Pharaoh Djoser, Imhotep and the Step Pyramid at Saqqara
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.
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.
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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