The Step Pyramid Complex of Zozer (Zoser) – Saqqarah Tombs & Pyramids


The Step Pyramid Complex of Zozer is undoubtedly the most splendid monument at Saqqarah and it is unique in Egyptian architecture. This remarkable building—the work tof Imhotep, the chief of works of Zozer, second king of the 3 Dyn. who reigned c 2667—2648 BC—was the first large construction in stone. The enclosure wall, also of stone, has only one entry and is decorated with recessed and panelled buttresses representing either the palace façade or the White Walls of Memphis. It was not realised at first that Zozer was the king for whom this was built, as the building describes him under his Horus name of N etjerykhet. It was not until the discovery of the Famine Stele at Seheil Island by С.Е. Wilbur in 1888 that it was recognised that the two were one and the same.

The Pyramid of Zozer

It can be entered either by the single entry in the NE corner into the Heb Sed complex, or over the top of the enclosure wall at the S, passing the frieze of uraei and the Southern Tomb (see below) and proceeding directly to the pyramid and the mortuary temple, retur- ning via the Heb-Sed buildings. It is more convenient to follow the second route.

The earliest account of this pyramid is that of the Prussian Consul-General von Minutoli who penetrated the subterranean galleries in 1821. He found part of a mummy and some inscriptions which he sent to Europe and which were lost at sea off the coast of Spain. The next man to examine the site was Colonel Howard Vyse who with his assistant J .S. Perring surveyed the pyramids here and at Giza and Dahshur. Perring’s work was remarkably accurate, and it is his survey which gives a first account of the subterranean galleries of this pyramid, and the rooms lined with blue faience tiles bearing the name of the Horus Netjerykhet. The work of Vyse was followed by that of the German Karl Lepsius who, after doing a further survey, removed part of the tiled walls to Berlin. It was not until after World War I that the Dept of Antiquities began excavations around the pyramid. С.М. Firth, who was in Charge of the work from 1920 until his death in 1931, found a large number of galleries packed with funeral vases of various stones such as alabaster, diorite, granite, schist and breccia, weighing over 90 tons in total, which took the department three years to remove. In 1927 M. Lauer joined

Firth as his architect and he has been largely responsible for the work of restoration on the pyramid and its complex.

The buildings are constructed in fine white limestone, the first extensive use of stone in Ancient Egypt, while many of the archi- tectural elements employed in this building appear here for the first time. None of the stone blocks used by Imhotep was very large, as he was experimenting with the tensile strength of stone. However, the effect of the whole is extremely satisfactory, with delicate carving and pleasing lines. Although there was a mortuary temple, no causeway, or valley temple associated with the Step Pyramid has so far been discovered.

The whole complex is surrounded by a great limestone Wall measuring 545m from N to S and 277m from E to W. Of the walls 14 gates 13 are false, there being only one true entrance, at the S corner of the E side. The wall originally stood 10.4m high (20 cubits) and it is buttressed to represent the palace walls. After entering the single enclosure entrance through a series of engaged reeded columns the main court is reached. Here there are two B-shaped altars round which the king was said to run in the Heb-Sed ceremonies. The Step Pyramid began as a mastaba 63m sq. and 8m high. The core was of local limestone faced with finer Turah material. Later Imhotep added 3m to this on all sides, and later gm on the E making it a rectangle. He then added four mastabas, one above the other, to form the stepped pyramid. It finally measured 140m E to W and 118m N to S and was 60m high. This superstructure overlaid a 7m-sq. shaft sunk in the rock to a depth of 28m, at the base of which was an oblong burial chamber built of granite blocks, entered through a hole sealed with a granite plug weighing 3.5 tons. Surrounding the burial chamber, four underground passages and galleries were cut to contain the burial equipment. Some of these galleries were never finished, others were covered with blue faience tiles. Zozer’s family was buried near his tomb in a series of shafts of which 11 were cut 32m deep. Tomb robbers had entered them all but in one was found the mummy of a child in an alabaster coffin, and the foot of another mummy, said to be of Old Kingdom date, found in the main burial chamber was probably all that was left of Zozer.

These galleries can only be entered with special permission from the Dept of Antiquities and they should not be attempted by those suffering from either vertigo or claustrophobia as the passages are narrow and dusty and often entail _ climbing up or down vertical ladders. The journey takes several hours and there is no lighting. If entered from the S there is a passage to the main shaft supported by 26 Dyn. columns, indicating that the pyramid had already begun to collapse in ancient times.

To the N of the pyramid is the Mortuary Temple, and beside it to the E is the Serdab, a small doorless room facing onto the casing with a seated statue of Zozer (a replica, the original has been removed to the ЕМ). The outer wall of the Mortuary Temple is well preserved to a height of about 2m, but the interior is very much ruined. It is from here that the entry to the underground chambers is made. Returning from the Mortuary Temple, on the N side of the pyramid is the House of the North with a facade of engaged fluted columns, while inside there is a cruciform sanctuary with three niches, and within a shallow recess in the wall of the court three engaged papyn’form columns, the earliest so far known. Proceeding S, the House of the South is reached, only part of which remains; originally it

stood some 12m high with four fluted and engaged columns in the façade. The chapel has been largely rebuilt by Lauer, and inside there are graffiti of the 18—19 Dyns extolling the beauties of the temple and mentioning the name of Zozer as its builder. The Heb Sed Court has been entirely rebuilt; the buildings are dummies and cannot be entered.

They are being reconstructed largely as a result of the scenes portrayed on the jar sealings, and ivory labels found in the 1 Dyn. tombs at Abydos, but the work is not yet finished. All that was left when Lauer started were the bases of the walls of the chapels and pavilions; he began in 1964 with an arched roof chapel with slender fluted columns. This was finished by 1968 and is joined by a curious curved wall to the main enclosure. A series of further dummy chapels are now being restored. The Heb Sed (or Festival of the Tail) was a feast carried out traditionally after 30 years of the king’s reign. In fact it often took place more frequently; sometimes the king having waited 30 years to carry out his first Sed Festival then repeated them at more frequent intervals It was an occasion when the officials and deities from all over Egypt came to wherever the king was and renewed their allegiance. All the ceremonies had to be carried out twice, once as King of the South and once as King of the North. In the Heb Sed pavilion, the king is seen seated back to back with his image each wearing the appropriate crowns and robes of the Two Lands.

Enter the Step Pyramid enclosure from the E. To the S is the Southern Tomb, the exact purpose of which is still uncertain. It may have served as an alternative tomb analogous to those of the 1 Dyn. kings at Abydos. However, this seems unlikely as it is known that Zozer had as a second tomb a mud-brick mastaba at Bayt Khallaf. Another suggestion is that it may have housed his viscera, as it is certainly connected with Osiris in some way, being decorated with djd-pillars. The tomb is also decorated with blue faience tiles. Nearby to the E is the earliest known Uraeus Frieze, another motif that was to become extremely popular later.


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