It is believed that Egypt’s oldest Pyramid is the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, commissioned during the Third Dynasty of ancient Egypt by King Djoser, founder of the aforementioned dynasty, and the man who is said to have forever changed architecture in the land of Pharaohs.
t is understood that the oldest Pyramid in Egypt is that of Djoser. Although this claim is contested by man people who disagree with the mainstream timeline of Egypt, history books have it as the first stone pyramid of Egypt; a proto-pyramid that would later evolve into a smooth-sided pyramid, an architectural revolution that reached its peak once the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed.
In other words, had it not been for the Step Pyramid of Djoser, we would probably never have seen the successful completion of the Great Pyramid of the Fourth Dynasty.
Of course, there are those who believe that the Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest, that it was not built by Khufu, and that all other pyramids in Egypt are attempts to replicate the Great Pyramid.
The theory argues that the Great Pyramid of Giza, its surrounding monuments—including the Sphinx—predate the Fourth Dynasty reign of King Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure and that it was built by a hitherto unknown civilization, long before the Egyptian culture arose in the Nile Valley.
This theory implies that all of the structures at the Giza plateau that Egyptologists attribute to the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt are, in fact, the remnants of a lost civilization and that the Egyptians “found” the structures and repaired and eventually replicated them.
Although I believe that there are many mysteries waiting to be uncovered beneath Egypt’s golden sands, I also believe firmly believe that the pyramids we see today are the product of said civilization.
The birth of Egypt’s stone pyramid
If we accept that the ancient Egyptians are responsible for the pyramids, what made them start building them, and why the Pyramid?
The “why the pyramid” question is something I will discuss in my upcoming book.
Mainstream scholars tell us that the pyramids of Egypt are tombs, even though I believe there is more to the pyramids than just ordinary tombs.
Academics say that the Step Pyramid of Djoser is a direct result of the mastaba tomb. It is believed that Djoser’s jewel at the Saqqara plateau draws precedents from a number of earlier monuments; Gisr el-Mudir, and a Second Dynasty mastaba, among others.
The most relevant precedent, according to Egyptologists, is the Mastaba 3038, an ancient tomb thought to have been built more than 4,720 years ago.
Experts say that this structure could have been an elongated step pyramid—the first of its kind—had its builders not left one of its sides uncovered. The mastaba was constructed with right shallows steps rising towards the sky at an angle of 49 degrees.
However, we can’t possibly know whether the architect of the first Pyramid of Egypt—Imhotep—turned towards mastaba 3038 when he was planning the step pyramid of Djoser.
In fact, we can’t even know whether the Step Pyramid was even planned initially by Imhotep.
According to researchers, when Imhotep started the construction project, he built a kind of morphed mastaba first. It is believed that Djoser’s proto-pyramid initially started off as a square mastaba-like structure that was later evolved and added upon.
There are no written accounts dating back to the Third Dynasty reign of Djoser that mention the construction project at Saqqara.
So far, archaeologists have not unearthed any plans, diagrams, or blueprints that tell us how the Pyramid was built, although I believe these must have existed at some point before the construction project began.
Without written records, it is nearly impossible to say with a degree of certainty anything about the Pyramid. Archaeological excavations and explorations of the subterranean world beneath the Pyramid can provide clues, but at the end of the day, everything comes down to logic and archeological guesswork.
For example, the fact that the initial mastaba built by Imhotep was built as a square structure hints at the fact that the monument was likely never intended to be a mastaba since we’ve never discovered a square mastaba in Egypt. There are only rectangular, mudbrick mastabas.
Archaeological fieldwork also tells us that ramps were likely used to bring the stones to such great a height, but not many ramps have been discovered to date. This is strange as a pyramid would have required a huge vast amount of wood to create the ramp.
Again, since there are no written accounts of the construction of the Step Pyramid, it is assumed that for transport, the builders likely used wooden rollers, which allowed massive stones to be moved with greater ease.
As to why the Egyptians didn’t record how everything was done, Ahmed Fakhry suggests that for the ancient Egyptians, the process of quarrying, transporting, and erecting these monuments was so mundane; they did not find it worthy of record. Here, I highly disagree with Fakhry.
I believe that any culture that achieved a revolutionary architectural feat would have left a record of their achievement. I believe that they would have and likely did leave behind a record for later builders to study. After all, the ancient Egyptians were excellent record keepers.
Curiously, even though it is claimed that the Pyramid is a direct “descendant” of the mastaba tomb, and despite a successful construction of pyramids, the mastaba did not disappear as a tomb in ancient Egypt. One would perhaps expect that if the pyramids were actually tombs, that the mastaba tomb—a much inferior structure—would disappear.
This was not the case, and mastabas were built throughout ancient Egyptian history and eventually outlived the Pyramid.
It is also noteworthy to mention that the provincial pyramids of Egypt were definitely never intended to serve as tombs. These seven—smaller—pyramids are thought to have been erected as a kind of cenotaph for the king. Just as their larger counterparts, these pyramids are too shrouded in mystery. We don’t know who erected them, although likely candidates are either Huni or Sneferu.
Although the first pyramid of Egypt may draw certain precedents from earlier structures, I don’t really believe that the pyramid is necessarily an “evolution” of the mastaba.
I believe that these two are independent monuments; the mastaba was clearly a tomb and remained so throughout the history of Egypt, while the pyramid, on the other hand, is far more mysterious and its true purpose remains debated thousands of years later, well into the 21st century.