The Pyramid of Djoser does not look like the kind of pyramid you are picturing in your mind right now. It’s not a smooth, pointed shape with clean lines reaching toward the heavens, angles aligned with the sun’s rays. It’s not the shape that has become ubiquitous with the very idea of Egypt.
Djoser’s pyramid, also known as the step pyramid, has six levels (or, mastabas) built atop one another, each decreasing in size from bottom to top. (A mastaba, by the way, is a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with inward sloping sides.)
It does not strike one as beautiful, at first glance. It looks like a lumpy mountain. Messy. Somehow unfinished. And yet this pyramid is known as the very first, the one that inspired countless others.
Research tell us that there were multiple revisions to the original plans for the Djoser pyramid. For instance, the first layer of the pyramid probably began as a square, as opposed to a rectangle, like all other mastabas before it were shaped. Later this first layer was gradually enlarged, through more than one round of work. Also, while the structure was made to have only four steps at first, later two more were added, to make six.
The fact that the initial layer was square, not rectangular, has led some experts to question the original plans for the structure. Some believe that the monument wasn’t meant to be a mastaba in the first place, as no other known mastabas had been square before, but rectangular. Also, as they built up, the builders seemed to have made a major shift in construction as they went up, using stones that were larger and of better quality on the upper layers. This was the earliest example of large-scale cut strong construction, let alone the first step pyramid: a promo-pyramid that would set the precedent – and serve as inspiration for – the pyramids that the world reveres today.
There were other attempts soon thereafter, and many of the other attempts failed. The Bent pyramid of Seneferu, for instance, made some improvements on the step pyramid, but it still didn’t work out so well. It rises from the desert at 55 degrees but changes to a 43 degree angle halfway up, giving its sides a “bent” appearance. Allegedly, the builders realized at some point that there had been a miscalculation, and that the weight borne by the structure (with walls at 55 degrees) would be too much for the inner chambers and passageways within, if they continued to build up at the same angle. They feared collapse of the entire pyramid if they did not change something. So they finished building to the top at a shallower angle. (This isn’t the only theory, but another pyramid being built at the same time, the Meidum Pyramid, had catastrophically collapsed while still under construction, and many experts believe that the builders of the Bent pyramid took precaution in reaction to this event.)
There are other structures, too, built after the Djoser and the Bent pyramids, that had false starts, errors, flat-out mistakes. But they were practice. They all helped build the collective knowledge and experience necessary to eventually lead to the classic pyramids we know, at Giza and elsewhere.
Let’s get back to Djoser, though. The architect behind the first pyramid ever, the pyramid of Djoser, was Imhotep. He was chancellor to the pharaoh and high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis, and he deserves to be discussed. He was an innovator of staggering boldness; it’s difficult to underestimate the magnitude of his impact.
For starters, Djoser’s step pyramid was the first big, monumental structure made of stone, versus mud bricks. This may not seem so important – big deal, new materials, so what? – but the process of building a structure like this, with such heavy stones, and so many layers of them, meant it was a much more labor intensive endeavor. This meant the involvement of not just more people but more resources than had ever been garnered before for such a project. It was a major departure from how things had been done up until that point, both socially and architecturally.
Today, Imhotep is hailed as a polymath, a poet, a judge, an engineer, a magician, a scribe, an astronomer, astrologer, a physician, but – wait, did you catch magician? Just making sure – also a demi-god.
He was a Renaissance man before there was even a frigging Renaissance. And then on top of that, after his death, stories started brewing, stories about the commoner (vs. royalty) who built the first pyramid, whose talents were larger than life. The stories became legends, and these legends began to flourish, though it’s hard to say where the stories came from, or why, because he wasn’t mentioned in any texts during his lifetime or for 1200 years following his death. Still, somehow, as millennia passed, and the legends grew. Eventually, Imhotep became deified, with supernatural healing abilities.
Look. I don’t think Imhotep was a god, demi- or otherwise. I think he was just a very smart guy with a new idea and the guts (alright, and the slaves, and the money, etc.) to make that idea real.
…And yet, it had to be more than that. Right? What did it take for him, thousands of years ago, to accomplish what he did? What kind of person was he? What kind of man inspires legends? Post-humous deification?!
When we think of Egypt we think of the pyramids at Giza. We marvel at them – literally the only surviving of the seven wonders of the world – and perhaps even more at what it must have taken to create them. Thousands of years later we still do not understand the technological feats used to build these structures. Yet these models of mysterious perfection began with so many mistakes. These mistakes, it turns out, are are still sitting in the desert for everyone to see. Imhotep made some of them.
I think it’s sort of a big deal that the mistakes are still there for everyone to see. They weren’t destroyed. They weren’t deconstructed, or forgotten about, or hidden away. These wonky rough drafts still stand, proud testaments to errors made along the way: flawed monuments that remind us not of perfection but of what it takes to get there. They are celebrations of human ambition, to the messy reality of what it looks like to make progress. They are gigantic records of getting it wrong, but then getting it a little more right, and a little more right, until a bunch of imperfect attempts led to miracles of ancient construction.
I close my eyes and imagine the shape of that first pyramid. Uneven. Constantly edited. Layer after layer of revisions.
We associate God with perfection, but Imhotep, this alleged demi-god, is a symbol of beautiful imperfection to me. He was not known for his ability to get things right on the first try. The pyramid of Djoser did not come about because of just one leap of faith, or one singular decision. It exists because Imhotep, day after day after day, insisted upon it. He must have. Even in the midst of his mistakes, and false starts, and countless revisions.
Maybe the stories of Imhotep’s greatness began on one of those mistake-making days, when things didn’t look so good… Maybe there was a gasp of appreciation from some bystander when Imhotep saw that he’d messed up, accepted his errors, recalculated, and unapologetically went ahead anyway. Maybe the magic about him built up slowly, in moments like those. Maybe the suggestion that he was a demi-god was made not by someone who saw him as flawless but as fantastically flawed, and yet a master of the art of recovery. Of recalibration. Of trying again. Of redemption. After all, his errors literally became the foundation for each next layer of the pyramid, his confidence growing (bigger and bigger stones!) the higher he went. The man actually became bolder as the mistakes piled up, and the risks increased.
I once heard someone describe entrepreneurship as the ability to envision a different future and then play make-believe convincingly, pretending that the future you imagined was real, until it did become real. In short, that great entrepreneurs were experts at belief in the as-of-yet-impossible, and at being committed to working at manifesting their vision until others saw it too. Faith plus action, repeated until faith is unnecessary. Sounds about right to me.
And, despite the deeply personal nature of faith, the (perhaps?) incommunicable nature of it, it is something irresistible to witness. It is intoxicating. Magnetic. Strong enough, in fact, to lead such a witness not just to stand in awe, but to tell stories about what they saw. About the kind of person who believes so deeply in an as-of-yet-impossible vision, and who believes even more in a sacred kind of resilience, a redemptive grace that makes it OK to fall a million times in the pursuit of that vision.
Because there is the kind of faith that moves mountains. And then, there is the kind of faith that builds them.
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.