Djoser (read as Djeser and Zoser, also known as Netjerikhet, Tosorthos, and Sesorthos, c. 2670 BCE) was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty during the Old Kingdom and the founder of this epoch. He is well known under his Hellenized names Tosorthros (from Manetho) and Sesorthos (from Eusebius). He was the son of king Khasekhemwy and queen Nimaathap, but if he also was the direct throne successor is still unclear. Most Ramesside Kinglists name a king Nebka before him, but since there are still difficulties in connecting that name with contemporary horus names, some Egyptologists question the received throne sequence.
Djoser was the first king of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, reigning for over twenty years. Some sources indicate a king named Sanakht as the first ruler of the Third Dynasty but this claim is challenged as Sanakht’s name is only known from two reliefs, the Abydos king list, and the Turin papyrus, not from archaeological evidence. Early archaeologists identified Sanakht’s tomb as mastaba K2 at Beit Khallaf based on the two reliefs mentioned above, which were found there; but this identification has been challenged and largely discredited. Manetho’s chronology, routinely used to date the reigns of the kings of Egypt, is also unclear on who he was or when he ruled. Djoser’s reign, following Khasekhemwy, is far more certain than the vague suggestions of a king named Sanakht and so he is now accepted as the first king of the Third Dynasty. Djoser is best known for his Step Pyramid, the first pyramid built in Egypt, although he initiated many other building projects; so many, in fact, that scholars have suggested a reign of almost thirty years to account for the number of tombs, temples, and monuments he commissioned.
Very little is known of Djoser’s youth or family life. His name Netjerikhet means “divine of body” and ‘Djoser’ is derived from the Djed symbol of stability. He succeeded his father, Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty, and his mother was the queen Nimaathap. His wife was Hetephernebti who was probably his half-sister. Although it was common for the pharaoh to have a queen and lesser wives, Djoser took no other women besides Hetephernebti.
Once he assumed the throne, he almost instantly began commissioning his building projects. Historian Margaret Bunson writes that Djoser “ruled during an age witnessing advances in civilization on the Nile such as the construction of architectural monuments, agricultural developments, trade, and the rise of the cities” (66). Although cities had begun to grow during the First Dynasty, under Djoser’s reign they became more numerous and the architecture more ornate. Djoser’s pyramid complex alone is the best example of the great advance in architectural design at the beginning of the Third Dynasty. Ornamentation was taken to a much higher level and symbols used to remind people of the blessings of the gods and the harmony of the land. The Djed symbol which, besides representing stability, is associated with the god Osiris, was used in the pillars in Temple T of Djoser’s Saqqara complex and appears on his other monuments as well.
The stability of the country under Djoser was due in part to his success in securing his borders and then extending them. Expansion of the realm into the region of Sinai was accomplished through military expeditions. He defeated the Libyans in battle and annexed part of their lands. The position of the king was linked to military ability and victories were a sign of the gods’ favor. The armies of Djoser, therefore, brought honor to his name and to the country but he became legendary, without these campaigns and long before his Step Pyramid was built, for another reason: the re-building of the Temple of Khnum which ended a famine.
The Famine Stele is an inscription from the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE), long after Djoser’s rule, which tells the story of how the king saved his country. A famine broke out in Egypt which lasted for seven years. No one knew how to resolve the problem and none of Djoser’s consultants seemed to be of any use. Djoser had a dream in which the god Khnum, the god of the source of the Nile River, came to him and complained that his temple on the island of Elephantine (near modern-day Aswan) was in disrepair and people had lost their respect for the god who gave them life through the river.
Djoser consulted with his vizier Imhotep and with one of his governors, Medir, and they suggested he sail to the island of Elephantine to pay his respects to Khnum and see about the temple. Djoser did so and, finding the temple in the poor condition his dream had foretold, erected a new one in its place. Once the new temple was completed, the famine ended and Djoser was hailed as the hero of his people.
The temple built by Djoser, and the surrounding courtyard and outer buildings, may still be seen in the modern day, although the temple went through renovations during later dynasties. These modern-day ruins date from Djoser’s reign and so the Famine Stele has been accepted by some as history and interpreted by others as legend. As the stone dates from almost 2,000 years after Djoser’s reign, the actual significance of the inscription lies in how Djoser was remembered by his people; whether the event actually happened as described is immaterial. An unpopular pharaoh would not have generated such a legend, no matter what miraculous feats he was involved in, and the Famine Stele attests to the honor and high esteem Djoser was regarded with.
The Pyramid of Djoser
The step pyramid of Djoser, located at Saqqara, was the first of its kind. It consisted of six mastabas; a tomb structure built on top of one another with the lower one always being the smallest. Using this construction technique created a stepped structure-type pyramid that would be used by future pharaohs. This type of construction method would continue to be used under the Pharaoh Sekhemkhet and Pharaoh Khaba. The design was created by Imhotep, chancellor to Pharaoh Djoser and high priest of Ra at Heliopolis. As the designer of the step pyramid, Imhotep became known as the world’s first great architect.
There are multiple canopic jars that mention Queen Nimaethap as “Mother of the King’s children” and “Mother of the King of the Two Lands.” These writings have identified Nimaethap as Djoser’s mother, and Khasekhemwy as his father. Djoser’s queen was Hetephernebti, who was an important queen during the period and is believed to have also been a daughter of Khasekhemwy. If this were true, this would stand to reason that Hetephernebti would also be a step-sister to the pharaoh as well as his wife. Together, Djoser and Hetephernebti had only one daughter, Inetkaes.
Since Djoser died without a son, another family member most likely became pharaoh. Sekhemkhet would only reign for about seven years before dying; however, the family connection is unknown. This particular pharaoh’s name was unknown until an unfinished step pyramid was discovered in 1951 AD. This unfinished step pyramid is also believed to have been designed by Imhotep, but was probably not finished due to Sekhemkhet’s death during its construction. Only the first mastaba was finished, and is buried beneath sand dunes. Because of this structure being underneath a sandbank, Sekhemkhet’s temple continues to be known as the Buried Pyramid.