The word Mastaba comes from the Arabic word for bench, because when seen from a distance it looks like a bench. Inside the mastaba, a deep chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone or bricks. The body would be placed in this deep, sealed chamber. Because the remains were not in contact with the dry desert sand, natural mummification of the remains could not take place. In order to preserve the remains, the ancient Egyptian priests had to devise a system of artificial mummification.
The mastaba structure was constructed directly over the underground shaft holding the remains of the deceased. The above ground structure was rectangular in shape, had sloping sides, and was about four times as long as it was wide. This above ground structure had space for a small offering chapel equipped with a false door to which priests and family members brought food and other offerings for the soul of the deceased.
The mastaba was the standard type of tomb in early Egypt (the predynastic and early dynastic periods) for both the pharaoh and the social elite. The ancient Egyptian city of Abydos was the location chosen for many of these early mastabas.
When a mastaba was built for the burial of the Third Dynasty king Djoser, the architect Imhotep enlarged the basic structure to be a square, then built a similar, but smaller, mastaba-like square on top of this, and added a fourth, fifth, and sixth square structure above that. The resulting building is the Step Pyramid, the first of the many pyramid tombs which succeeded it. Thus the mastaba is the first step towards the more famous Pyramids.
Even after pharaohs began to construct pyramids for their tombs, members of the nobility continued to be buried in mastaba tombs. This is especially evident on the Giza Plateau, where hundreds of mastaba tombs have been constructed alongside the pyramids.