The Step Pyramid at Saqqara is situated 20 km from Giza near Cairo. Built for the Pharaoh Djoser the first king of the Third Dynasty as his tomb and mortuary complex it is surrounded by a panelled, bastion wall of white limestone, which imitates bound bundles of reeds and has a number of symbolic doors, although it only has one functional entrance. Originally with 9 metres (30 feet) high walls, the complex covers an area of approximately 560 x 275 metres. Surrounding the wall is a trench which measures 750 m long and 40 m wide which was dug in the underlying rock, around the sides the trench was decorated with niches.
The construction of the pyramid was carried out in several stages. The first stage was to construct a shaft, 7m square which descended into the ground for 28 meters, this lead to the burial chamber built of four courses of granite blocks. The chamber had one opening which had been sealed with a 3.5 ton block, although when first excavated the tomb had already been emptied. Under the pyramid are a number of chambers and galleries with a total length of nearly 6 km. Surrounding the burial chamber are four galleries which contained offerings and the funerary equipment of the king.
The pyramid started as a normal mastaba, which was the house of the soul, the place of burial. Once the original mastaba had been constructed, the architect Imhotep, enlarged it and placed a further three tiers of mastaba on top of each other. It was then increased by a further two mastabas creating the six steps and finished with a facing of white limestone which gave it a total height of 60 metres.
Pyramids were not built as standalone structures but were part of a complex that consisted of a number of buildings. In the southwest corner of the complex is a sanctuary or storeroom, which is accessible from outside of the enclosure wall. The entrance to the complex is through a narrow colonnade which comprises of 40 ribbed columns, designed to look like the stems of palm trees, these are connected to the side wall by masonry and would have been enclosed by a roof. At the end of the colonnade is a rectangular hall, supported by eight shorter fluted columns.
On the corner at the south west is the South Tomb which provides a replication of the substructure of the pyramid itself. It includes a descending corridor leading to a granite vault and a chamber. It is entered through a tunnel-like corridor with a staircase that descends about 30m before opening into the burial chamber. The staircase then continues west and leads to a gallery that replicates the chambers below the step pyramid. As the burial vault is too small for the actual body, one suggestion is that this was to house the Ka (Soul) of the Pharaoh, although another is that it was for the canopic jars containing the organs of the Pharaoh.
Many of the buildings are replications of the buildings which were used by the king in the royal palace at Memphis and include wall carvings and paintings. It has been suggested that the whole step pyramid complex symbolizes the royal palace enclosure thus allowing the king to eternally perform the rituals associated with kingship.
To the north of the pyramid is the mortuary temple: This was the place for the performance of the rituals associated with the dead Pharaoh and the place for the Ka Statue which was where the Ka of the Pharaoh resided.
In fact the pyramid was not just a grave; its purpose was to ensure the Pharaoh travelled to the afterlife and took his place with the Gods. Architecturally the Step Pyramid of Djoser was the initial transition from mastaba to pyramid and the start of the pyramid era.
Like many archaeological sites work is presently being undertaken both to preserve that which has been uncovered and to excavate that which is still below the sands waiting to be discovered.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.