Digging Up the Past

Chapter 1 - Land of the Pyramids

Zoser's pyramid

Pyramid of Zoser (Djoser) at Saqqara

It was not until the 3rd Dynasty that the era of pyramid-building began.
The first king of the third dynasty was Zoser, who was fortunate to have
as his advisor 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 1st Dynasty had tombs at Abydos and Saqqara, 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 7m-by-7m shaft dug 28 metres deep 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
long by 63 metres wide, 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, measuring 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 ziggurats, 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 custom. 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