Pyramids are iconic monuments frequently associated with the grandeur and mystery of ancient Egypt. These ancient burial tombs actually evolved through several designs before arriving at the "true" pyramid shape. The first pyramid types of Egypt are commonly referred to as step pyramids, and represent a marked change from the previous funerary structures.

Step Pyramid Characteristics

Pyramids are tombs for Egyptian kings.
Pyramids are tombs for Egyptian kings.

Step pyramid construction in Egypt typically consisted of several stepped layers of limestone. These structures are not considered true pyramids because the four corners of the base do not ascend in smooth, unbroken lines to the building's tip. Flat-roofed, one-story buildings called mastabas are the architectural predecessors to step pyramid design. These earlier, rectangular structures were built out of mudbrick, an inferior building material to the limestone used for subsequent pyramids.

The First Step Pyramid of Egypt

Imhotep designed the first step pyramid.
Imhotep designed the first step pyramid.

The first major example of a step pyramid was built to hold the mummified remains of King Djoser at Saqqara. The pyramid's first level began as a square mastaba -- an ancient Egyptian tomb -- with an additional five mastabas added to finish the design. Designed by Imhotep, who is widely considered the father of ancient Egyptian stone architecture, the tomb was the tallest structure of its time at 204 feet. Similar to earlier mastabas, the tomb housing the pharaoh's body was built beneath ground level and networked with a series of tunnels in an attempt to discourage grave robbers.

King Netjerikhet Djoser

Djoser is the first king to be buried in a step pyramid.
Djoser is the first king to be buried in a step pyramid.

Netjerikhet Djoser was the second king to reign in the Third Dynasty, and is commonly credited by historians as initiating the age of pyramids. Historians are unclear how long Djoser ruled, with current speculations ranging from 19 to 38 years. The uniqueness of the step pyramid and the surrounding complex of buildings leads many Egyptologists to view Djoser's legacy as an expression of Egyptian political stability in the early years of the Old Kingdom, which existed from about 2649 to 2150 B.C.

Further Step Pyramid Examples in Egypt

More Egyptian kings built step pyramids after Djoser.
More Egyptian kings built step pyramids after Djoser.

Several more kings followed Djoser's step pyramid prototype before true pyramid construction was attempted. Sekhemkhet was Djoser's immediate predecessor, and commenced a stepped pyramid planned to rise higher than Djoser's. This pyramid was to have seven complete steps, but it was never completed. King Snefru ordered a pyramid with eight stepped layers, which was the first pyramid with a burial chamber above ground. The lower steps were later infilled with stone to simulate a true pyramid.