertise their greatness, especially on the walls and ceilings of their tombs. There is, as far as I know, not one single piece of archaeological evidence, anywhere in Egypt, that the pyramids were tombs. For Pharaoh burials, see: Valley Of The Kings.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad that you enjoyed reading about Imhotep and Pharoah Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, christopheranton. I went to Saqqara in 2007 and the pyramid was not open then. They are doing major conservation work on the Step Pyramid, as it was in danger of collapsing. Thanks for leaving a great comment


christopheranton profile image

christopheranton 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

Thanks for a most informative and well written hub. Imhotep is probabably one of the more interesting characters from ancient history. I went to see the step pyramid years ago, but sadly I didn't get to go into it.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks hypnodude, the pictures come from a trip to Cairo that I took with my flatmate in 2007. Although it was March, the weather was not at all good and my first glimpse of the Great Pyramid of Giza was through the pouring rain! Glad you enjoyed reading about the Step Pyramid, Saqqara is a fascinating place.


hypnodude profile image

hypnodude 6 years ago from Italy

Great! And beautiful pictures too. I didn't know much about the Step Pyramid, that's very interesting. Thumbs up. :)


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

The ancient Egyptians were a fascinating people and culture. They took their afterlife incredibly seriously and put a lot of effort into building their pyramids and tombs. Thanks for reading about Djoser and his Step Pyramid De Greek and leaving a great comment.


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Such a fascinating culturure and such admirable achievers those people were. And such an interesting hub, so well put together :-)


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for the great comment heyju, I'm sure that there will be lots more Hubs to come on Ancient Egypt and history. Glad you enjoyed reading about Djoser's Step Pyramid ar Saqqara


heyju profile image

heyju 6 years ago

I always love your hubs CMHypno : )

Lots of interesting information and history.

Thanks for the great read.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Hello, hello, I am very happy that you enjoyed reading about Saqqara, Djoser and the Step Pyramid. Thanks for leaving a great comment.


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

A very informative and comprehensive hub. Thank you for your great research and sharing. I enjoyed reading it.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks thevoice, glad you enjoyed reading about Pharaoh Djoser and the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.


thevoice profile image

thevoice 6 years ago from carthage ill

great reading

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