MAJOR PROGRAMMES: THE STEP PYRAMID AT SAQQARA

For much of the existence of the human species[1], spanning over 300,000 years, humans numbered a few thousands and left few significant marks of their existence. Much of the innovation that allowed humanity to transcend its condition by passing on thoughts, ideas and discoveries, and by building monuments symbolizing their beliefs to serve as testaments to their existence long after they passed on, happened over the last few thousand years. This extensive transition in their condition was underpinned by large programmes. There is probably nothing from this pivotal time that symbolizes this more than the Step Pyramid at Saqqara built for the 3rddynasty Pharaoh Netjerikhet (commonly known as Djoser) around 2700 BCE by the great programme manager Imhotep. And there are very few programmes that can even claim to be as large-scale, complex and transformational as this. The concrete symbol of this is still visible in the form of the realized programme towering over the Egyptian desert 4700 years later.

The step pyramid was a great departure from previous programmes executed by humanity. It set several important precedents: It is the first monumental structure constructed from stone, the first with stone columns, by far the biggest structure built up to that time and colossal even by today’s standards. The social mobilization over large geographies to mobilize labor and resources, the surplus productive capacity that could be organized, the amount of labor needed, housed and fed were all on an unprecedented scale. This is first instance where much of the potential of an entire nation was united into the realization of a major programme. The organizational capacity to marshal resources on this scale and to use it to execute a programme of such immense scope involving a complex series of interconnected activities would be impressive even today. The implications are staggering. This was a programme that transformed Egypt, and arguably mankind, to where immense resources of an organized nation could be applied to achieve complex and transformative goals via large programmes.

The Step Pyramid’s mortuary complex, symbolizing complex concepts of the afterlife and of the Old Kingdom civitas in monumental stone architecture, covered about 40 acres with temples, courtyards, chapels and accommodations for the priests. It was enclosed by a 30-foot high wall. A trench into the bedrock, 750 meters in length and 40 meters in width, encompassed the wall and defined the scale of the programme. This was the template for the great age of pyramid building in Egypt.

The Step Pyramid itself was 204 feet in height and is made of approximately 12 million cubic feet of stone and clay, making it the tallest and largest man made structure at that time. About 30m beneath the pyramid, the underground complex includes the burial chamber and more than 6 kilometers of tunnels constituting store rooms with thousands of artifacts and shrines. These extensive passages contain fine reliefs made from blue faience tiles to remind the Pharaoh of his palace in real life and include mazes to thwart robbers.  The shaft leading to the granite encased burial chamber is about 92 feet in length. Even the goods found in the complex, such as the more than 40,000 stone jars made from several types of stone including hard to work precious stone like alabaster and porphyry would have required great organization and techniques of mass production.

The Step pyramid was a marked step in programme conceptualization and execution from what had happened before. Previously the early pharaohs had been buried under flat Mastabas in North (lower) Egypt. The pyramids built by the Pharaohs of the later Dynasties, including the pyramids at Giza take this as the point of departure from the old. It also the first human structure where the programme director, Imhotep, is identified by name. The programme director’s success was so pronounced that he was deified after his lifetime and is still remembered in popular culture today nearly 5000 years after his great project (programme). Imhotep became identified with the god Thoth and was revered as the patron god of architects, mathematics and other technical professionals.

The building of this immense monument and the massive complex surrounding it is a milestone in the development of human civilization and Programme Management was central to it.[2]

[1]Reference is to anatomically modern humans (Homo Sapiens)

[2]This essay in informed by a lifetime of interest in Egyptology which channels numerous references by implication. However specific references are made to Prof. Mark Lehner’s “Complete Pyramids”, and to “The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt’s Great Monuments” by Prof. Miroslav Verner which are both a comprehensive overview of pyramids in Egypt as the book that is most pertinent to the subject

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