The North-South Pyramid Complex: King Djoser's Complex at Saqqara

views updated

The North-South Pyramid Complex: King Djoser's Complex at Saqqara


King Djoser's complex at Saqqara is the first example of a north/south oriented pyramid complex, built in the Third Dynasty (2675–2625 b.c.e.). This predominant orientation alternated throughout the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2675–1630 b.c.e.) with a pyramid complex that was oriented east/west. A good example of this second type of orientation is the Great Pyramid of Giza, built about 100 years after Djoser's Saqqara complex. While the north/south orientation is primarily associated with the eternal gods the Egyptians recognized in the circumpolar stars that never disappeared, the east/west orientation is primarily associated with the sun-god Re. The alternation between north/south and east/west orientations for pyramid complexes has thus been interpreted to have a religious dimension. Further, Djoser's pyramid complex reveals that the split between Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt can be traced back to the Third Dynasty, a split that is more fully established in later times by texts. Though the Egyptians had already been reading and writing for hundreds of years before the construction of Djoser's complex, there are few surviving extended texts from this period. Thus a seemingly obvious political fact such as the early establishment of the importance of Upper and Lower Egypt can only be established in the Third Dynasty by architecture. Finally, evidence for the celebration of the religious-political Jubilee (sed) Festival can be established from the architecture of Djoser's complex. Buildings that Egyptologists know to be used mainly for such a festival were located on the east side of the complex.

First Well-Preserved Stone Building.

King Djoser's complex at Saqqara is the earliest preserved example of stone architecture in Egypt. The Egyptian archaeologist Nabil Swelim has convincingly argued that it represents an early culmination of stone architecture. While archeologists are aware of the existence of foundations from earlier buildings, Djoser's complex is the first stone building in Egypt whose architect is known: Imhotep. A large-scale stone wall—277 by 544 meters (908 by 1,784 feet)—surrounds the complex. The wall was built in the palace façade motif with panels and with the addition of towers at intervals around the entire wall. Unlike the earlier enclosures of the First and Second Dynasties, Djoser's wall surrounded extensive architecture as well as large courtyards. The buildings inside Djoser's complex included a monumental entranceway, step pyramid, a series of buildings designed as a backdrop for the king's Jubilee Festival (sed -festival), two model palaces, and a model of an Upper Egyptian-style tomb.

Symbolic, Non-functional Buildings.

Imhotep designed four areas of symbolic, non-functional buildings in Djoser's complex in Saqqara: the Pavilion of the North, the Pavilion of the South, the South Tomb, and the Jubilee Festival Courtyard. These buildings are full-size models rather than functional buildings. Builders constructed only the exterior façade of the building, like a stage set. It was not possible to enter any of these buildings, though some of them had doors carved in stone. French archaeologist Jean-Phillipe Lauer, the excavator of the complex, believes that the non-functional buildings were for the use of the king's ka, or spirit, in the afterlife. Some evidence suggests that workers purposely buried the non-functional buildings soon after construction, though it is not clear why.

Functional Buildings.

While it is readily apparent which elements of the tomb were not functional, it is not as easy to determine which elements of the complex were in use. The northern end of the enclosure is still unexcavated, leaving scholars in doubt as to how it was used, and the ruined state of the complex likewise hinders an accurate perspective. Lauer argued that the functional elements in the complex were the entrance at the southeast corner of the enclosure, the pyramid which served as a tomb for Djoser, and the Northern temple used for the funeral service. The American archeologist Mark Lehner suggested that it is more likely that Djoser's funeral procession entered the building over the still-existing ramp at the northeast corner than through the functional entranceway at the southeast. None of the passageways that lead from the southeast entrance to the northern temple are wider than one meter (39 inches), so a funeral procession through the complex would be very difficult. The functional entrance way to Djoser's complex is located at the southeast corner of the enclosure wall. This location parallels similar functional entrances in the southeast corners of the enclosures that kings of the First and Second Dynasties built at Abydos. Djoser's entranceway, however, was built of stone carved to imitate a building built of reeds and wood. A monumental doorway leads to a hallway surrounded on both sides with engaged columns attached to the sidewalls painted green and carved to resemble columns made from bundles of reeds. The limestone roof is painted brown and carved to resemble logs. Clearly this entranceway imitates the type of ritual buildings that Egyptians built of these light materials previous to the Third Dynasty.

The Step Pyramid.

The pyramid itself stands slightly off-center in the complex toward the south. It reaches sixty meters (167 feet) in height in six layers and is the only Egyptian pyramid that has a rectangular base rather than a square base. Lauer interpreted the construction history as a series of additions. The first stage of the building was a square mastaba built in stone. Roughly every three years of Djoser's nineteen-year reign, workers added an additional layer. Lauer and German archaeologist Dieter Arnold have interpreted the expansions as gradual, reflecting emerging ideas about the king's future in the afterlife. The German Egyptologist Rainer Stadelmann, on the other hand, believes that Imhotep planned the step pyramid shape from the beginning. In any case, the shape represented a staircase to the northern stars. These stars represented the god Osiris because they never disappear as do stars in other parts of the heavens. Thus they are eternal, like Osiris. Beneath the Step Pyramid at Djoser's complex are over 400 rooms connected by tunnels. The total length of the rooms and tunnels combined is 5.7 kilometers (3.5 miles). The rooms include the king's burial chamber and a palace to serve as the home for the king's spirit. The king's burial chamber was accessed through a vertical shaft in the pyramid that was seven meters (22.9 feet) on each side and reached a depth of 28 meters (91.8 feet), lined entirely in granite. At the bottom of the shaft was a burial chamber lined with four courses of granite blocks. After the burial, workers lowered a 3.5-ton granite block to block the shaft and prevent future access by robbers. The palace for the king's spirit, located under the east wall of the pyramid, was lined with limestone and decorated with relief sculptures. Other areas were lined with faience tiles arranged to imitate mats made of reeds. The storage rooms were on the east side of the pyramid and housed over forty thousand jars, some inscribed with Djoser's name, but many more made in earlier times for other kings. Some scholars believe that many of these stored materials came from earlier tombs that had been removed from the Saqqara plateau to make room for Djoser's complex. Nevertheless, the great wealth stored in the pyramid demonstrates both the opulence of the king's life on earth and in the next world.

Jubilee Festival (sed) Court.

The Jubilee Festival (sed) Court at Djoser's complex was conceived as a space where the king's ka—royal spirit—could celebrate the Jubilee Festival for eternity. Egyptian kings celebrated the Jubilee Festival (sed) after roughly thirty years of rule and then every two years thereafter as long as the king lived. During the festival, the gods of the nomes (Egyptian provinces) visited the king in the form of statues to pledge loyalty to him. The details of the ritual remain unknown. The kings of the First Dynasty celebrated this festival, both in life and in the afterlife at the so-called forts of Kom es Sultan at Abydos. There is evidence that kings continued to celebrate this festival in every period of Egyptian history, but Djoser's courtyard is the only three-dimensional representation of the physical setting of the festival. The Jubilee Festival Court contains non-functional buildings in two rows that face each other across an open space. These buildings housed the spirits of the visiting gods, probably in the form of statues, during the festival. The dummy non-functional buildings, built of stone, are only façades. The stone is carved to resemble buildings built of woven mats, bundles of reeds, and logs. In some cases doorways carved in stone appear to be open, but it is impossible to enter any of the buildings. At the south end of the open space is a platform reached by steps. This platform supported the royal thrones, one for Lower Egypt and one for Upper Egypt. There the king celebrated the end of the ceremony wherein the gods officially reconfirmed him as king. Since only the spirits of the deceased king and the gods used this space, the American archaeologist Mark Lehner suggested that workers buried it in sand soon after its construction, though the reason for this is unknown. While living, the king probably celebrated this festival at the royal palace.

Pavilion of the North and the South.

Two of the non-functional buildings at Djoser's complex represent the palaces of Upper and Lower Egypt. They are called the Pavilion of the North and the Pavilion of the South. They are located near the northeast corner of the pyramid, not far from the mortuary temple. The two buildings face each other across an open courtyard. Lauer suggested that the two buildings symbolically represent the palaces Djoser maintained in life as the king of Upper Egypt and the king of Lower Egypt. Both buildings are only façades and may have been buried along with all the dummy buildings in the complex after completion. These buildings attest to the earliest political division in Egyptian thinking, the division between Upper and Lower Egypt. The Egyptians often called their country "The Two Lands" (tawy) in reference to this division. The king was actually regarded as a king of two different places that were combined in his person.

The South Tomb.

The South Tomb at Djoser's complex is located against the center of the south enclosure wall. Below the building are structures similar to the burial structures under the pyramid, including the vertical shaft leading to the burial chamber and an underground palace decorated with limestone relief sculptures and faience tiles. The vertical shaft in the south tomb replicates the dimensions of the vertical shaft in the pyramid, but the burial vault is so small that it is unclear what could have been buried there. It was only 1.6 by 1.6 meters (5.2 by 5.2 feet) square with a height of 1.3 meters (4.2 feet). Egyptologists have suggested that it could represent the burial of the king's ka in the form of a statue, the burial of the royal placenta, the burial of the royal crowns, or that it symbolically represented the burial of the king of Upper Egypt. Before this time, the Egyptians buried the king in Abydos in Upper Egypt (southern Egypt). Some Egyptolgoists believe that the south tomb was a reference to this Egyptian tradition, now abandoned. The many possible explanations stem from the fact that so little evidence remains to be interpreted. Egyptologists may never know definitively why such great effort was expended to build the South Tomb.


Dieter Arnold, "Royal Cult Complexes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms," Temples of Ancient Egypt, edited by Byron E. Shafer (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997): 31–85.

Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997).

Rainer Stadelmann, Die Ägyptischen Pyramiden: vom Ziegelbau zum Weltwunder (Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, 1985).

Miroslav Verner, Die Pyramiden (Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt Verlag, 1998).

About this article

The North-South Pyramid Complex: King Djoser's Complex at Saqqara

Updated About content Print Article