The Step Pyramids

The building of the first pyramid in Egypt is attributed to the first pharaoh of the third dynasty, Djoser (around 2680 BC), who commissioned his mortuary complex at Saqquara. The project probably kicked off with the construction of a large mastaba, but then underwent various additions and adaptations until it became a sort of giant funerary town 544 meters long and over 270 meters wide, enclosed by a wall over 10 meters high and dominated by the construction today called Step Pyramid (for a comprehensive, up to date reference on Egyptian pyramids see Lehner 1999, Verner 2002).

The Step Pyramid is a magnificent artifact, erected on the base of the preexisting mastaba with the addition of successive terraces, thus similar to Mesopotamian ziggurats, but without their ascending ramps. Sixty meters tall, the pyramid is "filled" (i.e., it has no interior spaces), but it stands on a maze of underground chambers carved out of the rock, connected by long corridors. Apart from the pyramid, the complex boasts large storehouses, in which thousands of stone pots have been found, and numerous other curious buildings, full of narrow rooms, false doors, half-columns, and stone decorations imitating analogous wooden structures. The most curious of these structures is possibly the "T Temple," whose function is unknown but which may have been connected, together with the southwest wing of the complex, with rituals relating to the sed festival, during which the pharaoh would symbolically reassert his rights over the kingdom. On the north side of the pyramid we find a small, completely sealed building, which contains a statue of the pharaoh (today replaced with a copy). It is the chamber known as the serdab, which was designed to accommodate a statue of the deceased

Figure 16:1: Section of the Djoser Step Pyramid, with the subsequent construction phases according to Lauer.

(this was mentioned in Chapter 4, and will crop up again later). The south side of the complex houses a second mausoleum, whose internal layout resembles that of the underground maze of the pyramid, even though the main chamber—made of slabs of granite—would appear too small to contain a coffin. The mummy of Djoser, as with all the other pyramid owners of the Old Kingdom, has never been found in his pyramid, or anywhere else, for that matter. The design of the Step Pyramid has been imputed to the genius of the royal architect Imhotep, whose seal appears in the inscription at the base of the statue of the pharaoh in the Serdab. Imhotep himself was deified at a later date, yet we know little about his tomb, which has never been discovered, in spite of numerous efforts to locate it.

It is difficult to determine who succeeded Djoser, since the royal lists do not agree, and there is still debate about the sequence of the third dynasty pharaohs (the problem of dating the Old Kingdom dynasties is compounded by the fact that there are no astronomical anchors to tie them to the Sothic cycle; see Chapter 4). However, we are aware of two other step pyramids attributable to two pharaohs who came after Djoser. The first stands at Zawiet el Arian and is traditionally called the Layer Pyramid. It is of uncertain attribution and has been poorly studied. The second is probably the burial place of the Pharaoh Sekhemkhet, and provides one of the most fascinating (and unfortunately also sad) enigmas in all Egyptological studies.

Sekhemkhet's funerary complex is situated near Djoser's, but was

Figure 16.2: The Step pyramid

unearthed only in 1951, by the Egyptian archaeologist Zakaria Ghoneim. It had not been discovered earlier because the pyramid was unfinished (with maximum height of about 8 meters) and was completely submerged in the sands (Ghoneim even thought that the entire complex had been intentionally buried in ancient times). Although the pyramid, whose base side measured roughly 120 meters, was merely hinted at, the underground part had been dug out entirely, creating a room 32 meters deep in the bedrock. When Ghoneim penetrated the chamber, he beheld a magnificent alabaster coffin. It appeared to be intact, still sealed by a sliding lid, and on top of it lay the remains of a floral wreath, which someone had laid there almost five thousands years before. Thus Ghoneim was faced with the real possibility of finding, for the first and only time in the whole history of Egyptology, the body of a pharaoh entombed in his own pyramid. Unfortunately, he had the idea of inviting journalists and local dignitaries to attend the great moment of the opening.

Egyptologists seem to be tragically fated never to find the bodies of pharaohs in their pyramids. It seems that Sekhemkhet's pyramid was the last left to explore, and the alabaster coffin turned out to be completely empty. Ghoneim then went on to insist that the coffin was a ritual burial place and that Sekhemkhet's corpse would be found somewhere else in the complex. Alas, however, the great but ill-starred Egyptian archaeologist was to find himself victim first of considerable envy and then of the most bitter sarcasm. He was also the subject of unjust accusations regarding the disappearance of some finds—all of which culminated in his suicide in 1959 (the south tomb of Sekhemkhet's pyramid was in fact discovered in 1966, as empty as the other one, though).

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