Around 2680 BC, a precedence was set for future Egyptian architecture, as well as over all architectural design. Only a short distance to the south of the previous burial mastabas of the first and second Egyptian dynasties, the Mortuary Complex of King Zoser was constructed. Lying atop a stretch of high ground at Saqqara overlooking the city of Memphis, this complex is believed to be the first of its time to utilize new techniques in Egyptian construction, and was by far the largest and most elaborate of any tombs built before it.
Just as the burial sites before, King Zoser’s complex was built facing the Nile River to the east. A large rock wall surrounded the complex, measuring 550 by 275 meters, with the only noticeable entrance being at the southern part of the east face. When one enters the complex they then head north through the entry corridor. This hyperstyle hall is lined with two rows of half columns engaged to spur walls. These columns carry a stone ceiling cut to resemble rounded logs. After passing through a doubled number of columns at the end of the hall, one comes into a large court. This court is known as the Heb-sed court, and was presumably used for ceremonies. At the southwest corner of this court is a building of solid masonry, and to the north, in another separate court, is two temple buildings with columns carved to imitate the lotus and the papyrus plants. Just to the west of this court lay the stepped pyramid under which King Zoser’s body lay in a granite sarcophagus. This sarcophagus was originally topped with a simple stone mastaba, but was then enlarged three times. This stepped pyramid was then enlarged to the north and the west, making its final size consisting of six stages standing at 204 feet tall. The stepped pyramid concealing the burial chamber was consistent with previous burial sites however, none before had been as extravagant and contained as many additional structures as King Zoser’s complex.
The man regarded with designing this structure, Imhotep, is also considered the first known architect. The evidence found at Zoser’s complex suggests that architects held a higher place in society among the wealthy and educated Egyptians. This differed from early Mesopotamian society where the kings took credit for their burial site constructions, hence the reason for no evidence of who designed the previous structures. Along with being regarded as a magician, an astronomer, and the father of medicine by the Egyptian people, Imhotep was the first to utilize new techniques in architecture that have no apparent predecessors.
The main noticeable difference of Zoser’s complex is the fact that it was made of stone, while previous tombs utilized only mud bricks. While Zoser’s actual burial place was topped with a stepped pyramid constructed of mud brick, the rest of the buildings in the complex were constructed of local stone covered with polished limestone. This presents the idea that at this time the ancient Egyptians had begun the art of stone work, at least on a small scale. These stones were cut and carved to form flat faces and shaped like large bricks. When placed together in straight fashion, this rockwork gave the temple an exceptionally clean look, which had been seen never before.
The first known case of clerestory lighting can be found in the entry hall as well. These openings, that extended from the ceiling down the walls a few feet, were facing east towards the Nile River. In the early morning, sunlight would pour in through these windows and shafts of light would fall presumably on statues of King Zoser or possibly those of deities, creating an almost holy mood in the hall.
All of the rockwork in the complex is carved to simulate something that was previously used in construction of buildings. For instance, the roof in the entry hall was carved stone in the shape of round logs. Traces of red paint on the columns in the entry hall suggest they were to represent something made of wood, since red was the color Egyptians used for wood, as green was for plants or plant leaves. When evaluated as a whole, all of the decorations and patterns in the stone work symbolize wood, reeds, and the brick elements of earlier Egyptian buildings. This could possibly be contributed to the Egyptians pride for their new feats in construction, as well as a built in history of how their techniques had evolved. At the end of the entry hall, the columns double in number, which many scholars believe symbolizes the Nile River. Since this river was highly regarded by the Egyptians, and sustained their culture, it is probably safe to assume that the entry hall represents some aspect of the beginning of the journey to the after life, traveling down the fertile Nile river.
The Heb-sed court shows evidence that ceremonies probably took place within the complex, possibly even involving the King before his actual death. This court is labeled the Heb-sed court because of an ancient Egyptian ceremony titled Heb-sed. Every King was entitled to undergo this ceremony after occupying the throne for a certain number of years, which varied between dynasties. The jubilee ceremonies believed to have been held here were to regain the king’s vigor through the exercise of magic. This was believed to be essential for the welfare of the kingdom. One specific event, supported by artifacts, was a sort of physical race through the courtyard involving the king. It may have been derived from primitive belief that the fertility of the fields depended in some way on the physical agility of the king. Regardless of what actual ceremonies took place in the complex, the idea that traveling through the site most certainly represented the path from earth into the after-life. The only difference was that all of the previous rulers of Egypt built their pyramids for when death occurred, and Zoser’s was obviously used before hand for religious purposes.
Like previous burial sites, King Zoser’s personal belongings were buried along with him in separate chambers. Because, like every king buried before him, it was believed that these items would be needed in the after life. The king’s royal family was also buried in separate chambers inside the complex.
Like many of the kings that preceded Zoser, he wanted his temple to be the biggest and the most extravagant. As I stated earlier, the stepped pyramid inside the complex was added onto several times. This could easily show that Zoser was not happy with the size, and wanted it enlarged. This greater size would take him higher to the gods and would stand as a marvel of construction for all those who gazed upon it. The entire complex is also similar to the design of the royal palace in the ancient city of Memphis. Which could be taken to represent Zoser’s domain in life as a whole or just in his kingdom.
Regardless of what actually took place inside the temple walls, the fact that any ceremonies occurred was a new feat in Egyptian burial complexes. Unlike the previous kings of Egypt, Zoser’s mortuary complex served an additional purpose other than just an enormous tomb stone. As well as the fact that it represents a drastic change in construction techniques of the time. Even though the complex consists of small carved stones, suggesting that the Egyptians had not yet perfected working with large stones, it still represents a great breakthrough in more permanent construction and by far was the most extravagant build of it’s time. Not only did the complex represent an evolvement in construction and architecture, but also a turning point in how we perceived the Egyptian’s holy journey into the after life.
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Grimal, Nicolas, A History of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Massachucetts.:Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Setting and Rituals. 2nd. Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Zahi Hawass, “A Fragmentary Monument of D’joser from Saqqara”, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology v.80 (1994):45-57.
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