Building for Eternity

It’s not often you get to stand in a place where something was done first, but that’s exactly what you’re doing if you stand in the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara. This vast structure, which includes the Step Pyramid itself as well as enclosure walls and dummy building facades, is the first ever monumental dressed stone building in the world. It’s difficult to fully grasp how awe-inspiringly new this would’ve looked to the people of the time. I grew up in Oxford and so went about my early life surrounded by the great stone buildings of the university. There are large stone buildings for the government, large stone buildings for religious structures, large stone buildings for education, large stone buildings everywhere you look. Even the village my husband grew up in which only has a dozen houses is less than 3 miles from a large stone parish church (and closer yet to a manor house). Before the modern age of steel and glass, monumental stone structures were how you demonstrated power and wealth. But everything starts somewhere, and Saqqara is the place where one day nearly 5 thousand years ago somebody looked around and said “you know, if we built it out of stone it would last forever”.

Of course in the way of all things archaeological there are caveats that need to be applied – most importantly that our knowledge of the past is shaped by what has survived, so it’s “the first that we know of”. It is backed up, however, by later Egyptians crediting king Djoser and his chancellor Imhotep with inventing building with dressed stone. It was also not the first time that stone had been used in monumental structures: individual elements in earlier structures like paving slabs and doorjambs had been made from stone. This is however the first completely stone built structure.

A photograph of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
The Step Pyramid at Saqqara

Another first is that we have an individual to credit with its design – Imhotep. Again there are caveats – no contemporary sources outright say that the chancellor Imhotep was the architect of the Step Pyramid, but he is both the man with the appropriate titles (job description if you will) in the contemporary sources and the man who is later credited with the achievement. I’ve seen him referred to as “the Leonardo da Vinci of Ancient Egypt”, the polymath of his era – although I think this makes more serious Egyptologists wince! And unlike Imhotep, Leonardo has not been deified or even canonised but it did take Imhotep a couple of thousand years so perhaps there’s time yet for da Vinci.

The Step Pyramid enclosure is the tomb and funerary complex for the King Djoser who reigned in the middle of the 27th Century BCE. Following the much later historian Manetho modern Egyptologists designate him as the first ruler of the 3rd Dynasty (which is the beginning of the Old Kingdom period of Ancient Egyptian history). It’s not clear that Djoser himself would’ve seen his reign as the start of something new – it seems plausible that he was the son of the last king of the 2nd Dynasty so there was continuity of leadership. And despite the new material of his building project many of the design elements look back to earlier architecture. Looking around the enclosure one sees several courts lined with dummy facades of buildings. These solid structures are faced with limestone carved to give the impression of buildings made from wood and rush, the forms of which resemble shrines built by earlier rulers from those materials. Even the Step Pyramid itself started out as a recreation in stone of the mastaba tombs which 1st and 2nd Dynasty kings had been buried in, the final form of 6 steps to make a pyramid appears to have been thought of after construction was underway – perhaps to make it stand out in the increasingly crowded necropolis at Saqqara.

One of the questions that springs to mind as you stand there in the Step Pyramid enclosure is how come, if it was first, it seems so well done? Part of the answer to this is that it wasn’t the first time that the Egyptians had been working with stone. As well as the stone architectural elements I mentioned above there was also a very long tradition in Egypt of working with stone to make sculpture and to make items such as stone vases. So Djoser and Imhotep had a pool of highly skilled craftsmen who could be put to work making stone facades rather than vases – a change of form but using existing technology and skills. And as I also mentioned above, the design itself is a mimicking of existing forms in a new material even down to the details. If you stand in the entrance corridor to the enclosure and look up you can see that the ceiling is made to look like a log ceiling – there are even traces of paint to show how it was once painted to look like wood. In the subterranean corridors many faience tiles were found which had lined the walls. They weren’t just stuck on the wall like a modern tile would be, instead they were strung on cords and hung on the walls to look like the reed mats that hung on contemporary palace walls.

A place of firsts, built to provide Djoser with an appropriate setting for his afterlife and the beginning of an Egyptian tradition of building for eternity and not just for “now”.

Resources Used:

“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“Inside the Step Pyramid” Vincent Oeters (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw