When we think of Egyptian pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Giza often steals the spotlight. However, it’s not the first pyramid that graced Egypt’s landscape. Some 4,700 years ago, in Saqqara, Pharaoh Netjerikhet, also known as Djoser, oversaw the construction of an earlier marvel. After a long wait of 90 years, the Step Pyramid, as it’s popularly known as Djoser Step Pyramid Saqqara now welcomes visitors to unravel its mysteries.
A Welcoming Public Space!
The Djoser Step Pyramid Saqqara has been a hidden gem, closed to tourists since the 1930s due to safety concerns. However, a restoration project that commenced in 2006 aimed to make this iconic Saqqara monument accessible once again. Despite a brief halt between 2011 and 2013, substantial progress has been made in preserving its exterior, staircases, entrances, internal corridors, and the stone sarcophagus.
Cintec, the Welsh company entrusted with the pyramid’s restoration, faced immense challenges. Peter James, the Managing Director, described it as an “extremely, extremely dangerous” endeavor. Falling rubble endangered the sarcophagus, and internal stone beams were on the brink of collapse. Yet, the dedicated team persevered to ensure the pyramid’s safety.
Imhotep’s Innovative Design for the Step Pyramid in Saqqara
The visionary architect behind the Step Pyramid was none other than Imhotep, who served as Djoser’s chancellor. The most distinctive feature of Djoser’s pyramid, as opposed to Khufu’s Great Pyramid, is its unique shape. While the latter boasts a smooth, towering form, Djoser’s pyramid presents itself as a six-tiered structure, reminiscent of the ziggurats of Mesopotamian city-states. Consequently, it’s often referred to as the Step Pyramid of Saqqara.
The pyramid’s unique design can be traced back to the architectural norms of ancient Egypt before pyramid construction. During the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom, the tombs of elite individuals were marked by rectangular structures with flat roofs and outward-sloping sides, known as mastabas (meaning ‘bench of mud’ in Arabic).
In an apparent bid to outshine his predecessors, Djoser decided to stack six mastabas, each diminishing in size, to create the Step Pyramid. This innovative design might reflect an evolving concept of Egyptian kingship, with the pyramid serving as a means to facilitate the pharaoh’s ascent to the divine realm upon his demise.
An Ancient Egyptian Architectural Marvel
The Step Pyramid’s significance transcends its striking shape. Soaring to approximately 62 meters (203.41 ft.), it once commanded the Saqqara necropolis. Yet, it wasn’t just a solitary wonder. The pyramid was the focal point of an expansive mortuary complex, spanning 15 hectares and enclosed by a towering wall of light Tura limestone, standing at 10.5 meters (34.45 ft.) high.
Within this complex, 14 walls served as boundary markers, but only one entrance, located at the south end of the east facade, allowed the living to enter. This entrance was connected to the South Court by a roofed colonnade. The columns in this passageway were meticulously carved from limestone, resembling bundles of plant stems.
Djoser’s mortuary temple, situated on the north side of the pyramid, played a central role in the pharaoh’s spiritual journey. Here, daily rituals for the deceased were conducted, and offerings were made to ensure the pharaoh’s prosperity in the afterlife. Notably, the temple faced north, symbolizing the pharaoh’s transformation into an eternal star after death.
The South Court featured curved stones believed to be boundary markers associated with the Sed Festival, a significant rejuvenation ritual performed by the pharaoh after 30 years of rule. These markers may have been intended to enable Djoser to continue benefiting from this ritual even in the afterlife.
Overcoming Criticisms in the Restoration of Djoser’s Pyramid
The Step Pyramid has endured for over four and a half millennia, weathering the elements and the passage of time. Numerous restoration efforts were made, but not without controversy. Critics voiced concerns about potential alterations to the pyramid’s exterior appearance and interior structure.
These concerns were met with rebuttals from Egyptian authorities, who defended the restoration work’s integrity. Thanks to their unwavering commitment, the inner chambers of this ancient monument are now accessible to visitors.
Djoser’s Step Pyramid stands as a testament to ancient Egypt’s creativity and ingenuity. Its distinctive design, intricate mortuary complex, and enduring legacy continue to intrigue those who venture to Saqqara. As the pyramid reopens its doors to the world, it beckons us to delve into the mysteries of the past and ponder the ancient beliefs that gave rise to this architectural marvel.