About Egyptian Pyramids
Part I: An Introduction
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston
The Great Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara, known to the ancient Egyptians as kbhw-ntrw (libation of the deities), is one of those superstars of Egyptian monuments that is almost always on the itinerary of antiquity tours to Egypt, and for good reason. Few monuments hold a place in human history as significant as that of this Pyramid. It can be said without exaggeration that the Step Pyramid complex constitutes a milestone in the evolution of monumental stone architecture, both in Egypt and in the world as a whole. It is the beginning of an evolutionary period that would eventually see the polished, smooth faced true pyramids of the 4th Dynasty master builders.
Here limestone was first used on a large scale as a construction material, and here the idea of a monumental royal tomb in the form of a pyramid was first truly realized. In a 19th Dynasty inscription found in South Saqqara, the ancient Egyptians were already describing its builder as the "opener of stone", which can be interpreted as meaning the inventor of stone architecture.
According to tradition, it was built for Horus Netjerikhet, better known as Djoser, a major ruler of Egypt's 3rd Dynasty, by Imhotep, Egypt's most famous architect who was subsequently deified during the New Kingdom. Djoser is actually the name given to this king by visitors to the site one thousand years after its construction, but actually the only name found on its walls is that of Netjerykhet. The step pyramid dominates this antiquity site.
While 17th century European travelers attempted to enter the Step Pyramid, archaeological research did not really begin until Napoleon's Egyptian campaign at the turn of the 19th century. In 1821, the Prussian general Johann Heinrich Freiherr von Minutoli discovered the access tunnel that leads under the pyramid from the North. However, not until 1837 did the English pyramid researcher, John Perring, find the underground galleries beneath the main structure. Soon after that, the Prussian expedition led by Lepsius did some work at the pyramid. True, systematic archaeological research on the Djoser complex was only first conducted in the 1920s by the English archaeologist, Cecil Firth. He was soon joined by the young French architect, Jean-Philippe Lauer, who made the excavation of this complex his lifelong mission. Later, others would work at the site, but most of our current knowledge of this complicated structure can be attributed to Lauer.
It would be hard to overemphasize the dramatic leap in architectural size and sophistication represented in the Step Pyramid. Prior to Djoser's complex, the most common material for large buildings was mudbrick. However, it should be noted that this may not be, in its essence, the first step pyramid. Several small mastabas at Abusir seem to have perhaps had as many as three steps and date to the second half of the 1st Dynasty. Prior to its expansion, Djoser's complex also went through a stage where it had only four steps.
The complex is surrounded by a wall of fine white Tura limestone, which when built, measured some 10.5 meters (34 feet) high and was 1,645 meters (5,397 ft) long. Within was an area of about 15 ha (37 acres), which would have been the size of a small town during the Old Kingdom. It contained a vast complex of functional, as well as what we believe were dummy buildings, including pavilions of the North and South, large tumuli and terraces, finely carved facades, ribbed and fluted columns, stairways, platforms, shrines chapels and life-size statues. There was even a replica of the pyramid substructure, called the South Tomb, but the centerpiece was, of course, the Step Pyramid itself, rising to a height of about 60 meters (197 feet), in six steps and containing some 330,400 cubic meters (11,668,000 cubic feet) of clay and stone. Many of the structures contain elements that become familiar forms, but here we see for the first time. Of course, there is the pyramid structure itself, but also we see the first colonnade, the first Hypostyle, portico, life-sized statues, torus-moldings and cavetto cornice. In fact, many of these elements survived as members of the hieroglyphic sign-list of sacred buildings.
The pyramid itself was perhaps not imagined, in its initial construction, as a step pyramid, but rather as a large, square mastaba. However, the fact that it is square, whereas most all mastaba style tombs are usually rectangular, suggests that the builders may have, from the beginning, planned a stepped pyramid.
Jean-Philippe Lauer, the main excavator of the site, believed that it took six stages for the structure to eventually reach its final form. When the builders began to transform the mastaba, they began by building a crude core of roughly shaped stones with a fine limestone casing and a layer of packing in between. While this technique had been used for mastabas, now there was a profound difference. They abandoned horizontal beds and began to build in accretions that leaned inward. They employed larger and better carved blocks that no longer needed to be packed with large amounts of mortar. Instead, they used clay only as an aid to setting each block on a bed that inclined with the accretion layer. In the initial stage, they encased the king's mastaba in fine limestone and then only a few years later entirely covered it with the Step Pyramid.
Not only was the pyramid itself build in stages, but so too were the surrounding structures. Evidence suggests that the builders partially buried the dummy structures, consisting of the Pavilions of the North and South, the South Tomb and Sed Chapels, almost immediately after they built them during the first stage. In his book, The Complete Pyramids, Mark Lehner says that:
"The half-submerging of the dummy buildings must have signified the chthonic, underworld aspect of existence after death. And the full envelopment of the mastaba conforms to the pastern of early Egyptian monuments that successive stages conceal earlier ones. Tomb building appears to have been part of a larger ceremonial style, an act of consolidation and renewal that necessitated burying finely crafted structures. The Egyptian penchant for simulation receives one of its greatest expressions here. The stone enclosure wall imitates one of mudbrick; the ceiling stones of the entrance passage, the Sed chapels and the Pavilions of the North and South imitate wooden log beams, traces of paint indicate that many facades and pillars in fine limestone were painted red to imitate wood."
Hence, at first the architectural form did not precisely correspond to the new material. The builders were strongly influenced by the architecture of the Early Dynastic Period, which had used light, natural materials such as mud brick, wood, reeds, straw and matting. Here, the results of their efforts was an original, monumental and therefore in many respects, bizarre work, which united in matchless harmony, the mentality of earlier architecture with a new order of stone builders. Essentially, the earlier architecture was copied in stone.
Lauer distinguished between functional versus fictional structures. With some elements, it was enough that their form or image be present in the facade. Their interior could be abbreviated. The are what have been called dummy buildings. The buildings served the king's ka in the Afterlife. The functional buildings may have been necessary for the actual conduct of the funerary ceremonies. But what was above ground is only part of the story.
Below ground, the Egyptians created an underground structure on a scale previously unknown, quarrying out more than 5.7 kilometers (about 3 1/2 miles) of shafts, tunnels, chambers, galleries and magazines. A central corridor and two parallel ones extend over 365 meters (1,198 feet), connecting 400 rooms. These and other subterranean features surround one of the most complicated tangles of tunnels and shafts the Egyptians ever created, below the pyramid itself.
It was not only the architecture of the complex that was new. In comparison with the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, this complex reflects in many ways a different mentality. In the course of the struggle to establish a unified realm, a stronger central government had been established. Because of its originality, the group of buildings constituting Djoser's pyramid complex is usually seen as the expression of Egyptian political stability at the beginning of the Old Kingdom. However, beyond that, Egyptologists continue to disagree about its construction and meaning.