April 1, 2012

The Mortuary Complex - The Step Pyramid of Saqqara

The Mortuary Complex
Facing the pyramid on the south side of the enclosure is the so-called South Tomb. Three carved relief panels set within the frames of its false doors show the king performing the heb-sed ritual, in which he reaffirmed his fitness to rule. On one panel he wears the tall White Crown and a ribbed ritual beard as he runs the requisite course. This also serves to underline the wholly ritualistic nature of the entire complex that Imhotep created for his master.


It is believed that the South Tomb also served as the burial place for Djoser's viscera, which were removed during the embalming process. With his mummy buried in the pyramid, the king thus fulfilled the requirement of having a northern and southern tomb, symbolic of the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Between the South Tomb and the pyramid lies a wide courtyard with a complex of buildings on the east side known as the heb-sed court; over the last 30 years in particular, this court has gradually been restored. Like everything else in the complex its structures are false, dummy buildings, which made perfectly good sense since it was intended as the place of the spirit. The whole complex was surrounded by a high temenos wall of white limestone blocks in the form known as the 'palace facade'; thirteen false or dummy doorways were set into it, while a fourteenth actually opened into the inner area. This doorway led into a long colonnaded hall of fluted columns, none of which were freestanding, all of them being engaged into a supporting wall behind them, exemplifying the initial, faltering steps of architecture in stone taking over from mudbrick and imitating the organic forms of earlier styles. The fine fluting on the columns immediately recalls the Greek Doric column, but that comes almost 2000 years later. This hall in turn opens on to the large court on the south side of the pyramid, containing two Jubilee festival altars whose bases only survive.

Along the east side of the court are a series of three heb-sed shrines or pavilions that face a narrower court which runs inside the eastern wall. Close to the southernmost heb-sed shrine is a large podium with a pair of round-fronted steps which was the base for the pair of back-to- back tents with curved roofs that were an integral part of the heb-sed festival and which, in a schematic form, became the hieroglyph that stood for the festival. These pavilions all have doorways, but they only penetrate the facade for a short distance and lead nowhere. Three unfinished, roughly blocked-out standing statues of Djoser have been placed to one side of this court. They show the king in ritual pose wearing a nemes headcloth, long beard, and holding the flail and sceptre. To the north of this court is another, whose dummy buildings once again reflect the division of the Two Lands. The first structure is known as the House of the South and has a stylized khekhei frieze over its doorway - a stylized protective fence motif which, like so many that first appeared in the early periods, continued to be used for centuries, if not millennia. The khekhei frieze is particularly noticeable in the tombs of the 18th Dynasty pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.

The House of the North is noted for its papyrus columns with large umbels, all of which are engaged in the supporting wall, but which also have the triangular-sectioned papyrus stems reproduced correctly in the small limestone blocks; later, in the New Kingdom, this accuracy is lost in favour of large, heavily rounded columns.

The death of Djoser

The Death of Djoser
Djoser was succeeded by Sekhemkhet in about 2649 BC, after a reign of roughly 19 years. This scarcely seems long enough for the construction of a monument as remarkable as the Step Pyramid, but it is powerful testimony to the authority of the king. To build such a structure would have required a vast workforce, not to mention a strong government to organize and feed the workers. Djoser's funerary complex stands at the head of a long line of Egyptian stone architecture. Within it many of the later building forms and styles are first seen, admittedly in an experimental stage, to be copied or refined over the next 2000 years.


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