The pyramids of the Old Kingdom

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

Zahi Hawass describes the history of royal pyramid construction in the ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom.

The pyramids of the Old Kingdom
Above: the Bent Pyramid, Below: Djoser Pyramid


Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom is best known for the enormous pyramids built by its kings and strung in a line through the low desert west of Memphis from Abu Rawash in the north to Meidum in the south.

The first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of the Third-Dynasty king Djoser, was an incredible feat of engineering and architecture, heralding an accelerated period of technological advance. Only about a century separates this monument from the biggest and most perfect pyramid ever built, the Fourth-Dynasty Pyramid of Khufu at Giza.

The kings of the later Old Kingdom built smaller pyramids but decorated the complexes that surrounded them with extensive and beautiful reliefs.


Scholars believe that ancient historians began a new dynasty with the reign of Djoser not because of a change in the royal bloodline, but because a new type of royal funerary monument appeared: the step pyramid.

According to legend, a brilliant man named Imhotep took the Early Dynastic complex of tomb in the desert and cult enclosure near the floodplain at Abydos and put them together in an innovative form, translating them into stone for his monarch, Netjerikhet Djoser.

The mud-brick wall of the cult enclosure was translated into smallish blocks of stone first laid in courses and then carved into elaborate niches. The principal monument inside was the tomb itself, a towering pyramid constructed in six stages or steps beneath which lay a maze of galleries, some of which are thought to imitate the king’s personal chambers within the royal palace.

Surrounding the Step Pyramid are courtyards and a variety of buildings, which may mirror long-vanished cult structures constructed of perishable materials inside the Early Dynastic enclosures at Abdos. Some of these are functional and may have been used for the King’s funeral, but others are dummy buildings finished on the outside, but solid on the inside.

In Djoser’s monument at Saqqara, there are columns thought by some scholars to represent tree-trunks stripped of their bark, and by others to be bundles of reeds. Arched bands mimic rafters made of reeds, bent to give them additional stability.

The entrances to the buildings are off-centre to protect their interiors from the gaze of the profane; the walls of the prototypes of these structures were originally hung with mats. The top edges of these are rendered in stone by stylised bands representing rows of tied reeds, called khekher friezes. These are seen throughout Pharaonic history, framing carved and painted walls.

Djoser’s Mortuary Temple lies near the north face of his pyramid in front of a vast court containing an altar and numerous underground storerooms. Also near the north face of the pyramid is a small chamber known as a serdab, which is completely enclosed with only two small holes in the front wall. These holes were at eye level for the life-size seated statue of the king that was found inside.

Underneath the Step Pyramid are 5.7 km of passages, chambers, tunnels, vertical shafts, and storage areas, similar to the surviving tombs of the Second Dynasty, but on a much grander scale. One set of chambers was decorated with blue faience tiles set into stone frames so that they resemble matting.

There are also several panels set into these walls, with images of the king celebrating his Sed Festival carved into the fine white limestone. This was an important event, during which the king was symbolically rejuvenated and showed that he still had the virility and strength to rule.

Similar rooms and comparable decoration were found in Djoser’s South Tomb, a mysterious structure built into the south wall of the complex. The burial chamber is square and not large enough to hold a sarcophagus with the body in an extended position.

The purpose of this tomb has long been debated by scholars. Some think it was meant for the king’s ka, his magic double, perhaps in the form of a statue. Others think it once held the king’s canopic equipment where his viscera were stored, or his placenta, saved since birth. It might have been meant for his crowns, or some other important item of royal regalia. I believe that it was connected with the Sed Festival.

Several years ago, I discovered part of a doorjamb from Djoser’s complex reused in the floor of the mortuary temple of a Sixth-Dynasty queen. It is decorated with undulating images of snakes, beautifully carved in low relief. The front is divided into two large sections, and then subdivided into 13 smaller ones.

In the top section is the king’s Horus name, Netjerikhet, and then alternating images of a jackal and a lioness. I believe the jackal represents Anubis, the god of embalming, and the lioness represents the mother who nurses and protects the king and the guardian of the sky. Thus, the jackal and lioness could represent the guardians of the underworld and the sky, and so provide for the king’s eternal rebirth and cyclical travel through these two realms.

This doorjamb was evidently associated originally with Djoser’s complex, but the original location is hard to reconstruct. It might have been somewhere in the Sed Festival court, but it is equally possible that it was part of a ceremonial entrance into the entire enclosure. Such an entrance has never been found but based on the standard elements of the later pyramid complex, there might originally have been one, which later evolved into the valley temple.


Between 1951 and 1955, Egyptian archaeologist Zakaria Goneim excavated a second huge step pyramid complex at Saqqara.

Work was continued here in the 1960s by the French archaeologist responsible for the major excavation and restoration efforts at Djoser’s complex, Jean-Philippe Lauer. Clay jar stoppers found in the pyramid were inscribed with the name of king Sekhemkhet, identified with Djoser’s successor (called Djoserti in later King Lists).

Buried under the drifting sands, only the foundations of the pyramid had been completed during the king’s six-year reign, but if it had been finished, it would have been bigger than Djoser’s.

From the pyramid entrance to the north courtyard, a sloping corridor leads to a rectangular burial chamber beneath the centre of the pyramid. Partway along this corridor, a vertical shaft rising through the structure hid animal bones, 62 papyri from the Late Period, hundreds of stone vessels, and, in the corridor below, a collection of gold jewellery.

In the centre of the burial chamber, Goneim found a beautiful calcite sarcophagus of unusual design closed with a sliding panel at one end. On top of this lay what the excavator thought was a wreath, but which turned out to be decayed wood and bark.

Since the blocking leading to the chamber was intact and the sliding panel on the sarcophagus was sealed, Goneim believed that he had found the king’s burial undisturbed. With great fanfare, and the attendance of the press and a number of dignitaries, the sarcophagus was opened, and found to be completely empty. This remains one of the great mysteries of the Old Kingdom.

Like Djoser, Sekhemkhet had a South Tomb, in this case freestanding rather than incorporated into the enclosure wall, located directly south of the main pyramid and centred on the width of the enclosure.

Only the foundations and part of the unfinished mastaba superstructure remained. Beneath, in an east-west corridor that widened slightly at the end, were stone vases and jewellery belonging to the Third Dynasty, along with a wooden coffin and the skeleton of a two-year-old child.

Who was this mysterious boy? He is not Sekhemkhet himself, but he may have been one of the king’s children.

Another step pyramid from the Third Dynasty, nicknamed the Layer Pyramid, was built at Zawiyet Al-Aryan, about four miles north of Saqqara. This is laid out very similarly to Sekhemkhet’s Pyramid and was also unfinished. The substructure, like Sekhemkhet’s, included many galleries, arranged in a U-shape around the north, east, and west of the pyramid. The only clue to the king who built this monument are some stone vases found in a mastaba to the north of the pyramid. These bear the name of the Horus Khaba.

The pyramid does not seem to have been used, as it contained neither sarcophagus nor any trace of burial equipment. The last king of the Third Dynasty, Huni, does not appear to have built a pyramid tomb. There are a series of small step pyramids scattered from Elephantine at the far southern border of Egypt to Seila near the Fayoum. None of these have internal chambers or temples attached, so cannot have been used for burials; they probably mark the sites of royal residences.

Inscriptional evidence shows that the Elephantine Pyramid belonged to Huni, and the Seila Pyramid to his son Sneferu, first king of the Fourth Dynasty. Most scholars assign the remaining five to Hun, but we still do not know where he was buried.


The Fourth Dynasty saw important advances in pyramid-building.

The first king of this line, Sneferu, built three major pyramids, in addition to his own small Pyramid at Seila. The first of these, at Meidum, was originally designed as a step pyramid. This unique monument now has the appearance of a wedding cake, as its once gleaming casing collapsed into three great layers.

The burial chamber was within the body of the structure and approached by a long descending corridor from the north and then a vertical shaft rising into the chamber, roofed with the first known example of corbelling. No stone sarcophagus was found in this room, although there were fragments of a wooden coffin of approximately the correct date.

A French team working inside the Pyramid found that there were three rooms built above the corridor, perhaps for ventilation. The Meidum complex set the basic pattern for the pyramids that followed. Within the enclosure wall that surrounded it was a smaller pyramid, perhaps a descendent of the south tombs found in the complexes of Djoser and Sekhemkhet. To the east, against the face of the Pyramid, was a chapel, presumably for an offering cult.

From the eastern face of the enclosure wall, a causeway lined with limestone blocks ran toward the floodplain. No temple was found at the end of this causeway, but this may have been because the complex was left unfinished.

Sometime around the 15th year of his long reign, Sneferu abandoned his Pyramid at Meidum and moved his court north to Dahshour. Here he erected a second mortuary monument, the first true pyramid. Built on unstable rock and with a planned angle of a steep 60 degrees, this structure had to be modified partway through its construction by reducing the angle to about 43 degrees and reinforcing the lower part.

As a result, the pyramid has a rhomboidal profile and has been nicknamed the “Bent Pyramid”. The internal chambers of this monument are approached from two directions: the north and the west. Inside are two corbelled burial chambers at different levels linked by a roughly cut passage. Mysteries still swirl around the internal structure of this pyramid: there are places where you can feel a breeze from a direction where there is no known access to the outside.

As at Meidum, a small offering chapel sits against the east face of the pyramid. A satellite pyramid, with a separate offering place marked by two round-topped stelae inscribed with Sneferu’s name, was built to the south. A causeway leads from the eastern enclosure wall to a large valley temple that is still out in the desert, far from the floodplain.

This is the first of this type of structure, thought, at least in later examples, to provide a ceremonial entrance to the complex. But later valley temples stood at the edge of the cultivated area within reach of the Nile floodwaters at the time of the annual inundation and presumably reached by a canal during the rest of the year. In the early stages of the complex’s construction, this area would have been used for the delivery of building materials.

In about his 28th or 29th year on the throne, Sneferu sent his team back to Meidum to turn his original Pyramid into a true pyramid. But apparently neither the Meidum nor the Bent Pyramid satisfied the king, and in the 30th year of his reign, he began yet another monument, at the north end of the Dahshour Necropolis.

This was the first successfully constructed true pyramid, its sloping sides rising smoothly at an angle of 43 degrees 22 minutes. The royal architects had clearly learned from their past experiences and built an impressive monument that has survived even the stone-robbing of the millennia that have passed since its construction. The internal chambers are arranged along a gently descending passage, and two corbelled antechambers and a corbelled burial chamber are approached from the north and at ground level within the pyramid’s core.

Parts of a human body were found inside these chambers. Some scholars believe these are the mortal remains of Sneferu. However, I believe that he was buried in the Bent Pyramid, where the king’s cult was still celebrated over a thousand years later. The simple eastern chapel against the Pyramid face was expanded here into a more elaborate temple. Although only bits and pieces remain, the site’s most recent excavator, archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann, has been able to reconstruct the basic plan.

Only elusive traces of a causeway were found, and what might be the valley temple has never been excavated. It is generally assumed that the complex was left unfinished at Sneferu’s death.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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