Old Kingdom tomb architecture at Saqqara

After the Early Dynastic Period the Saqqara necropolis was a relatively empty area. Still, the main areas had already been demarcated: private tombs along the north-east escarpment, royal monuments towards the south end of the wadi which runs along the west side of the plateau. This tradition was continued by the first kings of Dynasty 3. The tomb of Djoser (Dynasty 3, 2686-2613 BC) is the most prominent monument on the plateau and represents two important innovations. In the first place, the building consists of multiple levels because several mastabas were stacked to form the first Step Pyramid. Second, Djoser's complex is the first building completely constructed in stone; although Djoser's predecessor Khasekhemuy already built an enclosure in limestone, most previous constructions were still in mudbrick. Besides the pyramid, the complex of Djoser consists of an enclosure wall, an offering temple, and multiple structures with symbolic functions. Some of these refer to the king's jubilee or hebsed-festival and thereby guarantee the symbolical renewal of the king's reign. A similar step pyramid enclosure was started to the south-west by Djoser's successor Sekhemkhet but was never finished.

The development of the proper pyramid in Dynasty 4 (2613-2494 BC) took place in Dahshur and Gizeh. Smaller pyramids were again erected in Saqqara during Dynasties 5 (2494-2345 BC) and 6 (2345-2181 BC). Thus the pyramid of Unas is located to the south of Djoser's complex, with a well-preserved causeway running eastwards to the valley temple at the edge of the cultivation. The pyramids of Userkaf and Teti are located more to the northeast of Djoser's complex. These also had mortuary temples located on the southern and eastern side, respectively. A puzzling pyramid recently excavated to the east of the pyramid of Teti may belong to king Menkauhor. In Saqqara-south a new royal cemetery was opened, with the pyramids of Djedkare , Pepi I , Merenre and Pepi II , as well as the sarcophagus-shaped tomb of Sjepseskaf (Mastabat Fara'un). In these royal tombs the emphasis rather lies on securing the dead king's place amongst the gods. This is achieved by means of the so-called Pyramid Texts engraved on the chamber walls (the earliest ones in the pyramid of Unas ) and by extensive reliefs and inscriptions in the temples and along the causeways.

In the north-east, the Early Dynastic cemetery with mudbrick mastabas of high officials was continued during Dynasty 3 (for instance the tomb of Hesire). From Dynasty 4 onwards these mastabas were also built in stone. The simple rectangular superstructure contained an offering chapel with wall reliefs and inscriptions to assure the deceased of provisions in the afterlife; a serdab or small chamber with a statue of the deceased; and a shaft to underground chambers containing the actual burial. These mastabas could be small (mastaba of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep) or large and extensive, involving complete families and numerous decorated rooms (mastabas of Kagemni, Mereruka, Ti and Ptahhotep). The mastabas were built close to the royal monuments to profit from their purpose and prestige. Accordingly, the original separation between royal and private cemeteries was gradually disregarded.