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Zoser (active ca. 2686 B.C.) was the first king of the Third Dynasty, which ushered in Egypt's first golden age, the Old Kingdom.

Zoser is always described on his monuments as the "Horus Neteryerkhet." In the so-called Turin Canon of Kings, a hieratic papyrus dating from about the reign of Ramses II, his importance as the founder of a new epoch (Third Dynasty, 2686-2613 B.C.) is noted by the exceptional use of red ink in writing his name. According to the Turin list, he reigned for 19 years, but this period seems much too short for the erection of his vast monument, the Step Pyramid. The Ptolemaic historian Manetho allots him a reign of 29 years.

Zoser's main claim to fame is his Step Pyramid at Saqqara, overlooking the ancient capital city of Memphis. The man responsible for its conception and construction was Zoser's architect Imhotep. Known to the Greeks as Imouthes, he became a legendary figure to later generations of Egyptians, who looked upon him not only as an architect but also as a learned physician and astronomer. In the Saite period (663-525 B.C.) he was deified and he was identified by the Greeks with their own god of medicine, Asklepios (Aesculapius).

The Step Pyramid was the dominant edifice of a large complex of stone buildings and courtyards which were intended for various ceremonies in connection with the afterlife of Zoser. Its base measurements were approximately 411 feet from east to west and 358 feet from north to south. In its final form it rose in six unequal stages to a height of 204 feet. The substructure of the pyramid consists of a deep shaft which gives access to a maze of corridors and rooms without parallel in other pyramids of the Old Kingdom.

The pyramid and the related complex of buildings were enclosed by a massive stone wall, covering an area approximately 597 yards from north to south and 304 yards from east to west. Limestone from the Tura quarries on the east side of the Nile was used for the outer facing of the buildings, and local stone for the inner cores.

A large brick mastaba at Bêt Khallâf in Upper Egypt may also have been constructed for Zoser, possibly as a cenotaph. At Wadi Maghâra in the Sinai Peninsula is a relief depicting Zoser smiting the Bedouin of the region. A lengthy rock inscription of Ptolemaic date on the island of Sehêl in the First Cataract of the Nile recounts how, through the counsel of Imhotep, Zoser brought to an end a seven-year famine which had afflicted Egypt by presenting to the ram-headed god Khnum of Elephantine, who controlled the Nile inundation, the stretch of territory in Lower Nubia known in Greek as the Dodekaschoinos. The historical accuracy of this inscription is a matter of debate.

Further Reading

The development and main features of the Step Pyramid complex are discussed by Earl Baldwin Smith, Egyptian Architecture as Cultural Expression (1938). On Imhotep and his career see Jamieson B. Hurry, Imhotep: The Vizier and Physician of King Zoser (1928). The mastaba at Bêt Khallâf is described by the excavator, John Garstang, Mahasna and Bêt Khallâf (1903). □