Zoser, the First Pyramid Builder


By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

The Third Dynasty is when Egypt becomes great and powerful. It starts with King Zoser, the builder of the first pyramid.

A wide view of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara
Step pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara. (Image: Sergey-73/Shutterstock)

Zoser’s Architect Invents the Step Pyramid

Few monuments hold a place in human history as significant as that of the Step Pyramid in Saqqara. Together with the structures that surround it, the pyramid comprises Zoser’s tomb complex. Here limestone was first used on a large scale as a construction material, and here the idea of a monumental royal tomb in the form of a pyramid was first realized.

Zoser’s chief architect Imhotep is credited with inventing the Step Pyramid method in conjunction with what Zoser himself had in mind. In the beginning, Zoser and Imhotep were just building a big mastaba for Zoser. They had planned on building a large mastaba, but Zoser had wanted to take things up a notch; or as they later did, several notches.

They attached another, smaller mastaba on top of the bigger one to create a step-like effect. Later, they tried to go for a bigger base and then placed another one on top of it, till they had five layers on top, heralding the invention of the very first Step Pyramid recorded in history.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Another very important fact to remember about Zoser and his Step Pyramid is that he commissioned skilled Egyptian craftsmen and laborers to build his structures instead of getting the work done by slaves; thus, departing from the tradition set by his ancestors. Originally intended as a simple mastaba tomb, the Step Pyramid grew under the guidance and design of Imhotep to become the tallest structure of its time and a tourist attraction which drew people from all parts of the land.

Inside Zoser’s Step Pyramid

This was just the beginning, Zoser then had Imhotep design and build an entire complex around the pyramid which included a small room called serdab. This room contained a life-size stone statue of Zoser. The idea was that Zoser, even in his immortal form will look over his people. The statue even had two holes drilled into it so that Zoser could look out, for eternity. The statue was built and kept inside the pyramid in case Zoser’s mortal body was destroyed after burial by tomb raiders, his soul would know where it could come back and wait till it was resurrected later. It would take the place of Zoser’s mummy. Zoser also got stone chapels built around the pyramid complex for religious ceremonies to be performed.

This was the first time that anyone was building in stone. So, the early craftsmen were imitating everything they knew about ornamentation on papyrus or straw or wood, in stone.

For example, they built a door out of stone that looked like a wooden door, but it couldn’t swing. It was just decorative; a false door. They were just imitating what they were used to building. Even the columns in the complex has columns, but those columns, are fluted; they have lines going down them. What they imitate are bundles of papyrus tied together. That’s how they built columns before stone buildings; simply long stalks bundled together. Everything looks like it’s made out of wood, made out of papyrus, but it’s just imitated in stone.

Learn More about art history in Ancient Egypt.

Image of Hypostyle Hall, illsutrating fluted columns.
These pillars near the Step Pyramid show the fluted columns which are common in this stage of Egyptian architecture. (Image: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock)

The Heb-sed Courtyard of Zoser

Zoser had two burials, just like his predecessors. He had the Step Pyramid, but he also had another burial. Just a couple of hundred yards away, south of the Step Pyramid, is a mastaba-like burial, not a pyramid. It is under the ground and is lined by green faience tiles which shows Zoser running in the Heb-sed festival.

A festival of eternity or the Heb-sed Festival was celebrated where the pharaoh would perform multiple feats showing off his mental and physical prowess. He’d wrestle younger men, shoot arrows, string heavy bows – everything that would show him to be in full possession of his faculties. After the ceremonies it was believed that he would be rejuvenated by magic and all his powers would be restored for the next 30 years. He would be young again.

Learn more about Ancient Egyptian Tools.

Scenes from the inside of Zoser's funerary hall
The colors used in the faience tiles bring alive the scenes depicted inside Zoser’s heb-sed courtyard. (Image: Diego Fiore/Shutterstock)

Faience is a ceramic like quartzite paste, which, when placed over a fire in a kiln, develops a glazed texture as all impurities come onto the surface. So, for example, if you put a little malachite in, you can make it green. If you put a little blue turquoise you can make it blue. You can control the color by putting the impurity in the quartzite paste and placing it over fire. So it’s a self-glazing ceramic, rather beautiful, and Zoser’s southern burial is covered with these tiles, rather elegant, and this is the very first pyramid subsidiary burial. You have a pyramid and a second burial.

Zoser’s inventions have been lauded by Egyptologists and were followed, replicated and improved upon by all his successors, including Tutankhamen.

Common Questions about Zoser, the First Pyramid Builder

Q: How was Zoser’s Step Pyramid built?

Zoser’s Step Pyramid was constructed by his architect Imhotep. The original plan was for a grand mastaba. But then, they built a second, smaller, mastaba atop the first, and so on, till there were five mastabas, one on top of another. Thus, the mastaba became the first pyramid.

Q: What was the inside of the Step Pyramid like?

This was the first time that anyone was building in stone. So, the early craftsmen what they knew about building with wood and papyrus. There was a decorative stone door, and columns which were fluted as if made of papyrus.

Q: What is there in the Step Pyramid complex?

Apart from the Step Pyramid, there is a mastaba-like burial to the south. It is under the ground and is lined by green faience tiles which shows Zoser running in the Heb-sed festival. Zoser’s southern burial is the very first pyramid subsidiary burial.

Q: Why was Zoser important to Egypt?

There are two primary reasons why King Zoser holds a prominent position in the study of Ancient Egypt. Firstly, he was instrumental in Egypt recovering from the seven-year famine. He rebuilt the Temple of Khnum, which significantly boosted morale. Secondly, King Zoser was the first pharaoh of ancient Egypt to commission and oversee the construction of a step pyramid.

Keep Reading
The Great Pyramid at Giza: A Marvel of Ancient Egyptian Engineering
Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egyptian Pharaohs