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One Step at a Time: Egypt's First Pyramid

We're in Egypt!!! Amazing, mystical, magical, full of adventure...old! Yes, old, as in thousands of years old - it's been almost 5000 years since King Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt into the Egypt we know today. And, if we start there, that's still plenty of ancient history to cover. So we'll ease into this slowly, with ooooohhh, just the first pyramid ever built!

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King Zoser's Step Pyramid.
The year was 2700 BC, the pharaoh was named Zoser, and it was under his reign that Imhotep, the pharaoh's chief architect, constructed what was at the time, the largest stone structure ever built - The Step Pyramid of King Zoser. Pyramids were ancient burial grounds. We might even call them the cemeteries of old. But to the great pharaohs and their subjects, tombs were not just a place to lay the dead to rest, tombs were "houses of eternity." These tombs, however, did not start off as pyramids. The Egyptians first used burial pits called mastabas. In order to both protect the body from grave robbers and create a comfortable home for the afterlife, the burial pits of the wealthy became deep shafts lined with matting, mud brick or wood. Finally chambers were added to house the growing collections of grave goods. The simple mound of mud-brick used to cover the pit resembled the mud-brick seats found outside many Egyptian peasant houses, thus the name mastaba, which means bench in Arabic.

The Step Pyramid was built in a place called Saqarra, so that's where I began. From Cairo it takes about forty-five minutes by car (or jeep, which is what I used to brave the rough terrain) to get there. It was nearing sunset when I arrived and the scene was unreal, like something out of a movie. Camels, passing through the sunset, great tombs casting orange shadows on the desert floor, and ancient pyramids in the distance, as far as the eye could see. After the Step Pyramid was built, Saqarra became home to many other pyramids over the years, as it was considered sacred land. Still, no structure stands out as does the first pyramid ever built, the Step Pyramid.

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A typical and magical Egyptian sunset sight.
Believe it or not, the Step Pyramid of King Zoser began as a simple mastaba (with the flat tomb covering). Remember that these tombs are not the kind of tombs we might envision today. They are actually huge underground complexes comprised of a maze of tunnels, and small passageways that lead to burial chambers and storage rooms. To get an idea of the size, imagine the step pyramid without the top five steps. After the initial covering was completed Imhotep began adding steps until he was satisfied with his new creation. With each level of stone he gained confidence in his use of the new design and mastered the technique required to move, place and secure the huge blocks. It wasn't until the rise of this 3rd Dynasty that stone was even introduced as a building material. The Step Pyramid rose to over 62 meters, in six steps, and was coated in fine limestone. Imhotep's brilliant use of stone, and his revolutionary break from traditional style of building royal mastabas as underground rooms with the occasional mud-brick covering, was the inspiration for the future pyramids - the greatest of Egypt's architectural achievements.

Vocabulary Box:

mausoleum - a magnificent tomb
cosmos - everything that exists anywhere; the universe or universality of created things
emanate - proceed or issue forth, as from a source
sanctum - a sacred place; hence, a place of retreat; a room reserved for personal use

Most pyramids are closed (the Step Pyramid included) so visitors are unable to venture down into the depths of the tombs. The one pyramid you might least want to dive into is, of course, the only one that's open to the public. But why wouldn't you want to brave down into any ancient underground tomb you ask? Well, I'll tell you - this particular pyramid, the Pyramid of Unas (a 5th Dynasty creation) is, on the outside, nothing more than a big pile of dirt and rocks. It didn't look very sturdy to me. But being the courageous trekker that I am, I decided to brave the challenge and crawl down into the tomb anyway (not to mention it has recently been restored). The opening is but a small door at the bottom on the pyramid, probably half the size of a regular door. A long tunnel leading down into the tomb is the only way to get in and out of the pyramid. So, folded over and crouched down, I began to make my way down the steep plank.

The dim glow of a few small light bulbs along the way was the only light and as I got closer to the bottom an eerie sensation came over me. I wondered what might lie ahead, awaiting my arrival - a killer mummy, a flock of bats, spider webs and huge spiders, ghosts. My imagination was getting away from me! What I found instead was an empty tomb. Everything inside the tomb had been excavated years ago and is now on display in the Egyptian Museum. At the bottom of the landing I was finally able to stand up straight but not for long. Before me was yet another tunnel to follow. This one led to the burial chambers. These small rooms are connected by a series of small doorways (like the entrance door) but once inside the high ceilings and walls are decorated with beautiful hieroglyphs. Just above the place where the mummy used to lay were hundreds of stars carved into the ceiling, an amazing site to see.

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In the tomb, I discovered one of the earliest known example of hieroglyphs.
Though it didn't look like much on the outside, it was definitely worth the trip down to see the inside. The walls of this tomb are covered in what archaeologists believe to be the first examples of hieroglyphs and decorative writing in a Pharonic tomb chamber. This art form evolved over time and by the 6th Dynasty the walls of the tombs were elaborately decorated with finely painted, intricately detailed murals. I found well preserved, even colorful, examples in the Tomb of Ka-Gmi directly across from the Pyramid of Unas. Artwork in the tombs represented much more than just a decorative record of each individual's life. Each carving, painting, and statue was meant to guarantee that everything depicted in the tomb would come into the afterworld. The reasoning behind these tremendous efforts was that if the mummy was destroyed, the "ka," or the life force, could continue to survive through the likeness of the deceased as represented in the stone and wood. In order to make this possible, priests performed a ritual in the tomb after all the carving and painting was finished, which caused everything depicted in the tomb to come to life and fulfill their roles in the afterlife.
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larger view
A Sixth Dynasty painting inside the Tomb of Ka-Gmi
It was not an obsession with death, or a fear of it, on the part of the ancient Egyptians that led to the construction of these incredible mausoleums; it was their belief in eternal life and their desire to be one with the cosmos. They believed that a pharaoh was the son of a god, and the sole receiver of the ka that emanated from the god. The pharaoh in turn, conducted this vital force to his people, so in life and death he was worshipped as a god. A pyramid, thus, was not just an indestructible sanctum for the preservation of a pharaoh's ka, nor simply an incredible, geometrically designed pile of stones raised above the pharaoh's mummy and his treasures to ensure his immortality. It was the key element of a much larger complex that provided a place of worship for his subjects, and a visible reminder of the absolute and eternal power of the gods and their universe.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


The Team - Memphis: The Ancient Capital of Egypt
Abeja - Introducing Egypt's Living Dead
Kavitha - Many Streams, One River
Monica - Learning How To "Walk Like An Egyptian…"
The Team - Poltics as Usual in Algeria
The Team - U.S.-Libya: A History of Tense Relations
Making a Difference - Just Do It
Making a Difference - The Parthenon

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