The Great Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara, known to the ancient Egyptians as kbhw-ntrw (libation of the deities), is one of those superstars of Egyptian monuments that is almost always on the itinerary of antiquity tours to Egypt, and for good reason. Few monuments hold a place in human history as significant as that of this Pyramid. It can be said without exaggeration that the Step Pyramid complex constitutes a milestone in the evolution of monumental stone architecture, both in Egypt and in the world as a whole. It is the beginning of an evolutionary period that would eventually see the polished, smooth faced true pyramids of the 4th Dynasty master builders.
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 truly realized. In a 19th Dynasty inscription found in South Saqqara, the ancient Egyptians were already describing its builder as the "opener of stone", which can be interpreted as meaning the inventor of stone architecture.
According to tradition, it was built for Horus Netjerikhet, better known as Djoser, a major ruler of Egypt's 3rd Dynasty, by Imhotep, Egypt's most famous architect who was subsequently deified during the New Kingdom. Djoser is actually the name given to this king by visitors to the site one thousand years after its construction, but actually the only name found on its walls is that of Netjerykhet. The step pyramid dominates this antiquity site.
Hence, at first the architectural form did not precisely correspond to the new material. The builders were strongly influenced by the architecture of the Early Dynastic Period, which had used light, natural materials such as mud brick, wood, reeds, straw and matting. Here, the results of their efforts was an original, monumental and therefore in many respects, bizarre work, which united in matchless harmony, the mentality of earlier architecture with a new order of stone builders. Essentially, the earlier architecture was copied in stone.
Lauer distinguished between functional versus fictional structures. With some elements, it was enough that their form or image be present in the facade. Their interior could be abbreviated. The are what have been called dummy buildings. The buildings served the king's ka in the Afterlife. The functional buildings may have been necessary for the actual conduct of the funerary ceremonies. But what was above ground is only part of the story.
Below ground, the Egyptians created an underground structure on a scale previously unknown, quarrying out more than 5.7 kilometers (about 3 1/2 miles) of shafts, tunnels, chambers, galleries and magazines. A central corridor and two parallel ones extend over 365 meters (1,198 feet), connecting 400 rooms. These and other subterranean features surround one of the most complicated tangles of tunnels and shafts the Egyptians ever created, below the pyramid itself.
It was not only the architecture of the complex that was new. In comparison with the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, this complex reflects in many ways a different mentality. In the course of the struggle to establish a unified realm, a stronger central government had been established. Because of its originality, the group of buildings constituting Djoser's pyramid complex is usually seen as the expression of Egyptian political stability at the beginning of the Old Kingdom. However, beyond that, Egyptologists continue to disagree about its construction and meaning.