The third dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt saw an extraordinary development of building techniques, from the simple structures of mud brick at the end of the second dynasty to the towering pyramids of the fourth dynasty. Just how these massive structures were built has long been a matter of conjecture, but history is made up of the lives and actions of individuals; kings and architects, scribes and priests, soldiers and artisans, even common labourers, and so the story of the Pyramid Builders unfolded over the course of more than a century. This is that story…
Sekhemkhet faces the daunting prospect of following on from the glories of his father’s achievement. He desires an even bigger pyramid than that of Djoser and orders Imhotep and Den to build it. However, the king finds it easier to build a tomb than to raise heirs to follow him on the throne, and a cousin seeks to take advantage of Sekhemkhet’s precarious position and challenge the king.
Not all is well within Den’s family. He is married, but love from an unexpected source threatens to destroy the success he has so laboriously built up. Will he sacrifice love for ambition, or can he find a way to have both?
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“I have made a decision, Tjaty Imhotep, the first of my reign,” Sekhemkhet said. “I want you to build me a mer and associated city of the dead, like that of my father, but bigger and better.”
There was nothing Imhotep could say to that but bow and withdraw with his assistant Den to discuss the matter. As soon as they were outside, Den started to talk, but Imhotep shushed him and strode along the corridors of the palace to his offices. Here, he dismissed his servants and sank into a padded chair with a sigh.
“How could you agree to that?” Den demanded, pacing the room. “You just bowed and left without a word of protest.”
“He is the king,” Imhotep pointed out. “What would you have me say?”
“But it is an act of madness. Every deben of gold that comes into the king’s treasury goes out again to create a monument of stone that aggrandises the king at the expense of…”
“Let me stop you there, Den. This is why I did not want you speaking where anyone might overhear you. No matter what you might privately think, you cannot go about denigrating the king or his actions.”
“So you agree with him? You think we should just turn around and build another great city of the dead?”
“That seems to be what he wants…and he is the king, after all.”
“We have spent the better part of our lives creating a huge stone structure that has no purpose but to house a dead body. Now you want to spend the rest of our lives building another one.”
Imhotep sighed again. “Sit down, Den, your pacing is very distracting. Attend upon my words; there is no higher purpose for us as loyal Kemetu than to do the will of our king, and no greater service we could perform than to ensure his everlasting life. Now his son, who is also our king, wants us to do the same for him. That seems like a reasonable request, don’t you think?”
Den shrugged and sat down. “I suppose so.”
“Do you want to resign your position as my personal assistant?” Imhotep asked. “If you do, just say so. I will not hold it against you if you want to go back to scribing. I can find someone else to help me.”
Den stared. “No! No, that is not what I want.”
“Then let me hear no more on the matter. We will carry out the words of our king as we are commanded.”
“Of course, sir. I… I don’t know why I…”
“I do,” Imhotep said quietly. “I share your sentiments but I am not such a fool as to voice them publicly.” He got up and opened the door, calling for a servant to bring beer. “We have just finished a massive project that has taken years to complete. Naturally, we are feeling relieved that it is over, and the last thing either of us expected was to face the same task again.”
The servant appeared with a pot of beer and two cups. Setting them on the table, he bowed and left the room. Imhotep poured beer into the cups and handed one to Den.
“Time for us to start planning. What are your first thoughts?”
Den took the cup and drank thirstily. “What does he mean by bigger and better?”
Imhotep shrugged. “I think if he had something specific in mind he would have said. Bigger and better could be whatever we say it is. If we take the plans to him, he may just agree with what we set out.”
“So if Netjerikhet’s mer was six levels, Sekhemkhet’s could be seven or eight.”
“That’s the sort of thing,” Imhotep agreed. “Can it be done? Can we go higher than six levels?”
“I do not see why not,” Den said. “We could have put another small level on top of Netjerikhet’s; but would that have been enough for ‘bigger and better’?”
“Perhaps not, but say we drew up plans for seven good-sized layers, build an enclosure wall, a mortuary temple and other structures; we would at least have something to take to the king.”
Den stifled a belch, and then got up and poured himself another beer. “My spirit quails at the thought of another fifteen or twenty years building another city.”
“You are forgetting something,” Imhotep said with a smile. He held out his cup and Den poured more beer into it. “We built the last one not knowing what we were doing. We have learnt a lot since then. None of the mistakes we made need be repeated. In addition, we have a sizeable workforce trained in construction. It will be good to use them for some useful purpose.”
Imhotep’s office had baskets of scrolls and writing materials, so Den took what he needed and started scribbling notes and making calculations. For many minutes, the only sound in the room was the scratching of reed pen on papyrus or the scrape of stylus on waxen tablet. Imhotep was content to sit back and let Den work. The young man was skilled in computation and generally accurate. He would come up with figures that would need to be checked, but he was sure they would give a good indication of what was required. At last, Den threw down his pen and leaned back, stretching.
“Well, it can be done,” he said.
“Bigger and better?”
“Seven levels, pleasing to the eye, cased in fine Troyu limestone.”
“And an enclosure, with temples and courts?”
“That still needs some work, but yes.”
“The mer will measure two hundred and twenty mehi on a side, square, and rising one hundred and forty mehi. It will be surrounded by an enclosure wall one thousand mehi on a side, rising twenty mehi.”
Imhotep choked on his beer, putting the cup down and coughing hard. “That big? Perhaps you took the king’s instructions too literally. The mer dimensions are reasonable, given the need to rise seven levels, but that is a huge enclosure. Can we scale it back so it still looks big?”
“Anything is possible, sir,” Den said. “You are the Tjaty and King’s Architect.”
“And you are the man who will turn an idea into reality, Den.”
The two men sat down to plan the city of the dead in greater detail, roughing out plans on tablets and papyrus before getting teams of scribes to carefully copy out the drawings and annotate them with measurements. After the neat plans came back to them, Den examined them carefully for mistakes, but because they had rigorously trained the scribes, there were few found. From the detailed plans, scale models were constructed out of wax and wood. It rapidly became apparent that an enclosure wall of a thousand mehi on a side was too large, as too many structures would be needed to fill it.
“We can do it,” Den said, “but it will keep us busy for twenty years, even knowing what we do now about building these things.”
“Too long,” Imhotep opined. “The king is a young man, but I doubt he will want to commit to such a long project; not when there are so many other things that need attention. What can we cut back on?”
“If we keep to the same overall design as Netjerikhet’s, we have the mer, which if it is to be seven levels, needs a base of that size. Then we need a mortuary temple to the north, a courtyard and tomb to the south. With all those in place, we need the thousand mehi on the north-south axis.” Den examined the drawings, and the model. “We have included elaborate temples, courts and halls to east and west, but they are not really needed. If we draw in the sides, it will save a lot of stone and effort on the enclosure. There is the added benefit of accentuating the towering height of the mer.”
“Try it. See how it looks.”
Den drew a line through the old drawings and sent them back to the team of scribes with new instructions, and by the time the new model arose, both Imhotep and Den were nodding in satisfaction.
Imhotep had the model carried to the king for his appraisal. The young man walked around it slowly, bending to examine it from the point of view of a man, standing tall and looking down as if he was one of the gods.
“This is bigger than that of my father?” Sekhemkhet asked.
“It is, my lord,” Imhotep replied. “As you can see, the mer is seven layers, whereas you father’s was only six.”
Sekhemkhet grunted, counting the levels again. “Why only seven?” he asked. “Why not eight or more?”
“It is not simply a matter of piling more rock on top to make another level, my lord. The higher you go, the wider must be the base or else the whole thing becomes unstable. It would be a disaster if it was nearly built and it collapsed.”
“Very well, if you say it cannot be more. I will issue a draft for the treasury, enabling you to draw whatever you need, but Imhotep; I rely on you to make my tomb as much a wonder as you did my father’s.”
“It shall be done, my lord. There is now just the place to be decided. I recommend we build in Sekera again.”
“I thought somewhere else,” Sekhemkhet said. “Sekera will always be associated with my father’s tomb. I should have mine elsewhere, so that it stands out.”
“There are advantages to Sekera, my lord. First, there is a thriving workers’ village on the site, so it will save greatly on costs if we do not have to duplicate it elsewhere.” Imhotep smiled, recognising that the king’s greatest concern was not the cost. “Your tomb will be larger and more magnificent than that of your father, but people will not know that if they are in different areas. Build yours close to your father’s and everyone will be able to see at a glance that your tomb is bigger and better.”
Armed with the king’s permission, Imhotep collected Den and several scribes and set sail for the building site at Sekera. They were there in less than a day, and made their way up from the river to where the village lay. Crowds of workers came out to greet them, asking if there was more work. It pleased Imhotep to be able to reassure them that he had been commissioned to build another tomb close by, and that there would shortly be work for all.
Imhotep and Den ventured out onto the plateau to search for a suitable site for the king’s tomb. Sheets of limestone rock capped the plateau, but desert sand lay in drifts, obscuring some of the rock layers. Cracks, hollows and humps marred the rock surfaces, so it was not just about building anywhere. A suitable place would have to be found. There were places to the north where level limestone beckoned, but faults in the rock warned them off. To the southwest, several hundred paces from Djoser’s city of the dead, lay a sheet of rock sufficiently big to accommodate the planned structures, but it was far from level.
“We cannot build here,” Den said. “The whole thing would be tilted, or one side would be higher than the other.”
“Unless we levelled it first,” Imhotep said. “Build up the sunken areas, so that we have a flat base, and then construct the tomb on top of that.”
“It would be simpler to find a level piece of rock. We have not looked farther to the west.”
“Any farther, and you would not be able to compare the two tombs. The king is adamant that people must be able to see both tombs together so they know his is bigger.”
“And I thought that we had already made a city as large as we could,” Den grumbled. “Now we have to build a bigger one, so what comes next? A bigger one still? Where will it end?”
“One step at a time, Den. Our job is to build this one, and by the time Sekhemkhet’s son is ready to build his, it will be someone else’s problem.”
“Then let us hope for the sake of our sons who follow us, that future kings lose interest in having such large tombs.”
Deciding on the place, Imhotep sent a runner back to the village to bring up masons with surveying equipment to start marking out the boundaries of the city. Within an hour, they were busy setting up lines, pacing out distances, and making sightings between stakes to work out the rise and fall of the rock surfaces. Scribes accompanied them, making copious notes that Den would later compile into a detailed plan of the area. Two days later, he had the first sketches ready and he and Imhotep started planning where the various structures would fit and which areas needed to be built up.
“That is a lot of terracing work just to make the site level,” Den said. “It might be better to look for somewhere else.”
“There is nothing else close enough to Djoser’s tomb,” Imhotep said. “The king made it plain that he wants his close to his father’s. Anything else is too far away.”
“Yes, but the amount of rock we need to build the terraces…”
“We have rock already. There are piles of it we never got to use.”
They paced out the limits of the sheet of limestone, following the guidelines the masons had laid out with their red ochre markings and string, checking the distances and making fresh compilations. Then they looked at the stockpiled rock, quickly determining that there was enough there to make a start on the terracing.
“Enough for half a month,” Imhotep estimated. “If we order more from the Troyu quarry immediately, the first deliveries of casing stone will be here by the time the builders need it.”
Den nodded, consulting his plans once more. “I will get the teams organised at once, and appoint overseers. Once the terraces are under way, we can start marking out the placement of the mer and the vertical shaft down to the underground tomb.” Imhotep grimaced, looking uncomfortable, and Den frowned, and asking him what was the matter. “You disagree with what I said.”
“No…no, not exactly. The actions are correct. It is just that…well, I want you to spend more time on the planning and calculations, rather than on overseeing the site.”
“I can do both. I did before.”
“Yes, and you did a good job, Den. Nobody disputes that.”
“Then what is the problem, sir?”
“My son Rahotep will act as my deputy on site. He will be the overall Overseer of Sekhemkhet’s city of the dead.”
Den frowned, but said nothing. There was little he could say. Occupations in Kemet tended to follow along family lines; son succeeded father, from the king through the Tjaty, nobility, the ranks of officialdom down to the lowliest street sweeper or dung carrier. It was just the way things were organised, and Den knew that his own experience of breaking away from being a simple scribe like his father to become personal assistant to the Tjaty was unusual. Now, the King’s Architect was setting his own son on the first rung of the ladder that would lead to him taking up his father’s responsibilities one day. It was to be expected, even though it was personally disappointing.
“Of course, sir,” Den murmured.
“He needs the responsibility,” Imhotep went on. “He is a grown man and although he is a priest of Re, I want him to get into government…”
“I understand, sir.”
“This is not a criticism of you, Den. I am fully cognisant of your years of service as my personal assistant and you will continue to hold a favoured position with me.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I would give Rahotep a position under you as he lacks experience, but he is nearly the same age as you and he…uh…is of higher rank.”
Den wished to spare the Tjaty further embarrassment when it was not really needed. “I understand, sir, I really do. Your son is a member of the king’s household and such oversight is only his due. Will your other son also take on responsibilities?”
Imhotep looked relieved that the subject had been steered away from the Sekera site. “Yes, I will put Sekhemre in charge of the Troyu quarry. He has been working there already, and he shows enthusiasm for the task.”
“I am glad, sir, that both of your sons will have the opportunity to rise in the world. It is their due.”
Imhotep had not yet broken the news to his sons, the decision having just been made in his own mind, so he called his sons back to Inebu-hedj to tell them about their futures. Rahotep had to come from Iunu, where he was a priest of Re, but Sekhemre was only at Troyu, across the river, so he learnt of his father’s decision first.
“Overseer? Of the whole quarry? I mean, I know you intended this, but are you sure, father? It is a big responsibility.”
“One that I feel you are ready for,” Imhotep said. “Nebra agrees. He has been watching you, assessing you, and it is his considered opinion that you have matured in the last several months. He thinks you are ready to take over the supervision…” Imhotep smiled at his son, “…and so do I. What do you say?”
Sekhemre fell to his knees and grasped his father’s legs. “Father, I am honoured beyond measure. I will not let you down.”
Somewhat embarrassed, Imhotep raised his son to his feet and embraced him. “It is no more than your due, my son, and you deserve this position. It need only be the start, you know. I have the king’s ear, and he will heed my recommendations.”
Sekhemre grinned. “There is something else, father. I hesitated to raise the subject while I was only an apprentice, but now that I am supervisor of the quarry, I can afford to get married.”
“I was not aware you were thinking of that,” Imhotep said. “You have a woman in mind?”
“Well, do not keep me in suspense. Who is she? Of good family, I trust?”
“She is Perimset, the daughter of Ipysankh.”
Imhotep frowned. “I don’t think I know this Ipysankh. Where is he from?”
“Per-Bast, father. He is a trader of some note there. He owns ships which trade with the cities of Kanaan and…”
“A trader? He is not of the nobility?”
Now Sekhemre frowned, sensing his father was troubled. “No, father. Does it matter? I wish to marry his daughter, not enter into business with him.”
“You are son of the Tjaty, cousin to the king. You have a high rank in Kemetu society, whereas your intended wife is merely the daughter of a trader.”
“I love her, father.”
Imhotep sighed. “Why could you not fall in love with someone of suitable rank? Are you sure it is love and not just a desire to lie with her? I am sure she would deem it an honour to have the son of the Tjaty sow his seed in her.”
“I am no longer a callow youth, father. I know my own mind. I love Perimset and she loves me. If…if you will not give me your blessing, I will marry her without it.”
“I did not say I would not give my blessing. If you have given the matter due consideration and this is what you truly desire, then I will not stand in your way.”
“Thank you, father.”
“To show that I support you in this, I will cause to be built a fine house of limestone for you both near the Troyu quarries. Here, you may oversee the work and raise a family.”
Sekhemre went off happily to tell Perimset the welcome news and to make the necessary arrangements for transferring her abode from that of her father to her husband’s house.
Rahotep arrived in Inebu-hedj a few days later, apologising to his father for the delay, telling him that his duties as a priest of Re precluded his immediate departure.
“Well, you will not have to worry about that anymore,” Imhotep said. “As Hem-netjer of Re at the Iunu temple, I release you from your vows and your duties there.”
Rahotep went pale. “How have I displeased you, father…Hem-netjer?”
“You have not displeased me,” Imhotep reassured him. “In fact, I have new duties that will please you, I am sure. You were always interested in architecture; I remember the enthusiasm with which you assisted in the building of the temple.”
“That is true, father. Fashioning a temple out of stone is akin to being a god. It is an act of creation that excites me.”
“Then you will like your next task. King Sekhemkhet desires a tomb that excels that of his father. I am putting you in charge of it.”
Rahotep gaped. “I… I am h…honoured, but, father, that is too great a responsibility. I had a hand in the creation of the temple of Re, but it was already planned out and… and…”
“The tomb will be planned out too. I have been doing this with Den…you remember him? My personal assistant? He is a skilled scribe and architect, and will be working under you. I strongly recommend that you consult with him in all things, but of course, that will be your decision.”
“I am truly honoured by your faith in me, father, but…forgive me if I appear ungrateful, but why do you not just assign this task to Den? If he is so skilled and knows the site and plans so well, wouldn’t he be the best man for the job?”
“Den is a good man, but he is a commoner. The position of Overseer of the king’s city of the dead should be the purview of nobility. I cannot think of a man more suited to the position than my own son.”
“Then I gladly accept, father.”