Ancient Egypt's Oldest Pyramid Has Enormous Moat to Guide Dead Pharaoh to the Afterlife, Researcher Claims

A huge trench around ancient Egypt's oldest step pyramid may have served as a 3D model of the pharaoh's way to the afterlife, an expert has claimed.

Kamil O. Kuraszkiewicz, an Egyptologist from the University of Warsaw, Poland, has been leading an excavation at the Pyramid of Djoser, which was built between 2667 and 2648 B.C., during the rule of the third dynasty pharaoh Djoser.

In recent years, archaeologists have found a series of carved tombs that are hundreds of years younger than the connecting tunnels and pyramid itself. At the end of one horizontal corridor there was a room that appears to date to when the pyramid was first built. In it, they found a ritual harpoon with images of snakes carved into it, Science in Poland (PAP), a site run by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education, reports.

The ancient Egyptians believed that to get to the afterlife, the deceased had to first travel through the tomb and enter the underworld, where they would be judged by the god Osiris. When they woke after death, they would travel there through a corridor lined with images and texts designed to guide them to the afterlife.

ancient egyptian tomb
A rock-cut chapel in Djoser pyramid. J. Dabrowski/PCMA

This path to the afterlife would have been different for different people, and it was thought to be difficult and dangerous, with the deceased having to overcome obstacles and dangerous creatures before reaching the afterlife.

Kuraszkiewicz believes the snake-inscribed harpoon was potentially a weapon—"either one of the threats awaiting the king, or a weapon prepared for the ruler to be used against them," he told PAP. As a result, he said the corridors may be a 3D model of the path to the afterlife—and that if this was the case, there should be more corridors at the site.

The trench surrounding the pyramid was first found in the early 20th century. Known as the 'Dry Moat' it stretches almost 2,500 feet by 2,000 feet. It was previously thought to have been a stone quarry for the limestone used during the construction. Others have suggested it served as a sacred boundary for the royal tomb.

step pyramid
Diagram showing different tombs in relation to the Dry Moat and the connecting tunnels. K. Kuraszkiewicz

But Kuraszkiewicz says it has more significance. He first proposed his moat/afterlife theory about 10 years ago but until now, evidence for it was largely lacking.

However, in 2018, he and his team found a rectangular hole carved into the bank just a few meters from the previously identified corridor. Kuraszkiewicz believes it is a door that will lead to even more tunnels—and that these will all connect to the giant Dry Moat.

The Dry Moat, he says, has a number of unusual features, such as crossings and deep recesses: "The Dry Moat could have been a model of the way that the dead king had to travel to achieve eternal life, a road with obstacles such as walls with high crossings, guarded by dangerous creatures," he told PAP. "The niches could be designed for them."

The newly discovered hole is currently blocked by rock fragments. Kuraszkiewicz and his team will attempt to enter it later this year. "So far [other Egyptologists] generally seem to like my idea. But it has to be verified, and this can be done through actual excavations only—alas, the non-invasive methods do not help here," he told Newsweek. "This is exactly what we plan for the next few campaigns."

This article has been updated to include more details and quotes from Kamil O. Kuraszkiewicz and images of the pyramid.

Pyramid of Djoser
The Pyramid of Djoser. Archive Photos/Getty Images