The Tomb of Imhotep & the Funeral Complex of King Djoser: Part 2

In the last article on Sakkara, I covered part of the funeral complex of King Djoser. Now I will continue to explore this impressive complex.

When you stand in the open court and look to the north, you will not believe your eyes when you come face to face with the oldest pyramid ever on earth: The famous tomb of King Djoser, also known as ‘The Step Pyramid’. This pyramid was designed and built by the genius Imhotep, the architect and engineer and the head of the sculptors for King Djoser. He built the pyramid as four solid steps above ground. He used sandstone and it once had a shiny casing of limestone. After he finished the enclosure wall that surrounds the step pyramid and funeral complex of King Djoser, he went back to the Pharaoh’s palace in Memphis. But from there he could not see the step pyramid in the distance because the enclosure wall is 30 feet high. So he came back to increase the height of the Step Pyramid by adding two more steps. To add more height he had to enlarge the base. That is why, if you examine the base of the step pyramid, you can see enlargements added to the base to increase its height. Now the step pyramid consists of six steps. Each step is 10 meters, so it is a total of 60 meters high. Because of corrosion it needed restoration and this explains why you see scaffolding used in restoring the pyramid. What is so impressive about this step pyramid is how the ancient Egyptians protected their constructions against earthquakes by sticking huge cylindrical wooden beams horizontally into the building to absorb any vibration or shaking. Look for those ancient wooden beams with some of their ends sticking out of the building, when you examine the ancient stone of the Step Pyramid.

The tomb of King Djoser has two sections: the superstructure which is the body of the pyramid itself, and the substructure underneath. On the southern side of the pyramid there is a tunnel that was dug into the bedrock by the Persians when they occupied Egypt from 525 B.C., more than 2,000 years after the Step Pyramid was built, because they could not find the original entrance to the pyramid on the northern side dug into the bedrock. This entrance is not accessible for tourists. I went inside with my professor to explore the substructure. This tunnel leads you to the shaft underneath the Step Pyramid. The shaft is more than 27 meters deep. They would have lowered down the coffin with the mummy inside it to the bottom of the shaft. Underneath the Step Pyramid there is a labyrinth with many hidden rooms to deceive the tomb robbers, where lots of jars were stored which had food items and offerings and precious treasures for the king to use in the afterlife.

On the southern side of the Pyramid, almost attached to it, is an altar with a ramp leading up. The priests brought fresh offerings to the soul of the King on this altar. When you continue walking to the right, around the corner from where the altar is, on the right hand side you will make a great discovery. Lying there on the floor, underneath a slab of stone, is a pedestal of limestone that has four pairs of feet that were once feet of limestone statues that represented the royal family of Djoser. From left to right, Djoser himself, then his wife, then their two daughters. From this group of statues nothing was left except these four feet. In this area there are also ruins of 24 shrines for 24 local deities that were worshipped here alongside the Trinity of Memphis. You can also find unfinished statues of the King. This shows us how the ancient Egyptians took a block of stone and, using chisel and hammer, shaped it into a statue.

Moving back toward the Step Pyramid, walking next to its east side you will face the House of the South. Behind it there is also the House of the North, because the King wanted to emphasize the fact that he is the King of both Upper (South) and Lower (North) Egypt. The House of the South’s frieze is decorated with the sacred plant for Upper Egypt that is the lotus. In this house you will be in awe to see evidence of Ancient Egyptian tourists. During the New Kingdom, almost 1,000 years after the Pyramid was built, these tourists came to visit the then Ancient antiquities from the Old Kingdom. They left their graffiti in Heratic (basic hieroglyphics). There are two messages that you can see which are covered by glass for protection. One of them was written by an Ancient Egyptian tourist who was thinking positively when he said, “thanks to our forefathers who have left us these great antiquities to commemorate their memory although they didn’t have the modern technology that we enjoy having now [during the time of the New Kingdom 1582 B.C. – 1080 B.C.].”  The other graffiti that is farther from the entrance written by a tourist with a negative attitude says, “what work of a foolish woman is this? Come to Waset [Luxor, the then capital of Egypt] to see the gigantic constructions and temples we have. This is nothing in comparison with them.” Make sure to look at the ceiling of the House of the South to see the imitation of the palm logs in stone. And at the end of the House of the South there are three niches in the walls that once held three solid gold statues of the Trinity of Memphis. In the middle was the creator god Petah in the shape of a man standing holding the sceptre and the key of life wearing a skullcap and a false beard. To his right, his wife, the lioness headed goddess Sekhmet. To Petah’s left used to be the youthful god Nefertem with the lotus above his head.

The decoration for the House of the North is the sacred plant of Lower Egypt, papyrus. In the northern section of the Step Pyramid there is a concealed room that has now a glass window to the side. One of its walls has two holes. When you look through these two holes you will see a statue of King Djoser. The holes line up with the statues eyes, so the King could see through the holes in order to watch his soul’s ascension into the sky. This statue is a replica. The original is in the Egyptian Museum. Next to this room, attached to the Northern side of the Step Pyramid, you can see the ruins of the mortuary temple of King Djoser and underneath it, the original entrance that goes under the Step Pyramid. Unfortunately it’s not accessible for tourists.

Sakkara, is a must see! In the next article in this series on Sakkara, I will cover the funeral complex of King Unas as well as the new discoveries and more tombs.

Ibrahim Morgan is Egyptologist/Tour Guide, Email Ibrahim at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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