Innovation in the Zoser Complex

The complex was surrounded by an enclosure wall 600 yards (549m) long, 300 yards (274m) wide, and that rose to over 30 feet (9.1m). (Note that the wall was built exactly on a dimension ratio of 2:1.) The wall, parts of which still remain, or have been reconstructed, was made of brick-size stones and is very impressive in its own right. The wall alone, with its great size, made an incredible project. But it is impressive on other grounds. It had projections and recesses that more than doubled the amount of stone and work required. (Refer to other papers on this web site that compare Mesopotamian influences in Egypt.) The craftsmanship is very meticulous. The purpose for enclosing the complex with such a mighty wall is unknown. It certainly was not built as a fort against a non-existent foreign threat. Perhaps it was done for symbolic or religious purposes we do not now perceive.

This is a map of the complex.

The gateway in the eastern wall leads to a very narrow passage; it was the only ancient entrance to the complex. However, the wall contained 14 false doorways. Again, we do not know the reason for this innovation, except perhaps to distract evil spirits. The ceiling of the narrow passage is a stone simulation of a roof made from split logs. When entering the complex this is the first of many imitations of organic life found elsewhere within. See photograph on the left.

As you pass through the entrance, on the left and right, there are reproductions in stone of double doors in front of a blank wall. The doors were able to open and close. Apparently, they were always left permanently open.

Beyond the entrance passage with the double doors is a huge colonnade. There were forty columns. Some Egyptologists have suggested that they represented the provinces or nomes that were in existence at that time. The colonnade had a roof and formed a long T-shaped gallery.

The columns in these photographs are not free-standing. They are bound together in pairs or to a connecting wall. One might assume that the builder did not trust for them to be free-standing. This is an illustration of how a new technology was explored to discover its limits. But the builder knew about perspective. The columns are spaced closer together toward the west. When viewed from the eastern entrance this design makes the distances seem greater.

The columns resemble bound reed bunches. Most of the columns have seventeen stalks. The ones toward the end have nineteen.

The colonnade opens into the Great Court. There were two altars near the center of the court. These altars are thought to have been part of the Sed (Heb-sed) festival. Very little is known about this festival. Many Egyptologists think it was a great public event in which the king ran an actual race to prove his physical fitness to rule.

The Heb-sed Court is a double row of shrines, thought to have played a part in the Sed festival. Most of these shrines have been reconstructed. At the far end of the court is the base of a statue that has been destroyed except for four pairs of unidentified feet.

The House of the South (Southern Buildings) is just beyond the Heb-sed Court. The buildings were discovered during a 1924-26 excavation. The entrance to the southern buildings is located between the second and third columns, which causes it to be off-center.

The House of the North (Northern Buildings) is just further along from the House of the South. Each column is carved to resemble an opened papyrus stalk. See the photograph on the left.

Thus we find repeated examples of how stone was used to imitate organic life.

The above two pictures are views of three different types of chapels in the Heb-sed Court, located next to one another. The step-pyramid can be seen in the background. We know from excavations at Hierakonpolis that these chapels resemble earlier structures made of wood. Refer to the reconstruction illustrated on the left from the Neken web site, dating to 4,000 BC.


If fact, all the designs in the Zoser complex were imitations of earlier Egyptian religious and social symbols, now converted to stone. In this manner the architect was giving service to prior Egyptian social traditions. He was not suddenly divorcing the culture from the past, but integrating it into a new horizon of architectural vision. From long-standing tradition, before Greek days, the man who wrought such revolutionary change was Imhotep. Refer to separate paper.

We must understand the saddle-back construction within this highly innovative, and immensely impressive context. For us to propose that the saddle-back was abandoned in the midst of construction is belied by the a supposed completion of projects elsewhere but, given the destruction of the complex over the millennia, we cannot make such assertion with confidence. We do not know the state of the project when the Egyptian social resources moved elsewhere.

As I noted earlier, catenaries can be created with loose blocks if they have support during the construction project. The support can then be removed to permit a free-standing, and rigid, structure. We know the Egyptians engaged in other architectural projects by filling cavities with sand or rubble until the stones were completely in place, at which time the supporting material was removed.

In order to put the catenary into context we should look at the history of vaults and arches.

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