Which is the Oldest Pyramid in Egypt? - Step Pyramid of Djoser

Which is the Oldest Pyramid in Egypt? - Step Pyramid of Djoser

By Margaux | Updated Feb. 21, 2024

There are a lot of different pyramids to see during your time in Egypt, and while the Great Pyramids at Giza are perhaps the most famous pyramids, they weren't the first pyramids to be built in Egypt.

The oldest pyramid in Egypt is actually the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which was built in the 27th century BC at Saqqara, around 50 minutes by driving from Cairo or Giza. Read on to find out more about this pyramid, who built it, how it was built, what you can see when you visit it, and what purpose it served.

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King Djoser

The Step Pyramid of Djoser at SaqqaraView of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

The Step Pyramid of Djoser was built for King Djoser, in preparation for his burial, as the first stone pyramid built in the entire world. King Djoser was a pharaoh during the Third Dynasty, during what is known as the Old Kingdom, and he reigned for either 19 or 28 years as the first king of this dynasty (the records of this are a little unclear). He succeeded Khasekhemwy, the last ruler of the Second Dynasty.

The time during which King Djoser ruled was a time when Upper and Lower Egypt had only recently been united to become one single kingdom. It was a time of prosperity, following on from the Second Dynasty which may have seen civil war (historians aren't 100% able to conclude whether this is true from records that were found). Because of the legacy left behind by the Step Pyramid of Djoser, he is one of the best-known kings of this dynasty.

Who Built the Step Pyramid for King Djoser

The Oldest Pyramid in Egypt - Step Pyramid of DjoserAncient step pyramid of Djoser (Zoser), Saqqara

The Step Pyramid of Djoser was built by Imhotep, the chancellor of the pharaoh, who was also the high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis. Not a lot is known about him, but he was glorified and deified following his death and often referred to as an author and physician. This wasn't common, as he was one of only a few non-royals to be deified. To this date, his tomb has not yet been found, but historians believe they might find it one day in or around Saqqara, where the Step Pyramid of Djoser is located. 

When the pyramid was built at Imhotep's instruction, it began as a traditional mastaba, which is a tomb built out of rock, covered with a flat-roofed rectangular structure. Almost like the base of a pyramid, making it easy to imagine how the ancient Egyptians went from building mastabas to building pyramids. The mastaba formed a base for what became the 6-tier and 4-sided structure that we know today, as layers were built on top until the Step Pyramid of Djoser as we know it today was completed. It is believed that this was done in order to protect the burial chambers, as a pyramid would be harder to break into than a single mastaba.

Suggested read: How to Plan Your First Trip to Egypt — 7 Easy Steps

Construction of the Step Pyramid of Djoser

The Oldest Pyramid in Egypt - Step Pyramid of DjoserView of the ancient crypt inside the Great step pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara

While we have no records of how this construction happened and how long it took exactly, there are speculations that it would've taken many years to complete, and labor from hundreds of workers. In fact, King Djoser was so impressed by the construction that he immortalized his chancellor Imhotep by carving his name besides his own on a plinth inside the pyramid, giving us important insight into their relationship.

The pyramid stands at 62.5 meters (205 feet) tall, and from the shape you can see that construction was revised while they were building the pyramid. Archaeologist Jean-Philippe Lauer has labelled all of these phases during his excavations, which shows that the angle at which the pyramid was built was adjusted with every layer that was added on top. While the pyramid is a unique sight to see now, you can also imagine how impressive and large it would've been at the time it was built!

Rock for the pyramid is believed to have come from the construction of a great trench, and a total of 330,400 cubic meters (11.6 million cubic feet) of clay and stone were used. At the time, about 4,700 years ago, the pyramid was also covered in a layer of tura limestone, which is not left on it today.

It is currently accepted by historians and archaeologists that a ramp would have been used at the time to raise heavy stones to build the actual pyramid, but many plausible models of this have been documented and discussed with no conclusions drawn as there are simply no records.

Suggested read: How to Avoid Crowds When Traveling in Egypt

What is Underneath the Step Pyramid of Djoser?

The Oldest Pyramid in Egypt - Step Pyramid of DjoserInside View of the Brick Walls and Stone Columns of the Ancient Step Pyramid of Djoser

Underneath the pyramid, a vast network of tunnels and galleries were built that measure about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) in total length, connecting to a central shaft that is 28 meters (91 feet) deep, the entrance of which is found on the north side of the pyramid. This is where the burial of the king and his family members would've taken place.

Some of the tunnels also indicate that there was almost a palace underground, with false doors that show depictions of the king of Djoser participating in rituals. It is assumed that this was meant for the king to use in the afterlife.

The burial chamber itself is a vault made of four courses of granite, with one opening that was sealed using a heavy 3.5-ton block following the king's burial. Unfortunately, at excavation nothing was recovered because the tomb had been robbed beforehand, and somebody had also taken the body of the King of Djoser.

There were beautiful blue glazed tiles found in the burial chamber, many of which are currently at New York's Metropolitan Museum and the British Museum in London. On top of the tiles, there were a few mummies that were found inside the tomb, as well as further human remains, but these were dated to a much more recent time period, indicating that people were using the burial chamber for their own burials later on, many years after the Third Dynasty.

What Else Can You See at the Pyramid of Djoser?

The Oldest Pyramid in Egypt - Step Pyramid of DjoserThe east entrance to the Saite Gallery of the Step Pyramid of Djoser

The Pyramid of Djoser is the central piece to the mortuary complex at the site, located on the north side of the complex. Because, at the time, it was believed that the pyramid and its surrounding buildings would ensure a successful afterlife, so that the king could be eternally reborn, the entire complex was of importance at the time of construction, and not just the pyramid. The site itself covers 15 hectares (37 acres), and is about 2.5 times bigger than any nearby town at the time.

At the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, you'll also find other ceremonial structures and decoration such as a tomb and chapel, a pavilion, a court, a mortuary temple, mounds, and galleries. Having a guide with you on your visit will help you understand how the entire complex is laid out and the importance of all the structures. Some of these structures were used for festivals or local celebrations.

Around the entire complex at Saqqara, you'll see a dry moat, which varies in depth but is approximately 40 meters (131 feet) wide. This is where the materials for the building of the pyramid were recovered from, and also served as a layer of protection.

Another interesting feature to see is the enclosure wall which surrounds the entire complex. This wall stands 10.5 meters high (34 feet) and goes on for 1.6 kilometers (1 mile). At the wall there was a bastion every 4 meters (13 feet), meant to protect the pyramid complex.

Restoration of the Step Pyramid of Djoser

In March 2020, the pyramid was reopened to the public after it had been under restoration for 14 years since 2006 with help from a British engineering company. Some of the pyramid's blocks had become loose following an earthquake in 1992, and the project helped to put everything back in place after collecting loose blocks, treating them, and putting them back inside the pyramid.

Visiting the Oldest Pyramid

  • Opening hours: daily, 8am–5pm
  • Ticket price: 60 EGP (3.2 US dollars), 30 EGP (1.6 US dollars) for students

So, currently, you can visit the Step Pyramid of Djoser, and we highly recommend doing so on a trip to Egypt, as it is the oldest remaining stone building in the entire world, which is really unique. When you visit the pyramid, you are not only able to see it from the outside, but you are also able to see the ancient mausoleum, the burial chambers, and even the tunnels underneath that were previously sealed.

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