On the dusty Saqqara Plateau, south of the Sphinx and the three Great Pyramids of Giza--the most famous monuments of Egypt's Old Kingdom--the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser rises like a grand mirage.
Shimmering more than 200 feet above the stark Egyptian sands, the sight takes viewers' breath away. And that, of course, was its purpose.
When Djoser's subjects first looked upon this giant tomb more than 46 centuries ago, they probably trembled. The colossal monument, begun about 2630 BC, was designed to awe the ancient Egyptians, to impress them with their ruler's godlike strength.
At the time, it was the biggest and finest monument any monarch had ever commanded; indeed, it was the world's largest building. Its bold shape--six great tiers of decreasing size--announced a divine truth that the humblest passerby in Djoser's time understood.
The Step Pyramid was a ladder, an actual ladder by which the soul of the dead ruler might climb to the sky, joining the gods in immortality.
Like the Step Pyramid, ancient Egypt seemed to rise out of nothing. Only a few generations before Djoser's reign, the civilization crowded along the Nile amounted to a mere patchwork of small regional chiefdoms, each with separate gods and government.
Experts today only dimly grasp the forces that prompted those quarreling provinces to become, with Mesopotamia's Sumer, the most advanced civilization of its time--Egypt's Old Kingdom.
Many believe that the building of Djoser's pyramid complex, accomplished by hundreds of workers from across the land, served to join those provinces into the world's first nation-state.
The popularity of the Sphinx and Giza pyramids makes it easy to forget that basic questions about the Old Kingdom have remained unanswered. Only within the past two decades have Egyptologists begun to fill in the gaps, sifting the Egyptian sands and re-examining tales of the kingdom, which were often written as many as 2,000 years later, for clues to the texture of ancient life.
During the Old Kingdom, which began about 2700 BC and lasted about 550 years, each pharaoh after Djoser marshaled a vast portion of his country's manpower and wealth to build his own tomb and ensure his immortality.
To construct such monuments required a mastery of art, architecture and social organization that few cultures would ever rival.
The kingdom developed a funerary tradition so comprehensive and compelling that the religion, art and thought of the people coalesced around the worship of their divine pharaohs, both living and dead.
Every aspect of life was affected. The Egyptians dug a network of canals off the Nile to transport stone for the pyramids and food for the workers.
A simple, local agriculture became the force that knit together the kingdom's economy. The need to keep records of the harvest may have led to the invention of a written language.
But after 5 1/2 centuries, this flourishing civilization collapsed, plunging Egypt into disorder. Scholars today puzzle over the cryptic records that testify to this breakdown.
Perhaps the seeds of the collapse were planted in the soil of a civilization that, for all its grandeur, seemed obsessed with the idea that its dead rulers must live forever.
"The real mystery is why the Old Kingdom happened," said Mark Lehner, an archeologist from the University of Chicago, as he stood before Djoser's monument. "This pyramid was the start of it all. But we've focused too much on how the pyramids were built. I'm less interested in how the Egyptians built the pyramids than in how the pyramids built Egypt.
"Imagine yourself as a 15-year-old kid in some rural village of about 200 people in the 27th Century BC," he said. "One day the pharaoh's men come. They say, 'You, and you, and you.' You get on a boat and sail down the Nile. . . . Eventually you come around a bend and you see this huge geometric structure, like nothing you've ever known.
"There are hundreds of people working on it. They put you to work. And someone keeps track of you: your name, your hours, your rations. All this was a profoundly socializing experience. You might go back to your village, but you would never again be the same."
From recent excavations and from scenes carved on the walls of tombs, researchers have begun to fill in the details of daily life in the Old Kingdom. Much of the emerging picture is one of arduous and repetitive toil.
On wooden sledges across the sands, workers hauled the giant stones--the largest granite blocks weighing as much as 70 tons--that built the pyramids.
Many people think of the Old Kingdom as an austere, ascetic age. In reality, its elite were devoted to excess and delight.
At royal banquets, guests ate gargantuan helpings of food and drank bowl after bowl of red wine as nearly naked young women danced to the music of flutes, harps and bone clappers.
Despite such hedonism, life for most ancient Egyptians was grim and tedious. Society was built around the oppressive preoccupation with the pharaohs' immortality.
"Much later, after the fall of the Old Kingdom, Egypt would become something like a police state," said Rainer Stadelmann, director of the German Institute of Archeology in Cairo. "But in the Old Kingdom, the people really believed in the importance of building a pyramid. It's like a small town that builds a huge cathedral in the Middle Ages. Faith is the spur."
To gauge the extent of that labor, Lehner and a team built a 30-foot-high pyramid near Giza out of the same Tura limestone used by the ancient Egyptians.
The Greek historian Herodotus declared that 100,000 men were needed to build one of the pyramids at Giza. Lehner calculates that as few as 10,000 could have pulled off the job.
"A pyramid turns out to be a very doable thing," he said.