Digging up the past

Chapter 1 Land of the pyramids

Zoser's pyramid

Pyramid of Zoser (Djoser) at Saqqara

It was not until the third Dynasty that the era of pyramid-building began. The first king of the third dynasty was Zoser, who was fortunate to have as his visier a genius by the name of Imhotep. This man was not only the remarkable architect and engineer who designed and built the first great pyramid, but was also a renowned physician.

The kings of the first dynasty had tombs at Abydos and Aaqqara, some 370km south of Cairo. They were buried under mastabas, which were mud brick buildings erected over their burial shafts. At Saqqara, Imhotep had a shaft 7 metres by 7 metres and 28 metres, dug deep down into the stone. At the bottom of this shaft was a burial vault and an extensive and complex series of passageways. The purpose of this maze of corridors is not known.

Above these excavations Imhotep built a stone mastaba about 63 metres by 63 metres and 8 metres high. This was the first time stone had been used in the construction of a burial monument. This mastaba was faced with white limestone and was subsequently slightly enlarged. Above the mastaba, a four-tiered step pyramid, was erected and later expanded to become a six-tier pyramid. It measured 125 metres from east to west, 108 metres from north to south and 62 metres in height. The whole was then completely encased in glistening white Tura limestone and must have presented a dazzling spectacle.

Zoser's unusual step-pyramid

Zoser's sealed statue room

Statue of Zoser

Where Imhotep got his idea from is a matter of speculation, but it seems highly probable that he borrowed it from the earlier civilisation of Mesopotamia where ziggrats, or temple towers, had been in use since the dawn of history. Probably the Tower of Babel, or Babylon, had been the first such tower. These towers had been used as centres of worship, and Imhotep simply adapted the idea to a burial cuatom. Apparently grave robbers broke into the tomb and stole its contents, because no trace of Zoser's body has been found. Two fine alabaster coffins were discovered however, one of which contained the remains of a child.

Zoser's stone pyramid close up

Temple at Abydos