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It was during the reign of the 3rd Dynasty kings that a new development in pyramid building occurred.
Netjerykhet (later dynasties called him Zoser or Djoser) was the second king of the 3rd Dynasty, and his pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, was built of stone blocks rather than mud bricks. His architect was Imhotep, a character who has gone down in history as a great innovator and physician. In later periods, he was worshiped as a deity, with the Greeks identifying him with their god of healing, Aesclepius.
Just why there should have been this new development of using stone instead of mud brick is still debated by scholars. The stone blocks were not very large as compared with the later pyramid of Khufu, and they were not exactly squared, but at least they were stone. Instead of one low brick building surmounting the burial place, there was a huge mass of stone.
The Step Pyramid of Saqqara was first identified as a mastaba, an oblong building faced with lime plaster, below which there was a burial shaft and tomb chamber. There was also a complex series of passages and chambers that appeared to have no purpose. The total length of these tunnels and rooms has been estimated at 3.5 miles (5.7 km). Some scholars have suggested that it replicated in part the king’s royal palace at Memphis, but as we do not know what his palace looked like, this remains speculation.
No bodies were found in any of these chambers, though the hip bone of an 18-year-old woman was discovered in one of the rooms. There was also an extraordinary collection of 40,000 stone plates and cups made of alabaster and other semi-precious stones found in one of the galleries.
Whether this mastaba was originally meant to be the end of the structure is not clear. Some say that Imhotep added the later stepped stages as an afterthought, while some think that the final structure was planned that way from the beginning. Whatever the case, four stages were built above the original mastaba and then another two stages were built above that, making six stages or steps all together.
Zoser would have lived around the time of Terah, the father of Abraham of the Bible. According to the Bible, Abraham lived in the ancient city of Ur in Sumer, which was in present-day Iraq. At this site are the remains of a great ziggurat (or stepped pyramid type building). The eminent archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, who carried out major excavations at the site, later wrote that the diggings had revealed that at the same time as the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt, the Sumerian architects were acquainted with the column, the arch, the vault, and the dome, that is, all the basic forms of architecture. Referring to the ziggurat he goes on to say:
But the surprising thing is that there is not a single straight line in the structure. Each wall, from base to top and horizontally from corner to corner, is a convex curve, a curve so slight as not to be apparent but giving to the eye of the observer an illusion of strength where a straight line might have seemed to sag under the weight of the superstructure. The architect thus emplyed the principle of entasis, which was to be rediscovered by the builders of the Parthenon at Athens.1
(The Parthenon was built more than 1,500 years later.)
These and similar findings in Sumer show that the inhabitants of Ur had advanced knowledge of architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. This has led to another theory that the concept of a step pyramid was borrowed from Mesopotamia where there were many temple ziggurats that were used for purposes of worship. The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians had the idea that God was on high, and that the higher you went to worship Him the nearer you got to God. The Babylonians built these stepped ziggurats, on top of which there was a shrine to their god and steps leading to the top for worshipers to ascend. It is unlikely that Imhotep had ever visited Mesopotamia, but many travelers came from there who could have described these ziggurats, and Imhotep may have decided to adapt the idea to a burial place, but instead of worshipers climbing to the top for worship, a burial chamber was made beneath it for the last resting place of the king.
Circumstantial evidence that supports the idea of communication between Egypt and Mesopotamia is to be found in the almost identical burial customs of both areas. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated at Ur of the Chaldees in Sumer from 1922 to 1934 and unearthed the famed death pits of Ur, where up to 80 people accompanied the king into the afterlife.
Woolley wrote, “The royal body was carried down the sloping passage and laid in the chamber, sometimes, perhaps generally, inside a wooden coffin. . . . When the door had been blocked with stone and brick and smoothly plastered over, the first phase of the burial ceremony was complete. The second phase, as best illustrated by the tombs of Shub-ad and her husband, was more dramatic. Down into the open pit, with its mat covered floor and mat-lined walls, empty and unfurnished, there comes a procession of people, the members of the dead ruler’s court, soldiers, men-servants and women, the latter in all their finery of brightly-coloured garments and headdresses of carnelian and lapis lazuli, silver and gold, officers with the insignia of their rank, musicians bearing harps and lyres, and then, driven or backed down the slope, the chariots drawn by oxen or by asses, the drivers in the carts, the grooms holding the heads of the draught animals, and all take up their allotted places at the bottom of the shaft and finally a guard of soldiers forms up at the entrance. Each man and woman brought a little cup of clay or stone or metal, the only equipment needed for the rite that was to follow. There would seem to have been some kind of service down there, at least it is certain that the musicians played up to the last; then each of them drank from their cups a potion which they had brought with them or found prepared for them on the spot—in one case we found in the middle of the pit a great copper pot into which they could have dipped—and then lay down and composed themselves for death.”2
This termination of life seemed to have been quite voluntary. There was no sign of violence. It may have been part of their employment contract to accompany their king into the next life. In any case, it derived from a firm conviction that life in the hereafter would continue as it had been in this life, and that death was merely a transition from this world to the next.
A similar belief seems to have been held in the 3rd Dynasty of Egypt. In the vicinity of the Step Pyramid was a vast cemetery in which attendants of the king were buried, and their deaths apparently occurred at the time of the king’s burial, presumably in the belief that they were simply accompanying their king into the next life.
Other scholars also propose that the culture of Mesopotamia had a considerable influence in Egypt. Jill Kamill in her book Sakkara: A Guide to the Necropolis and the Site of Memphis wrote, “Cylinder seals, and certain artistic and architectural motifs in Egypt which have their prototype in Mesopotamia, raise the question of the extent to which the latter civilisation inspired the former.”3 Robert Womack, writing in the magazine KMT, volume 5, number 2, wrote concerning an early step pyramid, “It may be important evidence of Mesopotamian influence in early dynastic Egypt.”4
However the idea of building pyramid tombs got started, it has to be acknowledged as a tremendous leap forward in ingenuity and engineering skill. The Zoser or Step Pyramid of Saqqara was 410 x 354 feet (125 x 108 m) at its base and rose to a height of 203 feet (62 m). The entrance was on the north side, though this is off limits to tourists today because there is no artificial lighting beneath the pyramid and there is danger of collapse. Near this entrance is a small stone shrine in which was a statue of Zoser peeping out through two small holes. Actually, the original statue has been installed in the Cairo Museum and a replica today stands in the shrine.
The entire structure was originally faced with pure white limestone that came from the Tura Quarry near modern Cairo. The whole building must have presented a dazzling appearance. The outer casing has long since disappeared, taken by local builders for their construction work, and many of the stones have also been removed. Some of these facing stones have been replaced by modern stones to give tourists an idea of what the original structure looked like.
It is a tragedy that so many of Egypt’s ancient buildings have been denuded of stone, especially as there may have been some informative inscriptions on some of the stones that have been stolen, but in some cases this has its compensation. Because the outer stones have been removed from the Step Pyramid, archaeologists have been able to study the developmental stages in the construction of the pyramid.
A 34.4 feet (10.5 m) high limestone wall with a total length of over a mile (1,645 m) surrounds the pyramid, and at the southeast corner of the compound there is a funerary temple with fluted alabaster columns. It was customary for burial sites to have a temple where rites and offerings for the welfare of the departed king could be offered. It is hard for Western minds to understand the logic of this concept. It was apparent to those who made the offerings that the food was not eaten by the king’s ka. This did not bother them because to their thinking it was not the food itself that was consumed but the ka of the food. What is hard to understand though is why they could not reason that this would not go on forever.
Zoser’s pyramid was not the only step pyramid built, but it was the outstanding structure which undoubtedly gave birth to the idea which was perfected in later pyramids.