The Djoser Pyramid In Egypt: 10 Facts on The First Pyramid

The world’s oldest stone structure, the Djoser Pyramid, recently reopened after years of renovation. This article lays out all the facts you need to know about the important ancient monument.

Aug 25, 2021By Mia Forbes
egyptian step pyramid djoser
A digital reconstruction of Saqqara from the game Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft

 

The Djoser Pyramid represents a great leap forward in the history of architecture and engineering. It is not only the first Egyptian pyramid but actually the first pyramid in the world! Reopened on 5 March, 2020, visitors are now invited to explore the pyramid’s labyrinthine passageways and surrounding structure, all of which were constructed several thousand years ago. The following ten facts unpack everything you need to know about this important monument, its history and the recent restoration.

 

10. The Pyramid of Djoser Is The First Ever Stone Pyramid

first egyptian pyramid djoser
The Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara, Egypt, Architectural Digest

 

The Great Pyramid at Giza may feature more commonly on Egyptian postcards, but it is the Pyramid of Djoser that was the first of its kind ever to be built.

 

The ancient Egyptians held strong beliefs about the afterlife, burying their rulers with their possessions (and sometimes even their slaves!) so that they would not lack anything in the afterlife. Before the Djoser Pyramid, however, pharaohs were typically buried in rectangular tombs constructed out of slabs made from mud, called mastabas (literally ‘benches’).

 

At some point between 2667 and 2648 BC, this step pyramid was constructed for Pharaoh Djoser, setting new standards for the burial rites of the Egyptian ruler. It still stands today, over 4000 years later, making it the oldest remaining stone building in history.

 

9. Designed by Imhotep, One of History’s Most Important Architects

imhotep ancient egypt
Figure Of Imhotep from Ancient Egypt, via The Smithsonian, Washington DC

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Imhotep, the architect behind the Pyramid of Djoser. His design would go on to win him legendary status.

 

Determined to produce the most impressive structure that the world had ever seen, Imhotep innovated on the design of pre-existing tombs. Using the same mastabas that had been around for centuries, he took a new approach by stacking them on top of each other to form the iconic ‘step pyramid.’

 

There are no records documenting the construction of the Djoser Pyramid, but historians have speculated that it would likely have taken years to complete, as well as the labor of many hundreds of workers. The Pharaoh was so impressed by Imhotep’s almighty construction that he immortalized the architect by having his name carved beside his own on a plinth inside the Egyptian pyramid.

 

8. It Was Made With a Very Specific Purpose

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Relief of Djoser facing the temple of Horus of Behedet in a blue faience chamber, Djoser’s pyramid, Saqqara, Wikimedia Commons

 

The world’s first pyramid was built for the Pharaoh Djoser. Just like Django, the D is silent. Djoser was one of the rulers of Egypt’s Third Dynasty. Although he was Pharaoh for around two decades, little is known about his reign. What is clear, however, is that Djoser promoted some of Egypt’s most impressive and innovative building projects. During his years in power, larger and longer-lasting monuments began to be constructed across his kingdom, often under the eye of Imhotep. One engraving from the 4th century BC records that Pharaoh Djoser saved Egypt from famine by rebuilding a temple dedicated to the god Khnum, who was believed to control the Nile.

 

After his death, Djoser’s sarcophagus was placed inside the burial chamber, deep within the great step pyramid. Found alongside his remains were up to 40,000 stone urns. These vessels are inscribed with the names of the Pharaohs from the First and Second Dynasty, and continue to pose a mystery to modern archaeologists. Some speculate that they were designed to present Djoser’s reign as the culmination of Egyptian history.

 

7. The Pyramid’s Scale and Symbolism Give It a Striking Appearance

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Farmer plowing field, Step Pyramid of Djoser in background, photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1965, via The Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

The Djoser Pyramid soars up to 62m in height, and at its center sits a vast burial shaft 28m in depth and 7m in width. It was easily the tallest structure of its times, and made a striking addition to the otherwise two-dimensional landscape.

 

The pyramid was not only a singular structure, but accompanied by a vast complex which included courtyards, shrines, temples and lodgings for priests. The 40-acre area was surrounded by an immense wall over 10m high, which had 13 false doors and only one true entrance. To further deter unwanted visitors, a 40m wide trench was dug around the outer wall. Only the privileged few with permission were able to enter the extraordinary monument.

 

The pyramid itself consists of six vast layers of mastabas, gradually getting smaller as they reach the summit. This design reflects the ascension of Djoser to the rank of a god. The interior adornments also convey the Pharaoh’s grandeur and importance. Many of the internal walls are decorated with intricate and extensive carvings, and the walls of the burial chamber were covered with precious blue glazed tiles, many of which are now held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s British Museum.

 

6. The Djoser Pyramid Is in the Necropolis of Saqqara

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The necropolis of Saqqara, via travelandleisure.com

 

The Djoser Pyramid is found in the Saqqara necropolis, situated in the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. This necropolis (literally ‘city of the dead’) is among the world’s largest and most striking funerary complexes, set over an area of more than 10km.

 

According to legend, Memphis was founded by Pharaoh Menes, who united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt over 5000 years ago. Strategically situated at the mouth of the Nile Delta, the city served as a commercial, economic and religious hub throughout ancient Egyptian history. It was eventually displaced as the capital when the city of Alexandria was founded in the 4th century BC, but still remains an important historical and archaeological site.

 

Saqqara had long since been the site of burial for Egypt’s rulers, but Imhotep’s step pyramid absolutely transformed the landscape, setting a new precedent that would be replicated in the famous pyramids at Giza.

 

5. The Egyptian Pyramid Became a Symbol of Civilization Millenia Later

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The south entrance of the Djoser Pyramid, via sailgstonetravel.com

 

The technological advances of the 18th century meant that Egypt began to attract more and more visitors from across the Mediterranean. In fact, modern Egyptology is thought to have officially begun with the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 1700s.

 

Rising prominently out of the sands of the desert, the Djoser Pyramid attracted explorers, tourists and thieves alike, and the legendary French leader was among them. Along with his soldiers, Napoleon travelled with a team of scholars and scientists who studied and documented the remains of Egyptian culture, their most important find being the Rosetta Stone. Establishing a permanent Egyptian wing in the Louvre, Napoleon kick-started Europe’s fascination with the ancient Egyptian world.

 

During the subsequent decades, the Djoser Pyramid would become a symbol of this enthusiasm, with countless archaeologists and artists visiting Saqqara to make records of the remains. In the 1920s, a team of British and French Egyptologists launched the first project to study the site, discovering the intricate complexities of the pyramid complex and uncovering its historical significance as the first of the Egyptian pyramids.

 

4. And Has Even Made Appearances in Popular Culture

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A digital reconstruction of Saqqara from the game Assassin’s Creed, image by Nikolay Bonev, Ubisoft Entertainment

 

The Djoser Pyramid has appeared again and again in popular culture throughout the millennia that have passed since its construction.

 

During the classical period, stories circulated about the legendary figures of Djoser and Imhotep. A papyrus from the Roman period narrates a series of fictionalized adventures from the architect’s life, while another describes him as a descendant of the gods. Such stories present Imhotep as a powerful magician, whose construction of the great step pyramid was a miraculous work of sorcery.

 

Many centuries later, the phenomenon of the Grand Tour emerged. This was when elite young men took a year off after their formal education to visit sites of artistic, intellectual and architectural heritage. When these tourists began to travel to the ancient ruins of north Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Djoser Pyramid was a key attraction. Consequently, there are many drawings, paintings and engravings from this period showing the magnificent monument.

 

In the modern day, the Djoser Pyramid continues to permeate popular imagination, serving as the setting for books and poems published in the 20th century. American poet Charles Olson uses it as a symbol of mortality:

 

“…Djoser imaged his pyramid all his life and had it built – and set down inside the sand, which then

was turned in likewise over it”

 

It has even featured in the video game ‘Assassin’s Creed: Origins’, where players have to enter its labyrinthine passageways to find a mystical ancient tablet. Notably, the representation of the Egyptian pyramid in the game is actually far more detailed and accurate than many archaeological reconstructions!

 

3. The Djoser Pyramid Was Ravaged by Time

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The Step Pyramid of Djoser, photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1965, via The Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

Over the course of thousands of years, the Djoser Pyramid gradually deteriorated, suffering from the effects of fierce desert winds, looters and general neglect. In 1992, an earthquake caused even more damage to the internal structure. Despite these challenges, its sturdy foundations kept the Egyptian pyramid standing, but in 2006 it was deemed to be at risk of collapse.

 

The buildings in the surrounding complex were in an even worse state of disrepair, which may have been down to an engineering flaw in their construction. Modern archaeologists have noted that the columns that flank the sides of the buildings are actually connected to the walls, rather than acting as separate supports. This meant that they were of little use to prevent the collapse of the roofs.

 

As a result, the Egyptian government promised to fund extensive repairs to the Djoser Pyramid and the surrounding complex, in order to preserve this important piece of the nation’s history.

 

2. The Restoration Work Faced Its Own Challenges

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The restoration works at the Djoser Pyramid, via International Business Times

 

The project to restore the Pyramid of Djoser to its former glory took 14 years in total and was disrupted several times. In 2011, political turmoil erupted in Egypt after popular uprisings led to the overthrow of the president. Subsequently, work on the pyramid was grounded to a halt and was not resumed again until the end of 2013.

 

The restoration faced further scrutiny when the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities were accused of hiring a firm that had no experience working on ancient sites. Some experts even claimed that the repairs were actually undermining the structural integrity of the Egyptian pyramid. To this day, some of the underground chambers are still deemed at risk of collapse.

 

1. The Pyramid of Djoser Has Now Reopened as a World Heritage Site

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The main entrance leading to the Colonnade and part of the niched enclosure of Djoser ‘s complex, photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1965, via The Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

Roughly 4600 years after it was built, the Pyramid of Djoser has at last been restored to its original majesty. On March 5, 2020 the UNESCO world heritage site was reopened to tourists after $6.6 million and 14 years of renovation work. The Egyptian authorities expect it to attract a huge number of tourists, who are now allowed to enter inside the dense network of passageways and even visit the inner burial chamber where the legendary Pharaoh was laid to rest.

 

The extensive restoration work to preserve the Djoser Pyramid has ensured that the monument survives for thousands of years to come as a key piece of world history, and is accessible to visitors eager to learn about the wonders of the ancient world.



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By Mia ForbesMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.