A black and white image of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. Shutterstock.

Ancient Technology: How the Ancients Built a Massive 5.7km Underground World Beneath Egypt’s First Pyramid

The Step Pyramid is home to a massive underworld, and we've got no idea how the ancients excavated 5.7 kilometers of tunnels, rooms, magazines, and chambers. 

The journey towards building the Great Pyramid of Giza was no easy one for the ancient Egyptians. To build a structure as massive as the Great pyramid, a long line of structures had to be built before it. Eventually, the successful completion of the great Pyramid marked the zenith of ancient Egyptian pyramids. No other pyramid would match the structure allegedly built by Khufu in terms of size and complexity.

But although the Great Pyramid was the most majestic pyramid ever built by the ancient Egyptians, it wasn’t by far the oldest or most impressive. Although many people think of the Great Pyramid at Giza when the word pyramid is mentioned, we have to consider that numerous cultures built pyramids around the globe. Some of them are as stunning as the Great Pyramid.

We have the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, for example, which is actually the largest pyramid ever constructed in the ancient world. Not only that, the Pyramid in modern-day Mexico is regarded as the largest archaeological site of a pyramid (temple) in the New World, as well as the most massive pyramid known to exist anywhere in the world today.

In addition to that, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is recognized as the largest monument ever created anywhere in the world, with a total volume calculated at over 4.45 million cubic meters, which is even larger than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, which is approximately 2.5 million cubic meters.

The journey towards building a structure using 2.3 million blocks of stone, with a total weight of 6 million tons, started, according to archeologists, began during the Third Dynasty of ancient Egypt when Pharaoh Djoser ruled over Egypt.

The Great Pyramid at sunset. Shutterstock.
The Great Pyramid at sunset. Shutterstock.

The first pyramid constructed in Egypt is a genuine wonder on its own. Not just because up until that moment, the ancient Egyptians had never endeavored to build such a construction, but because the pyramid and its massive complex marked a total deviation from previous “lesser” architectural elements in Egypt.

The plan itself was daring, but completing a monument never before attempted was even more. The day the pyramid complex, the Step Pyramid, and its underground world were completed, it marked a  history-changing moment in ancient Egypt. That’s because, in addition to a complex the ancient Egyptians had never before imagined to see, the completion of the pyramid appeared all of a sudden and entirely abruptly in the history of ancient Egypt.

Scholars argued that the Pyramid of Djoser, the central feature of the even larger pyramid complex, is the first colossal stone structure ever built in ancient Egypt.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, built several generations after successfully completing the Step Pyramid, saw the builders create a structure that was intricately aligned, built with unimaginable precision and care, using massive stones that continue to defy our understanding today. They embedded numerous mathematical formulas within the structure and built a pyramid that, unlike all other pyramids in Egypt, has eight sides.

But the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the first of its kind, was unique not because of its intricate alignment and precision but because of what lies buried beneath it and its history.  By the time the Pyramid complex of Djoser was completed, Egypt had voyaged into another revolutionary form of monument building.

The Step pyramid is believed to have started as a simple mastaba, but at one point, well into the construction process, the structure’s architect, Imhotep, decided to go higher. Eventually, experts agree that the Step Pyramid is the result of a number of transformations that saw it start of as a simple mastaba, eventually developing into the stepped structure we see today.

According to Egyptologist Miroslav Verner:

… a simple but effective construction method was used. The masonry was laid not vertically but in courses inclined toward the middle of the pyramid, thus significantly increasing its structural stability. The basic material used was limestone blocks, whose form resembled that of large bricks of clay (115-116).

A revolutionary structure in its outside surely must have been equally fascinating on its inside, or in this case, beneath it. Some experts maintain that Djoser’s pyramid complex’s real beauty is not above but beneath the ground.

Beneath the Step Pyramid, the ancient builders successfully created an underground world of around 5.7 kilometers, featuring intricate chambers, galleries, magazines, and tunnels.

Around 4,700 years ago, somehow, and presumably using no more than simplistic tools, without knowledge of the wheel, no pulley, and apparently using sticks and stones, the ancients managed to excavate around a massive underground world of around 6.7 kilometers in length.

The central part of the massive subterranean world is connected to the Pyramid above the ground. Beneath Djoser’s step pyramid, the builders crafted a central corridor and two parallel ones across a distance of around 365 meters, connecting up to 400 underground rooms.

This subterranean world is surrounded by a complex network of tunnels and shafts, unique and never again attempted beneath any other pyramid in Egypt.

The Step Pyramid of King Zoser, III Dynasty, Old Kingdom, ca. 2590 B.C., photograph by Antoine Beato ca. 1880. Shutterstock.
The Step Pyramid of King Zoser, III Dynasty, Old Kingdom, ca. 2590 B.C., photograph by Antoine Beato ca. 1880. Shutterstock.

Not one Pharaoh after Djoser managed to repeat the wonder created by Djoser. The exact reason remains unknown. The exact purpose of this massive subterranean world is also shrouded in mystery. However, Egyptologists usually agree that it was meant to be a king of representation of the Pharaoh’s underworld palace, meant to evoke the watery associations of the Egyptian Netherworld.

Evidence of how the pyramid of Djoser was built remains to elude Egyptologists. Nonetheless, they argue that ramps were most likely used to lift the massive stones up the mastaba, eventually creating six steps. Although no substantial evidence of said ramps has been found near or at the pyramid, many probable models have been proposed.

Egyptologists argue that complex devices like rollers were used to move the stones to their desired destination for transport.

Evidence of said rollers has still not been found.

In addition to the above-ground elements of the Pyramid complex, it remains a complete mystery as to what tools the builders of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara used to excavate 5.7 kilometers worth of tunnels, chambers, rooms, tunnels, and shafts. No evidence of the entire excavation process has been found anywhere in Egypt.

In addition to that, no reference to the construction of the pyramid complex has ever been found by archeologists.

This is strange. The ancient Egyptians created a revolutionary structure–the Step Pyramid–and created a supermassive subterranean world beneath it but decided for some reason not to document any of the processes involved in completing the project.

The ancient builders revolutionized architecture. Not one single ancient text, hieroglyph, or papyri, has been found even to make the slightest of references about a structure that would never again be repeated in the history of ancient Egypt.

Just as we don’t know how the Great Pyramid of Giza was built thousands of years ago, we have not discovered any direct evidence that would help us understand how the builders created the first pyramid of Egypt and how it was possible for them to excavate and build a massive subterranean world of 5.7 kilometers dozens of meters beneath the Pyramid.

What types of tools were used? What type of planning was involved in the construction? Was the entire complex envisioned with the characteristic elements such as the Pyramid, the Pyramid complex and its temples, and its massive subterranean world? Is it possible that there are still discoveries that remain to be made beneath the Step Pyramid? And why have we not found a single tool that could shed light on how this ancient wonder was achieved?

Numerous questions remained unanswered, and Egyptologists seem uninterested in delving further into the mysteries left behind by Djoser, his architect, and an ancient wonder that changed Egypt forever.

Why so many rooms beneath the Pyramid? Why such a vast underground complex? Where are the remains of Djoser’s mummy? What kind of ancient technology was used to excavate? How were the larger stones transported? And what exactly happened to the 5.7 kilometers worth of material that was excavated beneath the surface?


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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