We travel back to Egypt, in the year 2700 BC…ish. The first two dynasties of pharaohs got this ancient civilization through the growing pains known as the Early Dynastic Period, which saw the unification of the Two Lands of Egypt through war, the innovation of the hieroglyphic writing system, and the emergence of Memphis as the new seat of power.
Now it was time to make way for the Old Kingdom, a new era that marked the beginning of Egypt’s first golden age and, some would argue, the best of the bunch. It started with the Third Dynasty, a seven-decade period that saw the emergence of many of the elements which made Egypt unique and still fascinate us even today, almost 5,000 years later. The culture, the unique art style, the pantheon of gods, and, of course, the eternal pyramids, they come from the Old Kingdom.
In a somewhat unusual move, we are starting out with the main event, as it were, because Djoser was, undoubtedly, the most significant pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty. And just what made him so damn important? Well, that’s easy – his pyramid at Saqqara, the necropolis outside the ancient capital of Memphis…It was the first pyramid of Egypt, in fact, and still is the oldest surviving pyramid in the world.
Djoser began his reign sometime around the early 2600s BC, succeeding Kha-sekh-emwy, the final ruler of the 2nd Dynasty. The circumstances are a little murky, but the likeliest scenario was that Djoser was his son with Queen Consort Nimaathap.
Now, you might be wondering why a father and a son would be classified in separate dynasties, and you can blame Manetho for that one. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because we mentioned him in most of our other videos on ancient Egypt. He was a priest and a historian from the 3rd century BC who wrote the Aegyptiaca, possibly as an Egyptian counterpart to Herodotus and his chronicles. Although it has not survived in its entirety, the Aegyptiaca was a history of Egypt that included a chronological rundown of all the pharaohs up until that point, which he grouped into 30 dynasties. Modern historians realized they needed some classification system for all those dusty, mummified pharaohs, so they adopted Manetho’s divisions, since he already did all the hard work, even if some dividing lines between dynasties seemed to be a bit random.
Starting with Djoser is the most commonly accepted version, but truth be told, we are stumbling around in the dark a bit. By that, we mean that Djoser might not have been the first pharaoh, after all, according to some scholars. There are several surviving artifacts such as the Abydos King List, the Saqqara tablet, and the Turin King List that Egyptologists rely on to establish the timeline of the pharaohs. They all name the rulers in chronological order, and literally, no two are the same. Sometimes the order is different, sometimes the names are different. Some mention five pharaohs in the 3rd Dynasty, others only four. It’s all a big jumble that Egyptologists have been trying to untangle for centuries, but there are still gaps wide enough that you could park an affordable family-sized sedan in them, especially when we’re talking about the earliest dynasties.
It seems Djoser inherited quite a wealthy and thriving kingdom. He was able to enact multiple ambitious and expensive projects during his reign, which lasted between two and three decades. We have limited info on his military career, but it seems that his main concern was to strengthen Egypt’s borders, although he didn’t shy away from the occasional scuffle with his neighbors. During his reign, Djoser expanded his borders both to the east into the Sinai region and to the west into Libya, securing Egypt’s position as a dominant regional force during its early history. One historian said that Djoser’s time as pharaoh was defined by “the construction of architectural monuments, agricultural developments, trade, and the rise of the cities.”
His greatest passion was to build stuff, and we’re not just talking about his pyramid. Djoser constructed many temples, including one that stopped a deadly famine that was withering away his entire kingdom. This story has survived through the ages thanks to the appropriately-named Famine Stela, an inscription found on Sehel Island near the city of Aswan, once the main southern frontier of Egypt. Sure, it was made during the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which was 2,500 years after Djoser, but let’s go with it, anyway.
According to the stela, a severe drought caused seven years of famine in Egypt during Djoser’s reign: “Children cried, youngsters fell, the hearts of the old were grieving…Courtiers were needy, Temples were shut, Shrines covered with dust, Everyone was in distress.” Some could only crumble to the ground in desperate prayer while others resorted to theft and murder in order to get their hands on what little food was left.
Meanwhile, the pharaoh could only watch helplessly as his people withered away and died. Then, one night, Djoser had a haunting dream where he received a visit from Khnum, the god of fertility credited with the creation of the Nile. Khnum revealed to the pharaoh that the famine was a punishment to the people of Egypt for giving him the cold shoulder and allowing his temple on the island of Elephantine to fall into disrepair. Djoser vowed to correct this injustice, so he sailed to the island himself. He didn’t just spruce up the old temple with a shiny coat of paint; instead, he built a brand new temple, bigger and better than ever. Happy with his new place of worship, Khnum ended the famine, and Djoser was hailed as the savior of his people.
Some of you might be raising an eyebrow, thinking that this is clearly a legend, and you’re probably right. However, it serves as a good indication of Djoser’s reputation among the ancient Egyptians, since even thousands of years after his death, he was still regarded as a hero.
But now we arrive at the highlight of his reign – his pyramid. During the first two dynasties, pharaohs were buried in mastabas, which were rectangular tombs dug into the ground, with sloping walls and a flat roof. Even though some of them were pretty big, with enough room to bury the pharaoh and hundreds of his servants, they lacked the complexity and ambition that we associate with the final resting place of the pharaohs. Most importantly, they were made from mud bricks and wood, so they didn’t last very long. Sure, every now and then, the occasional limestone was used, but this was the exception rather than the rule. But then, when it was time to begin work on Djoser’s tomb, his adviser Imhotep had a light-bulb moment: “why don’t we make it all out of stone?” The pharaoh liked this idea, so he named Imhotep his chief architect and put him in charge of building his tomb.
Imhotep, being the clever guy that he was, had another idea: “what if we put another, slightly smaller mastaba on top of the first one? And then another even smaller one on top of that one…and then another one and another one?” Six tiers later, we had the first Egyptian pyramid and probably the first large-scale monument in history made entirely of stone. Standing over 200 feet high, it was the tallest structure of its time. The complex which surrounded it also included a mortuary temple, several courts, a large trench, and a thick wall with a long colonnade that connected the entrance of the complex to the interior structures.
Suffice to say, ancient Egyptians had never seen something on this scale before and they were left completely in awe. They liked it so much, in fact, that they started worshipping Imhotep, and a couple of thousand years later, he was fully deified as the god of medicine, equated to the Greek god Asclepius. Ultimately, Djoser’s Step Pyramid was overshadowed by the stature and resplendence of the pyramids at Giza, but his reign was undoubtedly a landmark moment in history as are the structures that came to define their civilization.
Sekhemkhet and Sanakht
Of course, the problem when you start at the top is that there is nowhere to go but down. Djoser’s successor didn’t really live up to the high bar set at the start of his dynasty. His name was Sekhemkhet, sometimes also Djosertety, and we guess that he was Djoser’s son or perhaps his younger brother. Sekhemkhet is so obscure, he is one of those pharaohs who is basically just a name inscribed on an ancient wall and the main reason why he failed to make a long-lasting impact was his short reign. Going by the various king lists, he only ruled as pharaoh for six or seven years, but he did leave one thing behind which is worth talking about – his unfinished pyramid.
Clearly, Djoser’s fancy new tomb was a big hit, and the pharaohs who came after him tried to follow in his footsteps. Sekhemkhet started construction on his own step pyramid right next to that of Djoser, in the necropolis of Saqqara. But he didn’t want his pyramid to be just like Djoser. No, that wouldn’t be good enough. He wanted it to be bigger because when it comes to pyramids, bigger is always better. According to inscriptions, it was Imhotep again who designed it so, unsurprisingly, the construction was similar. However, because Sekhemkhet reigned just for a few years, only the base was completed by the time of his death.
If finished, Sekhemkhet’s pyramid would have been around 230 feet tall, almost 30 feet taller than Djoser’s pyramid. But since only the bottom layer was constructed, Sekhemkhet’s pyramid was basically just a fancier mastaba made out of limestone instead of mud bricks. Unsurprisingly, his successor felt no obligation to complete it, so the unfinished structure was quickly engulfed by the desert sands and wasn’t even discovered until the 1950s.
Speaking of successors, we arrive now at the most contentious part – the elusive third pharaoh of the third dynasty. Generally, we know him by the name Sanakht, although he is sometimes also identified as Nebka. So far, this isn’t too confusing or controversial since pharaohs had multiple names, but we also have some inscriptions that identify Nebka as the first pharaoh of the dynasty instead of Djoser. So is it possible that Sanakht aka Nebka could have been the founder of the 3rd dynasty? As we said, most historians say no, but we could pour a little gasoline on this controversial fire by pointing out that Sanakht was the only pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty not to build a pyramid for himself (or at least try to, like Sekhemkhet). Instead, he opted to be buried in a traditional mastaba, which would be more likely if he predated Djoser and his step pyramid.
That’s about all we know about Sanakht, except for the recent news that he may have been a giant. This little tidbit comes to us courtesy of scientists who analyzed the skeletal remains we think may have belonged to Sanakht. While we cannot tell you for certain that they are his bones, we can say that they belonged to a very tall man – he stood 6 feet 1 inch tall at a time when the average man was almost a whole foot shorter. The medical experts who inspected the bones believe that his extraordinary height was caused by gigantism, which would make Sanakht the first diagnosed case in the medical records.
Already, we are in the final stretch for the Third Dynasty, and surprise, surprise, we arrive at another pharaoh who was a shadowy figure known mainly as a name inscribed on a few walls and a few bowls – Khaba.
Like Sekhemkhet, it seems that Khaba had a short reign of around six years. But unlike Sekhemkhet, there is some evidence (not a lot, but it’s there) that the ancient Egyptians might not have been big fans of Khaba. They tried to erase his name from a few places and, as we all know by now, this practice of damnatio memoriae or “condemnation of memory” was reserved only for the naughtiest rulers, the ones who got up to shenanigans that the people really didn’t like, such as trying to abolish all of the old gods and institute a new monotheistic religion. We’re looking at you, Akhenaten. When you also take into account that Khaba had a short reign, it could suggest that whatever he did may have angered the Egyptians enough to overthrow him.
Also like Sekhemkhet, Khaba left behind an unfinished pyramid although, for reasons known only to him, he didn’t consider Saqqara a suitable place for his tomb. Maybe he simply didn’t want to be overshadowed by Djoser, or maybe this was part of whatever he did to ruffle everyone’s feathers, but Khaba selected a new spot for his eternal slumber at Zawiyet el-Aryan, a necropolis across the Nile from Memphis. There, construction began on a new step pyramid using almost the same architecture as Sekhemkhet’s unfinished pyramid. Today, the structure known simply as the Layer Pyramid lies in ruins, with only the base still standing, but scholars can’t seem to decide if the pyramid was ever finished or not. Some believe that work on it was simply abandoned once Khaba died, others think that the pyramid was completed and later torn apart so the stone could be reused in other building projects. Both scenarios suggest a pharaoh who was not very popular with the people.
And so we reach the end of the line for the 3rd Dynasty. If until this point the order of the pharaohs has been a “best guess” scenario, we are fairly certain who the last ruler was – Huni, possibly also known as Qahedjet. He is mentioned several times as the immediate predecessor of Sneferu, the first pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty, and he may have been his father. As we saw earlier, it doesn’t really make sense to group Huni and his son into different dynasties; but we do as Manetho commands, apparently. He even gives nice symmetry in relation to Djoser, as we begin and end the 3rd Dynasty with its most prolific pyramid builders.
While Djoser was a pioneer and innovator who clearly had the most majestic pyramid of his era, it seems that Huni was a “quantity over quality” kind of guy. Also like Djoser, he had a long reign (around two-and-a-half decades) that allowed him to dedicate himself to multiple construction projects. Huni broke from tradition and built multiple smaller step pyramids all over Egypt instead of one big one at Saqqara. However, none of them were exactly show-stealers and today they mainly lie in ruins. They puzzle historians as to their true purpose. Pyramids were built to serve as royal tombs, but since none of them fit the bill, Huni’s true motivation for them remains a mystery.
Unfortunately for Huni, modern scholars have stripped him of his greatest achievement – the Meidum Pyramid, possibly the most bizarre structure in ancient Egypt. The Meidum Pyramid was a hybrid – it started out as a step pyramid, but then someone thought that it would look better with smooth, angled sides. It was encased in a limestone outer layer and turned into a true pyramid, perhaps even the first true pyramid in Egypt’s history. However, because it was a prototype, there were still some bugs to work out, so the outer layer partially collapsed. It was a valuable learning experience for the Egyptians as they perfected their pyramid-building techniques in the centuries that followed, and today we are left with a strange sight: half the step pyramid core exposed, the other half encased in limestone.
The Meidum Pyramid was a grand, ambitious project, not just due to the innovative and complex design, but also its size. In its finished state, it would have stood at an imposing height of 300 feet, almost 100 feet taller than Djoser’s pyramid. It completely dwarfed anything that came before it, so, obviously, Huni would have earned some serious bragging rights if he was the one responsible for it. For a while, Egyptologists generally credited him with the colossal structure. They didn’t find his name inscribed anywhere inside the pyramid, but they found it on a few artifacts in some nearby mastabas. That plus the long reign and the lack of other suitable candidates all seemed to suggest that Huni was the likeliest culprit. Alas, scholarly consensus has moved away, and today people usually credit his successor, Sneferu, as the man behind the Meidum Pyramid.
Even so, some still think that credit should be shared and see it perhaps as a father-son project, where Huni built the original step pyramid and Sneferu decided to add the smooth outer layer. It is feasible, although it doesn’t explain why Huni was never buried there and why his name doesn’t appear on any inscriptions inside it. There is the possibility that Sneferu wanted all the glory for himself and removed all mentions of his predecessor’s efforts, but it seems unlikely. A mortuary cult dedicated to Huni survived for centuries after his death, indicating that he remained a popular pharaoh among the Egyptians.
Speaking of his death, it ended the 70-year period known as the 3rd Dynasty and ushered in the 4th Dynasty, the true Age of the Pyramids. This new era saw the construction of ancient marvels unlike any that have come before or after them, marvels that still stand today, which is not something that can be said about a lot of other monuments from that time. However, none of that might have been possible without the efforts and ambition of pharaohs like Djoser or Huni, or the vision and creativity of men like Imhotep. The 3rd Dynasty walked so that the 4th one could run.