Inside the core of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Image Credit: Reuters.

Unwritten Mystery: How Was Ancient Egypt’s 5.7-Long Subterranean World Beneath the Step Pyramid Built? 

Some 4,700 years ago, and using unknown tools, techniques and means, ancient builders excavated a massive underworld of 5.7 Kilometers beneath ancient Egypt's first pyramid.

Of more than 120 pyramids in Egypt, there is none as unique and impressive as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Standing tall at the Giza plateau and flanked by two smaller pyramids, this massive, towering structure stood as the tallest human-made building on the surface of the planet for more than 3,800 years.

Mainstream Egyptologists see it as the culmination of ancient Egyptian pyramid building, arguing the structure was commissioned around 4,500 years ago by Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu.

Built with more than 2.3 million blocks of stone and a total weight calculated at around 6.5 million tons, Egyptologists argue that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built in no more than 20 years and served as the royal tomb of King Khufu.

Whether or not it was indeed Khufu who commissioned the most impressive ancient Egyptian pyramid is perhaps still open to debate.

Egyptologists refuse to consider any other Pharaoh as the structure’s builder. They say that it is more than clear that the pyramid was built 4,500 years ago, although we have not found one ancient text that actually confirms the date and purpose of the Great Pyramid.

But if we were to follow the timeline set forth by Egyptology, we can trace then the oldest Egyptian pyramid to the Third Dynasty rule of Pharaoh Djoser.

Not far from Giza, where the Great Pyramid was built, later on, King Djoser chose Saqqara as the location where a young architect called Imhotep would go on and build Djoser’s second monument.

Scholars see Djoser’s monument as mastaba as a history changer. The kings who reigned before Djoser are thought to have built monuments–royal tombs–in the form of a large mastaba of mud bricks.

Egyptian History attributes to Imhotep, Djoser’s royal architect, and vizier the first use of stone in construction. Although the ancient Egyptians had used stones before the time of Imhotep, the structure that Imhotep built is seen as the first, great free-standing monument built of stone.

In other words, the monument built by Imhotep is seen as a superstructure built entirely out of stone blocks.

This supposedly took place around 2,780 BC.

Imhotep’s monument is fascinating for several reasons. No other monument of ancient Egypt, aside from perhaps the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, has fascinating experts as the Step Pyramid and its subterranean world.

Experts see Djoser’s pyramid as a genius example of great engineering and flowering Egyptian architecture.

The entire Pyramid complex at Saqqara was surrounded by a massive fine white limestone wall that enclosed the pyramid and its subsidiary structures. It is believed that this sensational wall once stood 20 Egyptian cubits (10.4) meters high, measuring 545 meters from north to south and 277 meters from east to west. Constructed with as many as 14 bastion gates, thirteen were simulated as there only is one real gateway.

Such was the beauty and elegance of Djoser’s Pyramid complex; it was admired even in ancient times: numerous graffiti were written on its walls. One of the writers who decided to leave a mark in History was a certain Thay who lived in King Tut’s days (eighteenth Dynasty, around 1,370BC). Another writer who lived simultaneously was Ahmes, who traveled to the temple of Djoser and found it as “though heaven were inside Ra rising within it.”

Egyptologists believe that the Step Pyramid was built undergoing several different and drastic alternations. Even before the builders decided to construct the first “rectangular mastaba,” the sank a massive shaft into the bedrock at Saqqara, 28 meters deep and 7 meters square.

They would excavate and build an oblong chamber of granite blocks and cut a tunnel extending northward around 20 meters, leading towards an original entrance outside of the original mastaba. However, the entrance to the chamber was through a round hole in the ceiling from a limestone room that is now destroyed above it.

Eventually, Imhotep ordered the construction of the first mastaba and then another one. The second process of the construction saw builders adding ground area to the superstructure at its northern side.

Eventually, the original entrance to the section was blocked. Further north is where the builders cut out a new entrance.

However, instead of connecting the newly build tunnel with the old one, they decided–for reasons that remain unclear–to carry out excavations, eventually carrying it around the galleries and passages until it met the first tunnel at its end.

Illustration showing the world beneath Djoser's Step Pyramid. Image Credit: The Complete Pyramids. Mark Lehner. p.88.
Illustration showing the world beneath Djoser’s Step Pyramid. Image Credit: The Complete Pyramids. Mark Lehner. p.88.

It has been argued that the initial mastaba (level 1) of the Step pyramid was the first mastaba built with a square plan. Each side of the monument measured around 63 meters long and no more than 8 meters high. Its core was built of local limestone.

A few years went by, and Imhotep decided to add to the mastaba. Its first extension saw the monument expand 3 meters to all sides.

The second expansion of the structure, which is believed to have been made a few years after the first, saw the builders add around 9 meters on the eastern side, producing a rectangular structure.

The new monument was cased with white limestone, but before the builders had finished the casing, the structure was further extended around 3 meters on each side. This eventually gave birth to the lowest section of the step pyramid, consisting of four mastabas superimposed one above the other.

This is believed to have been Imhotep’s final alteration. However, before the new casing was laid, Imhotep decided to add to the structure further. The pyramid was then extended towards the north and the west, and Imhotep decided to add an additional two mastabas on top of the previous four. Before this was done, the builders added slightly to each of the sides.

This resulted in a six-stepped pyramid. It is believed that upon completion, the Step Pyramid measured 118 meters from north to south, standing 60 meters high.

Essentially, it was a massive, unique structure, almost acting as a stairway to the heavens.

However, Djoser’s pyramid’s above-ground elements are just one small part of the majestic superstructure at Saqqara.

Beneath Djoser’s royal monument–the first Egyptian pyramid–is a massive 5.7-kilometer-long underground world.

The Step Pyramid complex was an unprecedented construction project in ancient Egyptian History, and the world beneath the complex is mesmerizing in both size and complexity. Beneath the step Pyramid, the ancient builders excavated and built an underground structure on a scale previously unknown, quarrying out more than 5.7 kilometers of shafts, chambers, tunnels, magazines, and galleries.

Essentially, it was a massive underground world.

How this was achieved and the extent to which the builders excavated the massive underground world remains unknown, as some scholars argue that some of the tunnels beneath the pyramid may have been excavated by grave robbers later.

Nonetheless, the massive project of extracting that amount of material from beneath the surface is something that would never again be repeated in any other Egyptian pyramid found to date.

Not even does the Great Pyramid of Giza feature such an extensive and intricate underground world.

It would be assumed that many other similar structures would follow after Djoser’s. After all, the Step Pyramid complex and its underground world were a project never-before-seen in History.

However, the Step Pyramid did not endure in ancient Egyptian History.

Although a few Pharaohs tried replicating and building a pyramid complex similar to that of Djoser, it wasn’t until the rule of King Sneferu of the Fourth Dynasty that Egypt saw the birth of another pyramid.

However, although some elements endured, the original step pyramid was eventually forgotten. The massive underground world would like that beneath Djsoer’s pyramid would never again be built beneath a pyramid in Egypt.

It remains perhaps an ever greater mystery why there are no written documents that detail the techniques, means, and tools used by the builders to not only built the revolutionary step pyramid and its adjoining buildings.

Strangely, neither are there any sources or texts that explain using what methods of excavation, what tools, and what techniques the ancient builders managed to excavate such an extensive underground world beneath the pyramid.

An even greater mystery is why no other Pahaoh other than Djoser opted to build such a vast underground complex beneath the pyramid.

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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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