Step Pyramid of Djoser: Egypt’s first Pyramid

Step Pyramid of Djoser: Egypt’s first Pyramid

Two camels and a sitting man in front of the Step Pyramid of Zoser, Saqqara, Egypt. We can see 4 steps here.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser is the oldest pyramid in Egypt. It modified into constructed about 4,700 years previously.
(Checklist credit score: Pictures by Ulrich Hollmann via Getty Pictures)

The Step Pyramid of Djoser, constructed at Saqqara about 4,700 years previously,  modified into the first pyramid the Egyptians ever constructed.

The historic Egyptian pharaoh that gave the pyramid its name, Djoser, as soon as rapidly spelled Zoser (although he modified into truly known as Netjerykhet) dominated at some level of Egypt’s third dynasty. Scholars attribute the planning of the pyramid to Imhotep, a vizier who would later be deified for his accomplishments.

“Djoser is the name given to this king by New Kingdom guests to the area over a thousand years later” wrote Egyptologist Mark Lehner in his e book “The Total Pyramids: Solving The Frail Mysteries” (Thames & Hudson, 2008). 

The pyramid began off as a mastaba tomb — a flat-roofed structure with sloping sides — and, via a chain of expansions, superior right into a 197-foot-high (60 meters) pyramid, with six layers, one constructed on prime of the quite a bit of. The pyramid modified into constructed the exercise of 11.6 million cubic toes (330,400 cubic meters) of stone and clay. The tunnels beneath the pyramid form a labyrinth about 3.5 miles (5.5 kilometers) long. The pyramid modified into lined with tura limestone, most of which is long gone recently.

Greater security?

In earlier instances, pharaohs had been buried in smaller mastaba tombs, which robbers might perhaps perhaps attain by digging in from the cease, Reg Clark, an Egyptologist, wrote in his e book “Securing Eternity: Frail Egyptian Tomb Protection from Prehistory to the Pyramids” (American College in Cairo Press, 2019). The Step Pyramid of Djoser, Clark wrote, would contain made it nearly very unlikely for a robber to attain the burial chamber by digging in from the cease. Protection from grave robbers might perhaps perhaps be a reason why the historic Egyptians constructed the step pyramid, Clark wrote. 

Whereas the step pyramid might perhaps perhaps contain offered enhanced security, of us sooner or later broke into it, and recently most of the burial goods, including the mummy of Djoser, are long long gone. 

Not every mummy has been looted from the tomb, however. Fresh archaeological work published three mummies dating to the late duration (ca. 712–332 B.C.) that had been buried interior Djoser’s burial chamber, in accordance with a paper published in 2021 in the Journal of the Total Union of Arab Archaeologists (opens in original tab). This implies that by the late duration of us had now now not simplest damaged into the king’s burial chamber but had been burying more mummies interior of it.

The Djoser complex

The pyramid is on the center of a flowery 37 acres (15 hectares) in dimension. A recessed limestone wall surrounds the complex; false doorways as neatly as the loyal colonnade entrances are embedded on the southeast facet, wrote Lehner.

A temple lies on the north facet of the pyramid together with a statue of the king. A runt stone structure identified as a “serdab” surrounds the statue, with the king’s eyes peeking out via a gap in the serdab. To the south of the pyramid lies a mountainous courtroom, with an altar and stones acknowledged as boundary markers, Lehner famed.

The builders positioned a more than a few of facade “dummy” constructions in the complex, including a chain of chapels in the southeast as neatly as north and south pavilions on the east facet of the pyramid. These constructions would contain served ritual features and, curiously, they seem to had been partly buried by their builders, wrote Lehner. Within the southeast facet of the complex, next to the dummy chapels, lies a courtroom the establish the king might perhaps perhaps originate the Heb-Sed jubilee festival, presumably in the afterlife.

Here we see the pavilion at the funerary complex of pharaoh Djoser located in Saqqara, Egypt. We can see a doorway flanked by 2 tall columns. While there is mostly smooth bricks, at the top the bricks looked piled on more haphazardly and less neat.

Here we see a pavilion on the funerary complex of Pharaoh Djoser, Saqqara. (Checklist credit score: Lola L. Falantes via Getty Pictures)

At the southern terminate of the complex lies the enigmatic “south tomb,” with a chapel. It contains a chain of tunnels that mimic these stumbled on beneath the pyramid itself. 

“One room [in the south tomb] had carved limestone panels direct into the partitions depicting the pharaoh operating the heb-sed trail,” wrote Aidan Dodson and Salima Ikram in their e book “The Tomb in Frail Egypt” (Thames & Hudson 2008). The heb-sed festival famed kingship, and at some level of the festival the king would bustle spherical an delivery location. The south tomb might perhaps perhaps now now not contain held any burials and its cause is now now not determined, wrote Dodson, an Egyptology professor on the College of Bristol, and Ikram, an Egyptology professor on the American College in Cairo. 

The complex is surrounded by a dry “moat” that is of diversified depth and about 131 toes (40 m) broad, in accordance with a discover about published in 2015 in the journal Archaeological Prospection (opens in original tab). A seek for of the moat published that it served as a “mountainous quarry for field cloth feeble for constructing of the Step Pyramid,” the employees wrote in their paper.

Who is buried in the Djoser pyramid?

Under the step pyramid winds a bewildering array of tunnels and chambers, the center of which is a 90-foot-deep (28 m) shaft that, at its bottom, contains the burial chamber of King Djoser. The mum of King Djoser is long gone, but conservation work in the burial chamber has published 32 fragments of the king’s granite sarcophagus, Zahi Hawass, a outdated minister of antiquities in Egypt, wrote in his paper. From the remains, archaeologists estimate that the king’s sarcophagus in the starting establish weighed 1.76 tons (1.6 metric tons). 

The builders in the starting establish planned to spice up the ceiling with limestone blocks engraved with 5 pointed stars, creating the semblance of a superstar-crammed sky. Archaeologists stumbled on blocks from this planned ceiling at some level of conservation work, in accordance with Hawass, but for reasons unknown, the builders scrapped this decoration, leaving a ceiling of easy granite.

Tunnels and underground ‘palace’

Two passages lead underground and division off in three directions. They like three journal (storage) galleries, a special tunnel for offerings, and an uncompleted chamber that will perhaps contain formed an underground “palace” of styles, albeit one for the afterlife.

The underground “palace” has three inaccurate doors containing stele, or stone carvings, exhibiting the king engaged in rituals. The chamber is embellished with blue faience tiles,  perhaps supposed to imitate the reed matting uncover in the king’s loyal-life palace in Memphis, Lehner famed in his paper. This subterranean chamber modified into without discover carried out. 

A tunnel on the east facet of the pyramid contains 40,000 stone vessels, many of them belonging to the king’s ancestors. Archaeologists contain stumbled on human remains and sarcophagi nearby, including the hip bone of a girl who modified into spherical 18 years worn when she died, Lehner famed. About a of the female remains dated to generations earlier than Djoser’s time, leaving a requirement as to who they had been, in accordance with Lehner’s paper.

Unusual-day conservation

From 2006 to 2020, Egypt led a project to conserve the pyramid, with some support from  engineers from a British engineering company known as Cintec. At one level at some level of the conservation efforts, big airbags had been feeble to lengthen the pyramid’s roof while workers repaired the structure of the pyramid.

About a of the pyramid’s blocks had change into loose and had been effect relief at some level of conservation efforts. 

“The employees modified into in a location to amass all blocks that had been loose below the sand, handled them as we speak, and chose essentially the most attention-grabbing of them to be positioned relief onto the pyramid after filling the gaps with mortar,” Hawass wrote. “The mortar that modified into feeble has the equivalent ratio of limestone to sand feeble by the historic Egyptians.”

In the background we see the Step Pyramid in Saqqara, Egypt. It has 5 steps, each level higher getting shorter. In the foreground we see a row of stone cobra carvings on a wall.

The oldest standing step pyramid in Egypt, designed by Imhotep for King Djoser, located in Saqqara, an historic burial floor at 19 miles (30 kilometers) south of standard-day Cairo. (Checklist credit score: Richmatts via Getty Pictures)

Mark of recognize

The attain of the step pyramid marked the starting establish of an ambitious pyramid-constructing program that can culminate with the Gigantic Pyramid at Giza. Imhotep, the person credited with designing the step pyramid, would sooner or later be regarded as a god of styles.

Egyptologist Marc Van De Mieroop wrote in his e book “A Ancient previous of Frail Egypt” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), that King Djoser (Netjerykhet) gave Imhotep a rare honor, permitting his name and titles to be carved on the spoiled of one the king’s statues. One of his titles calls him “chief of sculptors,” a phrase fitting for somebody who designed the first Egyptian pyramid.

Djoser would additionally proceed to be revered and, centuries after he died, officials quiet desired to be buried shut to his step pyramid. In 2022, archaeologists stumbled on the tomb of one such unswerving, named “Mehtjetju,” by the step pyramid. He lived about 4,300 years previously, centuries after Djoser’s reign. 

One long-standing demand is: Where is Imhotep buried? Given Imhotep’s association with the step pyramid, Egyptologists suspect that he might perhaps perhaps be buried shut to his most neatly-identified creation. One chances are Imhotep modified into buried beneath the step pyramid, an opinion that future evaluation on the pyramid will ponder, Hawass wrote in his paper.

Extra property

  • You can be taught more about how Egyptian pyramids had been constructed on this Are living Science article.
  • The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has more files about the step pyramid and systems to consult with it on their internet pages (opens in original tab).
  • The ministry has additionally helped invent a virtual tour of the step pyramid which is able to be viewed here (opens in original tab).


Clark, Reg “Securing Eternity: Frail Egyptian Tomb Protection from Prehistory to the Pyramids” American College in Cairo Press, 2019

Dodson, A & Ikram, S “The Tomb in Frail Egypt” Thames & Hudson 2008

Hawass, Zahi “The Discovery of the Sarcophagus of Djoser and the restoration of the step pyramid” Journal of the Total Union of Arab Archaeologists, 2021

Lehner, Mark “The Total Pyramids: Solving The Frail Mysteries” Thames & Hudson, 2008

Van de Mieroop, Marc “A Ancient previous of Frail Egypt” Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Welc et al “Western Section of the ‘Dry Moat’ Channel Surrounding Step Pyramid Complex in Saqqara in the Gentle of Floor-penetrating Radar Prospection” Archaeological Prospection, 2015

Before all the pieces published on Are living Science on Sept. 10, 2012 and up so a ways on June 29, 2022.

Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus is a extraordinary contributor to Are living Science who writes about archaeology and humans’ previous. He has additionally written for The Self reliant (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Linked Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the College of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson College.