Step pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara

The funerary complex of Djoser in Saqqara

Hi everyone!

Despite being an Egyptologist, I just realized I never published anything related to Egypt on this blog, so it was high time I remedied the deficiency and wrote about something Egyptological (using my own photographs).

This post is about the site of Saqqara, northwest of Memphis and not far from Cairo. It is famous for hosting the first pyramid built in Egypt, namely the step-pyramid of king Djoser (ca. 2667 to 2648 BC), who was the second king of the Third Dynasty.

The pyramid is actually formed by six superimposed mastabas (a type of tomb with flat roof and rectangular structure, with inside a shaft leading to the subterranean burial chamber) of decreasing size. All in all, the pyramid was 62m tall and was originally had an outer casing of limestone.

Under the pyramid are chambers and galleries, connected to the central shaft, whose entrance is on the north side of the pyramid. These subterranean structures were used for the burial of the king and his family, as well as for the deposition of offering, and their wallls are in limestone inlaid with blue faience (glazed pottery fabric) to replicate reed matting. Noticeable are also the decoration in form of serekh and djed pillar (see below for details on both) and the panels decorated in low relief that show the king participating in the Heb-sed (see below for details on the Heb-sed).

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The pyramid is part of a larger ritual complex, enclosed by a wall of limestone. This wall imitates the palace façade, which recalls bound bundles of reeds. In the wall are present 14 doors, of which only one is a functional entrance, at the southern end of the eastern part of the wall.

Entrance to the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

Entrance to the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

Entrance to the complex of Djoser in Saqqara and the step pyramid

Enclosure walls to the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

Enclosure walls to the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

From the entrance starts a corridor made of 20 pairs of 6.6-m-high half-columns (columns connected to the wall through pillars), recalling bounds of reeds and created niches. The corridor had originally a ceiling of massive limestone slabs, no longer extant.

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Entrance corridor of the complex of Djoser in Saqqara and the step pyramid

At the end of the corridor there was another hall with 20 similar massive columns.

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In front of this hall with columns, so in the southern part of the complex, was the South tomb, which is likely a house for the Ka (let’s say, to simplify this concept, the vital essence or soul of a person) of the deceased. The wall of the superstructure is decorated with fake entrances and Uraei (images of rearing up cobras, symbol of the goddess Wadjet, protector of Lower Egypt). The substructure, reachable through a corridor and a staircase,  includes three subterranean chambers with walls decorated in blue faience imitating reed-mat facades and a room sporting three niche reliefs of the king (in one of them he is represented celebrating the Heb-Sed, or jubilee festival, see next paragraph for details).

The South tomb in the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

The South court in the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

Still in the southern part of the complex, between the South tomb and the step pyramid, is the South court, used in the celebration of the Heb-sed. This was a royal jubilee celebrated every 30 years (though throughout Egyptian history this amount of years wasn’t always respected), during which the king would  renew his powers and get strengthen his claim of power over Egypt. The rituals likely involved running around (or somehow ritually taking possession of) curved stone acting as territorial markers, to show he had still physical strength.

The South court in the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

Lastly, the southern part of the complex included the Heb-sed court, a rectangular court running parallels to the South court and flanked by chapels used during the celebration of the Heb-sed. These chapels, mostly dummy buildings (i.e. buildings with no internal space), are with flat roof and no decoration on the surface, or with rounded roof and half-columns on the facade, sporting capitals decorated by leaves. At  the southern end of the court was also a stepped platform, likely sporting a throne and used for symbolic crowning during the celebration of the Heb-sed.

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South courth and Heb-sed court in the complex of Djoser in Saqqara

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At the back of the Heb-sed court, between it and the southern court, there was a small temple, likely used also for the celebration of the Heb-sed. Of this temple survive some half-columns, some fake entrances and some niches in the wall decorated by a djed pillar (a pillar with a wide base and four superimposed capitals symbolizing stability and durability).

East of the Pyramid and just north of the Heb-sed court there are two buildings, with architectural structure similar to the Heb-sed buildings and  in which offers were deposited. The first of these is the South pavillion, symbolizing Upper (southern) Egypt and decorated with the lotus flower (symbol of Upper Egypt), and where the king was represented with the Hedjet (the White crown of Upper Egypt). The second one is the North pavillion  north,  symbolizing Lower (northern) Egypt and decorated with the papyrus (symbol of Lower Egypt), and where the king was represented with the Desheret (the Red crown of Lower Egypt).

These two buildings just described, and also the buildings connected to the celebration of the Heb-sed, symbolize the union of Upper and Lower Egypt and the ability and strength of the king to keep this union.

Right on the north side of the step pyramid was the North temple, used for the cult of the king and all the related rituals. The temple included courts surrounded by half-columns, as well as subterranean chambers and a crypt.

Right next to the North temple, on its east side, is the Serdab. Here the Ka statue of the king (i.e. the statue hosting the Ka of the king) was located, and there was an opening to allow the eyes of the statue (and so the statue and, hence, the Ka) to look the rituals carried outside.

Both the North temple and the Serdab, and also the entrance to the substructure of the pyramid, were on the north side of the complex for theological reason. According to this, the king after his death would be united with the northern perennial stars. In later times, when the sun cycle became predominant in the theology, the axis east-west became more important than the south-north axis, which is used in the complex of Djoser.

Still in the northern part of the complex are storage rooms, in which were deposited the objects needed for the rituals there practiced, and whatever was needed by the people dealing with the rituals, and galleries (also called Mariette’s galleries), used for the storage of the funerary offerings.

To conclude, going to the western part of the complex, are three rectangular structures almost as long as all the western side. They have different lengths, the most western one being the longest, and height, the central one being the tallest. These structures were used for storage.

Have you ever visited Saqqara? If so, I would like to hear from you. I hope you enjoyed this post, feel free to post comments and questions. Hope to see you soon on this blog, ciao ciao!

 

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