The Step Pyramid of Saqqara set the standard for royal tombs for a thousand years.
Early in Egypt's history, a new shape appeared on the skyline of Saqqara; the vast cemetery of the rich, royal, and well-connected of Memphis, the country's first great city.
Egypt pharaohs lived in the shadow of a tomb that spoke of an intoxicating mix of unlimited power and eternal life. It is no wonder that the Step Pyramid of Saqqara became a must-have for Egypt's great rulers. In fact the size and quality of one's pyramid became a tell tale indicator of the power of the reigning pharaoh.
A big city like Memphis needed a big cemetery, and this cemetery was across the Nile in the west; closer to where the sun sank into the underworld each night before rising at dawn, reborn and triumphant. The necklace of burial grounds include Saqqara, Abusir, Dahshur and Giza, each waxing and waning in their popularity through the centuries.
The pyramids of Giza are much more famous than Djoser's, and the pyramids at Dahshur are bigger. But none of them might have been built without Djoser's inspired choice for a grand tomb.
The Step Pyramid was not only the world's first pyramid, but also the world's oldest large-scale monument in stone. Previously, dead kings were buried beneath mastabas: great rectangular slabs made of mud-bricks. The bricks may have symbolised the mound of creation that rose from the waters of chaos on the very first day of creation.
Djoser's original tomb was both traditional and innovative: a traditional mastaba, but instead of mud-brick, built of stone to achieve a permanence his predecessors could only dream of. Then another smaller mastaba was built on top, growing outwards in concentric layers. Then another. And other, until six steps rose into the Saqqara sky, creating a literal stairway to heaven.
160 years after Djoser a new line of kings rose. Userkaf, the dynasty's founder, wished to associate himself with the builder of the Step Pyramid and nestled his pyramid close to the north-east corner of Djoser's complex (top right in this photo). 80 years later, King Unas placed his by the south-west corner (bottom left). These pyramids were younger, but less robust than their esteemed ancestor's and have since slumped into pyramid-shaped mounds after their fine limestone exteriors were stripped for handy building stone.
Being buried near the king was a great honour, and hopefully allowed the deceased to tap into the king's grand resurrection in the afterlife. Surrounding Djoser's Step Pyramid, the Saqqara desert is honeycombed with tombs. A few have been excavated. Hundreds more, having been plundered by thieves in antiquity, await scientific exploration. They remain mounds in the desert sand, surrounding Djoser's petrified dream to be closer to the gods.
Photo: Kenneth Garrett