The first stone pyramid
The Great Pyramid of Giza is perhaps more commonly depicted in Egyptian postcards, but it was the Pyramid of Djoser that was the first of its kind ever built. The ancient Egyptians held firm beliefs about the afterlife, burying their rulers along with their possessions (and sometimes even their slaves) so that they would not lack anything in the afterlife. However, before the pyramid of Djoser, the pharaohs were usually buried in rectangular tombs built of clay slabs called mastabas (literally benches).
At some point between 2667 and 2648 BC. NS. this step pyramid was built for Pharaoh Djoser, setting new standards for the burial rites of the Egyptian ruler. It still stands today, over four thousand years later, making it the oldest surviving stone building in history.
Determined to create the most impressive structure the world has ever seen, Imhotep innovated the design of existing tombs. Using the same mastabas that had existed for centuries, he took a new approach, stacking them on top of each other to form the iconic “step pyramid”.
There are no records documenting the construction of the Djoser pyramid, but historians speculate that it would probably have taken years to complete, as well as the labor of many hundreds of workers. Pharaoh was so impressed by the almighty construction of Imhotep that he immortalized the architect by carving his name next to his own on a pedestal inside the Egyptian pyramid.
The pyramid was built for Pharaoh Djoser. He was one of the rulers of the Third Dynasty of Egypt. Although he was a pharaoh for about two decades, little is known about his reign. During the years of his reign, larger and more durable monuments began to be erected throughout the kingdom, often under the supervision of Imhotep. On one engraving of the 4th century BC. NS. it is recorded that Pharaoh Djoser saved Egypt from starvation by restoring a temple dedicated to the god Khnum, who was believed to be in control of the Nile.
After his death, Djoser's sarcophagus was placed in a burial chamber deep within the great step pyramid. Up to forty thousand stone urns were found next to his remains. These vessels bear the names of the pharaohs of the First and Second Dynasties, and they continue to pose a mystery to modern archaeologists. Some speculate that they were created to represent the reign of Djoser as the culmination of Egyptian history.
Scale and symbology
The pyramid of Djoser reaches sixty-two meters in height, and in its center is a huge burial shaft twenty-eight meters deep and seven meters wide. It was undoubtedly the tallest structure of its time and complemented the otherwise two-dimensional landscape.
The pyramid was not only a unique structure, but was also accompanied by an extensive complex that included courtyards, sanctuaries, temples and dwellings for priests. The area of forty acres was surrounded by a huge wall, more than ten meters high, with thirteen false doors and only one real entrance. To further scare away unwanted visitors, a forty-meter wide trench was dug around the outer wall. Only a privileged few with permission could enter the unusual monument.
The pyramid itself is made up of six huge layers of mastabas that gradually decrease as they reach the top. This design reflects Djoser's ascension to the rank of god. Interior decorations also convey the greatness and importance of the pharaoh. Many of the interior walls are decorated with intricate and extensive carvings, and the walls of the burial chamber were covered with precious blue glazed tiles, many of which are now in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum in London.
The pyramid of Djoser is located in the Sakkara necropolis, located in the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis. This necropolis (literally the city of the dead) is one of the largest and most striking burial complexes in the world, located on an area of more than ten kilometers.
According to legend, Memphis was founded by Pharaoh Menes, who united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt more than five thousand years ago. Strategically located at the mouth of the Nile Delta, the city has served as a commercial, economic and religious center throughout ancient Egyptian history. It was eventually displaced as the capital when the city of Alexandria was founded in the 4th century BC, but it still remains an important historical and archaeological site. Saqqara has long been the burial place of Egyptian rulers, but Imhotep's step pyramid completely changed the landscape, creating a new precedent that will be replicated in the famous pyramids at Giza.
The technological progress of the 18th century led to the fact that Egypt began to attract more and more tourists from all over the Mediterranean. In fact, it is believed that modern Egyptology officially began with the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 1700s.
Rising prominently from the desert sands, the Pyramid of Djoser attracted explorers, tourists and thieves alike, and the legendary French leader was among them. Together with his soldiers, Napoleon traveled with a group of scientists who studied and documented the remnants of Egyptian culture, their most important find was the Rosetta Stone. By establishing a permanent Egyptian wing at the Louvre, Napoleon initiated Europe's fascination with the ancient Egyptian world.
In the decades to come, the pyramid of Djoser will become a symbol of this enthusiasm, and countless archaeologists and artists will visit Saqqara to record the remains. In the 1920s, a team of British and French Egyptologists launched the first project to explore the site, uncovering the complexities of the pyramid complex and revealing its historical significance as the first of the Egyptian pyramids.
The Pyramid of Djoser has reappeared in popular culture over the millennia since its construction. During the classical period, there were stories about the legendary personalities of Djoser and Imhotep. A papyrus from the Roman period tells of a series of fictional adventures from the life of an architect, while another describes him as a descendant of the gods. Such stories present Imhotep as a powerful magician whose construction of the great step pyramid was a miraculous work of magic.
Many centuries later, the Big Tour phenomenon arose. This was when elite young people took a year off after completing formal education to visit sites of artistic, intellectual and architectural heritage. When these tourists began traveling through the ancient ruins of North Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Pyramid of Djoser was a key attraction. Consequently, there are many drawings, paintings and engravings from this period depicting the magnificent monument.
Today, the pyramid of Djoser continues to penetrate the popular imagination, serving as a backdrop for books and poems published in the twentieth century. The American poet Charles Olson uses it as a symbol of mortality.
He was even featured in the video game Assassin's Creed: Origins, where players have to enter its labyrinthine passages to find a mystical ancient tablet. It is noteworthy that the depiction of the Egyptian pyramid in the game is actually much more detailed and accurate than many archaeological reconstructions.
Destruction of the pyramid
Over the millennia, the pyramid of Djoser gradually collapsed, suffering from the effects of fierce desert winds, marauders and general neglect. In 1992, an earthquake caused further damage to the internal structure. Despite these difficulties, strong foundations preserved the Egyptian pyramid, but in 2006 it was believed that it was in danger of collapse.
The buildings in the surrounding complex were in even worse condition, possibly due to an engineering flaw in their design. Modern archaeologists have noted that the columns located on the sides of buildings are actually connected to the walls, rather than acting as separate supports. This meant they were of little use to prevent roofs from collapsing. As a result, the Egyptian government has pledged to fund an overhaul of the Djoser pyramid and the surrounding complex to preserve this important piece of the nation's history.
The project to restore the Djoser pyramid to its former glory took a total of fourteen years and failed several times. In 2011, political unrest erupted in Egypt after popular uprisings led to the ouster of the president. Subsequently, work on the pyramid was suspended and did not resume until the end of 2013.
The restoration faced further scrutiny when the Supreme Council for Antiquities of Egypt was accused of hiring a firm that had no experience with ancient monuments. Some experts even argued that the renovation actually undermined the structural integrity of the Egyptian pyramid. To this day, some underground chambers are still under threat of collapse.
World heritage site
About 4,600 years after the pyramid of Djoser was built, it was finally restored to its original grandeur. On March 5, 2020, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was reopened to tourists. Almost seven million dollars and fourteen years of renovation work were spent on its restoration.
Egyptian authorities expect this to attract a huge number of tourists, who are now allowed to enter the dense network of passages and even visit the inner burial chamber where the legendary pharaoh was buried. Extensive restoration work to preserve the Pyramid of Djoser has ensured that the site has been preserved for millennia as a key piece of world history and accessible to visitors wishing to learn about the wonders of the ancient world.