Step Pyramid

The Step Pyramid

Sometime around 2700 BC – the textbooks give the date of 2686 BC – the real history of Egypt begins. This is when Egypt takes a great step forward and starts building pyramids. It is the start of the Old Kingdom and the third dynasty, and also the reign of King Djoser who built the Step Pyramid. The Step Pyramid marks the big advance. It is a building very much bigger than anything that had been seen before in Egypt or indeed in the whole world. This has the very important implication that Egypt had become very rich. Not indeed in a monetary sense, but in terms of food: the wonderful fertility of the Nile meant that there was now so much food available that a considerable portion of the population could be taken away from the basic tasks of agriculture and instead build a massive though wholly useless structure, a pyramid, to serve as a tomb for the Pharaoh when he died.

In terms of the later pyramids,  the Step Pyramid was only half right. Instead of a smooth outline, it had five steps. But it was not just a pyramid, there were also massive ancillary buildings, but here again, the plan established by the Djoser was not followed (even though it seems to me, 5,000 years later, to make better sense).  The ancillary buildings were for ceremonies, not altogether comprehensible to us, but clearly ceremonies to do with the life of the king, not just his death. The later pyramids had a different set of ancillary buildings,  mortuary temples and valley temples, concerned essentially with death.

It lies at Saqqara, today rather further from modern Cairo than the great pyramids at Giza. It was however directly opposite the ancient Egyptian capital town of Memphis,  and formed the culmination of the row of great mastaba tombs that had already been built there.

The Step Pyramid was a huge project.  Not only was there the great pyramid itself, rising in six steps to the height equivalent to the top of the tower of most Medieval cathedrals, but it was also accompanied by a huge courtyard and ancillary buildings — to say nothing of the vast underground chambers where the pharaoh was eventually buried.   It was built of stone, whereas virtually all previous buildings in Egypt had been of mud brick, which meant that the whole technology of quarrying stone and conveying it in huge quantities had to be invented and organised for the first time.  It meant that huge numbers of people had to be organised.  And it meant too that huge numbers of people had to be fed and housed and equipped, probably on a semi-permanent year-long basis.  This meant that there had to be a huge agricultural surplus in order to feed and support all these extra mouths.  Nothing on this scale had been seen anywhere in the world before this.

The Step Pyramid

But what exactly did the Step Pyramid consist of ?  Unlike the later classical pyramids (which were built 20 miles to the north), this was built in a series of six steps.  Indeed it was not built as a pyramid from the start, but was a series of enlargements.  It began as a rather large square mastaba, bigger than anything before, but still of conventional type.  This mastaba was three times enlarged, getting bigger every time.  It was then decided that what we want is something altogether bigger and grander. And so the pyramid was born. It was decided to increase the mastaba in height and to make it into a step pyramid.  But this first pyramid only had four steps.  Everyone thought this was absolutely wonderful – but let’s make it even bigger.  It was therefore enlarged on the north and west sides to make it into the Step Pyramid that still exists today,  six steps high, reaching a height of 62 metres or 204 feet.

But this is only part of the story, for under the pyramid there is the burial chamber.  This was not just in a pit but in a shaft, cut down 28 meters into the bedrock — which is the height of an eight storey building.  In other words the pyramid went up 62 meters and down 28 meters.  It was a lot of work. At the bottom of the shaft was a granite burial vault 3 meters high, sealed in by a plug 1m in diameter and 3ms high: it weighed 3.5 tons.  Branching off was an elaborate series of corridors: one led to the king’s apartments,  the walls of which were inlaid with blue faience tiles, all ready for him when he was dead.   Then on the other side, another series of galleries led to the magazines, where very adequate stores were laid up for his sojourn in the next world.  The whole was approached along a stairway which, I have calculated, is almost exactly the same length as the longest escalator on the London underground (at Angel).  And if this was not enough,  a second spare set of burial chambers of almost identical dimensions was built by the south gateway with an even more elaborate apartment for the king, even if somewhat smaller magazines.

The pyramid was set within a huge courtyard covering some 15 hectares or 37 acres, the size of a small town. This in turn was surrounded by an enclosure wall still 10 m high, 1600 m or nearly a mile long, adorned on the outside with regular bastions and dummy doorways.  The building of this alone would have been a massive task.

In front of the pyramid to the south was an open courtyard where the Sed festival was celebrated.  This was celebrated when the pharaoh had been on the throne for 30 years, and every three years thereafter. The central part of the festival was when the pharaoh had to run, or perhaps just stride between two territorial markers representing the length of his kingdom: there was a dais approached by two stairways at either end.  To one side of this was another courtyard, today the most impressive part of the complex visible to tourists, which is known as the Heb-Sed courtyard, surrounded by temples on all sides – those on the long side are dummies — but here in the afterlife the pharaoh could continue to celebrate the Sed festival.

There was a temple on the north side, a huge series of galleries or store houses to the west, an elaborate tomb to the south, and were a couple of “pavilions” and other features which are not understood, and in some cases not yet excavated.  The Frenchman, Jean- Philippe Lauer, went out there in 1923 and then spent the next 70 years of his very long life trying to understand the whole complex.

 The architect Imhotep

Quite uniquely for any ancient building,  we actually know the name of the architect – Imhotep.  He was the vizier (equals Prime Minister) of the pharaoh Djoser, and was responsible for the huge feat of the organisation that lay behind the building of the pyramid and its complex. ( According to later texts he was also a distinguished doctor of medicine,  “Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief”: Pooh Bah couldn’t do better). A statue of him has survived and his name reverberated down through future generations:  he was even treated as a god of healing by the Greeks and Romans.  If one were to compile a list of the seven greatest men that the world has ever seen, Imhotep must surely be near the top.

But how did Djoser, or perhaps rather Imhotep,  manage to persuade everybody to join together to produce such a magnificent, though to our eyes quite useless, project?  Partly no doubt it was the success of Egyptian agriculture, the sheer fertility of the Nile which by its annual inundation produced an agricultural surplus that enabled half the population to produce all the food, while the other half built pyramids.  But even more important there must be the psychological aspect.  It was no doubt a time of toil and hard work: but was there also exhilaration,  a feeling that they were doing something on a scale that had never been done before, and which would still exist for us to wonder at, 5000 years later?

But how did the first true pyramids evolve?

17th May 2012