‘The Great Enclosure’, Egypt’s Oldest Stone Structure That Predates The Pyramids

The Great Enclosure or Gsr el-Mudir is considered the oldest stone structures in Egypt. Located near the Step Pyramid and the Buried Pyramid at Saqqara, the purpose and function of the ‘Great Enclosure’ has remained a profound mystery since its discovery.

The Great Enclosure is made up of a massive rectangular wall, oriented by its builders north-south. It measures approximately 650 meters by 650 meters.

The walls of the enclosure are composed of two main outer walls constructed of roughly hewn limestone, placed fifteen meters apart.

A map of the area where the Great Enclosure rests
Chart of the Lepsius Expedition to Saqqara (1842). The northern part of Gisr el-Mudir is visible to the southwest of the Step Pyramid (north is at right). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The builders of the enclosure filled the gaps between the limestone with crushed stone, gravel, and sand.

Archaeologists have failed to uncover written evidence that could indicate when exactly the great enclosure was built, but all evidence points towards Khasekhemwy as the structures original builder.

Khasekhemwy was the final king of the Second dynasty of Egypt.

Once completed, Gisr el-Mudir may have been the largest and most impressive royal monument that Egypt has ever seen before.

Today, Gisr el-Mudir is not more than a shadow of what it was once.

Gisr el-Mudir (Great Enclosure, red) on the map of Saqqara
Gisr el-Mudir (Great Enclosure, red) on the map of Saqqara. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The reason for this is not that it would be left unfinished, nor that its construction was of poor quality. Archaeologists believe that the explanation is right there, echoing in the sky of Saqqara: The stepped pyramid.

It is believed that the builders of Egypt’s first royal pyramid did what their successes did for the greater part of Egyptian history: They looked around to find where they could easily obtain stones for their constructions, and they found the material they needed in a nearby monument.

Instead of taking the trouble to go and look for new stone from the quarries, the builders limited themselves to dismantling the Gisr el-Mudir and reusing its slabs to make something even more impressive.

The result? The Step Pyramid of Egypt, which dominates our vision of the third dynasty of Egypt, just as the structure dominates the landscape that surrounds it.

The structure itself was discovered in the 1800’s. When John Shae Perrin investigated Saqqara in 1837, the outline of the great enclosure had already been detected.

The Great Enclosure was also reported by Karl Richard Lepsius and Jacques de Morgan, but it was not excavated. Years went by before anyone took the trouble to study the buried structure. In 1947 and 1948, the first excavations took place the then director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Abdel Salam Hussein.

Early excavations did not reveal much about the structure. It wasn’t until systematic studies in the 1990’s when we learned more about the Great Enclosure.

Archaeologists of the National Museum of Scotland used magnetometry and ground penetrating radar to better understand the structure.

Prior to these excavations, it was believed by Egyptologists that the structure may have been an unfinished pyramid complex dating back to the Third Dynasty.

However, excavations yielded a number of pottery artifacts which filled the walls of the great enclosure, which were dated to the Second Dynasty, indicating that the entire structure was most likely built sometime during the end of the second dynasty.

That way, the Great Enclosure became the oldest known Egyptian construction for which worked stone was used as a building material.

It is a popular belief among Egyptologist that the Great Enclosure most likely represents a transitional stage between the enclosures located at Abydos, and the Step Pyramid complex commissioned by Pharaoh Djoser.

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