The Unsolved Mystery of the 5.7km Long Underground World Beneath Egypt’s Oldest Pyramid

The entire pyramid complex covers 15 ha (37 acres) and is about 2.5 times as large as the Old Kingdom town of Heirakonpolis.

Egypt is a land of treasure. For thousands of years, during a time when history was not even recorded, great cultures walked across the Egyptian land. Mighty civilizations developed, creating piece by piece a history that we would eventually come to cherish.

The land of Pharaohs, mummies, pyramids and golden sand offers something that no other place offers: a trip to the past through its many majestic monuments, some of which remained buried beneath the surface for thousands of years.

If you ask any traveler today what has impacted him the most while visiting Egypt, you’d probably get more than one answer.

Some people would argue that the Egyptian pyramids are beyond a reason of a doubt the most impressive feature of Egypt’s ancient history. Others would say that the very core of their history is more than enough to leave a lifelong impact.

Egypt has a lot to offer. From sunken cities, massive temples built with nearly impossible stones, the pyramids, great Kings and rulers throughout its history, to their impeccable knowledge in various fields of science.

Although the ancient Egyptian civilization achieved so much during their long history, their biggest and most impressive achievement are perhaps the pyramids.

An image of the pyramids at the Giza plateau. Shutterstock.
Shutterstock.

To date, experts argue that there are around 120 pyramids scattered across Egypt. The most impressive pyramids are certainly those at Giza, thought to have been constructed during Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty.

As revealed by archeologists, and following their strict timeline, Egypt’s truly gigantic pyramids were built over the course of no more than three generations, starting with the Third Dynasty King Sneferu, followed by his son Khufu, and Sneferu’s grandson Khafre.

If the mainstream view on Egypt’s history is correct than Sneferu was Egypt’s most prolific pyramid builders. He is thought to have erected a total of three massive pyramids: One at Dahshur, and two at Meidum.

Sneferu’s pyramids alone contain more than 3.5 million cu. meters of stone. This means that all other Egyptian pyramids combined (except the queens’ pyramids and satellite pyramids) contain only 41 percent of the total mass of the pyramids of Sneferu, his son Khufu and grandson Khafre.

Although Menkaure–the King who is thought to have built the third-largest pyramid at Giza–still used multi-ton blocks of stone in his pyramid, the total volume of his pyramid is far less than the total volume of Egypt’s first pyramid, the Step pyramid at Saqqara.

A pyramid and a vast underground world

Although many people believe that the Great Pyramid is Egypt’s oldest pyramid, the first such structure built in Egypt was completed around 4,700 years ago, during Egypt’s Third Dynasty.

The structure was supposedly commissioned by Djoser early in his reign. To build it, the king is said to have turned to his royal vizier and architect Imhotep. The young man had revolutionary ideas in architecture that were apparently recognized by Djoser.

He ordered the monument to be built at the royal necropolis of Saqqara, not far from Giza, where the most impressive pyramids of Egypt would be built within 200 years of Djoser.

The Step Pyramid was revolutionary.

Never before had Egypt seen a structure of similar design, built entirely out of stone. Mainstream scholars see Djoser’s Step Pyramid as the earliest colossal stone building in Egypt, and the oldest large-scale cut stone construction in history.

An image of Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Shutterstock.
Shutterstock.

To build a structure like that of Imhotep, a never-before-seen workforce was gathered. It was no small project, and for a young architect, it was a major undertaking.

In fact, experts say that the social implications of such a massive, carefully sculpted structure are staggering, pointing towards the fact that the royal government of the time had complete control of not only natural resources but both material and human ads well.

The entire pyramid complex is believed to have been completed in around 19 years, which suggests that Djoser probably ruled long enough to see his masterplan complete.

The pyramid began perhaps not as one from the beginning. Experts believe the structure Imhotep designed first resembled a kind of square mastaba. This is the most important tell-tale sign that the monument was not meant to be a mastaba. Egyptologists say that there are no known square mastabas anywhere in Egypt.

This probably suggests Imhotep mas have “played around” with the design of the monument. Although he probably knew he would not create a mastaba, it is unknown whether he envisioned building a pyramid, or whether or not this was just a random result of him experimenting with the structure. After all, the Step pyramid is regarded as a proto-pyramid.

It has been suggested that the Step Pyramid was constructed in six distinctive stages. Beginning as a square mastaba, the structure was gradually enlarged by Imhotep first evenly on all four sides, and later just on its eastern point. Each step is thought to have been experimental.

The “morphed” mastaba was most likely constructed in two stages, first to form a four-stepped structure (P1) and then to form a six-stepped structure (P2), which a clear rectangular base aligned on an east to west axis.

Most of the construction material for the pyramid was quarried near the construction site, and the builders did not have to worry about transporting extremely large stones across vast distances, like the builders of the Great Pyramid.

Although the pyramid was the most impressive feature at the complex, many other important and equally majestic buildings decorated it. The structures at the center were surrounded by a massive wall built using light Tura limestone 10.5 m (34 ft) high. This wall is interrupted by 14 doors but had only one entrance.

The entire complex was truly massive; experts estimate it covers 15 ha (37 acres), which means it is nearly 3 times as large as the Old Kingdom town of Heirakonpolis.

Underground Chambers beneath the Step Pyramid. Image Credit: Pinterest.
Underground Chambers beneath the Step Pyramid. Image Credit: Pinterest.

However, the most impressive feature of the entire pyramid complex are not the above-ground elements but rather that which remains hidden beneath the surface.

If the pyramid complex was so large that it resembled in size a town of the Old Kingdom, then the underground world built beneath the Step pyramid directly was a major metropolis.

For reasons we are unable to understand to date, Imhotep constructed a supermassive labyrinth of tunnels, chamber, magazines, and rooms with a total length of nearly 6 kilometers. This massive underground world was connected to an entrance shaft s meters square, and 28 meters deep, located almost at the heart of the Step Pyramid.

Egyptologists believe that this vast underground world beneath the pyramid was meant to represent the funerary apartment that mimicked the palace and would serve as the living place of the royal ka.

However, while Djoser’s Step Pyramid is thought to have given birth to the pyramids of Egypt, and many of its elements endured in future examples of pyramids in Egypt, never again did any king construct a vast subterranean world the size of that located beneath the Step Pyramid.

In fact, never was it even attempted in future generations, and not even the largest pyramids in Egypt, the Red Pyramid, the Great Pyramid, nor Khafre’s pyramid featured such an impressive and complex underground system.

The storage rooms beneath the Step Pyramid were home to more than 40,000 stone vessels which were curiously found to predate Pharaoh Djoser by several generations.

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